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Sustainable Destination: Seattle - Trip Report From a City That Takes Risks

By Shannon “Miko” Mikus, Winner of LAF’s 2013 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes

Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, suggested that, “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” Seattle, Washington is a very unusual city because it does take risks, and this seems to be at the heart of its sustainable nature.

A sustainable city does more than implement curbside water infiltration and set up a complete streets program. Seattle does these things, but it does them because its people understand these actions in a wider context that accomplishes more than just supporting eco services. People in Seattle take risks and think sustainably, so sustainable things happen, proving that taking the risks is the foundation of serving a community in perpetuity.

Visiting Seattle was more than I had hoped for when I entered LAF’s Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes last year. As a father and MLA student at the University of Georgia, finding the time and means for a trip like this is a huge challenge. My small risk led to a dream get-away and fantastic educational opportunity to see some of Seattle’s top landscape architecture projects with the designers themselves.  

After arriving at SEATAC airport under overcast skies, my son, Tanner, and I  took the Link transit to the Sheraton Hotel, then walked to REI and bought rain jackets — just in case. We noted that Seattle’s comfortable walkability and biking mania, coupled with a wide variety of people, art, music, technology, and businesses, made the city feel like our hometown of Athens, Georgia on steroids. Few other cities encourage intellectual risk-taking to this degree, on this scale, mixing arts, design, business, and science while somehow binding it into a “community”.

On the second day, our distinguished tour guides Nate Cormier from SvR, Deb Gunther from Mithun, and Ken Yocum from the University of Washington showed us sites that demonstrated what Seattle is famous for: innovative streetscapes like Bell Street Park, Debbi and Paul Brainerd’s IslandWood outdoor learning school, and Richard Haag’s light touch on the lush, vibrantly green native forests in Bloedel Reserve. The guides’ intimate understandings of social, historical, ecological, and design factors made the tours revealing and meaningful. To me, this day made it clear that Seattle has been, for many decades, a place whose people revere the land and find strength in being a community and that strength allows them to take risks in defining what actions must come next.

seattle1Touring the Gates Foundation Headquarters landscape

Jennifer Guthrie and Julie Parrett started our third day in Olympic Sculpture Park, explaining the history of the park’s conception, in which Seattle families wanted to give something exceptional back to their city. The idea of giving back resonated throughout our trip. Bernie Alonzo joined us at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Headquarters (Gustafson Guthrie Nichol) and explained that the LEED Platinum facility is located in what used to be a low, boggy backwater. When the Gates family started their charitable foundation, they chose Seattle as its headquarters, resolving to set a high standard not just for their organization’s work, but for their facility. Bernie pointed out choices that show thoughtful design and patient execution like paving design, vegetated water features, materials, and incorporating site history. 

Bob McGarvey from Northwest Playground Equipment Inc., joined us for a delicious lunch at the Plum Bistro.  We talked about American playgrounds and risky play (my Master’s Thesis subject), and discussed the landscape architect’s role in sustainable cities. As stimulating as the discussion was, I was not ready for the eye-popping display we experienced next.

Tanner loves penguins, and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo has the world’s best penguin habitat, in my opinion. Monica Lake (Woodland Park Zoo) and Jim McDonough (formerly of Studio Hanson/Roberts) showed us the unique features like the multi-stage, naturally filtered, geothermal controlled, close-loop, no waste aquarium system! These, along with superb attention to detail and program (Biscayne Group), set a new standard. Getting to touch a penguin chick made this the best zoo visit ever! Monica told us to watch for the tiger exhibit that would be starting construction next year.

seattle2Tanner, Miko, and Richard Haag, FASLA at Gas Works Park

Truly moved by the zoo experience, we followed Seattle’s hills down to Lake Union for our final tour. Since my first year at UGA, I have wanted to talk to the designer of Gasworks Park. Richard Haag does not disappoint. It was a privilege to hear him tell the stories of the teams that were built, the issues that were confronted, and the risks that were weighed on both sides. Standing on Kite Hill watching the throngs of happy park-goers, knowing that toxic waste and ancient bacteria were slowly battling beneath our feet, it struck me that Seattle is a city that “grows” people who want to do what is right on scales that affect and respect something bigger than themselves, and who take risks to strive to serve whomever will come next. That is sustainability.

My deepest thanks go to the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the distinguished tour guides, and all of the sweepstakes sponsors: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, SvR Design Company, Mithun, EverGreen Escapes, Northwest Playground Equipment, Landscape Forms, Sheraton Seattle Hotel, and IslandWood.

LAF’s 5th Annual Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes raised over $10,000 to support the foundation’s research and scholarship programs. Miko Mikus won the grand prize: a one-of-a-kind trip to Seattle with tours of 7 acclaimed landscape architecture projects led by the designers themselves. He took the trip in late May 2014.

