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Olmsted Scholar Feature: A Role for Design in Addressing the Impact of Early Childhood Trauma

By Catharine McCord, 2017 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist 

cmccord-01-530wImage board presented to staff, parents, and students at Sewall Child Development Center and REACH Charter Elementary to gather feedback for the desired experiences for the sensory garden

In order to effectively support people who have experienced trauma, landscape architects must have a deep understanding of how the materials and spatial compositions they select will impact users. A designer’s ability to thoughtfully construct spaces that serve the specific needs of those seeking emotional and behavioral support will be strengthened by understanding the ways in which trauma alters the brain, the resiliency of the brain to heal through nature-based interventions, and design aspects that support this healing. To fully understand the potential that landscape architects have to positively support treatment services, a cross-disciplinary dialogue exploring the incredible possibilities of trauma-related brain science is critical to developing a shared understanding of how to account for the specificity of that information in our work.

Brain chemistry is modified as a result of experiencing trauma, altering the way the brain responds to stress and affecting learning, memory, and behavioral outcomes. This suggests the need to introduce healthy coping mechanisms as resources to manage stress and trauma. Emerging studies show that the brain can be repaired through a process called neuroplasticity. The brain has the ability to develop and form new neural pathways and connections throughout life, suggesting that new coping mechanisms can be learned. 

Landscapes can serve to restore agency to the lives of those suffering by offering choices so users can control how and where their time is spent in a space. Being able to make one’s own choices gives back a sense of control that is diminished or absent in the lives of people suffering from stress and trauma-related disorders. Horticultural therapy uses plant-based activities as part of the treatment process. This therapeutic modality is perceived as less threatening as it works through building a rapport between the therapist and the clients. Studies have shown that when performing nurturing plant-based activities, motivation to participate is increased, as is intellectual, social, emotional, and physical functioning.

To put these ideas into practice — namely, the application of neuroplasticity to landscape architecture — I designed a sensory garden and co-wrote a grant with the Vice President of Development for Sewall Child Development Center, an inclusive early childhood program that serves children of all backgrounds and abilities, including those with special needs. We received $75,000 from the Colorado Garden Foundation to build the sensory garden on 1/3 acre of their site. Construction is scheduled to begin this month.

cmccord-02-530wSewall Child Development Center receives a $75,000 grant award from the Colorado Garden Foundation. Left to right: Catharine McCord, Jim Fricke, Executive Director of the Colorado Garden Foundation, and Meribeth Waldrep, Vice President of Development at Sewall Child Development Center (Image: Colorado Garden Foundation)

The sensory garden will be organized around natural materials designed to stimulate all five senses and encourage hands-on, multi-sensory, and social learning. It will provide a safe, non-threatening space that serves as an opportunity for sensory interaction and ongoing early education. Therapeutic horticulture techniques will be incorporated into Sewall’s transdisciplinary educational and intervention model. The garden will also be available to the surrounding community, functioning as a neighborhood space when the academic schedule allows, so that the garden can become a true community asset.

The CEO of Sewall recently reported that 40% of the children they serve suffer from toxic stress. This results from living in poverty, living with abuse or neglect, witnessing domestic violence, and coping with other life circumstances. She says the best treatment is providing loving, stable environments. Staff, parents, and therapists at the center discuss the struggle these children have with processing sensory inputs.

The sensory garden is designed to accommodate the diverse ways that these issues can manifest in children. For this garden, sensory integration was broken down into three zones of arousal: sensory over responsive, sensory under responsive, and sensory seeking.

Sensory over responsive children are children who are overstimulated and require a calm and soothing environment. For those kids who are overstimulated and not ready to be outside or enter the space, there are calm moments at the entrance that allow them to survey the space and choose what to engage with. They can go near active zones and test their level of engagement with a safe place to retreat to. This allows for a self-determined break that doesn’t take them out and away from their peers but gives a sense of autonomy to choose when to engage. Soothing and quieter moments will be dispersed throughout the site to allow kids to move between these levels of arousal when they need to.

