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P is for Process

By Sadie L. Walters, MLA Candidate, North Carolina State University

The writings of Richard Louv, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold have long served to guide me in my work and, ultimately, were responsible for leading me to landscape architecture. Since entering this circle, I have been inspired by the artful and environmentally sensitive work of historical and current landscape architects, including my teachers at North Carolina State University.

In my two years as a graduate student, I have come to the realization that evidence-based design is the direction in which I am headed — I want to know how landscape can be a bridge between human health and quality outdoor experience, how it can provide a corridor for the sweet song of the wood thrush, and how built environments can respond to and integrate with natural systems. To that end, landscape research has captured my focus. In the fall of 2014, Andy Fox approached me with an opportunity to participate in LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. In this program, I saw an opportunity to frame and begin to answer some of these questions within three landscapes in the North Carolina Piedmont.

While the chill of winter still clung to the dry air, Andy and I began the process of gathering information about our three projects, meeting with the design firms and respective project stakeholders. There was excitement in every meeting as we explained the value of landscape research and the forthcoming recognition of each site’s commitment to sustainability. As our discussions gained momentum, lists of sustainable features and potential areas of study grew long — certified North Carolina native landscape, innovative stormwater treatment trains, native bee habitat, increases in garden membership and volunteerism, reduction in mower time, and on and on. Following the meetings, we were rich in the currency of performance criteria, and so began our (re)quest for records and data.


We collected data and had follow-up meetings well into late May; it was then that the research limitations became clear. The façade of mountains of information opened up to reveal key missing links, holes in data collection, and absent records. The month and a half of deep digging showed us that there were far fewer suitable research topics than our initial meetings had indicated. It was to no one’s fault, but was simply a necessary reality of research.

Out of this experience, I offer the following lessons learned: take time early on to define your own method(s) of sorting through piles of information and develop a process to know when you will let go of a potential research topic and when you will push for more information.

As the heat of summer’s arrival pressed at the windows, Andy and I convened in his office for a conference call with LAF. As Andy described our current plans for measuring stormwater benefits, my eyes wandered to three books on his shelf — Louv, Carson, and Leopold. Even with our slimmed down list of measurable performance benefits, it was clear that we were still on the path, and the future of our study, though quite full, was bright.

Research Assistant Sadie Walters and Research Fellow Andrew Fox are participating in LAF’s 2015 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. They are working to evaluate and document the environmental, social, and economic performance of three exemplary landscape projects in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

Maintenance: The Missing Link

By Scott Douglas, MLA Candidate, and M. Elen Deming, DDes, Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This summer, all three of the Chicago-land projects that we are studying as part of LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program share a common concern: the issue of maintenance. Maintenance levels and techniques can make or break a great project design, especially if the design innovates with new materials or plant aesthetics. If one goal of the designer-client team is to persuade the public to value such new combinations and effects, then it becomes imperative that maintenance be handled with the same level of commitment as the design, to help establish the new ecologies on-site and maintain the desired aesthetic. However, the effort of retooling and re-educating landscape maintenance staff is often far from an easy task.

During our initial meetings with the liaisons from three landscape architecture firms, the subject of maintenance frequently came up as a concern, sometimes even with a grimace. It is probably fair to say that many projects aren’t taken care of the way that designers envisioned when the projects were still on the drawing boards.

This maintenance issue has been exacerbated by the fact that the designs produced by today’s landscape architects have progressed dramatically from the work that was done 40-50 years ago. Landscape architecture has moved well beyond a focus on aesthetics, and we are now designing high-performance landscape systems that are an integral part of the site infrastructure. Bioswales, prairie restorations, functional wetlands, permeable paving, and other design features are commonly used to reduce the impact of new developments. However, as our site designs have become more precise and technical, has there been a reciprocal increase in skills, knowledge, and techniques on the maintenance end? Based on our recent interactions, we would conjecture that the long- term maintenance of many innovative projects is lagging behind.

One of the key variables is: Who performs maintenance service? Each of our three case study projects is maintained differently, ranging from dedicated professional staff to large volunteer group efforts.

