Friday, December 31, 2010

Public, political, personal -- landscape/nature is good for you. And the lack of it may be killing us.

Earlier this month, the ASLA blog, The Dirt, reported on an essay by Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design, University of Minnesota, on the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted's early career in public sanitation/health on his later work as a landscape architect -- and as a public intellectual. The essay,"Frederick Law Olmsted and the Campaign for Public Health" (detailed, fascinating and nicely illustrated), was published in November 2010, at the Design History Foundation's Places. Professor Fisher provides good background on Olmsted's lasting concern with public health as a strong motivation in all his work. Fisher also brings the topic to the present with this question:

". . . almost a century and a half after Olmsted left the U.S. Sanitary Commission, we find ourselves, once again, in an era when the larger issues of public health intersect the practices of landscape architecture, architecture and urbanism. And we might well wonder: What would Olmsted do, were he alive today, and facing such paradoxical threats, arising from scarcity in some places and from abundance in others?"

Fisher's answer is that Olmsted would be an aggressive and fearless advocate. "Olmsted would bring a sense of high professional purpose to the work; throughout his ife he pursued larger social goals, regardless of cost, as opposed to the politically expedient or personally beneficial course. . . . The low-density development that contributes to our obesity, the air and water pollution that contributes to our cancer rates, and the systemic impoverishment that contributes to our pandemics -- all are traceable to political decisions and cultures that favor property owners, developers, and landlords, and the banks and shareholders who benefit as well. We will never confront our contemporary public health problems in any meaningful way unless we question the prevailing power structures -- unless we make a powerful case for long-range social good and challenge those who skew the rules in favor of short-term gain . . . . Olmsted's career as a landscape architect foretold where the field would go for its first century and a half in America. His career as a leader of the Sanitary Commission may foretell where the field needs to go in the next century. The health of all of us may depend on it."

Moving from the political to the personal, within a week of Professor Fisher's publication at Places, Jane Brody, in her Personal Health column in The New York Times, wrote about Americans' "outdoor deprivation disorder." Brody cites a variety of studies and publications (including Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods) about how our indoor, sedentary lifestyle contributes to a panoply of afflictions. Brody provides a round-up of the public policy initiatives (ranging from the National Wildlife Federation's "Be Out There" public education program and The National Park Service's "park prescriptions" campaign, among others) focused on getting us outside and into nature (and into the sunshine) -- and to get us moving/active.

Environment/landscape/public realm policy, public health initiatives, personal health -- the issues are coalescing. We can expect more in 2011, and, hopefully, better outcomes in the public and private spheres.




Thursday, December 30, 2010

What social media does for us -- we now have more in common with the Duchess

Last week, Oxford Univesity evolutionary anthropology professor, Robin Dunbar, wrote in The New York Times about how "Facebook and other social networking sites allow us to keep up with friendships that would otherwise rapidly wither away." For most of us, our (on average) 150 or so friends are geographically dispersed, frequenty around the world. Social networks provide a mechanism (technology) that keep us linked over time and across space. In some ways, we are always sharing, linked, and together. And these "friends" in our social networks are mixed groups -- family, neighbors, people we grew up with and went to school with, work colleagues, people we met last summer, people we sold something to or bought something from . . . etc.

I couldn't help but realize how similar this world of social media "friends" available to us today is to the network of people and places that revolve around the life of Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire -- someone with whom I usually have fairly little in common. I had just read Mitford's engaging and fun memoir, Wait for Me! (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010). Being the Duchess of Devonshire (her husband, head of the Cavendish family, one of the richest and most influential families in Britain since the 16th century) means that she has a network of family, employees, tennants, and a social set that is widely dispersed and enormously varied. This network has its own self-perpetuating communications channels, calendars, schedules, and traditions -- with established, reliable mechanisms (technologies) for interaction (sharing, keeping in touch). A lot like my Facebook page.

