Field Report: ASLA’s Earth Air Water Fire DESIGN

The American Society of Landscape Architects, an organization dedicated to “the careful stewardship, wise planning and artful design of our cultural and natural environments,” held their annual meeting and expo from September 10-13 in Washington, D.C. Thousands gathered to discuss topics ranging from edible landscapes to the US Army Corps of Engineers to post-industrial infrastructure. Designer and writer Zach Youngerman attended the conference and shares some highlights from a packed weekend of sessions, workshops and tours. Read on to hear his thoughts on “Landscape Architecture and Public Health,” “Renewable Energy: Scenery Management, Social Barriers and the Landscape Architect,” “The Promise of Water,” and “Freshkills Park: An Extraordinary 21st Century Landscape.” Speaking of Freshkills, this Sunday, October 3, the NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation is hosting the first public “Sneak Peak” of the site, from 11am-4pm. Check out the DPR website for info about guided tours, by foot, canoe or tram, birdwatching outings, kite making and flying, and other workshops throughout the day. The event is free and open to the public. –V.S.

The American Society of Landscape Architects held their Annual Meeting & Expo this month in Washington, D.C. This year is the 100th anniversary of Landscape Architecture magazine and the District’s famous Heights of Buildings Act, which, incidentally, limits heights based on street width, not the Washington Monument.

The Meeting theme, “Earth Air Water Fire DESIGN,” was chosen to acknowledge landscape architecture’s unique position as a profession in which designers are trained to work in harmony with the natural elements. The title did not ultimately serve as much of an organizing principle, but there were several relevant threads that emerged across panels and sessions: integration of data with landscape, water management and design, urban agriculture, green/complete streets, public parks, and a down economy.

Dr. Richard Jackson | Courtesy American Society of Landscape Architects

Dr. Richard Jackson | Courtesy American Society of Landscape Architects

Landscape Architecture and Public Health
Every profession likes to see itself at the center of, and therefore a logical connector among, the otherwise siloed activities of related disciplines. And while the Meeting’s sessions often kept to that reasoning, the panelists were galvanized by civic and environmental responsibility rather than egotism. Dr. Richard Jackson, one of the weekend’s headliners, argued that landscape architects are responsible for our designed environment and by extension, our behavior, health, and national economy. A medical doctor and former head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), he argued that the obesity epidemic is a result of having “engineered exercise out of our lives. We have medicalized the troubles that people are having in adapting [to our auto-centered] environment,” rather than recognizing our declining health as an indicator of poor design. Though his talk offered few design revelations, the message successfully energized the crowd in the continuation of bike- and pedestrian-friendly work. New York City’s “Active Design Guidelines,” for example, offer evidence of the increasing attention paid to this problem.

Renewable Energy: Scenery Management, Social Barriers and the Landscape Architect
A panel on the policies of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), titled “Renewable Energy: Scenery Management, Social Barriers and the Landscape Architect,” might interest those engaged in the debate about the 1,200-foot Vornado Tower that would block the view of the Empire State Building from Chelsea and New Jersey. During the panel, Kate Schwarzler of multidisciplinary Otak explained the BLM’s visual resource inventory, which covers some 50 million acres of land and is based on a specific set of scenic quality characteristics. Any new energy project is now judged by these characteristics and by a less precise political-sensitivity scale. It made me wonder whether opposition to the midtown project, granted a height increase because of its proximity to Penn Station, would have been stiffer if the Empire State Building were blocked from downtown. The saddest part of the presentation was the camouflaging paint palette developed to make power lines disappear, lest Westerners have their perception of wilderness spoiled by visual awareness of electricity infrastructure. Are New Yorkers better off having our infrastructure buried? Should developers be forced to submit building renderings based on proscribed street-level viewsheds and climatic conditions to balance the twilight images so carefully designed to mollify the public?

Herbert Dreiseitl | Courtesy American Society of Landscape Architects

Herbert Dreiseitl | Courtesy American Society of Landscape Architects

The Promise of Water
There were a lot of sessions that fulfilled the more technical aspects of continuing education, but Herbert Dreiseitl’s talk “The Promise of Water” was, on the contrary, practically metaphysical. He demonstrated how water poured against a flat panel starts out straight and then develops kinks and new directions. Somehow this exercise felt sublime. He proselytized us on how the structures of water repeated at all scales. It was an hour and a half retrospective starting with small sculptures in city parks that captured light or reflected sound just so and moved to restorations of whole rivers that changed the public’s interaction with the ecosystem.  Like all good promoters, his book Recent Waterscapes: Planning, Building and Designing with Water was for sale, for $99.00.