01-bartelmeparkThe Chicago Parks District's Mary Bartelme Park in the West Loop community

Mary Bartelme Park is a city park that is managed and maintained by staff of the Chicago Parks Department. We learned that the design team received some push-back from city staff on the idea of using prairie-like planting areas in the park, chiefly because of maintenance issues that had arisen in other parks with similar treatments. As a result, the species diversity of the prairie planting plant palette was reduced during the design phase, thus making it easier for Parks staff to recognize which plants should be growing in those designated areas. However, even with the reduced plant palette, instances still occur when native perennials and grasses are cut back at the wrong time of year, resulting in a loss of self-seeding opportunities and the varied seasonal visual interest that these plants can provide. This points to a need for continuing education for maintenance staff, greater involvement by designers, and better coordination between landscape contractors associations, such as the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, and professional design associations like the American Society of Landscape Architects.

02-tynervolunteersVolunteers remove weeds from the prairie at the Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center in Glen View.

The Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center in Glen View, Illinois is maintained by a combination of city staff and volunteer groups. The volunteers remove weeds and collect seeds from the native plants in the prairie restoration area. Volunteer work days are organized several times per year and are typically attended by 10-25 people. At three hours per volunteer, this provides 30-75 person-hours of focused, detailed attention. Some individual volunteers go beyond that and dedicate well over 100 hours per year for invasive plant removal at the site. This added level of detailed attention is something that every designer wishes all of their projects received.

While touring the office buildings that surround the prairie, we were excited to see that the prairie aesthetic and its native plants had “overflowed” from the conservation area and seem to have influenced much of the landscape design on properties in the surrounding office park. Unfortunately, those plantings are not receiving the dedicated maintenance attention that the park is receiving, and they are quickly being overrun by more aggressive exotic invasive species. Worse, the establishment of invasive plant species so near the restored prairie threatens to reintroduce species so laboriously removed by hand.

03-loyolaLoyola University’s well-maintained Lake Shore Campus

Our third Chicago-land project is Loyola University’s Lake Shore Campus. The landscape is maintained by a dedicated maintenance staff that has successfully adjusted to a new native-heavy plant palette and an aesthetic style that recalls some of the native lakeside sand dune plantings. This team is thinking beyond general maintenance, as they are investigating opportunities to utilize the biomass that is collected from the campus plants, especially when the ornamental grasses are cut back. This is very forward-thinking from maintenance staff, possibly due to the overall ethos of sustainability that dominates the campus and all its missions. This also highlights the benefits of a dedicated staff working in close coordination with the designers and administrators to build capacity for new techniques and attitudes.

Since most projects do not benefit from dedicated maintenance staff or input from the maintenance team during the design phase, it is not surprising that parts of many projects fail during the first year or two after installation. Finger pointing doesn’t help. Landscape architects should be involved throughout the life of their projects, not just until the final walk through and the payment of their final design invoice. This does not suggest that landscape architects should create overly simplified designs in order to ensure that they are properly maintained. Instead, landscape architects should be more aggressive advocates for the long-term health and success of their constructed projects.

Clients and their staffs need to be educated about the significant importance of maintenance. This might include, for instance, bringing designers back to project sites for seasonal, or at least annual, visits. Landscapes are living, growing, and constantly changing projects that are never really “done,” so why should the landscape architect’s involvement end after installation? A weak design that is well maintained will quickly outshine an amazing design that is poorly maintained. Maintenance is, after all, the missing link between a good commission and a truly sustainable landscape.

Research Fellow M. Elen Deming and student Research Assistant Scott Douglas are participating in LAF’s 2015 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to evaluate the environmental, economic and social performance of three exemplary landscape projects in the Chicago area.

Sustaining Nature and Natural Processes in Ultra-Urban Environments

On April 16 the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and DeepRoot co-hosted a conversation and charrette at the SvR offices in Seattle. The theme was “Cities need nature, and nature needs cities: How and where do you struggle to bring nature to the built environment?” The goal was to better understand the opportunities and challenges to integrating nature into cities at every stage in the process, from conception and design to construction and maintenance.

