Founded in 1910, Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) is the monthly magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Their mission is to elevate the practice of landscape architecture by providing timely information on built landscapes and on new techniques for ecologically sensitive planning and design.
Since the 2018 midterm elections, the Green New Deal has catapulted into the public conversation about tackling climate change and income inequality in America. It has inspired a diverse coalition of groups on the left, including climate activists, mainstream environmental groups, and social justice warriors. The Green New Deal is not yet fully fleshed out in Congress—the most complete iteration so far is a nonbinding resolution put forward in the House by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and a companion measure introduced in the Senate by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). At their cores, these bills are an urgent call to arms for accelerating the decarbonization of the U.S. economy through a federal jobs program that would create millions of green jobs—a 10-year national mobilization on a number of fronts aimed at reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The resolution text itself is a laundry list of possible goals and strategies aimed at immediately addressing climate change and radically cutting U.S. carbon emissions. These proposals are ambitious in scale and breadth: a national target of 100 percent “clean, renewable, and zero-emission” energy generation; a national “smart” grid; aggressive building upgrades for energy efficiency; decarbonization of the manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation sectors; increased investment in carbon capture technologies; and the establishment of the United States as a global exporter of green technology. What such an effort will entail on the ground is not yet clear, but if even only some of these stated goals are achieved, the Green New Deal will represent a transformation of both the American economy and landscape on a scale not seen since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his original New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s.
Although many Green New Deal proposals appear at first to be purely infrastructural or economic, they will have a dramatic physical effect on landscapes, cities, and communities. The national “smart” grid often mentioned by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey would represent a vast expansion of electrical transmission and distribution infrastructure, connecting the sunny and windy parts of the country with urban electricity markets, a project of interstate energy infrastructure that would affect thousands of miles of American landscape, likely sparking strong local opposition, as power line projects tend to do. At first this might seem to be purely an engineering challenge or a land acquisition challenge—but it is actually a landscape and regional planning challenge of grand territorial scale, on par perhaps with the 1920s regional planner Benton MacKaye’s visions of an Appalachian Trail running uninterrupted up the length of the East Coast. These infrastructural transmission corridors, if designed well, could connect Americans to their nearby wildlands, and be an amenity for recreation and economic development while supporting the push for a cleaner energy grid. But this will be possible only if they are designed as multifunctional trail networks and not simply as utilitarian power line cuts.
In some cases, the connections between landscape transformation and social benefits are not hard to spot. Take, for example, the Green New Deal’s proposal to implement a campaign of “cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites.” Other groups have suggested scaling up this agenda, arguing that ambitious environmental restoration efforts should feature prominently in any Green New Deal. Ben Beachy, the director of the Sierra Club’s Living Economy program, for example, has argued for a “Green Brigade” as part of the Green New Deal, which would consist of people hired to do brownfield remediation, wetland restoration, forest replanting, and forest management to reduce fire risks. These kinds of jobs in restorative conservation work explicitly reference the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the most popular of the programs in FDR’s original New Deal. What might such a “Green Brigade” today learn from the original CCC and its successful campaign to reforest vast swaths of cutover public lands to prevent forest fires, build recreation infrastructure, and generally jump-start the American wilderness recreation movement?
In the case of abandoned mine lands and toxic brownfields, there is potential for reclamation and ecological restoration to be coupled once again with elements of the energy landscape for generation or storage. Some abandoned mine lands have already been converted to pumped-storage hydroelectric facilities—basically giant hydroelectric batteries. They can inexpensively iron out the electricity supply differences that an increasingly renewable grid will entail with its variable wind and solar energy sources. If carefully designed, such facilities can become fascinating and dynamic public landscapes. One such project, the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage hydroelectric facility, already anchors an outdoor recreation area near Chattanooga, Tennessee, with mountain bike trails running down the mountainside power line corridors, extensive hiking trails, and a visitor center and picnic area overlooking the dramatic river gorge and the city below. Other abandoned mine lands can become new sites of renewable energy generation, the way that some brownfields and landfills already host impressive arrays of solar panels. With design attention, it is easy to imagine these long-neglected landscapes becoming incredible examples of the technological sublime.
The TVA’s Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant near Chattanooga, which acts like a giant battery. Image courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority.
Federal agencies are well positioned to lead the restoration work. As the former U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Furnish described in his autobiography, Toward a Natural Forest, the Forest Service has already pioneered such a switch, informed by landscape architects within its ranks, from a focus on “getting out the cut” (Forest Service jargon for maximizing timber extraction above other goals) to a focus on ecosystem restoration. In the late 1990s, prompted by lawsuits around spotted owl habitat, the Forest Service figured out ways to rewrite its contracts from prioritizing timber extraction and logging roads to performing ecological support services through payments for river restoration and habitat creation. As with the CCC, there is a clear case to be made for the restoration of public lands through labor that benefits workers and the public conservation ethos. Unlike the CCC, a contemporary Green New Deal conservation corps would also have a clear focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation.
In some places, agricultural lands are already indistinguishable from energy landscapes—in Iowa, for example, vast arrays of wind turbines spin for miles above working farm fields. Increasingly, solar farms are sharing space with pollinator habitats and grazing land, with each designed so as not to interfere with the other’s operation. Some farms are now processing their cow manure in biodigesters to generate electricity while reducing methane pollution. These practices already exist owing to forward-thinking farmers and energy developers, but could be greatly expanded through incentives and public funds, and a whole swath of the rural public could be enlisted to participate in targeted agricultural programs under a Green New Deal umbrella.
The TVA’s Norris Dam near Knoxville, Tennessee—an excellent example of an energy project carefully integrated into its surrounding landscape. Image courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum 53227(1840).
Agricultural land can also do good carbon work, absorbing and sequestering atmospheric CO2 with the spreading of compost and biochar on fields, no-till farming, alley cropping or other types of agroforestry, combining trees with cattle (also called silvopasture), or practicing any number of other “carbon farming” techniques. Hedgerows can be used for stream protection while simultaneously feeding local bioenergy or biochar industries. These new hybrid practices will need to be disseminated and planned, drawn up and configured, with business plans written and fine-tuned, but perhaps the reorganization of agriculture is not as radical as some opponents of the Green New Deal would have us believe.
For the past century, industrial agriculture has operated as an extractive practice, squandering topsoil, destroying local biodiversity, and contributing to climate change. The next generation of agricultural landscapes must be restorative rather than extractive, and multipurpose rather than monocultural, but this shift must be carefully designed to maximize synergies and reduce conflicts, including a precise articulation in cross section as well as plan. Through a combination of policy and design, agricultural landscapes can be reconfigured to produce renewable energy, build soil, and sequester carbon. If incentivized and supported, farmers can become a core constituency of the Green New Deal.
