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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).

01-ktookeschoolyards03

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.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Waste Landscapes

by Caitlin Harrigan, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Simultaneously fascinating and repelling, waste landscapes reveal much about the ways in which we order and respond to our environments, and how we will evolve with those environments in the future. I believe that landscape architects have much to offer to the design of waste landscapes. By shaping these typically marginalized places in an ecologically revealing way, we can begin to unveil and recognize the destructive effects of our consumptive lifestyles. But more importantly, we can create spaces that inspire people to contemplate and recognize the value of environmental quality as well as the development of strategies that enhance ecological function. As places that facilitate meaningful human interaction and activity focused on recycling, waste and reuse operations can galvanize a group of people around a common cause. They can help facilitate the paradigm shift from mindless consumption to thoughtful conservation. There is immense potential for waste places to act as local rallying points – spaces that remind us that there is such a thing as enough.

harrigan-image-1-bsmThe Marpole WasteWorks: An eco-revelatory precinct

As a graduate student, I studied the intersection between waste, landscape, and design while working on my thesis, The Marpole WasteWorks. I considered an alternative way of thinking about waste landscapes by viewing garbage as a potential, rather than a problem. I proposed redesigning a municipal waste transfer station into an eco-revelatory materials recovery precinct that diverted refuse into economically-viable reuse and recycling ventures. The benefits of the redesign included increased public awareness regarding consumption and waste generation, reduced waste transport costs, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced demand for landfill space, and improved site ecological functioning.

harrigan-image-2The Marpole WasteWorks: Elevated walkway / viewing gallery constructed out of repurposed shipping containers

The redesign acted as a publicly visible and accessible model of sustainable municipal infrastructure. It employed eco-revelatory design principles to highlight currently hidden processes as a means of reconnecting community members to solid waste and operational systems. The precinct addressed the need to embrace a paradigm shift – one that champions sustainability principles and reconnects people’s behaviours and actions with their physical consequences.

This past September, I traveled to South America to stretch my legs and explore a continent that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. While in Boliva, I passed through the small town of Uyuni, a once-crucial mineral transport junction high in the Andean plateau. When Bolivia lost its seaports to Chile in the Pacific War, the national railway col- lapsed, and with it, Uyuni’s economic importance.

harrigan-image-3-m81Train graveyard in Uyuni, Bolivia

Locomotives rolled to a final stop in the outskirts of town, where the skeletal remains of hundreds of rusted-out steam engines still sit. Every year, this train graveyard is visited by thousands of tourists, including myself. While I walked the old tracks and explored the corroding train carcasses, the surreal beauty of this entirely unique waste landscape struck me. To think, this place has become both an attraction and amenity by virtue of the waste that sits here.

Waste landscapes come in all forms — landfills, transfer stations, train graveyards — and all possess qualities that can provoke, inspire, and delight.  Their inherent disorder is compelling. As landscape architects, we have the ability to illuminate the significance of the disarray through sensitive design intention. The aesthetic, ecological, and educational opportunities buried within are remarkable. Let’s dig in.

Caitlin Harrigan received her Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of British Columbia in May. She is now back in Canada after four months of traveling in South America and is currently updating her portfolio.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Delhi in 3 Days

by Lauren Hackney, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

In mid-November, I traveled to Delhi, India with UVA professor Peter Waldman to attend a U21-sponsored conference. U21 is an international network of 23 universities who engage in research collaborations, together and with cities and environments around the world, that facilitate several ongoing projects, including the Water Futures for Sustainable Cities Project. Our focus was Theme 2, restoration/rehabilitation of urban river corridors – in this case, the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges. The conference brought together geomorphologists, statisticians, environmental scientists, and students at Delhi University to study the Yamuna through hydrological, quantitative, and qualitative and cultural lenses. As designers, Professor Waldman and I were to address the role of architecture and landscape architecture as agents and products of urbanization, and the opportunity of our disciplines to negotiate the intersection of urbanization processes with ecological and geological processes. For our 72 hours in India, the most succinct observation I have is: India is a place of many, many contrasts.

After arriving in Delhi to a hazy sky and a pre-deplaning dousing of mosquito repellent (sprayed by flight attendants throughout the plane!), Delhi University professors spoke to us about the large spatial spread of this conference, about the issues wrapped up in the concept of Water Futures – food security, energy, public health, biodiversity – and about the feedback mechanism between urbanization and geological processes. The vocabulary resonated between landscape architecture/architecture and the other disciplines in attendance: ideas of geomorphological connectivity operating on a range of temporal and spatial scales; cultural values of water with hygiene and ecosystem health implications; anthropogenic and socioeconomic factors relative to water systems; mediated and abstract quantification of material exchange across river regions. Abstraction felt especially palpable, as I felt entirely unprepared to make sense of an urban condition fluctuating more rapidly than almost any other in the world.

06-lhackneydelhi01Delhi's water supply is extracted from groundwater in this agricultural landscape north of the city, often submerged during flood season.06-lhackneydelhi02The Wazirabad barrage is located at the confluence of two major stormwater drains in northern Delhi.

Our second day took us to two barrages along the Yamuna and to the extraction area for Delhi’s water supply. Our first stop was Wazirabad, the convergence of two stormwater drains flowing into the Yamuna. Nearly invisible from street level at this time of year in northern Delhi, the water’s presence is mostly manifest through smell: strongly sulfuric and overwhelming. Driving further north to Delhi’s water source, a traffic jam (pretty common, we discovered) re-routed our vans through a village more dense than anything I’ve seen – a matrix of mostly dilapidated structures, dirt roads wide enough for one car and two people, open sewers.