The rich are still not like the rest of us. But wealth is no longer a necessary condition for establishing and maintaining a widely dispersed and varied network of personal contacts, intimate and businesslike, across time and space.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)

Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)

News from the forest canopy

Great report on American Public Media's "The Promised Land" series: botanist Nalini Nadkami on her work on the forest canopy in Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon, and the Olympic Peninusula. Bringing totally original discoveries about trees/forests/the canopy. 'For generations we've been looking at the roots. We've ignored the canopy -- a unique ecosystem to itself.' AND how Prof. Nadkami also works with Washington State correctional facility inmates on botanical research and production of mosses for the horticultural trade. "When we come to understand nature, we are touching the most deep and most iportant parts of ourself."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Texts about places: evocations of place and time

Over the past few days I've read two short books, which could hardly be more different, yet both evoke their meaning and insight from writing about place. Each is better in reflection of the other.

Ted Kooser's Lights on a Ground of Darkness: An Evocation of a Place and Time (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) provides vignettes from the lives of Kooser's parent's, grandparents', and great-grandparents' generations in and around Guttenberg, Iowa. Kooser mourns and celebrates the lives rooted there, along with the irises that have been dug up each generation and moved from house to house over the generations: "An iris offers its beauty and fragrance as if nothing has changed, as if no one were gone."

Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport (Vintage International, 2009) provides a different set of vignettes about people and place -- but in this case the place is the newly opened Terminal 5 at Heathrow, the time span is just one week, and the focus is not the passing of the generations but the passing of people, products, and technologies through one of busiest, most concentrated geographical points on earth. "We forget everything. . . . And so we gradually return to identifying happiness with elsewhere: twin rooms overlooking a harbour, a hilltop church boasting the remains of the Sicilian martyr St Agatha, a palm-fringed bungalow with complimentary evening buffet service. We recover an appetite for packing, hoping and screaming."

Kooser offers us the horizons, the cornfields and gardens, and those irises. de Botton offers us flying behemoths, the luggage and freight logistics infrastructure, passenger security procedures, and first-class airport lounges. Both with awe and authentic reverence for the lives passing through the place.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Insights into eBooks

As is often the case, I found a new post by Frederic Filoux of the Monday Note blog insightful and challenging. The very existence of eBooks challenges our concept of what it means to own a book. Filoux pushes it to the next logical degree -- to our future ability to own the right to access of a book (no matter the physical/virtual format).

Gold nanoparticles could transform trees into street lights

A post today on has an amazing report about some scientists in Taiwan who have implanted gold nanoparticles into street trees -- turning them into evening street lights with attendant electricity cost savings and CO2 emissions cuts. Fascinating implications. Thanks to Richard Alomar, The Landscape blogger, for passing this story along on FB.

Ginkgos, Brooklyn Botanic Garden


Time lapse video posted on

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Landscape architecture reasserting its voice

It's a pretty much an "inside-baseball" controversy (but it's inside urban design/planning). At the time of the 50th anniversary of Harvard's Urban Design Program, Graduate School of Design, there's a lively discussion going on about the increasingly high-profile roles of ecosystem-thinking and landscape design in urban planning/design. Most recently, Harvard GSD's Alex Krieger provides a Metropolis magazine POV. I like Krieger's comment: "Why should not the landscape architecture profession re-assert its voice, as concern about ecological footprints gains broad public notice. It has been the design discipline that has most consistently retained consciousness of humanity's impact on land and evnrionments. We at the GSD even recall that the birth of American urban planning, as a serious academic discipline, begins with the lectures at Harvard of Fredick Law Olmsted, Jr. in the 1920's."

