Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Landscape of Childhood

Do you ever revisit the landscapes that you played in as a child?  I spent a good part of my childhood playing in a creek near the house in Georgia where we lived at the time.  It seemed a world away from my house, but it was really only a few hundred yards.  I would walk back into the woods behind my house, through my neighbor's yard and then walk back along the creek to my favorite spot, where there was a little bend and a big tree with nice roots.  I would dig white clay from the creek bed to make little clay pots out of, and would leave them to dry on a log.  I made mud huts for my Barbies.  I tried to dam the creek, unsuccessfully of course but I learned some basic engineering in those attempts anyway.  I cut cane and tried to make a shelter for myself, in case I ever needed a getaway.  Sometimes I would bring friends down there too, but they usually acted bored or didn't appreciate things the way I did, so I usually chose to go there alone.  It was a magical, special place where my creativity and spirit were always nurtured and accepted.  I loved my creek.

So, playing about on Google maps one day, you can imagine my shock and horror when I discovered what that exact spot on the creek looks like now.

Red circle = my old house.

It's a road.  And a culvert.  And naked, ugly red clay and asphalt.  And this road doesn't even appear to be very necessary - there are a couple of houses back there, but why does it loop around like that?  Was this one of those subdivisions gone bust in the recession?  Is that big building or footprint or whatever it is on the left side of the road , one of those vestiges of corporate sprawl gone wrong?  This is such a common story in the southeast, unfortunately. 

The culvert is in the exact location of my magical place.  My most cherished childhood landscape is underground, raped and destroyed for...apparently, nothing.

I used to think that this creek was the reason I decided to become a landscape architect.  Now I know, for certain, that the destruction of this creek is the reason I MUST be a landscape architect, and prevent this from happening to any other grown up child of the creek.  It is my calling, and my obligation to do so.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pearl Fryar's Garden

Every garden enthusiast that lives in South Carolina knows about Pearl Fryar and his magnificent garden in Bishopville.  He creates wonderful topiary and also has some really nice sculptures throughout the garden.  I will just post the pictures and let them speak for themselves, it's a lovely place. He also has a website Click here to go to Pearl Fryar's Website

I'm sure UPS has no trouble finding this house!

Even the mailbox has verve.

It's hard to see from this angle, but the light pole is inside the tree.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ode to the Water Oak

I attended a conference yesterday concerning urban trees...and the subject of Water Oaks came up between myself and the guy sitting next to me.  Water Oaks are short lived, as far as oaks go...and they have problems that make them not necessarily great as street trees.  For example, they get massively large and then fall on the nearest house...some people find this upsetting. 

This person told me that in one neighborhood in his town, of 150 trees determined to need removal, 120 of them were Water Oaks.  I wanted to argue with this guy and convince him that Water Oaks still live to be about 80, which is a lot older than me.  And that they are majestic and have character and provide shade and therefore deserve to live despite their faults. 

I began looking at the Water Oaks in my own neighborhood today as I was running, and I noticed that a lot of them really do look terrible.  And I started to think, maybe this guy's right, they are fine in the back yard where they can fall and just take out a shed or above ground pool on the way down but they shouldn't be street trees. 

But then I went past the grand old Water Oak down the street from my house.  She is like a fat, warty old lady, with rolls of blubber melting down and onto the sidewalk.  Her limbs stretch all the way across the street and provide shade to the house on the other side.  She has a beautiful form and a spirit and she has watched a lot of changes on our little street in the last 70 or so years.  I realized that this is the sort of tree I could picture chaining myself to, if I didn't have job security to worry about.  I'm sure that whomever makes decisions such as these can find all sorts of justifications for removal:  the inside is rotten, that limb is at a bad angle, etc... but in the end I hope that the person who takes down a tree like that understands the enormity of what they do. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Using art to highlight invasive plants

This was originally an idea I had for an art installation at an elementary school.  The school had a long, curving driveway bordered by a slope and some woods, and along that wooded edge were a number of different invasive plants:  Bamboo, Chinese Privet, Mimosa, Kudzu and Russian Olive, to name a few.

The installation concept was to paint the plants along the driveway a bright color - either white, or a neon color.  Something that didn't look natural and made it clear that this plant didn't belong in this setting.  A nice perk is that the paint isn't particularly good for the plant either, and would probably kill it. Painting the plants would also make their physical form easy to see, so that people observing the piece could learn to identify invasive plants.  Ideally, some of the invasives would be left in their natural state in the same area so that people could also see the leaf color, flowers, etc. 

The driveway was a nice viewing platform because the parents sat out there every afternoon waiting for school to end so they could pick up their children.  The installation continued around to an area in the back of the school, encircling the playground.  Here, signage teaching the children about invasive species would be stationed.  The children could learn about the project during school, and then when their parents picked them up and inevitably asked "What's with all the painted plants?", they would explain, bringing the educational component full circle and opening up a forum for discussion with the family. 

