Designing the Parks: Formative Years and Risk Taking Revisited

This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Margie Coffin Brown, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation

Margie Coffin Brown:    Thank you for what has been a wonderful symposium, to NCPTT, the presenters, and the participants. I am really having a great time, so thank you.

This morning I would like to highlight two millennial initiatives that are engaging the next generation of park stewards and hopefully political advocates. I will describe the goals and scope of each program, highlight case studies, as well as reflect on how the participants share some of the formative experiences of early National Park Service visionaries and designers, many of whom we have learned more about during this symposium. By learning from the past experiences and thinking about the future, we will glimpse into programs where young people from diverse backgrounds are engaging and solving National Park Service design, preservation, and treatment issues. I hope to highlight how our demographics and tools of the trade have changed, but the importance of formative experiences and risk taking are still at the core of our park designs.

The two programs that I would like to highlight are the Branching Out program, established at the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in 2005, and the Designing the Parks program, established service wide in 2012. The Designing the Parks program emerged from two park planning and design conferences. The first was held in 2008 and examined lessons from past approaches, and the second conference focused on the present and future state of our parks. This conference, A Century of Design in the Parks, offers yet another building block in this endeavor. The Designing the Parks program aims to reinvigorate the design of national parks and bolster the services role as a leader in public park design.

National Park Service Director, Assistant Director, Chiefs, and Planners, including Daniel Hull (second from left) at Yosemite National Park, 1926. Courtesy of NPS Historic Photograph Collection, Harpers Ferry Center.

My paper stems from research on how park planners influence the physical development of the parks, as well as years of hosting interns in our office and seeing how they engage in park planning projects and then following their career paths. Hopefully, the outcome of this paper and presentation will be a dialog about how we can create and support the experiences and career paths of our next generation of park designers. Here are three of the many park planners who influenced the design of National Park Service properties in the Northeast, places that we will revisit a century later with our Branching Out and Designing the Parks programs. Here are some general observations about the formative years of these early park planners that we will also revisit later in this presentation. We will take a closer look at their experiences and training and associations, and how these are relevant today.

At each of our parks, we seek to inspire visitors, offering them moments of unparalleled scenic beauty and time to reflect on significant people and events in our nation’s history. However, we need to be sure that we invite new audiences and meet the needs of our ever evolving society and environment. This effort to create a mosaic of experiences is supported by the National Park Service Call to Action goals of connecting people to parks and enhancing professional and organizational excellence in the next century.

At the heart of this effort is the National Park Service Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion (RDI). Their mission is to champion an organizational culture that is increasingly inclusive and participatory; that values diverse ideas; that recognizes the experience and background of every individual; and which empowers an innovative, flexible, and resilient agency to engage the opportunities and challenges of the future. For more information, I’ve included links to related websites that are also in the paper.

Here are the agency’s RDI definitions. The RDI Office provides program support to parks and offices throughout the country, but today I will talk specifically about how the Olmsted Center manages its programs. The goals of the RDI Office serve as the foundation for our Branching Out and Designing the Parks programs. How do we keep these goals in mind as we set about to address issues and design in national parks?

The RDI mission fits well with the Olmsted Center’s mission, which is to provide research, planning, stewardship, and education services, predominantly for national parks in the Northeast region. We coordinate career development opportunities that build employee knowledge, skills, and ability in landscape preservation concepts and techniques. We also seek to develop and nurture lifelong connections between people and parks, especially young people. Though we work with elementary school age children, today I want to focus on our high school, college, and postgraduate experiences. To date we have engaged more than 300 high school students, undergrads, graduate students, and recent graduates in park projects ranging from six weeks to more than year-long internships. Many of these interns are now employed in key stewardship positions for public lands.

Branching Out youth assist with constructing a plant arbor in the historic cutting garden at the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, 2015.

The Branching Out program engages young people between the ages of 15 and 25, and the goals of the Branching Out program are listed here. The program offers a wonderful balance of learning, working, and team building. The program has partnered with local public schools and youth service organizations to create a multi-year education and career development program. As the program progresses, the participants are faced with increasingly complex hands-on challenges, all meant to give them meaningful experiences and inspire them to become lifelong land stewards. Now in its eleventh year, graduates of the program are now serving as team leaders. Participants forge a bond with these significant places and develop a keen sense of pride for the work they accomplish. Their enthusiasm is captured in blogs, poetry, and raps. To draw a parallel with Frederick Law Olmsted, he served as a surveyor’s apprentice during his high school years and spent much of his time actively engaged in documenting landscape conditions. Here are a couple links to learn more about the Branching Out program.

Next we’ll look at the Designing the Parks program, which introduces young, diverse groups of students to National Park Service design and planning professions, and jumping. We get really good at jumping. The Designing the Parks summer internship program was initiated in 2012 at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. The program participants engage these five principles in all aspects of their work. Now in its fifth year, the program has benefited from ongoing collaborations with parks, academics, professionals, and partner organizations listed here. Some of the internships have been fully funded by these partners, and so we’re really appreciative of that. The core skills and abilities are listed here. Like Branching Out, the program includes an array of learning, working, and team building experiences. A key component is to enjoy the parks.

