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Archive for the ‘Landscape Research’ Category

This winter and spring, I will be posting a series on two projects I’m working on – a public health/neighborhood environment survey that I am very excited about and a studio class that I am teaching. The study area for the research and teaching are roughly the same, so there should be quite a bit of overlap. Together, both efforts allow me a rare opportunity: immersion in a set of related topics and, in this case, they are my favorites!

First a bit on the studio class. The subject, broadly, is urban transformation. By studying our home city, Syracuse, New York, the students and I will be examining forces that have and are transforming Syracuse. I’m casting Syracuse as “Everycity” – a unique place, yes, but with a set of opportunities and challenges that are fairly universal (for sure they are common to medium-sized cities and Rust Belt cities). The students will be studying the city as a whole and then shifting to a neighborhood scale. It is the neighborhood unit/scale where, I think, the lessons learned (including such lessons as how to study a city) are most transferable to other locations (i.e., all cities are composed of an array of neighborhoods). An archival search into historical records will set the stage for spatial analyses using geographic information systems: physical and biological environmental features, demographics, economic conditions, and so forth. And what shall we do with this information? Two things. First, students are charged with “telling a story” about urban transformation in Syracuse through a set of graphic representations depicting trends over time, especially the evolution of urban infrastructure and employment since 1890. This exploration will take half of the semester. The second outcome will be a project with a neighborhood group – yes, a “real” project. We have a small grant to help a neighborhood and its elementary school create a plan for its grounds, including an adjacent public park. The neighborhood might be called “disadvantaged,” so the question of how urban transformation might take place in this setting is one we will be exploring. I call it “shaping the public realm,” the intersection of design and planning. One word for this work? Fun!

The research project is worthy of a post of its own. For now, I will say that it is an interdisciplinary research project (team of 12 – medical researchers, sociologists, public health expert, and landscape architects) funded by a seed grant, by definition exploratory. Our team decided to bridge disciplinary boundaries with a survey research project. I, happily, am the lead. What are we doing? The grant was for diabetes research; our survey is aimed at gathering information for the design of diabetes awareness/prevention programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The central focus: relationship between health and neighborhood conditions, including social cohesion. We are attempting to conduct a simple random survey, in-home and by appointment, in a single neighborhood in Syracuse, the Southwest Neighborhood. Our survey takes 30 minutes, and we are providing a $20 gift card to respondents as an incentive for participation. The best part so far? My field survey team – five neighborhood residents paired with five graduate students, all trained to conduct human subjects research (CITI). Amazing group of people, and they are all loving it! The respondents seem pretty happy so far too. Now to get a random sample of sufficient size! More fun for winter days ahead.

I am lucky, lucky to have my days filled with such satisfying work. My plan is to post regularly over the coming months as the studio work and research project have their own “transformations”/evolutions. Stay tuned.

 

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Cheatgrass near Gardiner, MT in 1964
Image Credit: National Park Service

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times on biological controls being tested on cheatgrass – one of which is a fungus with the striking moniker, Black Fingers of Death. Labeled the “country’s most invasive plant species,” cheatgrass covers perhaps as much as 60 million acres, with a concentration in the Intermountain West region.

“Cheatgrass is a very insidious kind of biotic virus,” said Stephen Pyne, a Western fire historian at Arizona State University. “It takes over and rewrites the operating system. Because it grows earlier, it can burn earlier,” then in its regrowth “drive off all the other competitors. That makes for a complete overthrow of the system.”

It is the association with fire that is significant, resulting in millions of dollars being invested in research to eradicate it. The article raises an interesting point. Research may result in new, effective treatments, but then industry would need to take up the mission. Markets would determine if the new treatments make it into production. If demand stems solely from the federal government, Westerners may be shaking their fists at cheatgrass for another 100 years.

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Image credit: personaldevelopmentplanning.pbworks.com

A 1992 article titled Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan in Design Issues journal is worth a fresh look, and, in fact, it continues to be cited by many authors. [A description and definition of wicked (and super wicked) problems can be found here.] I found the discussion of the communication gap between scientists and designers to be especially interesting.

Members of the scientific community, however, must be puzzled by the types of problems addressed by professional designers and by the patterns of reasoning they employ. While scientists share in the new liberal art of design thinking, they are also masters of specialized subject matters and their related methods, as found in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, the social sciences, or one of the many subfields into which these sciences have been divided. This creates one of the central problems of communication between scientists and designers, because the problems addressed by designers seldom fall solely within the boundaries of any one of these subject matters (pg. 14).

Buchanan then speculates that the heart of the problem is the indeterminate nature of the problems addressed by designers. In other words, design problems are wicked because they are indeterminate.

Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer perceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with the disciplines of science, which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules, or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing subject matters. Such subject matters are undetermined or under-determined, requiring further investigation to make them more fully determinate. But they are not radically indeterminate in a way directly comparable to that of design (pg.16).

Buchanan further explains:

design is fundamentally concerned with the particular, and there is no science of the particular.

In actual practice, the designer begins with what should be called a quasi-subject matter, tenuously existing within the problems and issues of specific circumstances. Out of the specific possibilities of a concrete situation, the designer must conceive a design that will lead to this or that particular product. A quasi-subject matter is not an undetermined subject waiting to be made determinate. It is an indeterminate subject waiting to be made specific and concrete (pg. 17).

