After COVID-19, what’s next for landscape architecture?


The urban crisis brings many challenges, but also presents opportunities for landscape architects to help build green spaces and more equitable cities.

Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston, by SWA Courtesy of Jonnu Singleton

As a non-driving Los Angeles resident, traveling the city on foot and by bike has always made me feel like I have the whole place to myself.

But for the past two months, Angelenos has walked the streets with freckles – it’s like they’ve all found out for the first time that they’re able to explore this city without a car. While most of the city’s beaches and trails have been closed (they’ve since reopened), I’ve noticed that the LA River is emerging as the city’s new ‘hangout’ for socially remote hangouts. And in a city that lacks adequate public parks, people transform any patch of grass or sidewalk – whether it’s an elementary schoolyard, a traffic median, or a bit of concrete next to a parking lot – a bit of a respite from the madness.

In the midst of this pandemic, public space definitely has a moment. Over the past month, Oakland, Seattle, Los Angeles and Milwaukee all announced ambitious new open street programs to create more recreational spaces and facilitate safe social distancing.

Parks, squares and other exterior urban assets are no longer perceived as superfluous, but finally recognized as essential. And the brains behind them too. Since the onset of the pandemic, landscape architecture has become one of the few areas of cautious optimism in the broader architecture, engineering and construction industry, which is poised to experience a slowdown.

Metropolis spoke with landscape architecture leaders to see how they are dealing with and responding to the health crisis. Here are the themes and ideas they are considering right now.

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Rendering of the Oasis Park / Somos Oasis play area, Eastern Coachella Valley Courtesy of KDI

Rethinking community and public engagement

In March, shortly after the onset of the crisis and the start of widespread orders for shelters in place, an informal network of landscape architecture and town planning agencies – including Agency L + P, Asakura Robinson, City Architecture, OHM Advisors, NSpiregreen, and Interboro, come together to understand what it means to lead meaningful and sensitive public engagement in the coronavirus era. The group discussed how to move community consultation and engagement, town halls, co-design sessions and design charettes to digital platforms for the foreseeable future.

In many ways, this crisis is catalyzing an expected change in the tools landscape architects and city planners use to gather feedback from residents, who were the basis for the co-design. For too long, the sector has relied on community engagement approaches and methodologies, which have inherent biases. “Public meetings have never really been inclusive,” says L + P’s Brie Hensold. By using digital and other tools to broaden the conversation and meet people where they are, she says, landscape architects can start to make this process fairer.

While many of the ideas discussed by the group are nascent, the process is already starting to yield new results. For its Graffiti Pier project in Philadelphia, Studio Zewde is exploring the use of Instagram Live with DJ hosts to engage local creatives and street performers. Many companies are also turning to Zoom to conduct community surveys and focus groups, and are exploring the potential of platforms such as WhatsApp groups and even podcasts to involve a wider range of communities in the design and planning process. .

Other companies take a productive break from simple projects and leverage their expertise to help local communities in other ways. For its ongoing work in designing public spaces in rural Coachella Valley, California, KDI has developed online programming aimed at extending the social interaction offered by parks and plazas into the digital realm. This effort culminated in a weekly live Facebook variety show and a mariachi car parade staged for cities in the company’s region, including North Shore, Mecca and Oasis.

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Chris Reed of Stoss Landscape Studio is experimenting with designs that can accommodate multiple activities simultaneously, but separately. Courtesy Stoss

Rethinking parks: less programming, more rewilding

Chris Reed of landscaping firm Stoss and Kinder Baumgardner of SWA predict a move away from the highly designed, highly programmed spaces that have become popular in landscape architecture in recent years. This change could mean larger spaces that are large enough to safely accommodate many functions and people while socially distancing themselves.

“We always ask customers that while they are interested in events and destinations, we also need to design for those times when those activities don’t exist,” says Reed.

As for its current projects, Stoss is already incorporating social distancing guidelines as a design innovation. For its work on a 2.5 mile stretch of waterfront in Edmonton, Canada, the company is experimenting with designs that create different levels of linear lanes: two or three different runways of different width and size could accommodate multiple streams of people simultaneously and safely.

Landscape architects are also planning the “re-wilding” of our urban green spaces, while budgets and maintenance capacities are in limbo. Baumgardner thinks this may require landscape techniques that “can kind of back down and let [nature] do his thing.

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New forms of public engagement will be important in landscape design. Courtesy Agency and Perkins and Will

Landscape architects must become lawyers

While the past two months have demonstrated that innovative landscape architecture is a vital urban asset, limited municipal budgets and shifting funding priorities mean its future remains a question mark. Ashley Langworthy of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures points out that a murky funding landscape will require designers to better understand and take greater responsibility for the business models, financial sustainability and maintenance of their designs.

Landscape architects will also need to advocate and advocate for expanding parks and recreation budgets, especially to address glaring inequalities in access to parks and public spaces, which the crisis has amplified. “How do we convince our elected leaders that this is important? Baumgardner said.

This has not always been the strong point of the sector. As Kathryn Gustafson once said, “Landscape architects are a shade-loving species.”

And as pilot projects like the rapid adoption of open streets allow cities to quickly test and implement solutions, progressive designers and planners will need to insist that they provide a permanent solution. “It’s an unforeseen moment for [try] things that people have been thinking about for a while, ”says Reed. “And it’s up to us, as designers, to be the defenders of these ideas in the public sphere and with our clients. “

Ryan Gravel, founder of Atlanta Beltline and urban design consultancy Sixpitch, remains optimistic that, if properly harnessed, now may be the perfect time to promote ambitious and inclusive green space projects. , and to create political momentum behind plans that are already in development: “I don’t buy the long-term pessimism of cities. Obviously, there are short-term issues to be addressed, and there will be implications. But I remain confident in the future of cities.

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