NPS Designing the Parks team and Partners at the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation.

For me personally, Charles Eliot’s college years and his formation of the Champlain Society are incredibly inspiring. I won’t elaborate now, but he and his classmates camped for a summer and envisioned and cataloged the flora and fauna of what would become Acadia National Park. So though the campfire myth associated with the formation of the National Park Service may be a myth, I would challenge you all that enjoying a campfire with a team of planners is an invaluable experience. With our Designing the Parks program, it’s also notable that for some of our interns, this was their first campfire and their first s’more experience.

Generally we follow a schedule much like a university design studio, though the duration of these projects ranges from six weeks to much longer periods. Our program is project based. In addition to the five principles listed earlier, the Olmsted Center has identified project work in national parks throughout the Northeast that give the interns an opportunity to explore various aspects of cultural landscape preservation practice. The aim of this project work is to be visionary, experiential, and practical. As I mentioned before, these principles and goals are revisited just about daily in our work and reflected in weekly blog posts. We are very fortunate to have the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site nearby to explore Olmsted’s park-making design principles. Each team participates in the Good Neighbors program. It’s an elementary school age program on park making, but it’s truly engaging to all ages, and you can learn more about this through YouTube on the web.

Photo simulation of trees along walkway at Fort Andrews, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

Then we get to work using all of the latest tools of the trade. Here is a photo simulation of a campground on Peddocks Island within the Boston Harbor Islands. It’s a national recreation area, but also referred to as a national park area. The team members are tree locations on the left and become trees in Adobe Photoshop on the right. So the interns worked through this design problem and selected a series of native successional species, which coincidentally were also recommended by Olmsted, Sr. when the islands were barren in the late 1800s. When possible, we include planting trees, shrubs, and other vegetation in our program. The trees in this photo simulation by Sasha Bachier have now actually been planted, and we call them Sasha’s trees. Olmsted, Sr. acknowledged the importance of planting trees at a young age and reflected on his uncle’s pride in standing by a mature elm tree that he himself had planted when he was young.

There are many tools that we use in our work. Teaching the use of these tools is divided between our staff, invited guests, and the interns themselves teaching each other, which is really one of the most rewarding components of the program. With respect to this, our goal is to have four interns as part of the Designing the Parks team. This is the link to the team’s blog. Last week we documented the landscape settings for the modernist residences within Cape Cod National Seashore. I would love it if everybody in this room would check out the blog and follow the blog, and even better, comment on the blog. The posts are so fun to read and very inspiring, and I think you’ll agree if you could just take a look.

Now I would like to share some highlights from our previous internships. First of all, I would like to introduce Andre Thomas, who at the time was an architectural student at Howard University. He gained a greater understanding and appreciation of landscape architecture during his ten-week internship, and these quotes are from the blog. Andre’s individual project was to document the existing conditions of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. Andre also made a couple of videos about the property, which you can watch on YouTube. He definitely has a future in broadcasting, and using this medium for communication really helped capture both the sense of place and Andre’s first impressions of this new park. As the University of New Mexico team shared with us on Tuesday afternoon, video is a very compelling tool for conveying landscape character and engaging people. So my personal hope is that we can continue to explore ways to use this tool in our work.

Next I’d like to introduce Kristi Lin, who joined us last summer as our youngest member of our team. She’s an undergrad at the University of California at Davis who discovered the field of landscape architecture and had recently changed her major. As part of our brown bag lunch series, she connected with Frank Hays, the Northeast Region associate regional director for resource stewardship and science, who had previously been the superintendent at Manzanar National Historic Site. I’ve included a snippet from her blog. I think I have time to read it. I’ll just read the second quote. “I learned about the potential of the past to reveal the motives and tendencies governing human behavior today. I learned the importance of building a ‘collective memory’ so that when we encounter injustices today, they will trigger us to take action.”

Kristi has remained in touch with us, and most recently in April she received a Park Service scholarship to attend the Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation National Forum in Stockton, California. Then in May, she attended the forty-seventh Manzanar Pilgrimage. She shared with us how incredible it was to hear the former incarcerees talk about their memories of being at Manzanar and other camps, and how this event renewed her passion for the site and its relevancy today.

Learning about sustainable farm practices in situ from a local farmer.

While at the Olmsted Center, Kristi also collaborated with team members to gather information on farming practices at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York, and her information was included in a series of best practice guidelines for the park. The team visited several local farms to learn about current sustainable practices. This ignited Kristi’s interest in the history and significance of agriculture. Back at school in the fall, she entered and won a design competition for the U.C. Davis courtyard with her design entitled, Honoring the Past, Designing our Future, which focused on the significance of agriculture. Here, Kristi translated what she had learned at the Olmsted Center to a new place and created a physical space that would inspire others. Kristi shared photographs with us of the initial phase of installation of her courtyard design, and so we are thrilled to see how ideas formed through Park Service projects are taking root in a university courtyard.