2013 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes Winner

Shannon “Miko” Mikus of Athens, Georgia has won the one-of-a-kind trip to Seattle in LAF’s Fifth Annual Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes. Miko’s name was selected from the 162 entrants whose donations helped raise $10,000 to support LAF’s research and scholarship programs. The prize package features two days of tours of some of the city’s most acclaimed landscape architecture projects led by the designers themselves.

sweepstakes-mikoMiko learns that he won the sweepstakes from LAF Board member Bill Main.

“I am very excited! Seattle is one of the top destinations for designers and design students, so this is a very welcome opportunity to experience the city under the guidance of the city’s top landscape architects!” said Miko, who is pursuing his MLA degree at the University of Georgia and has a passion for parks and playgrounds. Miko plans to travel in the spring and will get to tour 5 Seattle and 2 Bainbridge Island sites, including Gas Works Park with Rich Haag and the Gates Foundation Headquarters with Jennifer Guthrie.

“I have told other students how I won the sweepstakes, but still don’t believe it myself. I stopped by the LAF booth during the ASLA Annual Meeting EXPO to ask if there were any plans to focus the Landscape Performance Series or perhaps a CSI team on the long-term and short-term community-building aspects of playgrounds. Talking to the LAF staff, I was convinced to donate to support the Olmsted Scholars Program, a worthy cause, no doubt, and by donating, I was entered in the sweepstakes. I use the LAF website as a valuable way to find research sources and to keep in touch with the professional side of landscape architecture — I didn’t expect that stopping by the LAF booth would lead to a trip to Seattle!”

“Since I retired from 20 years in the US Air Force and started my MLA at UGA, my family has been very busy and finding the time and means for a dream get-away like this was impossible. It is a fantastic educational opportunity to receive a planned, guided tour of an American design Mecca! Thank you, LAF!”

LAF truly appreciates the support of all who participated in the sweepstakes and sends a special thank you to our Seattle team of organziers and the sweepstakes sponsors: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, SvR Design Company, Mithun, EverGreen Escapes, AgriCurean Escapes, Northwest Playground Equipment, Sheraton Seattle Hotel, IslandWood.

Sustainable Destination: New York City

LAF’s 2012 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes raised over $12,000 to support the Foundation’s reseach and scholarhip programs and featured a one-of-a-kind prize: a trip to New York City with a day of private tours led by Michael Van Valkenburgh and staff. The winner, Ashley Brenden, a Site Designer at SmithGroupJJR in Phoenix, was selected from over 175 entries. Ashley made the trip in March to celebrate getting her MLA from Arizona State University, and she shared the following report about her experience:

sweepstakes-nyc1Tour guides Michael Van Valkenburgh and Laura Solano with Ashley and Scott in front of Teardrop Park's Ice-Water Wall

“We cannot thank LAF and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) enough for the wonderful trip to NYC! My fiance Scott and I spent five days exploring every part of the city we could, meeting new friends, and finding unique old and new landscape architecture gems at every turn.”

“The tour day with team members from MVVA was certainly one we will never forget. We started our day meeting Michael Van Valkenburgh and principal Laura Solano at Teardrop Park. The park embodies the complexity of sustainable design and the need for sustainability to be interlaced in all processes of design, construction, and maintenance practices. Sustainable design elements included stormwater management techniques, water reuse, use of recycled content and local materials, and a site-specific plant palette.”

sweepstakes-nyc2MVVA's Jason Siebenmorgen and Matthew Urbanski lead Ashley and Scott through Brooklym Bridge Park.

“The tour continued with other members of the MVVA team, who walked us through the intricacies of the design of Javits Plaza, Hudson River Park, Union Square Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Scott and I got to see first-hand how these projects contribute to a sustainable social and environmental network. We are so grateful for the time Michael Van Valkenburgh, Laura Solano, Steeve Noone, Matt Urbanski, Jason Siebenmorgen, and Marisa Rodriguez spent with us.”

During their five days in New York, Ashley and Scott stayed at the Element Times Square West, an eco-chic hotel with green features ranging from 100% recycled content floors to shampoo and bodywash dispensers rather than wasteful mini-bottles. They enjoyed some wonderful local restaurants and even took in a Broadway show. Towards the end of the trip, Ashley and Scott went to Long Beach, Long Island to work with All Hands Volunteers on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

all-handsAshley and Scott worked on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts on Long Island with All Hands Volunteers.

“This organization has been a favorite of mine, and the trip offered a perfect opportunity to join in reconstruction efforts. A discussion on sustainability wouldn’t be complete without recognizing the resiliency of our culture and the role that organizations like All Hands play in creating a sustainable system. When, as designers, we create space — be it a park or a home or a community square — we contribute to its sustainability by providing opportunities for people to find meaning and connection in and with these spaces. This meaning often translates to people safeguarding these spaces from destruction and rebuilding after damage.”

