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Olmsted Scholar Feature: A Landscape Architect in Coal Country

By Marin Braco, 2012 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist 

As an undergraduate, I studied art history where I became interested in the field of environmental art. While in school, I had no idea that this interest would land me a job that would involve understanding the geologic formation of coal, learning how to read a map of 600 feet of abandoned mines, and knowing terms like ‘culm’ and the difference between anthracite and bituminous. I was serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer working on a coal mine reclamation project with environmental artist Patricia Johanson in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was during this experience that I decided that my interests lay beyond the confines of museum walls, and soon after the completion of my term, I applied to graduate school for landscape architecture.

Three years later, I returned to the same branch of AmeriCorps, the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team (ACCWT), for my capstone project. Living and working directly with a community in northeastern Ohio, I developed a master plan which aims to convert an abandoned iron works into a multi-functioning park. At the heart of this 35-acre site are 4 rows of beehive coke ovens, 205 ovens in total, one of the largest installations of its kind in the United States.

braco01-700wCherry Valley Coke Ovens and the Coke Oven Advisory Commission.

During the summer of 2011, I worked in Leetonia, Ohio doing research, site inventory, meeting with community members and professionals, and drawing as a way to document and synthesize the information I gathered. I was able to see the site through a number of lenses, meeting with hydrologists, engineers, geographers, urban foresters, and local historians. One day I walked around the site with an engineer who was able to zoom in on structural details of the site’s infrastructure. The very next day, I went on a two-hour drive with a geography professor, giving me a ‘regional context tour’. As we drove along the steel corridor of Youngstown, he pointed out abandoned mills and lakes that were created in order to supply water for steel-making processes. I also heard memories and stories from community members. Oral history reports completed in the early 1980s were essential to understanding the site from the viewpoint of the people that worked there. I held community meetings throughout the process to share the information I was gathering and to receive input.

Taking inspiration from the work and process of Johanson, my approach to this master plan is founded in placed-based design, drawing on the character of the site and the community that surrounds it. The design seeks to make both historical and ecological processes visible. Drainage across the site will address issues of contamination from both stormwater and acid mine drainage. Ecological management will maintain different stages of succession. Historic processes tell narratives relevant on a national, regional, and also very local level — from the American story of immigration, to the regional importance of the iron and steel industry and the strong link between Cherry Valley Coke Ovens and the formation of this town. This project aims to weave into the fabric of the community, allowing small interventions to unfold over time, with continued support from the advisory commission, AmeriCorps volunteers, local universities, and professionals. In doing so, this project has the potential to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the downtown.

braco03-700wThe master plan's ecological strategy emphasizes the evolution of ecological systems that have taken over the site since industry left. Similarly, the architectural strategy aims to make visible the element of time by preserving the ovens in varying degrees of restoration and decay.

I am not the first landscape architect to volunteer with the ACCWT, and I certainly hope I am not the last. By working with AmeriCorps, our skills can extend to communities that may not otherwise have access to such services. At the same time, it gives young designers a chance to develop and grow as they gain experience doing meaningful work. I am fully aware that I may never have the chance to know a site, its history and community so intimately ever again, and am very grateful for such an opportunity.

Marin recently graduated with a Master of Landscape Architecture from State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry. If you are interested in learning more about opportunities for landscape architects in the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, you can contact her at or vistit the ACCWT website:

2012 National Olmsted Scholar and Finalists

jackohly500x700Jack Ohly, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, was selected as the 2012 National Olmsted Scholar and recipient of the $25,000 award. Jack will receive a Master of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning degree in May and plans to use the award to build on his previous work in agroforestry and community development in Northeastern Brazil to develop a set of regionally appropriate models for more ecologically and culturally vibrant public space.

Also honored are this year’s four National Olmsted Scholar Finalists, who each receive a $1,000 award:

  • Marin Braco, State University of New York
  • Tina Chee, University of Southern California
  • Tera Hatfield, University of Washington
  • Fadi Masoud, Harvard University

An independent jury of leaders in the landscape architecture profession selected the winner and finalists from a group of 46 graduate and undergraduate students who were nominated by their faculty for being exceptional student leaders. These top students earned the designation of 2012 University Olmsted Scholars and join the growing community of 175 past and present Olmsted Scholars.

The 2012 jury members were: Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, President, LAF Board of Directors and CEO, OLIN; Tom Tavella, FASLA, President-Elect, ASLA and Director of Design, Fuss&O’Neill; Joseph Lalli, FASLA, President and CEO, EDSA; Douglas Reed, FASLA, Principal, Reed Hilderbrand; Joseph Ragsdale, ASLA, FAAR, Interim Department Head and Associate Professor, Cal Poly Pomona; Brad McKee, Editor-in-Chief, Landscape Architecture Magazine; and Kate Tooke, 2011 National Olmsted Scholar and Design Associate at Dodson & Flinker Associates.

Now in its fifth year, the Olmsted Scholars Program is the premier national award and recognition program for landscape architecture students. Past National Olmsted Scholars include Andrea Gaffney from the University of California, Berkeley (2008), David Malda from the University of Virginia (2009), Emily Vogler from the University of Pennsylvania (2010), and Kate Tooke from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (2011).