Sensory under responsive children are those who have a low perception of sensory stimuli and need help activating their senses. Enticing elements will be included to help the children engage with their environment such as interactive musical elements, activities featuring a cause-and-effect lesson, and sensory pathways that challenges their ability to navigate their space. Pathways will range from enabling to challenging, from safe and stable to elements that require active concentration to traverse. Some will be undulating to challenge proprioception, or the ability to orient oneself in space.

Sensory seeking children, those who have high energy and are seeking an outlet, require programming for high energy, full range of movement activities. Active terrain will be integrated for sensory seeking children, who will need to use their whole bodies to climb and navigate through tunnels. Fort building will provide a range of opportunities for developmental benefits including cooperation, compromise, negotiation, leadership, vulnerability, proprioception, and balance. These spaces are visible from the entrances and draw the seeking children into and through the site.

The idea is that once the children have a space where they can learn how to maintain their optimal zone of arousal, they will be able to learn self-soothing techniques, build healthy coping mechanisms, and be in a better frame of mind to engage socially and cooperatively.

cmccord-03-530wCatharine works on site prep at the 1/3 acre site of the future sensory garden. (Image: Jody Beck, University of Colorado Denver)

The garden will be completed through community support with engagement from local landscape architecture and construction firms, horticultural therapists from Denver Botanic Gardens, the Congress Park Neighborhood Green Team, and the University of Colorado’s Urban Horticulture Club. These organizations will provide in-kind services, volunteer time, and plant materials divided from home gardens, making this a true community effort.

In May, Catharine McCord received a Master in Landscape Architecture from the University of Colorado, Denver. She recently presented her work at the 2017 Council for Educators in Landscape Architecture in Beijing, China.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Redefining Our Borderlands

By Anjelica Sifuentes, 2017 University Olmsted Scholar


We are currently living in one of the most divisive political eras, with the issue of border security between the U.S. and Mexico at the forefront of many debates. My parents are Mexican-American, and our family is from the part of the country that has been scrutinized and villainized because of its location along the Rio Grande. Until recently, I hadn’t recognized the connection between my culture and my self-identity, both personally and professionally, but as I look back at my journey through these defining moments, I can’t imagine identifying without it.

I was born in early 1993 in San Antonio, Texas, a short 145 miles away from my extended family in Eagle Pass, Texas and the Mexico-U.S. border which runs along it. My father grew up in this border town, and my mother spent her childhood in El Paso and Mexico City until they both moved to San Antonio to start their own family. My entire life was consumed with my culture, but I was naive to living without it until I moved from this diverse and inclusive Texan city to the noticeably segregated and conservative Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This intense culture shock quickly made me reevaluate who I was as a person and what I planned to focus on in my professional career. 

A huge part of my Mexican heritage revolves around community, which helped inspire my research as I enter my final year at Louisiana State University. I see an opportunity to confront the struggling relationship between the U.S. and Mexico by designing regional border prototypes derived from the way people lived before the current interferences. In this research lies an opportunity to promote social change through unconventional means during a time when the future seems uncertain for immigrants and anyone who feels vulnerable because of who they are and where they’re from.

eagle-pass-green-space-530wUninhabited green space between downtown Eagle Pass and the Rio Grande

Generally speaking, the celebration of our border has become a quiet whisper due to political pressure that has left our cities feeling neglected and somewhat ashamed. Historically, as one sister city grew in size and density, the other did as well, but cultural and political setbacks have caused the cities to experience negative withdrawals. Our native ancestors settled along these areas for water, food, and shelter. It wasn’t until political power and modern adversity intervened that the current border conditions were created. Through my research and design iterations, I aim to shed light on the trends that have developed from these interventions and how to improve on them moving forward for the benefit of both countries.

As a student of landscape architecture, I feel a certain power and responsibility that is more formidable than some even realize. Our designs can influence people in ways that are invisible to the untrained eye because we have the ability to create significant change with deliberate research that informs the design process. I know this sounds like a romanticized rendition of what landscape architecture is, but seeing that opportunity has helped carry me forward into what I feel is my place in the profession.