I would love to see this idea applied in a more guerrilla style too, along interstates and other roads.  It would be wonderful if a painted plant came to instantly be recognized as an invasive, that doesn't belong.
Aquatic invasive plants could be removed from the water, painted, allowed to dry and then gently replaced, to illustrate this version of the problem.

Below are some pictures of the concept around the elementary school:

Signage along the driveway...part of the initial concept.  Later I decided to move the signage to the playground area, to make it more of a mystery to the parents, that the children would then explain.

This little farm building was adjacent to the playground and had goats.
A model constructed to show the layout around the school.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rising Gas Prices will save the day

I took this picture in Atlanta last time I visited there.  It is a very common sight in any metropolitan area, to see lane after lane of traffic, inching along the freeway, during rush hour.  This picture could have been taken in Washington, DC, or Charlotte, NC, or Houston, TX, just as easily.

The latest trend in rising gas prices has become a political touchstone in America.  For some reason, people blame politicians for this phenomenon, when it actually has more to do with demand, world events beyond our control, and international markets.  Nonetheless, the item at the top of everyone's mind in this country at the moment (along with unemployment, foreclosures and general economic recovery woes) is the cost of gas.

And I am making the case here that it is the best thing that could happen to us right now.  You see, America is changing.  Fundamentally.  And, very light of recent economic events of the last three years we are becoming more fiscally responsible, more environmentally aware and more socially conscious.  Everyday people are becoming involved in politics at the local level, everyone is growing their own food again, and walkability is now a household term.  Quality of Life is what consumers want from their house, their neighborhood and their lifestyle in general.  America is becoming a better place to live.  We are now realizing that we haven't been on the right track for a long time, and we want to make amends.

With this in mind I suggest that the rising gas prices are going to force people to live closer to work, to bicycle or walk more, to buy local foods, to buy more fuel-efficient cars, to carpool, to use public other words, to do all the things that some people are doing already because they want to save the environment.  Only now mainstream America will be pushed into this mode of action more quickly and more steadily, because it will save money.

It's going to be painful.  For some, it will be really painful, and for a few it may even be devastating.  I sympathize with those who live in very rural areas and have no choice but to commute.  But, in the long run, our urban forms will begin to more closely resemble those parts of the world (mostly Europe, although there may be other examples I am not aware of) where gas prices have been high for a very long time, and also where the societies were built before cars ruled the way cities were planned.  In the end, the price of gas will force us to think of other, better ways of living.  And that is a really great thing.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Concrete Plants

When was the last time you visited a plant where they create concrete products?  First of all, concrete production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas / CO2 emissions.  It is estimated that the manufacturing of concrete is responsible for up to 7-10% of all CO2 emissions worldwide.  So, when you visit a concrete plant and discover that not only is the process polluting the atmosphere, but that there is a tremendous amount of waste inherent to this process...well, this is upsetting.  The pictures below show some of the manufacturing processes involved, such as the molds which are used in this case to make culverts and other roadwork accoutrements.  Each mold is designed so that when the piece is finished there is a large leftover portion that is carefully broken away.  Some of these pieces are actually quite pretty, such as the doughnut shaped pieces in the last picture.  I asked the plant foreman if they had found a use for all these leftover pieces, and he responded that they were simply dumped in the rear of the plant.  I saw the pile of discarded pieces, and it was huge.  They are apparently too heavy to be moved, the plant doesn't see the use in spending money to truck them off somewhere for re-use.  I would love to see these pieces used as stepping stones (with planted centers), or perhaps they could be stacked to form retaining walls. The less visually appealing pieces could be used for construction fill material.   Or, better yet, perhaps an engineer could devise a method of creating these concrete forms with molds that did not waste any leftover concrete. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Preservation of Old Signs

There are many old signs to be found in our modern world, and in many places people are now actively trying to preserve these through historic sign ordinances.  The National Park Service, in fact, has a publication available to guide sign preservation:

 What is really unfortunate, however, is that much of the time preservation interest is limited to certain styles or time periods that are considered tasteful or are old enough to be "legitimate".  Many signs from the twentieth century do not fall into this category and are left to decay and disappear.  I have taken an interest lately in trying to record some of these old signs.  Most are along decaying corridors in southern towns, that I see while driving.  Unfortunately, the rural south has not yet caught on to the idea that these signs are important reminders of an era, and that they add tremendous character and value to the historic landscape.  I don't know why this is, but many southerners feel that the only historic layer that has any value is that period between when the colonists arrived and somewhere around 1925.  The Bungalow is the last architectural style to achieve any real appreciation in this part of the world.  Mid-century modernism and later styles are still regarded as ugly and brash here.  But I digress, here are the pictures...