"The Most Fully-Realized American Place"

Last month I reviewed Taubman's new photography book Detroit: 138 Square Miles. In it, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty.

My friend Anoop (who used to live in Detroit) recently pointed me to this video which illustrates those ideas in a video format. On the one hand, Michigan occasionally seems like a mundane place to me (as the place we grow up often seems to be). On the other hand, stepping away for awhile, it really is an interesting, almost mythic place when viewed through the lens of industrial history:

The McMansion Isn't Dead

So, last year I wrote a piece bemoaning the destruction of a forest across the street from my then-apartment building. I had a front row seat to the entire ugly, and somewhat fascinating process of residential development. In that case, 4 1/2 acres of mostly tulip poplar trees were toppled to build an apartment complex.

Oh how quaint my sorrow when compared to the monstrousness I recently stumbled upon two miles from my new neighborhood in Reston. I ended up there by accident - a family had emailed me about tutoring their son and I unsuspectingly followed the directions to their home. When I turned off the main road to their neighborhood, this is what I was met with:

I didn't know McMansions were being built in Fairfax County (we have plenty of mansions, however, particularly in Great Falls and Vienna). I liked to brag to my family in Michigan that people in the DC Metro region were comfortable with their townhomes, that there was no great cultural need (or land available) for large emerald lawns and tasteless starter castles. Loudoun County is another matter - they're throwing up cul-de-sacs like crazy out there - but Fairfax seemed to have reached capacity.

Apparently not. This development in Vienna - "Hunting Crest" - is new. You can smell the lumber when you step out of the car and have to swerve around construction debris left in the road. The houses, some of which are still being built, aren't even visible from Google Maps yet:

Compare the scale to adjacent neighborhoods
You'll notice the "neighborhood" was plopped down in a luscious bed of green space. Most of that green space happens to be Lake Fairfax Park. The developer, NV Homes, says on their website that "the community backs to scenic Lake Fairfax Park". Legally, that may be true (the development doesn't extend to park property as far as I can tell) but from the perspective of the land, the forest has been gouged out. It also begs the question - if NV Homes finds the park "scenic", why did they raze the trees on their own property? If you zoom out a bit more, the development is still the most visible landmark for miles around.

Some context on Lake Fairfax Park. I've been volunteering at the National Wildlife Federation which also "backs to" the park and have had the chance to explore some of the hiking trails there. I wrote this in my journal back in mid-October:
I walked back in the quiet woods listening to the acorns fwapping on the ground and the paper leaves leaping at every blush of wind. The treetops were golden in the sunshine and I could see deep in, thinking of Fowler's book and the mystery of the wood. Several trees had crashed dramatically in the last storm(?) and were splintered over the path. The ones standing seemed impossibly lanky, and they swayed. 
I found a pebbly creek bank covered in shimmering little rocks that broke if you pressed them hard enough. I laid back on my coat and watched the trees move above me and the intermittent leaves falling. One landed in my open hand as I reached out for it. The leaves floating on the creek reminded me of the Poohsticks game played in A. A. Milne's book. There was even a little waterfall, moss and ferns. I stayed there, so peaceful, the smell of decomposing leaves. I figured if I stayed long enough, I would decompose too.
Back in 2007, even before the housing bubble burst, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed that McMansions were on their way out. Old habits die hard.

Q&A with Landscape Architecture Graduate Lacey Doucet

So many of the people I met in my college years have gone onto do really interesting things in the environmental field. As a fellow "humanities" environmentalist (we were the ones painting and writing nature while the scientists that made up the bulk of our environmental institute were pulling critters from rivers and looking through microscopes), I was always intrigued by what Lacey was up to. Lacey has lived her long-standing passion for environmentalism and design by working with several advocacy and conservation organizations and earning an MLA in Landscape Architecture (LA) from the University of Minnesota. She took time to reflect on her career, Minnesota's special place in her heart and inspiration she's found from others in the field.

How have your interests evolved over your career?
No matter how my interests have shifted here and there throughout my career (and will no doubt continue to shift as I learn more about the world around me), I’ve always had equal passions for art and design, and for protecting and enhancing the environment. These dual interests have been my compass and center, guiding me from place to place. Right out of undergrad at Albion College I worked with Clean Water Action to raise awareness and connect people to their environments though education and political action. I continued this track with the Ecology Center, where I worked to empower local community members and groups to reduce waste and bring more sustainable living principles into their lives.

As I was doing this kind of work though, I started paying more attention not just to how people were living, but where they were living, and how the very layout and design of a community greatly effects how people are able to live, their choices, and their quality of life. This train of inquiry, and a desire to pursue further education, led me first to look into urban planning, then ultimately landscape architecture for graduate school. Landscape architecture as a field is a kind of perfect marriage between art and design, science, environmental and political issues, and community outreach, depending on your specific job, so it really couldn’t have been a better career path for me once I learned of it.

