August 30 2012

Landscape Architecture Digs Up a New Definition for Itself In Light of Environmental Challenges

Landscape architects were awarded by the ASLA's Professional Awards in 2011 for the Steel Yard remediation.Garden designer? How about ecological warrior?

Landscape architects may be due for a new reputation, and for good reason. As a field, landscape architecture has changed rapidly over the past two decades. It is too simple to assume that architects focus only on floral gardens and upscale stone walkways.

As human environmental impacts become more severe, landscape architecture’s boundaries have increasingly blurred with engineering and urban planning to directly address contamination and toxicity problems. Landscaping projects often focus on remediation and sustainability as much as they do beauty and aesthetics.

In Providence, Rhode Island, a former industrial site called the Steel Yard exemplifies this changing trend.

The site, formerly occupied by Providence Steel and Iron until 2002, left a contaminated legacy in its closure. Like New York City’s High Line, what flourished in its remains captured the attention of those interested enough to look. Wild grass fought through metal skeletons while nesting birds settled into abandoned nooks and crannies.

Two local college graduates bought the site and fought for its eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places. Once that battle was won, talks turned to designing a collaborative arts center. That’s where Klopfer Martin Design Group came in. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based landscape architecture firm ended up winning accolades in the 2011 American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA) Professional Awards for its remediation work on the abandoned steel fabricating plant.

Aided by a federal brownfield grant, the architects used a geotextile fabric binder to cap soil contaminated by high levels of toxic lead. They also built moat-like structures to accommodate the shifting elevation of the site and to serve a dual purpose of cleansing rainwater with hydric plants. In spite of the risks of collecting rainwater on a previously contaminated site, the Steel Yard now infiltrates 90 percent of rainfall in addition to hosting public art classes, weddings, and sculptural exhibits.

GTECH has unveiled a new bioremediation technique that will double as biofuel research.

The possibilities for landscape architecture projects have definitely expanded. Take GTECH’s project at an abandoned steel mine in Southern Pennsylvania this year. The company demonstrated its engineered Bionergy Garden, a remediation technique it hopes to introduce to future sites. The company has planted hybrid poplar trees, sunflowers, and switchgrass as cleansing agents. As remediation occurs, GTECH will conduct research on the plants for potential biofuel applications.

Some might balk at the company’s upfront motives: the project cleans soil, yes, but also uses federal brownfield money to simultaneously fund an alternative research project. Yet this may very well be the new norm for landscape architecture going forward.

What do you think – is there still a place for firms that only focus on traditional garden and yard design, or must landscape architects accept that a changing world means a changing career trajectory?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Lillian Mathews

Lillian Mathews graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Environmental Studies (Honors) and a focus on Food Systems and Urban Sustainability. She has designed and implemented an arts-based gardening site at a neighborhood center in Providence, Rhode Island, and has completed work in ecological planning and design, sustainable agriculture, and urban planning. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more at

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 30th, 2012 at 5:00 pm and is filed under Architecture, Engineering, Environment, Land Use, Landscape Architecture, Technology, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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