The most important innovation that the Green New Deal has brought to the climate and energy conversation is a new framing. In the words of Ocasio-Cortez, it is a chance to “rediscover the power of public imagination” in a discourse long dominated by technical details and policy minutiae. Although the Green New Deal agenda so far has been articulated through economic and social justice lenses, landscape architecture is well positioned to lead the remediation and land management conversation. Can landscape architects rise to the challenge of helping develop a new generation of public works that support climate justice while capturing the public imagination? How can landscape architecture’s systems thinking and multidisciplinary reach assist in crafting compelling responses to these complex environmental and social challenges? How does the existential crisis of climate change make more palatable a government-led suite of programs for addressing systemic social challenges, much the way that the economic crisis of the Great Depression gave FDR some license to use the power of government to address economic problems? As the discipline of landscape architecture today grapples with how to speak more clearly about race, class, and environmental justice, can the Green New Deal be an opportunity to help landscape architects articulate their vision of what environmental justice (and climate justice) means for landscape?
Finally, as we consider the potential of the bold and wide-ranging visions that are being proposed for this Green New Deal framework, can we incorporate lessons from the ambitious landscape strategies of FDR’s original New Deal, while avoiding some of its pitfalls?
In the New Deal, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) helped organize rural energy cooperatives and supply remote areas. Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture, 20111110-OC-AMW-0030. National Archives and Records Administration.
DESIGN AND FDR’S NEW DEAL
The New Deal was FDR’s grand vision of how to pull the country out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, put Americans back to work, and restore American pride and prosperity using the scale and power of government. The New Deal was an umbrella label that encompassed a number of different initiatives and projects delivered through a diverse collection of agencies and programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the CCC, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), to name a few. Each of the programs had its own focus and agenda, but collectively they strove to provide jobs for a large number of Americans, use federal funds to make possible projects that would enhance economic development, and demonstrate the potential of government to improve daily life in both the city and countryside. The New Deal programs deployed design for its power of persuasion, each in its own way, to build the case that these programs were in the public interest, even in the face of conservatives’ discomfort with such a broad expansion of government.
The TVA built large infrastructure projects throughout the Tennessee Valley, such as dams, roads, and power lines, jump-starting local economies and putting thousands of people to work in their design and construction. But the TVA also went beyond just infrastructure by considering the holistic system of infrastructure and urbanization across an entire watershed and expanding the scope of design and planning. It built dams for navigation, dams for flood control, and dams for industry and rural electricity—codesigned with a system of roads, worker settlements, and even new towns. The TVA incorporated design at multiple scales to build a case for this new infrastructure. Dams were carefully integrated into their surrounding landscape. Approach roads were meticulously designed to reveal the dams in an almost cinematic sequence. Architectural details on the dams themselves heightened their sense of scale and their gleaming modernity. And carefully crafted signage proudly proclaimed in bold typeface that this facility was “Built for the People of the United States.” The TVA was perhaps the most holistic version of New Deal federal planning, coupling large-scale energy production with industrial development, landscape design, town planning, and land management. It not only transformed the economy of a seven-state region, but also crafted a wholly new landscape narrative and design language for public works projects and public landscape.
The WPA focused instead on supporting the construction of an enormous number of municipal-scale public facilities, such as postal buildings, schools, parks, roads, and bridges. It employed some eight million people, creating work for laborers, craftspersons, and designers in the design and construction of these facilities. It also supported the arts in the face of massive unemployment, hiring graphic artists to design posters, theater directors to produce plays, photographers to document public life and New Deal programs, for example—and in one instance, hired model makers to build a 1”=100’ replica of San Francisco, an effort that took two years. The iconic WPA posters of national parks, created for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, captured the drama of these public landscapes, and WPA photographs and documentaries celebrated the optimistic and occasionally sublime quality of New Deal public works. The WPA not only supported the arts through the Great Depression, but did so with a narrative that emphasized the civic and beneficial role of public buildings and landscapes.
Today, there is significant demand for new interstate high-voltage power lines. These corridors could be reimagined as multiuse recreational trails. Image courtesy Nicholas Pevzner.
The start of Nathan Kensinger’s quiet documentary Managed Retreat begins innocently enough. Waves from the Atlantic roll in toward the viewer. A lone couple walks hand in hand along a desolate beach. A seawall meanders off into the distance. An abandoned car in a marsh sends a dissonant note that builds to an ominous beat. The sound of waves gives way to the “beep, beep, beep” of an excavator backing up. Abandoned homes fill the frame until the excavator’s bucket reaches out to nudge one of the houses to the ground. It is a slow, lumbering destruction, with the “beep, beep, beep” tracking time.
Kensinger’s 18-minute film, which is currently screening at film festivals, documents the managed retreat of three New York City neighborhoods on Staten Island that never fully recovered from Hurricane Sandy. Instead, in an unusual approach, residents organized to sell their land to the state, left their homes behind, and let nature return. The film stands witness to an unheard-of scenario in New York: residents giving up waterfront property.
“I think managed retreat is one of the most forward-thinking solutions to rising sea levels that I’ve seen,” Kensinger said.
Kensinger’s love for the urban waterfront began in his hometown of San Francisco. When he moved to New York City in 2003, he immediately set about exploring the city’s waterways.
A message left behind in the Ocean Breeze neighborhood in Staten Island. Image courtesy Nathan Kensinger.
“It’s become an ever-expanding exploration of the entire waterfront, so it’s an ongoing relationship,” he said. He has written and photographed on the subject extensively, but the retreat unfolding after Sandy required more than words and static photos.
“I just felt like this story needed to be told in a different way, because the story was a very visual one and there was not necessarily anyone else with me to watch this process unfold,” he said. “I thought I needed to share this with more people, because they need to be aware that people are deciding to tear down their own homes because of climate change.”
While the state stepped up in the neighborhoods of Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Graham Beach, the city seems to have not gotten the memo, with thousands of housing units being built on flood-prone, high-value land.
“Part of the film is about giving space back to the natural world,” he said. “It’s a point of view that’s very different from the city and from developers.”
As the film progresses, the sounds of destruction give way to birds chirping, crickets singing, and the sight of a lone possum walking alongside an abandoned city street.
For information about future screenings go to managedretreatfilm.com.
Tom Stoelker writes about art, architecture, and academia. He lives in New York.