The 20 attendees were a diverse cross section of landscape architects, engineers, arborists, and academics. The rich discussion delved into places that are problematic for ‘normal nature’, such as streetscapes, on structure, plazas, and transit. By examining what it takes to sustain natural processes in these highly-urbanized environments, the conversation went beyond the concerns of any one discipline and into the broader realm of what makes for the most successful public spaces.


DeepRoot is working to put together several videos and blog posts based on the day’s discussion. The first one on the history of the word “parking” will be available soon.  Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks!

[6/1 UPDATE] The first products are now available:


Grantors Continue to Invest in CSI

LAF recently received two grants to support its 2015 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program, which runs March - August. CSI is a unique research collaboration that matches LAF-funded student-faculty research teams with leading practitioners to document the benefits of exemplary high-performing landscape projects. The 2015 program features 6 research teams working to evaluate the performance of 18 landscape projects, ranging from the Mount Rushmore Memorial Visitor Services Redevelopment in South Dakota to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill to Houston’s Bagby Street Reconstruction. The resulting case studies will be published to LAF’s award-winning Landscape Performance Series database.

driehausfoundation-207wFor the third year in a row, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation has supported the CSI program, this time granting $12,500 to support the study of three Chicago-area projects: Mary Bartelme Park, Loyola University Chicago, and Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center in Elmhurst.

artworkslogo-f3kCSI has also received a $25,000 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This is the fourth straight year that Art Works has supported the CSI program. The NEA received 1,731  eligible applications for this round of Art Works funding. Of those, 960 are recommended for grants totaling $25.6 million. LAF is one of only 55 groups and organizations throughout the country recommended to receive an NEA Art Works grant in the Design category.

In Remembrance: Debra Mitchell, FASLA

We were shocked and saddened at the passing of Debra Mitchell, FASLA on April 5. Deb had a distinguished 40-year professsional career, the last 26 years of which was spent at SmithGroupJJR where she served as a Senior Vice President and national design leader. Deb contributed so much to the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) in so many ways for a long, long time. She served on the LAF Board of Directors in 1989, 1992, 1997-2007, and 2010-present, with a term as President in 2000–2001.

debmitchellDeb at one of the many LAF Annual Benefits she attended over the years.

Her legacy is clear as she had a deep commitment to research in the profession and helped LAF navigate and grow through several key transition periods. Under Deb’s service and leadership, LAF became an organization separate from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), successfully completed the Second Century Campaign that raised over $2 million, and developed the following signature programs, which have been very impactful for the landscape architecture profession and LAF’s mission to preserve, improve, and enhance the environment:

  • A Case Study Method for Landscape Architecture
  • Land and Community Design Case Study books
  • Landscape Futures Initiative
  • Olmsted Scholars Program
  • Landscape Performance Series
  • Case Study Initiative (CSI)

“Deb was an incredible person and talent. I say without a doubt that LAF would not be where we are now if not for Deb and her ideas, dedication and commitment. She will be missed very much,” said LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch, FASLA.

We will especially miss Deb’s keen wit and her infectious laugh. We caught both on tape during our Practice-Based Research webinar and several of our Landscape Performance videos.

To continue her commitment to advancing the landscape architecture profession through education, research and a sustainable ethos, Deb left a bequest to LAF through the JJR|Roy Fund, which supports LAF’s research initiatives.

deb-jjrroyfundThe JJR/Roy Fund was paramount in launching LAF's Landscape Performance Series.

“I want the JJR/Roy Fund to continue to be such an asset to LAF. LAF is a forward-thinking, big picture organization, and I have been a proud Board Member for many years. I have had the joy of seeing the impact that LAF is making in the profession and am confident in LAF’s ability to grow and thrive as an organization.”

Those wanting to do something in Deb’s memory can contribute to the JJR/Roy Fund (Include “Debra Mitchell” in the “In Honor/Memory of” field) or contribute to her alma mater the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

More about Deb’s life and legacy can be found at: SmithGroupJJR tribute