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What with all the global urban forest initiatives underway, the single most important question we must ask ourselves in 2017 is “do we know how to design and grow an urban forest?”

The greatest challenge to humanity at present is unquestionably climate change.

The top of the mitigation list in urban environments is the urban heat island effect (UHIE). If humans are going to survive, into the future, in highly urbanised areas, the UHIE must be set as priority one.

The priority list is a challenging task to think about and populate, but unfortunately due to our narcissistic tendencies, we must start somewhere and move onto biodiversity and conservation principles down the track. History shows us that it is not until we are directly faced with our own mortality that conservation issues are addressed, and we engage to rectify what we have destroyed.

At present, the common suggestion is that the landscape architecture profession is key to solving the challenges posed by increased urbanisation through the modern urban forestry movement. Does the landscape architecture profession have the skills, experience and vision to be charged with this overwhelming task? What does landscape architecture really mean and what is the balance between natural inputs and that of hard landscape infrastructure?

Should the percentage of green versus grey be discussed and challenged more widely before projects are designed, approved, implemented, and then awarded as successful? Maybe projects should stand the test of time before accolades are presented. Is the term ‘holistic’ relevant to landscape architecture and should it be embraced more widely in the context of design?

Frederick Law Olmsted was an American landscape architect most known for designing Central Park in New York City.  Some considers Olmsted to be the father of the American Landscape Architecture profession.

Born in 1822 in Connecticut, he developed some of the greatest urban forest projects in the world. Olmsted is arguably recognised as one of the greatest landscape architects in history, although it is a plethora of additional interests that allowed him to be considered an innovator.

Olmsted was also a journalist, naturalist, social critic, public administrator, and conservationist. Surely it was the combination of all these that allowed him to design the modern landscape with such timeless precision and forward thinking principles.

He drew inspiration directly from nature. As a keen naturalist, his pallet of plant choice, natural formations and the big picture of urban forestry came from observing who does it best – Mother Nature.

Seemingly minor aspects, such as how much space a mature tree requires, became key to the longevity of his designs. It could be said that Olmsted is the true father of arboriculture, and Alex Shigo the spawn of modern arboriculture.

Olmsted was undoubtedly before his time, he recognised the essential long-term infrastructure of a green refuge for people in a highly-urbanised environment, to recharge and connect with the natural world, and he intrinsically understood this over 160 years ago.

He was commissioned, with partner Calvert Vaux, to design and expand Central Park NYC in 1858. We can now read countless studies in 2017 that green space is good for our health and our children’s development, but this is by no means a new concept or 21st century understanding.

Some consider Prospect Park in Brooklyn even more prestigious than Central Park. Possibly a slightly contiguous argument, it is said that Central Park was where Olmsted learnt how to do it better.

After completing Central Park in Manhattan, Olmsted and Vaux were commissioned on April 18, 1859 through an act of the New York State Legislature, empowering a 12-member commission to recommend sites for parks in the City of Brooklyn. Brooklyn was becoming the world's first commuter suburb and it was identified that green space was an essential component to urban planning. It was also recognised that park infrastructure would stimulate the economy and encourage wealthy residents to the area.

Sound familiar? Modern urban forest promotion is also identifying that trees and green space increases property value.

Prospect Park is a true landscape architectural project. The 237 hectares of topography, lake, wooded ravines and meadows are all man-made, and were created prior to age of heavy machinery. A revolutionary scope of modern landscape architecture over 150 years ago.

The park is constantly in use. Family picnics, walkers, runners, cyclists, school groups and even sun bathers embrace the urban forest, potentially without the understanding that this remarkable feat of landscape architecture holds such immense, professional expertise, historic value and essential UHIE services.

It goes beyond trees, canopy, species diversity, appropriately spaced individual tree plantings. It offers an unobstructed view encapsulated by nature, which should be a goal for any good landscape architecture project.

Apparently, Olmsted’s primary goal in landscape architecture was to provide a space within a city where people could visit and not be violated visually by the built environment. A place with fresh air for leisure, exercise and community engagement that provides essential services and habitat, while improving living conditions and property value for its residents.

A landscape where the natural world can soothe the soul with a single horizon of canopy.

In parts of Prospect Park, you can look in all directions and not see the city infrastructure. You wouldn’t know you were in New York City.  This unobstructed view of the park’s horizon is even legislated for in local government and part of town planning requirements for development.

The Prospect Park Alliance is doing revolutionary work in maintaining the park in modern times, work that Olmsted would undoubtedly congratulate and endorse due to his conservation ethos. Utilising goat livestock for weed management  has proven successful whilst providing additional benefits to the environment and visiting community.

There's no glyphosate use here to manage weeds, goats are doing it more effectively with a plethora of additional benefits. Goats in NYC, who would have thought?  Thinking outside the box, in the Big Apple.

If we do not embrace the success of long-term landscape architecture designs that have unquestionable proven benefits to high density urban environments and its human inhabitants, we will fail to meet the challenge of urban forest densification.

What would Olmsted say about 21st century landscape architecture and our global challenge in urban forest densification? I believe a Ted Talk from the late innovator would finish with the quote “The answer is provided by Mother Nature, the challenge is successful when communities, governments and professionals work together on a common goal. The pallet of input materials for a project can be found during time spent in natural environments.”

Landscape architecture is not a task of a single profession. It is a multi-disciplinary challenge for associated professions, community, governments, and generations to come that will unify humanity within their urban environment.

The urban forest is an intersection between humans and nature where coexistence can flourish holistically.

 
  • I like your article. You write with passion and authority about Olmsted.

  • Urban Foresters have college degrees and often a Masters in Urban Forestry. Arborists are involved in the care of individual trees, while urban forestry deals with forests as systems (groups of trees) in a developed setting and their professional training includes arboriculture. An integrated team should always include a professional urban forester. There is much one can learn from Urban Foresters not only for design but for sustainable, resilient communities because beyond design they think about the ramifications of natural disasters, long term maintenance, budgeting, and diverse species for a collective healthy urban forest.

    • Janette, I understand what you are saying here. I would add, a forest is made up of individual trees, and the overall health of that forest is linked to the health of each individual tree. This is not essential in a natural forest system but crucial to an artificial Urban Forest environment. If I may, I would also add an important component to the list you provided…. Extensive scientific quantification of microclimate function services, through measurable parameters. Robust and progressive data will allow us to manage urban forests now and most importantly, provide the following generations with information to continue the work and learn from our mistakes.

  • Well written. I work in Yosemite with landscape architects and we are rely on Olmstead often.

Newforma (Architecture) – 300 x 600 (expire Feb 29 2016)
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