Threats to iconic American trees

The most recent e-newsletter from The Cultural Landscape Foundation has a good slideshow about some endangered iconic/historical trees throughout the U.S.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Another dilemma for mainstream media figuring out the new textscape

In last Sunday's New York Times, public editor, Arthur Brisbane, tackles the question of whether Times writer/blogger, Jacques Steinberg, and his editors, overstepped some frontier of journalistic propriety when he included in his blog a link that offered, for sale, an online educational course taught by Steinberg. Just goes to show how the new media forms have broken down the personal/professional -- with uncertain boundaries of journalism, education, and commerce. This won't be the last word on the topic.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Yet another textcape

Cooper Union student, Andrejs Rauchut, did his senior thesis on a series of diagrams and images which trace the character movements within Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Then he overlays the character paths onto contemporary Staten Island, providing a choreography for a public event. Looks like a fascinating, creative play of text and place. See the BLDD BLOG post for October 5.

Another textscape

The Thursday, October 7 blog on A Daily Dose of Architecture has an interesting post reflecting on the various uses of language, imagery, and architecture -- all have powerful political resonance. The example is the Park51 ("Ground Zero mosque") project.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The city

The Fall 2010 issue of Lapham's Quarterly (Volume III, Number 4) has a great collection of essays and excerpts -- from Herodotus to Samuel Pepys to Luc Sante on the topic of "the city."

Youth and media

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard announced today that it's organized all its research on youth and technology under a single project and web page, the Youth and Media Project.

Private gardens of Connecticut

Book signing tonight at the Horticultural Society of New York, author New York Times garden writer, Jane Garmey and photographer, John M. Hall, for Private Gardens of Connecticut (The Monacelli Press, 2010). Beautiful glimpses into gardens most people will never see.

Friday, September 24, 2010

CUNY offers MA in entrepreneurial journalism

CUNY and Jeff Jarvis are bringing greater focus and resources to "the business of managing media, and the study and creation of new media business models" according to The New York Times Thursday. Seems that it's about time, especially in New York City, for enabling students "to study media across all platforms, including digital, broadcast and print."

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Screening tonight at the Horticultural Society of New York of the film, Dirt!, directed and produced by Bill Benenson and Gene Roscow, based on the book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, by William Bryant Logan. Great film -- disturbing, but gives us a bit more optimism that we got from Inconvenient Truth. Both book and film present fine analysis and challenges for agricultural, urban design, and you & me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Adam Nicolson's Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History

Even if you're not an Anglophile or garden-geek, there's a lot to like in Adam Nicolson's new history and contemporary update of his life at Sissinghurst -- the world-renowned English garden created by his grandparents -- where he now lives, re-making it with the new (renewed) dimension of an organic farm and sustainable... land use. Captures all the typical conflicts of land use and stakeholder claims -- aesthetics and practicality. Well worth the read.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Soil, Henry James, fashion, and urban design

A blessing of living in New York City, among others, is the great variety and richness of events and forums focused on the land/cityscape.

Last Wednesday night, June 9, The New York Botanical Garden offered at their midtown location a class/public lecture by Eric Fleisher -- the (my characterization) soil guru for a panoply of major, successful projects ranging from Battery Park City to the Harvard campus. Fleisher's deeply knowledgeable and good-natured (pun-intended) presentation helps us really understand the imperative (and not so often charismatic) concern for the health of soil that has been the focus and concern of a few stalwart, committed organizations such as the Rodale Institute and the British The Soil Association. An example of Fleisher's work can been seen at this Harvard site.

Next evening, last Thurs, June 10, the Horticultural Society of New York hosted a really fascinating lecture by Katie Campbell who has published a compelling history, Paradise of Exiles: The Anglo-American Gardens of Florence, (super-rich and semi-rich) property and garden owners and designers in Florence and environs in the late 19th century/early 20th century. The Real People that Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote about. If you missed the event, I'm sorry you did. Great fun and information for anyone who 1) loves Tuscany/Florence, 2) is fascinated by Wharton and James, 3) is concentrated in understanding the intense (and rewarding) ways in which the values of symmetry, Classical values, etc. (human-made) are balanced with the rough/wild geography of Tuscany (the natural landscape).