Buchanan explains how designers deal with indeterminacy through his theory of “placements” – signs, things, and actions organized by unifying ideas or thoughts.

This is where placements take on special significance as tools of design thinking. They allow the designer to position and reposition the problems and issues at hand. Placements are the tools by which a designer intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development. In this sense, the placements selected by a designer are the same as what determinate subject matters are for the scientist. They are the quasi-subject matter of design thinking, from which the designer fashions a working hypothesis suited to special circumstances.

This helps to explain how design functions as an integrative discipline. By using placements, the designer establishes a principle of relevance for knowledge from the arts and sciences, determining how such knowledge may be useful to design thinking in a particular circumstance without immediately reducing design to one or another of these disciplines (pg. 17-18).

I am particularly interested in essays like this one that explore the relationship between design and the sciences – natural, physical, and social. Landscape architecture academics often find themselves having to prove the value of design thinking in relation to the scientific disciplines that dominate university campuses. Explication of the unique role of design and its relationship to other disciplines aids this process. But, Buchanan’s work is just one perspective. Do any challenges to his stance come to mind? Or thoughts that expand on his work? Feel free to comment by following the link.

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One blogger, Caroline Tucker, analyzed keywords from 4000 randomly selected articles published in 2011 and summarized her findings in The EEB and Flow blog. Among her conclusions is that “community ecology” is on the upswing. The keyword word cloud that she produced is found below.

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Last summer, a post in this blog posed the question “how do you handle the constant stream of discouraging environmental information?” Shortly afterwards, I saw an article in Grist titled, “Do environmentalists need shrinks?  Apparently, I am not the only one thinking about this issue – although I suggested that designers are natural optimists (feel free to disagree) and less likely to be consumed by the pervasive environmental negativity. Now there is an article in New Scientist that boldly states “Ecologists Should Look on the Bright Side.” Is this even possible? (Colleagues at SUNY-ESF, what do you think?)

A key graph, also the introduction, states:

It’s hard to spend your working life charting the demise of the things you love. Ask an ecologist why they chose that career, and you will often hear a tale about being mad about animals as a kid. These days, they are more likely to spend their days modelling how quickly their favourite species will disappear. As Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC puts it: “My whole generation spent our lives writing obituaries of nature.”

As someone who once had a job writing obituaries for beautiful places (called environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impacts statements (EISs), I know how that feels!

Even so, conservationists are starting to worry that their message is counterproductive. In a 2010 editorial in BioScience (vol 60, p 626), Ronald Swaisgood and James Sheppard of the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research wrote: “We contend that there is a continuing culture of hopelessness among conservation biologists… that will influence our ability to mobilize conservation action among the general public.”

What do you do when you hear bad news all the time? Turn it off. Pessimism leaves little room for action.

What’s at stake is more than what makes the best message, it’s what makes the best conservation strategy. Chronicling demise offers little guidance. But if we tell stories about positive outcomes and share details of how they are achieved, the likelihood that they will be replicated will increase. Hope engenders conservation success, and success breeds more success.

Fuel creative responses to what is, yes, a bad situation by giving people a reason to think that there is hope. This is a message that is especially important for young people. My children are growing up in a world where they are told that the planet is dying (and that somehow they are charged with saving it). Even if they watch a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, there is a little voice in their heads telling them that the oceans are dying. What an oppressive thought! We have to preserve the sense of awe, wonder, and love of the Earth if we are going to motivate people to act on its behalf. IMHO.

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Zombies? Well, you’ll have to read past the break for those! Until then, some rather dry … that is, critically important … discussion of research in landscape architecture.  : )

Practitioners in the academy are often an awkward fit. Professional education (e.g., landscape architecture) sits alongside natural science, social science, and humanities disciplines in university settings, and yet the culture of academic programs in the professions can differ sharply from the rest of the campus. Longer hours spent in studio classes, more time spent on outreach/service to communities, and research focused on applied problems are typical differences for faculty in professional design programs. Research productivity differences between practice-oriented faculty and faculty in other academic disciplines can be significant. On university campuses across the U.S., there is increasing demand by administrators for greater research output by all academic units, and these demands have created consternation in some landscape architecture circles. How do we maintain the traditional culture of professional education in landscape architecture and also begin to resemble more our research colleagues in natural science, social science, or the humanities?

The answer for some landscape architecture academics has been to adopt the research strategies of either natural science, social science, or the humanities, in some cases aided by Ph.D.s in a traditional research discipline. Urban and regional planning programs are largely populated with Ph.D.s in political science, economics, and other social sciences (usually with a lawyer thrown in for good measure), but with few faculty who have ever practiced planning. Could that be the future of landscape architecture education too?  Some clues to another possible future after the break. (more…)

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The recently announced national ASLA student awards included two graduate students in the Department of Landscape Architecture at SUNY-ESF, Marin Braco and Andrew Murphy. Their innovative remediation project received an analysis and planning honor award. Our colleague, Martin Hogue, was the faculty advisor. Nice work!

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