Considered a modernist masterpiece, Dan Kiley’s Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana, is now more than 60 years old. Previously the private residence of the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller family (1957–2008), the property has been owned and managed by Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art) since 2009. Ben Wever, the site manager of the Miller House and Garden, was born and raised in Columbus and has a decades-long history with the site. His grandmother, Barbara Voelz, worked for the Miller family, and he would occasionally visit the property as a child. He later became a part-time gardener for the Millers while in high school, and eventually a seasonal and then a full-time groundskeeper and a personal assistant to J. Irwin Miller. Wever—an Indiana-accredited horticulturist, member of Landmark Columbus’s Advocacy and Education Committee, and a midcentury furniture collector—also has experience maintaining other Kiley designs throughout Columbus. In his current role, Wever oversees the care, curation, and maintenance of both the Miller House and Garden. The following are excerpts from a conversation regarding the practices and challenges of maintaining the Miller Garden.
Ben Wever in the Crabapple Grove in winter. Photograph by Jeffrey Bond, courtesy Ben Wever.
What is your earliest memory of the garden?
You hear people describing the different sections of the garden as green rooms, with different parts of the design flowing from the house into the landscape. One of my first introductions to the garden was swimming in the swimming pool, and it gives you this great feeling, because when you are in the pool you’re right at ground level, so the arborvitae hedge and the large beech tree are even more of a dramatic feature of the garden.
What was it like working for the Millers?
The property was maintained to a very high level, because you wanted the Millers to be able to go anywhere and enjoy their garden. If you were pollarding apple trees, and you went to lunch, you would put the ladders and rakes away and you stuck them between the arborvitae [a staggered hedge along the eastern boundary of the property]. The terrace was where they would take lunch and enjoy looking out onto the landscape, so that meant that the English ivy near the terrace always needed to be cut back with a straight edge on both sides and leveled out on top.
You knew the sections of the garden that they enjoyed. One of them, and probably the most celebrated part of the landscape, was the honey locust allée. You never saw a sucker on the side of a tree. We had to rake the allée at least weekly. Sometimes with three of us it could take at least half a day to hand rake it from the south terrace to the sculpture plinth and then through the crabapple grove. You can’t get a machine to do that, because you’re not going to get the same look. And when we would rake the allée, we didn’t walk back through it—we’d walk on the concrete edge.
When you worked for the Millers, you got to do all sorts of side tasks, like pillow rotation, rug changes, and other things inside the house. Sometimes we were asked to drive their cars up to the Saarinen-designed summer house in Canada because they wanted their vehicles up there. Or they would ask, “Hey, will you guys come in here and move this Picasso?”
The Crabapple Grove in summer. Photo by Mark R. Eischeid.
Do you have favorite times of the year in the garden?
The spring and fall are beautiful, and that’s obviously Kiley’s intent, but the lushness of summertime—especially if you don’t have to work on it—is really beautiful. People would think the winter is the least interesting, but if you’re trying to grasp Kiley’s use of the grid, his plant choices, and the plant spacing, that’s when you can see the branch structure, and you can see the sculptural effect of the trees. I think there’s a special thing about seeing it in the winter.
How is the garden maintained through the seasons?
Starting in spring, there’s spring cleanup. The oak trees [in a five-tree allée east of the house] are always one of the last to drop their leaves, so you start with those. You start waking up the turf by aerating and applying a low-nitrogen fertilizer. There’s a lawn and mulch edge around the whole arborvitae hedge, the apple tree squares, and all of the other subsequent beds that has to be edged. Then, we go from edging to mulching to pre-emergent, to keep some of the weeds down. The Euonymus needs to be leveled out on top and clipped back around the property. We’ll go through the whole property, including the woods, and get whips and things like that cleaned up as well.
By the start of summer, our turf is really going great. Mowing starts, generally on a twice-a-week basis. The lawn is double cut, so that amounts to four cuts a week. Then we’re starting to get into the cleanup of things like magnolias, which are dropping their blooms. We also then have to remove all of the tulips after they’re done blooming. Then we do a bed prep process where we incorporate peat moss, or now we’re going to try mixing that a little bit with some soil surfactant—which keeps the water levels more consistent—and some biochar product. Then we mound these beds so that there’s an edge to them, and it really helps with how the annuals will do throughout the year. Then we plant all the annual beds, which is pretty strenuous, usually about a two-day process. And from there, we’re getting to the point where it’s time to shear the Taxus. At this time, we’re giving some fertilizer to all the shrubs, since they’re in their growing season.
By late June, early July—even though we have irrigation—the shrubs and some of the larger trees aren’t getting enough water. So, first thing in the morning, after we’ve cleaned the driveway, we put the sprinklers out, and move them around until the end of the day. The idea is to keep extra water on everything to make everything stay nice and lush.
As the summer goes on, we work on the arborvitae. That would’ve been something that the Millers wouldn’t have really wanted to observe. So, when they would go to their summer home in Canada in August or late July, we would start on the arborvitae. But then, as those are trimmed, it’s generally time to trim the Taxus again. All the while, everything is growing, so the ground cover has to be cut back and made sure it’s not going up the trees. Generally—because we’re working with a hodgepodge of irrigation, some of it installed in the late 1950s—we have to go through and fix heads and line breaks.
As we go into fall, we have a lot of leaf removal. This is also the time for the late fall turf fertilization, removing all the annuals, prepping beds again, and putting in the 5,000 tulips that will be coming up in spring.
I’d say winter is probably the slowest time, but that’s not even really a slow time, because you’ve got 80 apple trees and 40 crabapple trees to be pollarded. You have continuous work throughout the wooded areas. And snow removal. Depending on the year, that could be hardly anything, or it could take up a lot of your time.
For the past few years, it has been myself and another full-time groundskeeper. Last year we added a seasonal groundskeeper.
Since we’re a public garden, we’re working toward a great experience for anybody who visits. You don’t know which area of the garden somebody came to see, so you make sure that all of the areas look as good as possible.
The southern apple orchard in early spring, shortly after lawn edging and mulching. Photo by Mark R. Eischeid.
Are there things that disrupt the property’s maintenance regime?
We usually have at least two or three big floods per year [Author’s note: These floodwaters come from the Flatrock River, located at the western edge of the property], and by big floods, I mean floods that fill the entire meadow. And then we have two or three floods per year that are smaller and will only disrupt the adjacent wooded area and not the meadow. Depending on the time of year, the floods will wrap rotting cornstalks around every tree, and will deposit brush from other people’s properties, trees that people have dumped into the river, or declining trees that have dropped in the wooded areas along the river. Because we’re getting a lot of weight and compaction from the floods, we aerate twice a year in the meadow.
What are some of the upcoming major projects for the garden?