I often think about the relationship between my self-identity and the passion that makes me fight for the protection and freedom of my heritage as I resist the powers that try to silence it. The issues surrounding border security are some of the most polarizing problems we face as a nation, but taking on such an immense challenge brings out the drive that I owe to the very culture that I’m fighting for. It’s important for me to use my role as a designer to challenge these controversies in a way that not only helps bridge the gap between different societies but also highlights the ability we have to inspire others to create change themselves. Although aspects of our country may seem uncertain, I truly believe we are at the beginning of a cultural revolution, and I will take this as an opportunity to be both an innovative designer and unapologetically Mexican-American.

Anjelica Sifuentes is entering her final year as a BLA candidate at Louisiana State University. She is a 2017 University Olmsted Scholar and the winner of LAF’s 2017 EDSA Minority Scholarship, which supports African American, Hispanic, Native American, and minority students of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds to continue their landscape architecture education.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Rise of the Reading Garden

By Nathania Martinez, 2017 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

nathania-martinez-garden-530wNathania sets pavers to help construct the reading garden at W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua, Florida.

Two years ago, Principal Valde Fortner from W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua, Florida, asked the University of Florida’s ASLA Student Chapter to design and build a “reading garden.” I participated in that effort, and today students and teachers enjoy the garden during class. The garden is also used for annual school events like Pop into a Good Book when parents join their children. I attended and saw parents smile with glee. Some found it hard to find time to read with their kids as often as they would like, and they were thrilled to have a space that encouraged them not only to make that time but to spend it outdoors.

The following summer I answered a call to volunteer to design another reading garden and lead a team of 17 volunteers to build it at Liberty City Elementary School in Miami, Florida. Here, I witnessed a diverse community come together to build a place where teachers and students could go to read and see colorful pollinators.

From these two projects, my curiosities about how children learn best have blossomed, and I wish to investigate whether reading gardens can inspire play that facilitates learning. While many teachers want to take their students outside, aside from lunch, physical education class, or lining up for the bus after school, children are spending most of the school day inside. My fondest childhood memories happened outdoors.

nathania-martinez-classroom-530wWith Future Landscape Architects of America and UF SCASLA, Nathania teaches students in Gainsville, Florida to design their own planting plans.

When designing for children we forget that they have ideas too — different ideas that we can learn from and be inspired by. They are not usually weighed down by practicalities, which results in some innovative ideas. I want to look to them for advice. I want to inform my practice by listening as they discover their thoughts, ideas, and perceptions about how the world works.

I am able to do this with the non-profit Future Landscape Architects of America and the University of Florida’s SCASLA advocacy team. We create lesson plans that introduce K-12 students to landscape architecture. When we ask them to brainstorm design ideas, I am always surprised at how well the children are able to communicate their needs and desires. As design professionals, we are rarely encouraged to seek advice from children. However, I want to recruit these minds to help me identify answers to my design questions. And I will look for inspiration from precedents like C. Th. Sørensen’s adventure playgrounds that foster free-spirited independent play, spark curiosity, and offer children opportunities to practice assessing risks and making decisions.  

Principal Valde told me that a boy ran off one day to sit in one of the garden’s reading nooks to calm down after feeling upset. The space is not just for reading but also for respite and play. It is a space where multiple senses can be engaged to support children’s imaginations. In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson wrote “many children delight in the small and inconspicuous.” It would be regrettable to not discover the little things in our early years, and discovery is best achieved beyond the confines of four walls.

The United Nations Article 31 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes play as a fundamental right of children. The term “reading garden” alludes to a space where the sole function seems to be a place that teachers take their pupils to read. I would like to stretch this beyond the possibly illusory belief that we can beguile our youth to read more if they do it outdoors, and to see it also as an offer of alternative environments for inquiry outside of students’ oftentimes windowless and poorly ventilated classrooms — a space where their stimulated senses can help to contribute to the stories their wondrous minds bring to life.

Nathania Martinez is a fifth year Bachelor Landscape Architecture student at the University of Florida and just completed an internship at the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB) in Washington, D.C. 