Fresh Kills Park | Courtesy of Field Operations

Fresh Kills Park | Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

Fresh Kills Park: An Extraordinary 21st Century Urban Landscape
One of the most fascinating panels – I took six pages of notes – was the discussion of Fresh Kills park by Tatiana Coulika and Ellen Neises of James Corner Field Operations titled “Work in Process.” (Click here to read about and listen to James Corner presenting his work as part of the Architectural League’s annual Current Work lecture series.) Change over time is one of the compelling lenses of landscape architecture and appropriate to Fresh Kills given that Field Operations started work on the site nearly a decade ago and that construction won’t be complete for another thirty years.

“The site that we meet is a process landscape,” says Neises. “The whole site is a series of experiments over time from 1948 [when the landfill opened]. They started with one set of technologies using clays, then plastic liners, retrofitted as environmental laws changed.  [It’s a] patchwork of experiments.” These industrial process experiments will continue into the future as well.  Only three of six landfill mounds are closed and capped. Methane captured from the site continues to power 2,500 homes for heating and cooking while waste transfer and compost facilities will remain open. Any landfill in New York State is considered active and monitored by regulators for thirty years after it closes.

Even where the processes have stopped, the site is significantly altered. “The steepness and closeness of six landfill mounds grading down to a network of creeks is something that you’d never have in nature,” says Neises. “The moisture regime is so structured and unnatural that each little microhydrology zone” has to be dealt with individually. Field Operations found a natural equivalent to the thin cap of soils on top of the mounds in the morainal soil conditions to which formed coastal New York. But even as they meticulously work with biologists to collect seeds from intact native plant communities across Staten Island, they eschew the tone of return to a static past restoration usually implies. Nor does the restoration framework have an answer for dealing with soil on top of a landfill that is hot from the anaerobic activity inside the cap.

Rendering of Fresh Kills Park | Courtesy of Field Operations

Rendering of Fresh Kills Park | Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

Instead, Field Operations is planning a number of procedures to address and integrate the industrial processes of the site into ecologically beneficial and visible transformations that are ongoing. They are using a machine called an imprinter “to create micro-topography to stimulate the hooves of ungulates to create grooves for seedlings.” To create soils (regulators wanted two feet of high-grade organic soil everywhere) and propagate plants, they are looking to industrial agriculture models. While the use of machines is practical for working a 3.4 square mile site, early large-scale land works are framed as choreography to attract visitors. This design intention and the duration of the project make real the often-hollow language of public as collaborators. Coulika describes the process as “an open-ended landscape where immediate consumption and fixed control becomes temporal, ephemeral. [Instead we] promote opportunism over time.” (This notion was undermined a bit by images of the colossal mining equipment remaining on site as static, sculptural elements after the work was finished. One clever but facile idea was to hang a huge sign from an excavator, turning it into a highway billboard.)

Another process that will unfold over the next thirty years and will particularly impact the low-lying site is climate change. When I asked about it, Neises said that they were particularly attuned to affects like sea level rise, but that environmental regulators were more concerned with establishing wetlands now than preparing plant communities for future conditions.

As sophisticated as Neises and Coulika were at discussing the environmental and theoretical constraints of the site, they were equally adept at recognizing the political ecology of the project as a park for New York City on the edge of state lines and in a secluded residential area. They forwent technically advanced materials like bio solids because “keeping the tenuous coalition together is more important than pioneering with smart techniques.” They significantly rearranged the original circulation patterns to favor surrounding Staten Island communities who “hated the idea of non-New Yorkers coming in and using their facilities.” The idea of creating a duel-state agency like the Port Authority? “Doesn’t make sense because New Jersey is broker than New York.”

Ultimately, party affiliation among officials, money allocated, and even the tenure of Field Operations as lead firm were more lessons about viewing a site as an evolving composite of interactions. In a piece published on Urban Omnibus last year called “In Praise of Slowness,” Andrew Blum writes that such “evolutionary slowness of the city” is hidden by the tendency to cover architecture as “event rather than as ongoing presence.” Reorienting our understanding of the built environment away from event and toward process is critical, Blum writes, because the first lens cannot effectively focus on the challenges, both in terms of climate change and in terms of geopolitics, facing 21st century cities.

While certainly Fresh Kills will have installation events and ribbon-cutting milestones, Field Operations visions it as a locus of continued intersection among different species, physical conditions, and cultural structures; a landscape process that the public not only witnesses and shapes, but through which the public learns about agency and the process itself. At risk of being heavy handed, those are good lessons to understand moving forward.


Zach Youngerman is a designer who works broadly on integrating cities and ecology. He’s enjoying freelance writing. He grew up in Riverdale, in the Bronx. He spent four years in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the breaching of the Federal levees doing recovery planning and green stormwater management. His goal is to help citizens understand, enjoy, evaluate and manage urban structures and their associated natural environments.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

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