The next project that obviously needs to be worked on is the crabapple grove. Those trees were originally redbuds, and were replaced at the end of their life span with crabapples in 1985 because they couldn’t source multistem redbuds at the time. Through discussions with senior leadership at Newfields, we’ve decided that redbuds could be a nice choice to go back in there. Replacing the crabapples with redbuds would be a special opportunity to raise funds and for someone to contribute to a beautiful section of this garden.
The looming thing is the staggered arborvitae hedges. We do everything that we possibly can for them, but at this point, they’ve been sheared so much that we really don’t have that much to work with on the outside. We’ve kept them going, and hopefully we can get other projects done before we have to replace them, because, as you can imagine, that’s going to be a pretty big undertaking.
The oak allée, prior to leaf litter removal. Photo by Mark R. Eischeid.
What do you think has led to the successful maintenance of the Miller Garden?
When you worked for the Millers, you were fortunate enough to have them consult with a good landscape architect. Maintenance decisions were ultimately made by the Millers, but they were informed decisions, communicated from landscape architect to gardener, which I think is a fantastic way to work. My grandmother said she remembers Mrs. Miller getting out a notepad and walking around with Kiley and writing down what he said, things like, “This is growing well,” or “If this was thinned or pruned, then you’d get this effect.”
At Newfields, there are archivists with access to the correspondence and drawings that were donated by the Miller family to the museum, which is a fantastic resource. You can look at what was done historically and why, and get an idea of Kiley’s thought processes. You aim to keep as close to the design as possible, and you have the archival resources to help you do that, but you also know that there are newer maintenance practices that can help as well.
As a landscape architect, you’ve put a lot of time into a design, and you hope that your vision is fulfilled and that it can last. We all know that it’s not going to last forever, but you hope that it can mature and do the things that you want it to do. I think what’s been accomplished here is through the collaboration of landscape architects, clients, owners, and devoted gardeners and landscape maintenance staff. All of this has come together so that this place can be enjoyed as a Kiley landscape 60 years later, and you can’t say that very often. This is a place that has become more beautiful as time has passed due to all of that care.
Mark R. Eischeid is an assistant professor in landscape architecture at the University of Oregon.
The things our art director, Chris McGee, hated to leave out of the current issue of LAM.
Image by Nadine Schütz.
From “Sound Gardens” in the July 2019 issue by Michael Dumiak, about the acoustical designer Nadine Schütz’s use of landscapes as a filter and echo chamber for ambient sound that defines each landscape.
“A plan for wind, rain, and sun.”
–CHRIS MCGEE, LAM ART DIRECTOR
Common buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a medium-sized shrub that is appealing in sunny areas of the landscape because of its glossy green leaves; unusual fragrant, round, spiky flowers; and rust-red fall color. It’s especially useful in wet areas and rain gardens where it absorbs excess water and even tolerates standing water. Hummingbirds and butterflies favor the plant for its nectar, and 24 species of birds seek it out for its small, round nuts that persist into winter. This native of the Midwest and East Coast is easily grown and little bothered by pests in the garden. Yet it is not commonly used in built landscapes. Although everything else about this shrub is right, its growth pattern and size are not. The straight species can be quite large at 12 feet high or more, and it has an annoying habit of sending branches in all directions, so it looks willy-nilly rather quickly if it’s not pruned regularly and often.
But here come Sputnik, Sugar Shack, and Fiber Optics, cultivars of buttonbush that represent a tamed C. occidentalis. Cultivars are plants produced by selective breeding or vegetative propagation to achieve better traits for the landscape. Fiber Optics is a species mutation discovered by an inventory employee in the bare-root fields of Bailey Nurseries, says the company’s public relations and communications specialist, Ryan McEnaney. Bailey trialed the plant, a process that takes several years, and brought it to market in 2017. It has a reliably smaller size at five to six feet high and a branching habit that keeps it compact and rounded, while retaining all the desired features of the straight species.
The Fiber Optics buttonbush is what is known as a nativar. The term is not scientific but has value to the industry in helping identify selected, hybridized, or crossbred varieties of native plants. The horticulturist Allan Armitage recalls that he coined the term “nativar” around the time he wrote Armitage’s Garden Perennials, which was published in 2000. Its purpose: to connect the industry to the powerful influence that the native plant movement was having on trends in buying.
The native plant movement, Armitage says, is “one of the very few times when the horticulture industry was swayed by the gardening community.” Usually, new plants developed by breeders influence what gardeners buy, but gardeners had been demanding plants with local or regional provenance. Though the movement was small at first, Armitage recalls, it “was going full steam before breeders even knew what was happening.” He coined the term “nativar” to show customers that the industry was offering what they wanted: garden plants developed from documented native sources, known in the scientific community as genotypes.
“Nativars allow us to retain the ecological benefits of native species while making them adaptable and accessible for a modern landscape,” McEnaney says. “Whether that means a more compact size, cleaner foliage, better color, or a tidier appearance, nativars solve problems that can arise” with the genotype.
Stacys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ and Allium cernuum. Nativars and straight species work well together. Photo courtesy Shedd Aquarium.
The native plant movement is still a strong influence on the market, owing not only to the early adopters who started it but to causes: saving pollinators and growing healthy food. Until the value of native plants was tied to these concepts, the movement was localized, small, and valued primarily for restoration. It has exploded through effective marketing that the average gardener can understand. The value of the term nativar in this context is a huge benefit to growers and garden centers who wanted to connect to the customer seeking a new product.
Nativars have been developed for every type of plant: trees, woody shrubs, forbs, and grasses. Any cultivar that is derived from a locally sourced species plant is a nativar. Some are cultivated from naturally occurring variations that improve the look or performance of the species. Others are crossbred or hybridized to obtain smaller size, stronger stem strength, new or better flower color, a regular growth pattern, better disease resistance, or other qualities.
Of the hundreds of trees native to North America, many have been cultivated for better form or size, and nativar trees are widely in use. The Bailey First Editions series, for example, includes trees such as the Majestic Skies northern pin oak, a nativar of the straight species Quercus ellipsoidalis bred to be straighter and with a more symmetrical form, both traits valued for street and landscape trees. Woody shrubs are also becoming more common as supply chains respond better to demand in the market. They address a need long felt in the landscape industry for shrubs that will be hardy, more pleasing, and easier to grow. There are now several choices of ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) to substitute for, say, invasive barberry, and Diervilla lonicera nativars that supplant invasive honeysuckles and won’t sucker aggressively to form thickets in the garden like the species plant. Suckering is a particularly ill-favored trait that nativars often overcome. We can now plant the non-suckering sumac Tiger Eyes (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’), a great alternative to the species plant from Bailey Nurseries, with a chartreuse to golden leaf color and striking form that has the look of a Japanese maple but is much easier to grow.