Fast forward to this week: Tues, June 15th, the Design Trust for Public Space, in cooperation with the Municipal Arts Society, presented a public panel discussion on the future policy and values in play in the future of the Garment District. A really fascinating/important set of issues. Both for that zoning area of Manhattan, but also more broadly. What, exactly, should be "preserved / conserved"? Physical buildings/architecture? Fashion industry infrastructure of human-trade-level skilled work? Manufacturing? Cultural-creative community economic factors (a la Richard Florida)? And -- what's not worth preserving/conserving? Let it go. A Lots to chew on.

Tomorrow night, June 16, the Institute for Classical Architecture and Classical America is sponsoring a lecture by Lynden Miller on how good design improves urban quality of life. Kind of preaching to the choir, but Miller's influence and example can't be underestimated. (In case you don't know Lyndon, check out this WSJ article and/or google her.)

A footnote to all of the above: in the other part of my day job, the TEXT-part of textscape, we worked with the market/public opinion firm Vision Critical on an event today. It was first public release/discussion of their new product, ReputationPlus. The launch event was held at the Bryant Park Grill, behind The New York Public Library overlooking Bryant Park. A perfect early summer day. Vision Critical made a great presentation of their product and capabiloities, but they also benefited from an amazingly wonderful textscape of Bryant Park and Bryant Park Grill in the summer. Attendance was great -- and everyone attending had the extra benefit/aura of "talking about the weather" -- and that wasn't awkward small-talk. It was an authentic recognition that the "-scape" matters. And, finally, a great testament to the success of the design and programming of Bryant Park.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Happiness is a walk in the park

Scientific American reports on new research that quantifies the positive impact on mood from a modest amount of exercise in a natural setting. More evidence of Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods theory.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

More on the master plan for Governors Island

ASLA email newsletter, The Dirt, expands upon the earlier reports of the West 8 master plan for Governors Island. See my post, below, April 13.

The value of urban parks

More perspective on my post on April 13th -- see below. ASLA reports: "The U.S. House Urban Caucus’ Urban Parks Taskforce organized a briefing on urban parks and their role in creating green spaces which can revitalize neighborhoods, improve health, and create jobs. Parks also play a major role in fighting childhood obesity, providing safe and healthy places to play. Caucus members heard from Joe Hughes, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology; Susan Wachter, Professor of Financial Management, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania; Eddie George, ASLA, former NFL player and landscape architect; and Salin Geevarghese, Senior Advisor, Office of Sustainable Housing & Communities, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) and ASLA played key roles in putting the panel together." See their full post at their email newsletter, The Dirt.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Authority coming from the social world . . .

Interesting blog post from David Weinberger (Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard Law School) that reflects on "Authority . . . increasingly coming from the social world in which the work is embedded."

Reinventing the roles for landscape architects

A story on today reflects on the evolution of the landscape design department at Harvard and, more broadly, on the increasing roles and responsibilities of landscape architects in sustainability, urban development, and planning.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Parks: the next era in New York City's public realm

Nicholai Ourousoff is right about the renaissance of the urban park experience in New York City under the Bloomberg administraion in his review today of the West 8 plan for Governor's Island. Developments on Governor's Island and Brooklyn Bridge Park -- along with the evolving High Line and Hudson River Park -- definitely demonstrate a new era for the public realm in New York.

But Ourousoff writes, "On the one hand they [these new parks] are genuinely democratic, creating valuable public space that can be shared by all New Yorkers. On the other, they are a savvy way to raise property values, which ends up pushing the poor and middle classes farther and farther out from the city's center." I think you really have to view these new parks through the an Olmsted perspective. Olmsted's classic work in New York (Central and Prospect Parks) raised property values on their perimeter. In fact, it would seem to me that a park that didn't do that would be something of a failure. History shows us that achieving that one public benefit is not incompatible with those same public spaces being healthful and beneficial for all. Just walk the High Line or go to the open section of Brooklyn Bridge Park on a Sunday afternoon or to Central, Prospect, or Fort Greene Parks -- there seems to be scant evidence that these sites "push out" anyone. They are magnets attracting the kind of mix of the citizenry that Olmsted envisioned.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Major milestone for Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Pier One portion of Brooklyn Bridge Park is now open -- to rave reviews all round for both design and sustainability. It's another impressive project and success for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tupper Thomas retires

The Prospect Park Alliance and the New York City Parks Dept announced today Tupper Thomas' resignation as Administrator of the park/President of the Prospect Park Alliance. This New York Times article suggests just part of Tupper's accomplishments and the amazing last generation of Prospect Park.

