April 18, 2002

An evergreen manifesto

  • Reconnecting with wildness in the urban environment
    Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture

    the Allée of the Cascades in the Arboretum of the Cascades
    Courtesy of Charles Anderson Landscape Architects
    Sections through the Allée of the Cascades in the Arboretum of the Cascades.

    The Olmsted brothers, when working on the park system for Seattle, thought our native trees were too big for East Coast and European landscape ideals. I can’t help but feel that they overlooked a great opportunity.

    Instead of working with the American wilderness, designers of the past tried to re-create landscapes they were used to, introducing non-native plants and a foreign landscape vocabulary to this land.

    This attitude prevails even today. Across the country you’ll find landscapes and institutional building designs that are misplaced replicas from foreign places. It’s a curious phenomenon. Even in “wild” landscapes, meadows are really pastures, forests are often neat and manicured, and waterways have concrete edges and bottoms.

    Re-connecting cities with the landscape and finding expressions for native ecology in the urban context is the challenge currently facing designers today.

    What is a truly Northwest landscape and what would it look like? Certainly the natural beauty of the Cascades, Puget Sound or the Columbia Gorge comes to mind. But what of this region should be preserved or returned to an urbanizing landscape? Think of the simplicity and beauty of the upside-down flowers of Indian plum in early spring, the peeling red bark of a madrone, and the sweet smell of western red cedar.

    When landscapes urbanize they drastically change existing ecological patterns. We can lament the loss or seek ways to create an ecology that can still awaken us, inspire us and remind us that we are part of this Western landscape.

    Earthly systems are the best basis for landscape design. That idea, most eloquently argued by the late Ian McHarg in the treatise “Design with Nature” and, and practiced much earlier by Jens Jensen in Chicago, is ecology. It’s not the classic definition of ecology that is practiced by scientists, but more the kind that was uttered in the movie “Jurassic Park”: “Nature will find a way.”

    Discovery Park
    This masterplan for the 500 area in Discovery Park will allow the area to eventually be forested.

    Instead of looking to Europe for inspiration, we might look to less impacted landscapes of “kuwanlelenta,” an American Indian word that means a deliberate change in one’s surroundings. Natural forces like rain and wind are primary actors in this sort of ecology, but the influences of people are more significant.

    Here are some projects in which our firm is practicing urban ecology or kuwanlelenta.

    The Arboretum of the Cascades

    The proposed design for the 300-acre Arboretum of the Cascades displays Pacific Northwest plants and ecology in a setting that encourages responsible stewardship of our natural resources. The plan emphasizes conservation, preservation, restoration and sustainability.

    Complementing the exhibit of Pacific Northwest plants, the Arboretum of the Cascades will also display sculptures and public art throughout out the site.

    The plan seeks to blend the traditional aspects of an arboretum with the wild Northwest landscape. Lined on either side with native trees, the Allée of the Cascades introduces the visitor to the arboretum. Designed as a formal walk set within the forest, the Allée begins at the most impacted site near the Pavilion of the Meadow and ends at the “oldish” growth forest on the site at the interpretive Platform of the Giants. The Allée walk not only educates the visitor about the history of the landscape, but provides the armature for the gardens and collections located to the north and south.

    At least 26 gardens are intended for the arboretum, ranging from traditional to fanciful. The paths leading from the Allée to the gardens have a less formal sense about them, winding their way though the Arboretum. The Naturalist’s Trail to the north of the Allée is both path and linear garden. Dedicated to the memory of botanist David Douglas, the trail is lined with collections of plants such as lilies, currants and roses.

    Discovery Park, 500 Area

    Restoration of the 500 Area will encompass more than just the demolition of the 20 buildings presently on site. The ways this 9.5-acre site integrates with its neighboring grounds, as well as Discovery Park overall, raises issues concerning use, access, maintenance, invasive plant control and economics.

    Along with a committed community group, the studio has developed a plan of forest restoration that uses the memory of the old barracks and encompasses the surrounding area, increasing the site to over 22 acres.

    Creating alder groves establishes the beginning of a successional forest on site. Alders are excellent trees for enriching soil for native conifers such as the Douglas fir and western red cedar, as well as for providing homes for wildlife. Planting the groves where the footprints of the buildings used to be creates an initially evocative, nostalgic and long-term economical solution. Over time, the alder growth breaks down the initial rectangles, integrating with the rest of the forest to the east.

    Roxhill Bog Project

    Unique to the Seattle area, the Roxhill Bog project uncovered a precious remnant of the natural world—a seven-foot-thick, layer of sedge peat. The removal of over two and a half feet of fill from the top of the bog resulted in a design of a series of grid-arrayed peat cells, reminiscent of local agricultural uses for peat lands. This design won a citation in 2001 by the Seattle Design Commission.

    Under urban conditions, it is difficult to sustain an acidic bog. Native plants that can tolerate the unique conditions of this site are set in rigid geometric patterns. The careful and deliberate layout of the initial design is the theatrical setting for new patterns, verdant textures and diverse plant communities to evolve as the plants express their natural preferences for certain places.

    Pritchard Wetland Park

    In another part of Seattle, a wetland landscape has been recreated from what was once a deep slough between a small island in Lake Washington and an urban neighborhood on the shore. The low band of land was exposed when the lake was lowered in 1917.

    Working with citizen groups and the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, the plan replaced 15 acres of abandoned storage flats and soggy turf with a vibrant lacustrine and scrub-shrub wetland garden and ecological classroom.

    Native plants that have not been present in this area for decades have been reintroduced. Traditional boardwalks and modern viewing piers were integrated into the planting design to direct views and circulation while consolidating visitors’ impacts on the landscape.

    The ecological evolution includes new “features”—and surprises—every year. Recently the group covered almost an acre of a wet meadow portion of the site, which had been overrun by nonnative clover and grass, with a cardboard and weed fabric matrix. The cardboard cells of the matrix will be replanted this fall with thousands of native plants. The grid pattern is a functional choice that adds another level of curiosity to our restoration effort.

    These three projects are experiments, but they are experiments that cannot fail. They are intended to mature, adapt, and evolve with as much or as little help as possible. They do not mimic nature or necessarily look “natural.”

    Charles Anderson is founder and principal of Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture.

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