Hypericum kalmianum ‘PIIHYP-I’ PP25,318 (Cobalt-n-Gold hypericum). Bred to be small, this shrub, commonly known as St. Johnswort, retains the silvery blue leaves and striking bright yellow flowers of the species. Image courtesy Bailey Nurseries.
Nativars of wildflowers and grasses are now widely available from a variety of sources. The grower Midwest Groundcovers provides a typical example of how true natives and nativars reach the market. The company sells a line called Midwest Natives, which it classifies as “common Midwestern native species” grown from seed collected in the Upper Midwest; Natural Garden Natives, true ecotypes from seed collected within 90 miles of the company’s nursery site in St. Charles, Illinois; and American Beauties Native Plants, a limited selection of 20 plants, of which two are true natives and 18 are nativars in the 2019 offering. A look at sales trends at Midwest Groundcovers confirms Armitage’s prediction, says the company’s president, Christa Orum-Keller, ASLA. American Beauties increased in sales by 50 percent from 2017 to 2018.
The value of nativars is beauty, ease of care, “and maintaining ecological integrity,” says McEnaney. He and others in the world of plant marketing can safely make this claim now, with some caution, given recent research by both Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware, and Annie White, a lecturer at the University of Vermont and the owner of Nectar Landscape Design Studio, LLC. Each has published findings that help answer the question long on the lips of native plant enthusiasts: Do nativars support insect and bird life? The answer, as it turns out, is a qualified yes.
Tallamy conducted field studies of six of the most preferred traits in woody nativars: reduced growth habit to smaller and more regular forms, changes in leaf color from green to red or brown, added leaf variegation, enhanced fruit size, increased disease resistance, and enhanced fall color. As for insect response, it takes years, not seasons, to reach conclusions, and the study of more than one aspect of insect response is necessary for reliable results. With species plants and cultivated natives (nativars, but not so named in his study because the term is not accepted scientifically) planted side by side, Tallamy’s team studied three insect behaviors: what lepidoptera caterpillars do, how and whether hatching bagworms recognize plant differences, and the overall insect impact on the plant during a season.
Any cultivated plant is a genetic variant, so “it depends on what is changed in the genome as to whether it’s going to impact the insects or not,” Tallamy says. “Insects use plants. They look at the plants and they find them palatable or not through leaf chemistry. If the cultivar change does not change leaf chemistry, the insects don’t care. If it does change the leaf’s chemistry in a negative way, the insects do care.”
With that explanation, Tallamy’s short answer derived from research was that the only trait out of the six that consistently deterred insect use was changing green leaves to red or purple or blue. “It makes sense. Everyone wants red leaves, but what this does is remove chlorophyll from the leaf and load it with anthocyanins, which just happen to be feeding deterrents,” Tallamy says.
White, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and experience in a perennial breeding nursery, ecological restoration, and design, pursued a PhD precisely because she wanted to study a similar question, but in relation to plant flowering. “The biggest challenge for me was figuring out where to start. I had this question because I’d been working as an ecological landscape designer for six years at that point and kept specifying native plants and…a lot of times contractors were putting in nativars instead of the native species.”
Her 2016 dissertation compared what she termed the “floral rewards” of native plants as compared to cultivated natives (again, not called nativars in scientific research). Over two seasons, she counted pollinators (primarily bees, flies, butterflies, and moths) on 11 matched pairs of species plants and nativars readily available in the nursery trade to determine the impact on insect life of changes in various “floral resources.” Fundamental to her research, White says, is that, “while the natural history of our world’s pollinator species is widely divergent, they all rely on flowers as a food source” and in so doing, they function as pollinators. The most significant floral resource is color, but flower size, shape, and presentation of its reproductive parts will also determine what its pollinators will be. When these qualities are changed to create nativars, pollinators will be affected.
White’s research provides a systematic look at how pollinators react to cultivated varieties of native forbs. “Many insect pollinators prefer to forage on native species over cultivated varieties,” she says, but it’s not always so. “Some native cultivars may be comparable substitutions for native species in pollinator habitat restoration” but the variables are so many that cultivars should still be evaluated individually. For technical reasons deep in the botany and chemistry of flowers, nativars with certain characteristics are typically less desirable to pollinators. These include sterile flowers, double or triple flowers, color that does not attract the pollinator, or an altered plant form that makes reaching the nectar difficult for the insect (as in, it can’t fit in there anymore). Typically, cultivated natives that have been altered in more ways than one both weaken plants and make them unattractive to pollinators. This is seen in Echinacea that has been altered to come in different colors, as well as smaller size and with double flowers. Such cultivars are altered in up to three ways from the species. (See a few of the cultivated natives that passed muster in White’s research in the list of Nativars to Know, below.)
Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ PP16,185 (Tiger Eyes cutleaf staghorn sumac). This nativar was bred for foliage color. Leaves emerge chartreuse and turn yellow in spring, then orange and scarlet in fall. Image courtesy Bailey Nurseries.
Although the results of these studies are positive in general, it isn’t possible to re-create the ecosystem of the past just by planting species or nativar plants in our gardens, cautions the biologist Gerould Wilhelm, who cowrote the definitive Plants of the Chicago Region. The reason: The ecosystem of the past “was based on aboriginal soils” that contained continually regenerating organic matter, soil fungi, and a full array of insects to interact with the life cycle of plants. In that context, native plants flourished, and nativars too would play their best part. He calls that kind of soil “the sweet interface between heaven and earth where life lives.” But today, soils are both compacted and degraded, and therefore need constant maintenance to re-create the environments that native plants require. In fact, Wilhelm says, “Contrary to the rhetoric, native plants are less suited to survival in our degraded soils than plants that have already been under cultivation.”
In terms of increasing pollination, some nativars are adequate substitutions for species plants in a landscape. But to get the maximum benefit of their native properties, the final step in using nativars is a design challenge, says the plantsman and designer Roy Diblik, the developer of the well-known nativar Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ and author of The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden. It requires careful observation “of the changing ethic of garden design we see emerging now,” that is, the development of plant communities in a free-form garden palette maintained by precise practices that aggressively build organic matter into the soil. This approach allows the designer to combine species plants, nativars, and perennials close to each other in patterns that recognize the compatibility of their growth habits. It creates a mix of greater beauty than any one of the plant classes alone, Diblik says. For example, stiff tickseed (Coreopsis palmata), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) are three true natives with thin, unremarkable stems but interesting showy flower shapes and light colors (yellow, white, lavender) that mix well with the dark stems and the dark purple flower of the nativar Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ and the beautiful texture of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), a perennial. Using this technique, the design emerges as plants grow together to create drifts of texture and color.