April life form of the month

I'm with Olivia Judson of The New York Times. A nice, concise blog on trees today.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Sundays at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden are some of the most diverse and wonderful New York City experiences. The Japanese Garden attracts lots of our Asian neighbors. Also, there are regularly lots of Russian-speaking Brooklyites. African-American and Caribbean-American families are always there. And on Sundays, lots of Hassidim.

I look forward to New York Magazine or somebody to catch on to the fact that the Brooklyn Botanic Garden may be the most diverse, civilized place in the whole city.

And that's not a surprise. After all, it's a GARDEN.

Friday, April 2, 2010

iPad lust. Need. Curiosity.

I absolutely do not need an iPad. I've got a computer, multiple laptops, a netbook, an iPhone, a Blackberry, a Kindle. The iPad seems like such a great idea/concept. But the cost. And what can it deliver to me that I don't already get? AFTER the recession, when spending is OK again, maybe iPad will make sense.

In any case. I'm not going to be lining up Saturday at the Apple stores. But I'll be following closely the issues.

David Pogue in the NYT captured too much of the issue.

Planting more trees can't be bad . . . .

Struggling through understanding the tree planting issues for New York City. Working towards a million trees.

Don't underestimate the ginkgo

Check it out here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

International Public Relations Research Conference 2010

I'm spending four days in Coral Gables at the International Public Relations Research Conference, co-sponsored by the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education (IPR) and the University of Miami. Lots of interesting work being done at PR/communications academic programs. Not enough of it is getting through to the practitioners. IPR is doing a great job in trying to be that bridge between the academics and the practitioners, but there's a long way to go. Check out Twitter #iprrc2010.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What to buy in Brooklyn -- OK -- and what does it also imply?

This article in The New Yorker, March 8, 2010 is a great exploration of a dynamic neighborhood -- socially, physically, culurally. Park Slope is the West Bank (that's a Paris analogy). I don't agree with all that Patrica Marx writes. But she's so right about the energy of culture/thinking that creates and changes landscape and urban physical and social space.

Chilean architect reflects on the earthquake

Sebastian Gray, professor of architecture at Universidad Catolica de Chile, has an insightful op-ed in The New York Times -- "Santiago Stands Firm."

Atlantic Yards update

Looks like a definitive milestone. Court decision allows eminent domain. Atlantic Yards says it will break ground.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chesuncook and The Afterlife of Gardens -- interactions of parallel reading

I've now finished re-reading "Chesuncook," the second essay/chapter of Henry David Thoreau's The Maine Woods. I am awestruck at how Thoreau touches on all the themes of nature / development -- both in the 19th century context and in ways that are totally relevant today. Thoreau considers the impact of the timber industry, its impact on the landscape and on the urban centers south of Maine. Thoreau is fascinated and repulsed by the hunting / slaughter of moose hunters. He vacillates paragraph by paragraph-- sometimes admiring the skill of the hunter; sometimes repulsed by the pointless slaughter of the animals; sometimes acknowledging the use of the pelts, meat; he's an absolute groupie in admiration of the native American/hunter guides' knowledge of the enviornment; Thoreau is puzzled that his guide can tell him how long it will take to get from point A to point B -- but has no sense of how far (miles or whatever) it is -- a great anthropological observation of the different ways that different cultures prioritize; finally-- Thoreau is nonchalaunt about evolution/extinction-- he speculates about-- oh, when all the moose are gone . . . He's not nostalgic, or panicked should all the moose be gone. Thoreau seems to be embracing/living in the moment of his trip to the Chesuncook lake-- and he is not "worried" about the future.