06-lhackneydelhi03The ISBT barrage is located in the center of Delhi; this floodplain is submerged up to 8' during flood season.

A Delhi University professor involved in the water supply engineering explained that 35 million gallons per day are extracted from groundwater (replenished during the flood season), which meets only about 20% of the demand; of this, 30% is lost to leakage and pilferage in supply infrastructure. Beyond structural problems, political negotiation is a major factor, regarding drawdown of regional river levels and proposed local regulation of wells, not politically viable until the city guarantees widespread water infrastructure; contamination of local aquifers is also problematic, though limited in scope, and high arsenic concentrations in central Delhi contaminate urban agricultural plots.

Seeing the expansive floodplain in the dry season and imagining its inundation by 8’ of water during flood season, learning more about ongoing research and supply/demand issues, and hearing familiar phrases – shifting floodplains, space for the river – described by scientists and statisticians in their conception of the river’s adaptation, I saw many opportunities for expanded, productive collaborations between these disciplines and design disciplines that I had not anticipated. For me, this day raised the most pressing questions of the trip.  In a place of extreme contrast between wealth and poverty, intermittent infrastructure, and rapid flux of population and density, how might ‘sustainable city’ be defined? Is there a tipping point beyond which sustenance and growth of a city is no longer possible, and what is it? And, as designers, how can we define our role through these questions?

On our third day, one of Professor Waldman’s former students showed us some of the lovelier places in Delhi — Humayun’s tomb, the Red Fort, Lodi Gardens, and the Lodi Estate – and described his burgeoning architecture practice and the differences in building culture between the U.S. and India, where craft traditions are strong and construction and material practices are highly place-specific. One of our conference colleagues observed how people occupy “every square meter of space” – and it was exciting to imagine the potential for incremental and spontaneous landscapes, both permanent and seasonal – adaptation of underpasses, temporary markets and structures in the dry riverbed, interventions in the space of the streets. The intensity of the street felt like a spatial metaphor for the intensity of this trip: navigating the superimposition and weaving of many speeds and modes of moving; cars, rickshaws, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, walkers, all moving in a self-organizing, if chaotic, choreography –embodied the vast spectrum of experiences and questions we collected over the course of only 72 hours.

The outcome of the U21 conference is a position paper outlining a hypothesis for collaborative research using the Yamuna River + Delhi region as a case study for urban stream adaptation. For my part, I am energized by what we learned, by the discussion with local experts and international researchers, and by the inclusion of design in the conversation. Since the visit, I’ve been torn between a sense of powerlessness (does anything I’ve learned so far apply to densities, scarcities, and fluctuations like those that comprise Delhi?) and a sense of excitement about the emerging role of landscape architecture in imagining futures both for megacities and for shrinking cities.

Lauren Hackney is a Masters candidate in Landscape Architecture and Architecture at the University of Virginia. Her current thesis work is studying issues of public health and energy in shrinking cities,  questioning how the regeneration of industrial sites in these communities reframes and broadens the practice of landscape architecture. She will graduate in May 2011.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Upcoming Research on Infrastructural Regionalism

by Emily Vogler, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar

21st century America operates in a globalized world where interbasin water transfers, mass human migration, international trade, and invasive species create complex relationships between distant geographies. Increasingly, designers are asked to develop proposals that respond to this global context while acting locally to incorporate current approaches to sustainability and design. The region is increasingly important as an intermediate territory that bridges the global and the local scale and serves as a platform from which to address infrastructural networks that are the organizing frameworks for our cities and rural areas.

As the 2010 National Olmsted Scholar, I will conduct research on infrastructural regionalism. I will use the existing networks of Water, Energy, Industry, Transportation, Culture, and Ecology as starting points from which to investigate five city-regions across the United States. Each of these networks links urban, regional, and global issues and is key to making our cities productive ecosystems nested within a sustainable regional framework. In addition, these networks can provide a foundation for the development of a metric that evaluates sustainability at the regional and site scale. This metric should be both quantitative and qualitative; both experimental and theoretical; and should include aesthetics and humanity.

I will document each region through the plotting of existing networks and flows, photographs, interactive community mapping projects, and transects that originate from points of maximum population density and extend to the rural surroundings. Each regional investigation will culminate in a mobile exhibition that will engage the public in a dialogue on the topic of  “the region” and propose a design agenda that bridges the regional and local scales.

Stay tuned to this blog series for updates on my research, including the regions I have chosen to investigate.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in May with a Masters in Landscape Architecture, Emily began working with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates in New York City. She is currently working on the ARC Competition to design a wildlife overpass structure in Vail, Colorado. 

Two New Blog Features Coming Soon

Starting in mid-October, the LAF Blog will include two new regular features. 

The first highlights our 2010 Olmsted Scholars and the exciting things that these young leaders are doing. Every Monday, our blog will feature a guest post from an Olmsted Scholar discussing their research and activities. This month we’ll hear about National Olmsted Scholar Emily Vogler’s research on infrastructural regionalism, Lauren Lesch’s experience with the Presidential Management Fellows Program, and Finalist Amanda Jeter’s efforts as founder and editor of Root, an annual publication for landscape architecture students and professionals.

The second regular blog feature will highlight innovative research and initiatives related to landscape performance and quantifying the benefits of landscape. We’ll start with a guest post from Texas A&M Adjunct Professor Dennis Jerke, who is leading a new multi-disciplinary Land Development class, in which teams of students visit projects and gather data to assess social/cultural, economic, environmental, and visual value. We hope to make this a monthly or bimonthly feature, so if you know of other initiatives that are advancing our knowledge related to landscape performance or would like to contribute a post, please let us know.