2017 Landscape Performance Education Grant Recipients Announced


To help university landscape architecture programs integrate landscape performance into their curriculum, LAF’s Landscape Performance Education Grants allow select university faculty to develop and test new approaches for standard courses. Their teaching materials and reflections are then shared through the Resources for Educators section of LAF’s

Landscape performance is part of the the revised LAAB Accreditation Standards, which take effect starting with landscape architecture programs scheduled for accreditation reviews this fall. Students must learn necessary skills to predict outcomes, assess alternatives, defend design proposals, and evaluate environmental, social, and economic performance of landscape projects.

Over the last four years, LAF has awarded a total of $50,000 in Landscape Performance Education Grants to university faculty. The five $2,500 grant recipients for the Fall 2017 semester/term are:

  • Kelly Curl, Colorado State University
    Designed Landscapes – Theory and Criticism (BLA Seminar)
    This discussion-focused seminar will introduce students in their final year to landscape theory with a focus on integrating performance. Students will study the Landscape Performance Series Case Study Briefs and Benefits Toolkit. This is the only seminar course that allows students to be fully engaged in readings, writings, and discussions on designed and built landscapes. Students will also learn to measure campus landscapes with the physical tools needed to evaluate performance.
  • Catherine De Almeida, University of Nebraska 
    Materiality in Landscape Architecture (BLA Seminar)
    This course, the first of three courses in a construction sequence, introduces sophomores to AutoCAD and detailing as well as the materials and assemblies used in landscape architecture with a focus on material lifecycles and performance capabilities. Students will be exposed to the larger implications of their material choices and design decisions by viewing materials through the lens of lifecycle analysis and performance. This seminar will use illustrated lectures, readings, class discussions, model-making, assignments, field trips, analysis, computer drafting, design development, experimentation, and evaluation to explore materials with a performance lens.
  • JeanMarie Hartman, Rutgers University
    Advanced Plants (MLA Lecture and Lab/Studio)
    This lecture and studio combination course focuses on plant ecology, plant identification and planting design. Beginning with a landscape performance framework, the course will implement an active learning model, requiring students to collect plant specimens for identification, sample areas for biodiversity, and take soil samples. Rain gardens will be used during plant identification and planting design segments to measure ecological, economic, public health, social, and aesthetic performance. Visits to greenhouses and campus gardens will be used to evaluate the many ways in which plants interact with their environment.
  • Hope Hui Rising, Washington State University
    Theory in Landscape Architecture (BLA Seminar)
    This course for juniors will develop “Resilient by Design” as an emerging theory of landscape architecture for climate adaptation. The many different aspects of resilience will be used to evaluate historic and contemporary precedents and to distill spatiotemporally transferable design guidelines for adaptive landscapes. Students will create generic prototypes for design, which target various aspects of multi-dimensional resilience, and then generate alternatives for test cases. These test sites will be evaluated and fine-tuned to maximize resilience as students explore new metrics for evaluating performance.
  • Phillip Zawarus, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
    Landscape Arch Design III (BLA Studio)
    This 4th-year studio course will focus on the context of the Las Vegas Valley and its unique challenges. Students will examine the global, regional, and local scale of environmental systems, analyze master plans and green infrastructure guidelines for developments adjacent to valley water networks, and conduct comprehensive analysis, synthesis, programming, and design for landscape performance. Through parametric modeling and GIS mapping, students will assess the performance of existing conditions within the Las Vegas valley in order to outline green infrastructure guidelines for the water network.

HomeLand Lab: Exploring the Intersection of Public Space and Homelessness


Brice Maryman is a 2017 recipient of the $25,000 LAF Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership. His project explores the spatial manifestations of homelessness on the landscape, documents current management approaches, and aims to offer comprehensive, community‐based spatial strategies to create better, more successful public spaces for all.

As part of his research, Brice has created the HomeLand Lab podcast. Available at or on iTunes, the podcast invites listeners to engage in a wide-ranging conversation on homelessness and public space. With a diversity of perspectives, Brice hopes that  a more nuanced and productive conversation can emerge about the profound relationship between homelessness and public space.

In the first five episodes, he has spoken with politicians, people who have experienced homelessness, designers, academics and public space managers, each of whom has offered intelligent, insights about the state of poverty and homelessness in American public spaces today.