Every Branch and Blade (Interview)
At the Miller House and Garden, in Columbus, Indiana, the site manager Ben Wever
knows exactly how to maintain Dan Kiley’s original vision for the place.
For Floods, a Stage (Planning)
On the Indiana banks of the Ohio River that look at Louisville, OLIN is planning
ways for people to come out and see the river when it swells.
The Green New Deal, Landscape, and Public Imagination
Ambitious proposals to attack climate breakdown and social inequity together could dramatically alter the American landscape, ideally without the compromises of the first New Deal.
What’s in a Nativar?
Among the hottest items in the nursery industry are cultivars of native plants bred to behave better in designed landscapes. The trick is in creating new plants that offer the
ecological benefits of the originals.
How to compose the score for a landscape? The Swiss acoustic designer
Nadine Schütz is figuring that out.
All this plus the regular Now and Goods columns. The full table of contents for July can be found here.
Keep an eye out here on the blog, on the LAM Facebook page, and on our Twitter feed (@landarchmag), as we’ll be posting July articles as the month rolls out.
Credits: “The Green New Deal, Landscape, and Public Imagination,” Tennessee Valley. United States, None. Between 1933 and 1945. Photograph. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USW33-015672-ZC https://www.loc.gov/item/2017877279/; “What’s in a Nativar?” courtesy Shedd Aquarium; “Sound Gardens,” Courtesy Kyoto Institute of Technology; “Every Branch and Blade,” Mark R. Eischeid; “For Floods, a Stage,” Troy McCormick.
University of Illinois at Chicago students’ birdhouse designs for the Chicago River. Photo courtesy Lendlease.
While working with a group of University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) industrial design students on their birdhouse design studio, Ted Wolff had a few pointers on how they should approach interior dimensions and ventilation. There should be enough room at its base for eggs, but not much extra. A slit that allows crosscurrent air circulation is good, but much bigger and cold winds might howl through the birdhouse in the winter.
The birdhouses the UIC students came up with don’t seem to conform to arcadian notions of “snug,” offering up topo map terraces, ziggurats, gourd-shaped ovals, and stacks of cubes rotated as tessellated diamonds, each one seeming to say: Design is here!
The Southbank development on the Chicago River, designed by Perkins+Will and Hoerr Schaudt. Image courtesy Lendlease.
UIC students became involved in the project this past semester at the behest of developer and builder Lendlease, which is building a new high-rise community called Southbank that will include a riverside park. Located just south of the Loop along the Chicago River, the 2.5-acre park, designed by Hoerr Schaudt, will feature approximately half a dozen mounted birdhouses designed by third-year UIC industrial design students. The site’s first residential tower, designed by Perkins+Will and called The Cooper, was completed last fall, and the new park will be ready in July.
Linda Kozloski, the creative design director at Lendlease, says birdhouses were always part of Southbank’s master plan. Alongside the native grasses and marshy plants that will add more riverside park space to Chicago’s other great waterway, Kozloski wanted to see frogs, toads, fish, and birds “bring nature back in an urban setting” with an ecological resurgence for the channelized and formerly industrial river. The park will include a half-mile boardwalk, terraced step seating, and native or adaptive shrubs, perennials, and trees.
Southbank Park hopes to offer habitats for birds, frogs, toads, and fish. Image courtesy Lendlease.
Triad, DeeDee Leng’s birdhouse, is designed for tree swallows. Image courtesy DeeDee Leng.
The UIC students presented their designs to the client and the design team for a midterm evaluation and again at the end of the semester. Students researched the bird species that would be most likely to thrive along the Chicago River, and what would be needed to attract them. Wolff says the four most important factors to consider would be wooing species that are native to the area, are comfortable in urban environments, enjoy being near water, and can coexist with a lot of people. “That really narrows down the species list that’s going to be appropriate,” Wolff says. The initial short list of birds they hope to attract includes tree swallows, eastern bluebirds, and house wrens. Kozloski says she wants to collaborate with UIC students again, to design birdhouses for more communal birds such as purple martins.
UIC student DeeDee Leng designed and built a birdhouse for tree swallows. She calls her design Triad, named for its folded triangle geometry, and inspired by the canted support columns of the nearby high-rise apartment building. Tree swallows are exceptionally agile fliers that snatch insects out of the air, and their birdhouse is distinguished by not having a perch. To enter, the tree swallow tucks its wings in and shoots into its one-and-a-half-inch-wide hole, a bull’s-eye every time. A perch would likely be an invitation for a larger bird to camp out and steal the house. Leng says this project was distinguished by its lack of first-person research. “We’re very used to interviewing people we’re specifically designing for,” she says. “We’re not able to ask tree swallows how they feel about the birdhouse.”
Students presenting their designs. Photo courtesy Lendlease and T. J. O’Keefe.
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Not long ago, the schoolyard of Eagle Rock Elementary, in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, was a sea of cracked asphalt. Now it has rows of budding trees that divide up the three-acre expanse, and there’s a large grassy area and little enclaves with stumps and log seating away from the hustle and bustle. By offering a variety of settings, the schoolyard gives students the ability to choose where and how they spend their time at recess. Claire Latané, ASLA, the Los Angeles-based ecological designer who led the renovation of the grounds, says it also should improve their mental health.
Latané believes supporting the mental health of students is key to their happiness and well-being. Her conviction is based on decades of academic research by others, her own experience analyzing and designing schoolyards, and her gut feeling about the topic, as both a designer and a mother. Despite all we know about the impact our surroundings have on us—and the progress being made to introduce therapeutic environments to health care facilities—schools aren’t being designed with mental health as a consideration, let alone a priority. They are defensive (and ever more so, even provisionally, given gun violence in schools). Many schools have as much charm as storage facilities these days, and the worst are, in their environmental design, practically penal.
Through advocacy, writing, and teaching, Latané is trying to change that reality. She has encouraged the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the country—and where her own children were students—as it rethinks its practice of laying down asphalt everywhere. With a fellowship from the Landscape Architecture Foundation, she investigated supportive high school landscapes, presenting her findings at a symposium in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2018. In the fall, she organized a workshop in Los Angeles that brought together landscape architects with educators, mental health professionals, and school facilities managers—parties who typically don’t do much talking to each other, which was the whole point.
Unstructured play, including games of tag, are popular on the new lawn. Photo by Edmund Barr.