The final intern that I would like to introduce this morning is Ashley Braquet, who worked in our office for a year, from 2014 to 2015. Ashley is from New Orleans, and after living through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Ashley has a keen interest in climate change and coastal resiliency. This was the focus of her graduate studies at U Penn while earning a degree in landscape architecture and historic preservation. Ashley contributed to a cultural landscape report for Salem Maritime and developed a climate change response strategy for the park. Since the park’s designation as the first national historic site in the system, its purpose and significance have evolved. From its inception, the park has adopted a rehabilitation approach. In 1939, Norman Newton penned a vision for the derelict and abandoned industrial waterfront landscape. His design was to create an appropriate park-like setting, which we now describe as a colonial revival landscape. To draw a parallel between Norman Newton and Ashley’s motivations, Newton came into the profession of landscape architecture at a turbulent time in history, between the World Wars and during the Great Depression. In fact, during World War II, he was a monument man. This idea of preserving a derelict or run-down place that contained historic gem and reviving them to a place of order, safety, and harmony seems fitting. In our current terminology of treatment approaches, I would call him a rehabilitationist.

Two of Newton’s signature parks, Salem and the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, are now faced with climate change and the effects of sea level rise. We also did address the Statue of Liberty, but I didn’t include that in the presentation, but it was really interesting. Ashley and other team members began with careful documentation of existing conditions. They also compiled information from recent studies and data from the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program. Her sources included the four pillars of climate change response from a workshop entitled “Preserving Coastal Heritage Summary Report,” and that was in April 2014. She also adapted the cultural landscape response for climate change strategy, prepared by Professor Melnick and his team in their draft publication entitled “Climate Change and Cultural Landscapes: Research, Planning and Stewardship,” from a February 2015 draft. We’ll be learning more about this in the next session.

Here are just some sections of the physical construction of the wharf. Here she looked at predictive models. For example, in this hurricane inundation map, it illustrates that a Category 4 hurricane will completely inundate the park. Using the two publications I mentioned, she explored seven alternative treatment approaches for the waterfront area while also revisiting Norman Newton’s 1939 master plan. For each alternative, she described associated inputs of labor, funds, materials, and the short and long-term implications for park resource integrity, visitor experience, and park management priorities. She used AutoCAD, Adobe Illustrator, and Photoshop to present these alternative approaches. I won’t go through all of them this morning, but we’ll focus on Approach 4, which is to improve resiliency, which requires high inputs of labor and resources, but offers the longest term protection and preservation of the site’s cultural resource.

Here’s a photograph of the current inundation and the height of the bulkhead of the wharf area. Some of the things she explored were hardening the surface of the wharf with grasses and stronger and longer root systems, adding more pins to hold together the historic granite blocks, backing them with curtain walls, raising the bulkhead in a way that would be attractive to visitors. Here’s a summary of some of the physical changes that would be associated with this approach, and I do have the draft report if anyone’s interested in looking at this more in depth.

Photo simulation of promenade that incorporates coastal resilience design elements along Derby Street at Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

I just want to highlight my favorite photo simulation, which really captures this approach so nicely. In this approach, we would let the resource go, but try and preserve the visitor experience. So Ashley used a 1930s photograph of the wharf, which was what it looked like before the park was established and in poor condition, prior to the creation of the park. This is what it would have looked like on the left when Norman Newton arrived. In this approach, a high expenditure would be put forth to preserve the visitor experience, but a low expenditure to stabilize the historic resource. So she created a photo simulation of a new raised boardwalk, which I feel conveys the excitement of the visitor being surrounded by the energy of the waterfront but no longer in physical contact with the historic resource. Ashley also addressed resilient strategies further inland. For example, here’s a photo simulation of the Derby Street Corridor, which reintroduces Norman Newton’s trees, but puts them in planters within a brick promenade to better withstand salt intrusion.

In summary, to engage the next generation of our stewards, we need to facilitate experiences that are socially, emotionally, and physically appropriate for the young participants and creates experiences utilizing a real youth development approach. We need to reflect on the principles, practices, and their a-ha moments through blogging and continued conversations that reflect the principles and goals of the agency and the design profession. We need to clearly define team projects and individual projects, with an emphasis on collaboration. We need to incorporate teach backs with youth, professionals, partners, and educators. We also need to provide exposure to the breadth of NPS programmatic resources through brown bag lunches and field trips, and look broadly at what the Park Service currently offers and what we could or should be offering. We also need to offer exposure to each intern’s area of interest through our service-wide network of resource management professionals, and we need to most importantly maintain contact with our interns, celebrate their accomplishments, provide references, and provide opportunities for reconnection. In that vein, I would love to see a conference of some of these young professionals where they can be presenting their a-ha moments.

We’re really excited about the paths that our interns have taken, and we are so glad that we have been able to ignite a passion for stewardship that will propel them into the new century. While we recognize the disparity between the diversity of communities and the current make-up of the Park Service’s professional staff, we hope that this will improve in the future and that we see the formative years of these critical stewards making a difference in the next century. We need to support middle and high school and college programs that raise the awareness of the importance of design professions. We also need to support student involvement in societies that are forward thinking and engaged in community development and park making, and we need to create opportunities for field experience and park exploration. Building core knowledge is critical. With this knowledge comes confidence, and with this confidence, risk-taking is minimized and daunting tasks become achievable.

Thank you.

 

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