“The day of volunteering offered us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the many sustainable social and environmental elements of the MVVA projects we visited. Not only has MVVA designed beautiful public open space, but the firm and the community have demonstrated a deep investment in these spaces. MVVA has shown a commitment to implement current sustainable design methods while simultaneously discussing ways to ensure future resiliency against natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.”

Special thanks to MVVA for generously providing this prize package. LAF’s 2013 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes will kick off soon, using a similar model of designer-led tours. A second clue about the destination city: it is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. — more populous now that at any point in its history — despite being one of the cloudiest.

Sustainable Destination: Napa

Last October, 2011 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes winner Keith Wagner, FASLA traveled to OLIN’s Carneros Inn, a vineyard oasis located between the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California. Keith and his wife, Sara, shared this report from their trip:

sara-keithKeith and Sara enjoy Napa Valley wines and local fare at PRESS Restaurant.

“The Carneros Inn was a quintessential California experience — it had a down-to-earth and luxurious feeling all at once that perfectly suited our aesthetic. The buildings and public spaces take advantage of the view corridors in every direction, and in October, the fall colors under blue skies enhanced every well-designed moment with nature’s surrounding texture.”

“Our 18-month-old son, Hudson, enjoyed the vacation every bit as much as we did, watching cows roaming around the outskirts, smelling the flowers around the vegetable garden, and delighting in the occasional hot air balloon sighting over the hills. Hudson was at the perfect age for inspecting the water collection system, which presented a great strategy for reusing rain water throughout the campus.”

hudson-irrigationHudson inspects the Carneros Inn irrigation.

“We were lucky to be able to schedule our visit in tandem with Keith’s business partner, Jeff Hodgson and his partner Paul. The group of us took day trips to nearby wineries. In the evenings we had a babysitting service recommended by the Inn and took advantage of the famed Napa Valley restaurants, including the Inn’s Boon Fly Café, PRESS, and Farmstead. We also made sure to spend some time relaxing poolside (sited beautifully by OLIN) and spent a morning getting spa treatments.” 

“The Carneros Inn was an amazing place to vacation with both our 18-month-old and with friends — we couldn’t have asked for a better time in a majestic setting. It has continued to inspire us. Our deepest gratitude to OLIN and the Landscape Architecture Foundation!”


Keith is a partner at Burlington, Vermont-based H. Keith Wagner Partnership Landscape Architects. Sara Katz is an artist, who captured the wonderful fall colors of the Napa region in a painting (shown at left). Ketih’s name was drawn from nearly 200 sweepstakes entries, which raised over $12,000 to support LAF’s research and scholarship programs. Special thanks to OLIN for generously providing this prize package.

Details on LAF’s 2013 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes are coming soon. A clue: The destination city is home to is the longest continuously operating farmer’s market in the U.S. and has been ranked as the nation’s most literate.

2012 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes Winner Announced

Ashley Brenden of Phoenix, Arizona has won the one-of-a-kind trip for two to New York City in LAF’s Fourth Annual Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes. Ashley’s name was selected from the 178 entrants whose donations helped raise nearly $12,000 to support LAF’s research and scholarship programs. The prize package features a day of private tours led by Michael Van Valkenburgh and staff to five MVVA-designed sustainable landscape projects: Jacob Javits Plaza, Teardrop Park, Hudson River Park (Segment 5), Union Square Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

“I’m still in a bit of shock that I won this incredible trip to New York City — it is certainly one of the most amazing opportunities presented to me. I look forward to exploring the City, Central Park and also the work of one of our most talented modern-day landscape architects,” said Ashley who is a Site Designer at SmithGroupJJR in Phoenix and an MLA student at Arizona State University. “We plan on going in March to enjoy the wonderful spring weather and to celebrate graduating from the Master’s program — I can’t think of a more perfect way to celebrate joining the field!”

2012-sweepstakes-winnerAshley Brenden (center) is congratulated by LAF Development Manager Matt Alcide and Office Manager Emily DeDad.

Ashley happened to be nearby in the ASLA EXPO Hall when the sweepstakes drawing took place on Sept 30 in Phoenix. She was brought to the LAF booth, where LAF Board members were onhand to announce the good news. “When I was told I won, I actually thought it was a joke! I thought all the cameras and people were just a prank or that maybe they wanted to ask me questions about why I donated. It took me about 5 minutes to register what the Board members had said.”

Ashley was one of a number of SmithGroupJJR employees who helped LAF by providing on-the-ground assistance and volunteer support for the LAF Annual Benefit and other events in Phoenix. She chose to donate because of the people she met through this experience. “After meeting all these generous and kind LAF staff and board members I knew that contributing to an organization that is doing so much to help the field was important.” 

LAF truly appreciates the support of all who participated in the sweepstakes and sends a special thank you to Michael Van Valkenburg and Associates for providing the unique prize package. Stay tuned for information about our 2013 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes — the location will be announced in February with registration beginning in June.