“It’s like a neural network—the more people you can connect, the more possibilities to make an impact,” she said during a day I spent with her in Los Angeles recently. “One of my biggest strengths is not doing the work itself but in connecting this person to this person.”
Her goal is to start a movement. And one task for that movement will be to nail down evidence that the work she and others have done to redesign school grounds and buildings has measurable mental health benefits for students. And that includes kids struggling with mental illness—something she says most people are not comfortable talking about.
“There’s still such a stigma,” she says.
Latané has had first-person experience with that. A native of Columbus, Ohio, who attended public schools as a child, she went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but had to take a year off between her sophomore and junior years to deal with depression. After graduating with a degree in mass communication, she got married and moved with her husband to a remote part of Appalachia, where she worked at a local newspaper.
Relocating to the outskirts of Charlotte, the couple had three children—all of whom have had their own mental health issues—and Latané became irritated that public spaces weren’t easier to negotiate, especially for a mother with youngsters in tow. After writing a letter to the town council proposing a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over a highway that bisected the town, she found herself appointed to a variety of local advisory boards—transportation, parks, and environmental code review—and the experiences heightened her interest in the public sphere. She discovered Anne Whiston Spirn’s 1985 book, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, and it crystallized her thinking.
“I’d never even heard of landscape architecture before,” Latané recalls. But Spirn’s argument that cities are a part of nature and should be designed with nature in mind rang true to a mother who had one son with asthma and eczema and another so hyperactive the only place he seemed to be happy was outside. “It became a mission for me at that time in life to have a voice and find a way to make the world healthier for kids.”
She ended up settling with her kids in Eagle Rock, a neighborhood in a valley next to the Verdugo Hills. It is walkable and affordable, and the schools were said to be good. (She and her husband divorced, and he returned to North Carolina; their children have gone back and forth.) Eagle Rock Elementary certainly looked promising when she drove by, the main building a 1920s structure with ochre stucco walls and a red tile roof. Giant pine trees shaded the facade, which was skirted in lawn.
But the school’s curb appeal was deceiving. On the first day of the fall term, when Latané walked her older children around to the back of Eagle Rock Elementary, where students assembled before filing in, they encountered wall-to-wall asphalt. Painted lines demarcated two kickball “fields,” one of them encircled by track lanes. There was a tetherball pole and a couple of handball courts. More paint marked off areas for hopscotch, four square, and dodgeball. With the exception of a few trees poking up through the asphalt, there was nothing of the natural world to be found.
“I was shocked,” she recalls.
Before the renovation, the yard was wall-to- wall asphalt. Photo courtesy Studio-MLA.
It’s not hard to understand why laying down asphalt has been the default approach, especially in underfunded public school districts. It’s cheap. It’s easy to maintain. A flat terrain facilitates supervision. When the Council for Watershed Health, a nonprofit group based in Pasadena, and the Center for Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University did a study of schoolyards in Los Angeles that was published in 2015, they found that 20 percent of schools in the district were sitting in asphalt without any tree canopy coverage.
All that asphalt can be problematic for many reasons, but especially in poor areas where students suffer from mental distress in greater proportions than their more affluent peers. Los Angeles area students, Latané has written, experience high levels of instability and stress related to air and noise pollution, family trauma, and poverty. Screenings of a segment of the school population of nearly 700,000 suggest that 50 percent of students in the district may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. A just-announced allocation of $10 million from Los Angeles County for school-based mental health services is a recognition of the problem. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of LAUSD’s students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. These aren’t kids likely to live in homes with nice yards or proximity to parks.
Such students—along with those who have attention deficit, sensory integration, and autism spectrum disorders—are hypersensitive to noise, light, and visual disarray. What they need—and Latané insists they deserve—is “a well-organized, comfortable, calm environment, plenty of access to nature, and small quiet places to escape chaos.” Such an environment, she points out, can benefit all students in a school and teachers and administrators as well.
Claire Latané, ASLA, has advocated for students’ mental health to be considered when school landscapes are planned. She led the Eagle Rock project while at Studio-MLA. Photo by Brian Kuhlmann.
In 2009, while teaching an undergraduate course in landscape design at Cal Poly Pomona, she had her students use Eagle Rock’s schoolyard as a case study. Her students taught third graders about ecological design and asked them to sketch the things they would like in their schoolyard. The undergrads incorporated some of the children’s ideas in a green infrastructure plan that they presented to parents, teachers, and the principal.
When the principal declined to make changes, Latané thought that was that. Then, in 2010, after her own children had already left Eagle Rock Elementary, she got a call.
On the line was Amanda Millet, a parent with two sons, who had heard about the presentation Latané’s students had made. Millet told her that Eagle Rock had a new principal who was open to ideas, and that the state had funding for projects to address stormwater management. Eagle Rock is in a floodplain, and replacing asphalt with permeable surfaces—which Latané’s students had proposed—met the grant requirements. Latané got together with Millet, who had experience writing grants, and other parents, and ultimately, with assistance from an environmental group that agreed to serve as the nonprofit partner in the project should it be funded, an application was submitted. In 2012, $350,000 from the state was secured.
It took another three years for LAUSD to agree to accept the money, in part because of concerns about conditions the state imposed on the funding and also because, at the time, the district was not accustomed to working with third-party partners on projects on its properties. By the time it did say yes and the nonprofit group (now called Los Angeles Beautification Team) contacted Mia Lehrer’s landscape architecture firm in Los Angeles (now Studio-MLA) to see if it would take on the schoolyard redesign, Latané had taken a job there.
“Good karma,” she says.
Placed in charge of the project, Latané coordinated with LAUSD to ensure that the redesign would meet physical education requirements, she listened to the concerns of teachers and other Eagle Rock staff, and she collaborated with parents at the school—some of whom brought valuable expertise to the table. One of them, Bevin Ashenmiller, an environmental economics professor at Occidental College, enlisted the help of an Occidental colleague, Marcella Raney, a kinesiology professor who visited the school with her students and observed the children at recess. The input—about which areas of the yard were popular and should be preserved, and which were underused and might be rethought—was crucial to the design evolution.
Ground was broken in June 2016, with LAUSD removing 19,000 square feet of asphalt and installing irrigation mainlines; the Los Angeles Beautification Team orchestrated much of the rest. By that fall the renovation was complete.
Green space was added to the center of the yard; rows of trees flank it, breaking up the vast expanse. Image by Studio-MLA.
Latané and I stood on the schoolyard with Stephanie Leach, the current principal, who spoke of the community’s pride in the new space, which has also become the pride of the school district. “A lot of district administrators come through and say they don’t see this type of play at other schools,” she said, referring to kids doing cartwheels and playing tag on the grass.