Olmsted Scholar Events in San Diego


From Oct 30 to Nov 1, LAF held a series of events in San Diego to meet and honor the 2011 Olmsted Scholars. Fourteen of this year’s 40 Olmsted Scholars attended, with National Olmsted Scholar Kate Tooke participating remotely via Skype following the recent birth of her daughter.

The events culminated with LAF’s 26th Annual Benefit, where the Olmsted Scholars were recognized during a special ceremony. Outgoing LAF Board President Kathy Garcia presented certificates to each scholar and said, “The future is in great hands with the caliper of these landscape architectural students. They are so inspiring!”

LAF staff, Board Members, and program sponsors had the opportunity to meet and interact with the Olmsted Scholars beforehand during a special luncheon. “It is always so energizing to meet these future leaders of the profession,” remarked LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch. “I was amazed at the variety of backgrounds and experiences that this group brings to landscape architecture — everything from farming to landscape history to cooking.”

Following the luncheon, the scholars participated in a brainstorming and strategy session on how to add value and further build the community of Olmsted Scholars, who now number 130 as the program enters its fifth year. Many of the Olmsted Scholars also came by the LAF booth in the ASLA Expo Hall to share their backgrounds and impressions on camera. The footage will be used to produce a video on the 2011 Olmsted Scholars for LAF’s Conversations with Leaders in Landscape series.

Photos from the Benefit and other events can be found in the photographer’s Picture Gallery or LAF’s Flickr Photostream.

Since 2008, the Olmsted Scholars Program has recognized and supported faculty-nominated students with exceptional leadership potential from each accredited university. For 2012, LAF is planning a number of events for all Olmsted Scholars past and present to mark the 5th-year anniversary of the program. Stay tuned!

National Olmsted Scholar Receives $25,000 Prize

It has been an exciting year for 2011 National Olmsted Scholar Kate Tooke, who received her Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in May. The latest cause for congratulations? The birth of her daughter, Tessa on October 1!


Because Kate will not be able to attend this year’s Olmsted Scholar events in San Diego, LAF Board member Mark Dawson, FASLA met with her closer to home to present her with the $25,000 award.

Elizabeth Brabec, JD, ASLA Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst will represent Kate during the Olmsted Scholar ceremony at the LAF Annual Benefit on Oct 30, and Kate hopes hopes to participate in the other activities remotely via Skype.

We wish Kate and her family all the best!

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Schoolyard Reform as Urban Greening

by Kate Tooke, 2011 National Olmsted Scholar

Nationwide approximately one-third of all school-age children attend urban public schools. For the most part the campuses of these schools mirror their surrounding city environments: high density neighborhoods mean that schools serving large student bodies have been built on small lots where outdoor space is tight and pavement is plentiful. In an era where education reform, public health and environmental issues are all frequent topics of public debate, these small urban schoolyards have come into focus as places of great potential. They are natural community centers where we can not only encourage active recreation, but also create diverse educational landscapes that foster future environmental stewards and contribute to the ecological health of the surrounding city. Across the country and worldwide grassroots groups are slowly transforming urban schoolyards into playgrounds, parks, edible landscapes and outdoor classrooms with widely variant benefits for children, communities and the environment.

01-ktookeschoolyards01My masters thesis research sought to understand the ways in which schoolyard reform movements contribute to urban greening efforts as well as how renovated schoolyards engage urban youth with urban ecology. As a former Boston public school teacher I chose to focus my study on the Boston Schoolyards Initiative (BSI), which has renovated 78 public schoolyards in the city since 1995. I examined 12 elementary schoolyards in depth, comparing pervious surfaces and canopy covers before and after renovations as well as diagramming and quantifying how vegetated spaces overlap with areas for play and learning in the new schoolyards.

01-ktookeschoolyards02The results indicated some valuable increase in canopy cover (after 30 years of projected growth) as a result of BSI renovations, but little to no impact on the amount of pervious surfacing on school sites. In other words, most renovations in the sample group included some tree plantings, but paved areas generally remained paved. In addition, I found that although play and learning space accounts for over 50% (average) of renovated schoolyards, less than 8% of this play and learning space generally overlaps with ecologically-rich vegetated areas (usually a well-designed but fenced outdoor classroom). I divided the schoolyards into 5 typologies based on their quantities and configurations of play versus vegetated space, and my thesis ultimately recommended one schoolyard typology upon which to model future renovations (see figures).


Informal interviews with BSI staff, schoolyard designers and school personnel revealed concerns about maintenance, vandalism and safety as the primary reasons that more vegetated and sustainable features were not included in most renovations. My thesis identified a pressing need for a culture of small, safe-to-fail experiments as a way to begin addressing these commonly-faced challenges.

As the 2011 National Olmsted Scholar I plan to develop a design toolkit focused on making ecosystem services transparent, educational and sustainable features of urban schoolyards. I will travel to research successful features at targeted schools around the nation as well as engage school communities and schoolyard designers in dialogue about what systems could work. The research will form the basis for practical, replicable plans of small experiments which can be implemented during renovations and monitored by students as part of an integrated academic curriculum. Please stay tuned to this blog series for updates on my research and the developing toolkit.

Kate graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in May with a Masters in Landscape Architecture. She works at Dodson Associates in Ashfield, MA and is currently engaged in designing an outdoor classroom and natural playscape for a new public elementary school in the city of Westfield, MA.