While reading Thoreau's "Chesuncook," I'm also reading The Afterlife of Gardens by John Dixon Hunt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). Dixon Hunt is brilliant and insightful in his distinction between garden/landscape understanding from the perspective of the Designer (the person looking at the "floor-plan") vs the person actually walking into and through the space. I've learned much from his book. The analysis of Francesco Colonno's Hypnerotomachi Poliphili (1499)is really enlightening.

But I don't understand why Dixon Hunt thinks (doesn't think?) there is little/no American literature involvement with (his terminology) the Reception Experience of Nature.

Thoreau's The Maine Woods is totally organized by way of what Dixon Hunt calls the "reception theory" -- how the landscape is experienced. And -- so are lots of other textscapes -- Pilgrim's Progress for one. Finnegans Wake for another. I find Dixon Hunt's book a revelation in most respects, and am sorry I hadn't read it years ago. But his thesis needs to be applied and tested far beyond his (acknowledged, very impressive) scholarly sources.

There is so much more literature and reportage focused on "reception" of nature than Dixon Hunt's 2004 book acknowledges. Particularly American literature . . . .

What about Henry David Thoreau? His whole body of work is ab out the reception/experience of nature. And what about Bruce Chatwin? (Chatwin's assertion about the essential human experience is walking through nature is key.)

Takeaway: Dixon Hunt has the right idea. But read further -- Thoreau -- Chatwin -- maybe even Vita Sackville-West's diary of her sailing to Persia. There is lots of "reception" description/experience of landscape. Dixon Hunt's book opens your eyes -- but once open, there's so much more beyond his book.

Monday, February 15, 2010


I just re-read Henry David Thoreau's "Ktaadn," (Penguin 1988).

Thoreau and his companions' adventure to Ktaadn is a great insight into the transition period of the taming / reaping of the New England landscape. Published 1846. See within the context of William Cronon's Changes in the Land.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Bowl half time

OK. Just saw the SuperBowl half time with The Who. My reaction -- "the Who?" Who was that pathetically geriatric kareoke band? Lot's of lights. And old men prancing around to even older music. What is CBS thinking? Aren't they supposed to be marketing to the 18-34?I'm speechless -- because of the stupidity of that half time show -- and what it must've cost CBS.My suggestion: the SuperBowl half time should showcase the best of high school and college bands. It's totally authentic with the American experience. And it's got huge Reality TV implications as the band members/team prepare for the ultimate performance.
And, -- trust me -- a 3rd rate high school band half-time show/marching has lots more interest than that grossly over-produced, geriatric Who exhibition.
Is anybody thinking?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Moroccan courtyards and gardens

Last night I attended a lecture and book-signing at the Horticultural Society of New York by Achva Benzinberg Stein, Director of the Landscape Architecture Program at City College of New York, focused on her 2007 book, Morocco: Courtyards and Gardens (The Monicelli Press). Both the lecture and book, through the analysis of Moroccan courtyards and gardens, provide compelling insights into how public spaces are organized and created as response to physical/environmental, cultural/historical, and practical/social dimensions. The Moroccan example also demonstrates how functional and beautiful public spaces can be created, in resource sustainable ways, in a variety of challenging climates and environments. Finally, Benzinberg Stein helps us see, and rethink, the design of public spaces and "gardens" that are more hardscape than planting (for very practical, but aesthetically rewarding, reasons).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

ASLA's sustainable landscapes online showcase

The American Society of Landscape Architects has added a new addition to its website called Designing Our Future, a showcase of ten sustainable landscapes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

AVEs are dead

This study from the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education has been in the works for a while. And well worth waiting for.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My reading 2010

One of my 2010 resolutions (don't ask about the others) is to read / explore the ecological / geographical histories of the places I know and care about. So I've now read William Conon's history of early New England, Changes in the Land, and Jack Temple Kirby's Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscpaes of the South (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

And now I'm reading Henry David Thoreau's The Maine Woods.

I'll post later what all this comes to mean.