The asphalt that remains now has a tan climate coating to reduce heat retention and radiation, which benefits students and staff and also newly planted oaks. The trees subdivide the yard into areas meant to feel more manageable to children who might find vast expanses overwhelming—and, over time, they will provide increasing amounts of shade.
The small, self-contained areas on the periphery give children places to escape from the competitive atmosphere of sports and the general din of recess at a school with several hundred students. Kids can hop from stump to stump or just hang out.
“Design-wise, it’s weird,” Latané admitted, as she and I walked over to the grass area—essentially a rectangle (one of the formerly asphalt kickball fields) with a circle ballooning out of one corner of it (covering an area where underused four square and dodgeball had been). “But experience-wise, it’s so much better. It works from a student perspective.”
Raney, who visited again after the new yard was installed to collect additional data, confirmed as much. The grassy areas, she and her students observed, allowed children whose previous recess options had been limited to traditional playground games and organized sports to explore other forms of play. Sedentary behavior decreased, vigorous activity increased, and girls generally became more active. Meanwhile, student physical and verbal conflicts declined.
Eagle Rock students are not only exposed to plants at recess, but they now see more greenery through classroom windows. Still, what impact, if any, the yard’s transformation may have on students’ mental health—Latané’s prime concern—remains a question. No studies had been set up before the renovation to track whether students feel happier or safer or less stressed post-renovation (student privacy concerns typically make such studies difficult). En route to a nearby elementary school, which still sits surrounded by asphalt, Latané admits she regrets the missed opportunity.
AHBE’s Burbank Water and Power EcoCampus, Burbank, California. Courtesy MIG, photo by Sibylle Allgaier.
Calvin Abe, FASLA, the founder of Los Angeles-based AHBE, had been pondering the future for about two years, a process he’d put on hold for many months to sort out his own thinking on how he wanted his 30-plus-year-old firm to survive him and its other partners. For the firm’s legacy to continue, he’d have to let in new blood, and new opportunities. And that was the realization that convinced him to commit to a merger. “If I would continue to hang onto it, I would become obsolete, unless I allowed other leaders to come in and take the reins,” Abe says. In early 2019, AHBE and MIG, the multidisciplinary firm, announced they would join forces.
The merger of AHBE and the planning, design, and engineering company MIG is set to double down on the growth and development of Los Angeles, offering MIG more design “depth and capability” and giving AHBE’s legacy a sturdy institutional buttress, says Daniel Iacofano, FASLA, a founding principal of MIG.
MIG’s Hing Hay Park in Seattle. Courtesy MIG|SvR, photo by Miranda Estes Photography.
The merger was completed in February. AHBE and its staff of 17 have become AHBE|MIG and will continue to work out of the firm’s current office in downtown Los Angeles. Founded in 1982 in Berkeley, California, MIG has 12 offices in five states, mostly on the West Coast, with a staff of more than 200. AHBE’s four principals (Calvin Abe, FASLA; Linda Daley, ASLA; Gary Lai, ASLA; and Evan Mather, FASLA) are now principals at MIG.
Over the past two decades, AHBE has become well regarded for its high-quality civic landscapes that make “the connection between our experiences and nature more obvious” and demonstrate how “nature can infuse and integrate into the city,” Abe says. It’s perhaps best known for the Burbank Water and Power EcoCampus, the headquarters of the utility company Burbank Water and Power. With three rooftop gardens and solar panel arrays, the campus transformed a decommissioned electrical substation into a lush hanging garden, where remnant industrial structures form a trellis thick with vines and foliage. Throughout, runoff is managed with a variety of water filtration technologies.
AHBE’s Cedars-Sinai Plaza Healing Gardens. Photo by Sibylle Allgaier.
Two and a half years ago, Abe enlisted a merger broker to find potential partners—generally large, multidisciplinary firms that could expand the scope of AHBE’s work. He found several suitors, but declined the matches. They were relatively traditional (and thus ill-suited) landscape architecture firms. “I didn’t get the sense that they had a broader vision about the world, and what impacts they could contribute,” Abe says. MIG came close, but ongoing discussions at AHBE about the future of the firm required them to shelve these offers. Eventually, these discussions brought Abe back to the option of a merger a year after he put it all on hold. He says he struggled with how to make the common vision his team had assembled over the years as resilient as possible for the future. Last summer, with a new sense of urgency, Abe traveled to Berkeley, California, where MIG is based, to restart merger talks. “We wanted a future for all of us, and we wanted to grow a lot quicker. This is really the best way to accomplish that.”
Abe says the two firms were united by a shared, civic purpose. “MIG has Daniel’s vision of making the world a better place,” he says. “Our practices are quite different, but that’s what binds us together.”
Growing Vine Street, an urban watershed green space by MIG|SvR. Courtesy MIG|SvR, photo by Billy Hustace.
MIG is a multidisciplinary firm, with specializations in landscape architecture, branding, civil engineering, biology, social science, planning, architecture, live animal exhibit design, zoning, policy planning, and dozens of other topic areas. Its clients include colleges, local and state government, cultural institutions, and nonprofits. Abe says his firm had been trying to obtain more planning work, and he anticipates that “the joining of MIG provides immediate access to that.” In its final stages, he brought few preconditions to the negotiating table—primarily a request to retain copyright ownership of several projects.
Abe describes AHBE as “a design component of the organization,” but he’s not concerned about a shift in autonomy. “We look at this as expanded opportunity,” he says. “They’re not really taking over—other than accounting-wise.”
Within its rich client base, MIG was looking to strengthen its presence in a premiere market: Los Angeles. Since the early 1990s, the firm has had a presence in Los Angeles County and surrounding counties in the metropolitan area, but had no offices in the city of Los Angeles until the merger. Betting on long-term trends toward population growth and an ambitious expansion of public transit led by a mayor who’s focused much of his power on the city’s sustainable expansion, Iacofano says that the city will become a more green and urban place. The Measure M sales tax that became law in 2016 will funnel $120 billion into the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s coffers over the next 40 years. During that time, the city will host the World Cup in 2026 and the Olympics in 2028.
“AHBE puts us in a position to contribute to that growing future,” says Iacofano.
AHBE’s Wonderful College Prep Academy in Delano, California. Courtesy MIG, photo by Heliphoto.
For Abe, the merger is a way to access the broadest possible range of Los Angeles’s development. “MIG provides such a multifaceted, multidisciplinary practice that it creates a whole different frame for us to operate, and be supported,” he says. “When we go after a project, we hire the civil [engineers], we hire the biologist, the ecologist. We now have the privilege of having all of that in-house.”
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.