What fundamental lessons have you learned from working on environmental issues in the past decade?
I think one of the biggest take-away lessons I’ve learned from working as a canvasser, an environmental advocate and educator, as well as a as a design student and citizen, is that you have to meet people where they are in order to enact real chance. Really listening to people with different voices and experiences from yours, and being understanding and empathetic of their life experience and where they’re coming from is crucial when working to improve the environment and creating lasting solutions that everyone has a stake in. It is not good enough to take a page from the partisan playbook that seems to be prevalent in our country’s politics over the past few years, that whoever screams the loudest over and over again will be heard, understood, and get their way. In listening to all parties with honest and open ears, and working together with them on the same ground, you will not only glean insight into why they may behave the way they do towards the environment or environmental issues, you may also figure out more productive ways of fostering positive environmental behaviors in that particular community or place or person.

What inspired your interest in landscape architecture?
Initially, it was canvassing for Clean Water Action that started to get me thinking about the ways communities were laid out and designed. We would drive from our office to the northern suburbs and exurbs of metro Detroit with its row after row of identical subdivisions, no sidewalks, no native plants or natural areas, and no way to effectively walk or bike anywhere. The layout of these places would weigh on me, particularly thinking about how youth were able (or not able) to interact with and learn from their environment or gain any sense of independence through mobility. When there was nowhere to walk or bike to, no infrastructure to encourage walking or biking, and no proximity to places of interest, their school, or natural areas, how would they be able to participate independently in the world around them, separate from a car?

I grew up in an older suburb closer to Detroit, where there was at least some opportunity to walk and bike on my own to a walkable downtown area, where I could participate in the local economy and community, and explore where I lived. More and more I felt like the design of our communities, of our cities, was really at the heart of shaping our values, our way of life, and our quality of life. So this train of thought initially led me to urban planning as a potential discipline, but there didn’t seem to be enough actual artistic design involved for me. Landscape architecture transforms the needs and hopes of people with research, science, and artistic inspiration into reality, by bringing a vision all the way from idea stage to actual, physical completion of a space or community. That seems like a very powerful way to enact positive change and connect people with the world around them, and I wanted to be a part of that.

How do you see LA fitting into the wider environmental movement?
Click for ASLA Case Studies
Landscape architecture is really an amazing and empowering field, in that it has the power to transform an environment for the better. Whether that’s ecological restoration and reclamation, alternative transportation design, green roofs, creating urban parks and schoolyards with agricultural and learning components, or neighborhoods with comprehensive greenway and pedestrian components, you can work with a community or client to meet their needs, to design aesthetically inspiring spaces, and ultimately improve the quality of life for people, animals, and the environment itself. Because there are so many different sub-fields within landscape architecture, every one of our most pressing environmental and health issues, from climate change due to car dependence, natural disasters made worse from the poor placement and management of communities, waterways, and shorelines, pollution from factory farming, obesity and rampant health problems from lack of physical mobility, urban sprawl, and loss of habitat, all can be solved through good design.

What was your masters project on and what did you do/discover?
My capstone project focused on whether existing urban and suburban schools can be retrofitted to foster connects between children, curriculum, natural systems, and the surrounding community. Based on research of childhood affordance theory, experiential learning, and “nature-deficient disorder” (coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods), I sought to enhance student learning experiences outdoors by bringing elements into the landscape that would allow for complex, creative, nature-based learning. The site I was working with had multiple schools, a community education center, and many well-used athletic spaces, but it lacked un-programmed, natural, or more complex spaces for students to learn and play in.

One of the highlights of my design included an interpretative, edible forest trail. I wanted to use the idea of path as a unifying element that could provide adventure, discovery, and storytelling through movement. I was fortunate to discover, while observing how people moved throughout the site, that students would forge "cowpaths" through one of the more topographically interesting parts of the site, where there were no designated paved sidewalks. I used these cowpaths as a template for a unifying interpretive edible forest trail, which reintroduced native vegetation that has been historically used for edible, medicinal, and cultural uses in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Now students, whether by themselves or with a class, could learn about native plants, where certain types of foods come from, the historical and cultural importance of humans’ relationships to such plants, and to flesh out their personal relationship to the environment.

Whose work are you inspired by?
Stoss Landscape Urbanism's "SafeZone Playground"
Stoss Landscape Urbanism’s “SafeZone Playground” inspired and influenced a playscape within my capstone design. The work was a temporary garden installation that executed the idea of “third nature”, or a non-traditional combination of the man-made and the natural to create a new form of the traditional “pleasure ground” parks and play spaces of the past. They achieved this innovation by taking mundane rubber materials usually made for averting dangerous situations (athletic floor mats, goal post bumpers), and reformed them to create a flowing, organic, colorful rubber topography beneath beneath a stand of conifers.

I’m also incredibly inspired by Jones and Jones, an amazing LA firm in Seattle. They are one of the top zoological design firms in the world, and were forerunners of the modern zoo design principles that are used today. Their broader work consists of elegant solutions for environmental reclamation, non-motorized transportation trail designs, conservation-based development, environmentally and culturally-focused education centers, and habitat and wildlife conservation. I deeply admire their commitment to design that preserves ecological and cultural integrity, and that encourages others to learn from and connect with the world around them.

What's your favorite book on LA and why?
A book I’ve found to be really useful in terms of producing images for designs has been Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture by Bradley Cantrell and Wes Michaels. It contains lots of helpful tips and methods for creating great layouts, combining analog and digital media to produce rich perspectives, sections, and master plan drawings, and how to create desired visual effects with different types of design software programs. Since so much of what we do is about communicating an effective and evocative message visually, it is important to learn new tips and tricks for creating better imagery.

While not strictly about landscape architecture, I also really enjoyed Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It was not only an inspiration for my capstone, but serves as a reminder of how important it is for everyone to connect with the natural world on a daily basis, no matter how small that connection may be. This and his newer book, The Nature Principle, make a great case for connecting to nature through our designed environments, and serve as a call to action for looking at more creative ways of fostering such connections.

What's your favorite natural spot in Minneapolis?
Cedar Lake in the 1890s
That’s a hard thing to pick, but these days it would have to be Cedar Lake. Minneapolis has the great fortune to have had really forward-thinking planners, landscape architects, and advocates that preserved land as the city was developing and growing, based upon the ideal that people of all kinds and creeds deserve qualitative, restorative natural spaces within the very heart of a city. As a result, more than 100 years later, we still have a world-class urban park system centered around the “Grand Rounds”, a system of linear parks and trails that encompasses parts of the Mississippi River, a chain of five lakes, a waterfall, creeks, and numerous parks and natural spaces. Cedar Lake is one of the “Chain of Lakes”, and is a one of the more secluded, natural-looking lakes. From my house I can ride my bike a couple miles, completely on bike-only trails to get there to swim, lay on a beach, canoe, wander wooded trails, and watch for loons, all within sight of the city’s downtown skyline. Just north of lake is a bike and pedestrian-only trail that runs through a beautiful restored tall grass prairie, right into the heart of downtown, and connects up with the Mississippi River. Even after living here for three years, I am still astounded on a daily basis by how lucky I am to live in a city with such amazing access to natural areas.

What are you up to these days?
As a recent graduate in a still down economy, I am searching for that first full-time, career-path position, either in a private firm, a non-profit, or a municipality. I am keeping busy with a couple part-time jobs as I look: one working with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board as a horticulture intern at a historic wildflower natural preserve, and one as a map-making assistant with Hedburg Maps, a small company in Minneapolis that designs maps of all kinds both for local and national clients. Recently I’ve become involved in a new, local “Women in Landscape Architecture” professional group, whose focus is on creating connections, mentoring, and supporting women in the field. I also spend a lot of time exploring the city, metro, and state by bicycle with my husband.

Repairing Downtowns with Kennedy Lawson Smith

As we approach Halloween, I'm reminded that there are few things spookier than a dead mall. My family's got one in their town. I have memories of that place bustling with colors and activity when I was a kid - the shop with ridiculously large decorated cookies on display, PacSun with its racks of sunglasses so incongruous with cloudy Michigan winters, the JC Penny my mom shopped at religiously.

When they opened a new, glitzier mall about eight miles away, our own mall contracted a terminal disease. Retailers pulled out, more desperate, shabby looking ones moved in (for a time), and then owners started shutting the lights off. Walking from one remaining department store to the next gave you the heebie jeebies. Now, it's essentially empty. Huge empty buildings surrounded by huge empty parking lots:

The vacant behemoth formerly known as Summit Place
This kind of thing has happened all over the country, of course. At the last DC EcoWomen event, they hosted a downtown revitalization expert named Kennedy Lawson Smith who's trying to reverse the poor planning decisions of the last few decades that's seen US retail space balloon to a whopping and unnecessary 40 sq ft per person (the global average, by contrast, is 4 sq ft). "We are way way way overbuilt," she said. She came armed with some of the most entertaining PowerPoint slides I've seen. Here's her take on where things started going wrong:

And here's a discussion about where planning and environmental sustainability intersect. She mentions that the carpenters who built Christ Church in Oxford planted oak seedlings from the trees they'd cut down so that future generations would be able to harvest them when the building needed repairs centuries later. "Now that's long range planning":