The future of soils

Soil health.

It’s not the most compelling combination of words.

But as seemingly tedious as the topic may be, most people don’t realize that soils are as vital to our existence as food and water. After all, most of the foods we consume literally come from the ground.

No conversation about environmental sustainability would be complete without an urgent discussion of soil biology. Healthy soils are fundamental to landscape regeneration and to our overall well-being. This, of course, shouldn’t be surprising news.

However, the realities of an increasingly parched and uncultivable landscape are weighing oppressively on agricultural and environmental efforts, restricting productivity and damaging microbial habitats that benefit our ecosystem. We owe our attention to these developments.

Below is a video that explains the critical role soils play in our daily lives. Sensitive, pressing, and intermittently poetic, it explores an overlooked problem that threatens our footing in the world.

Finding a sense of place

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Charley snapped this photo when she was in NYC just a couple of weeks ago. She claims to have felt a “sense of place” when she was at this scene.

We often tango with the question of “sense of place,” and what it really means. It’s a topic which we confront invariably in our day to day work, and as a landscape design firm in Portland, OR, it’s something which we seek to define, understand, and to potentially rewrite– in a sense. After all, a “sense of place” is different for everyone, and it’s really a bit of a dynamic entity.

There’s no one correct usage of the term. We can say that “sense of place” is some singular attribute (or attributes) that some geographic spaces have and some which do not. We can say that it may not even have anything to do with geography at all, but with a certain feeling or a recognition that we carry within ourselves. In either case, what results is a nebulous but compelling sensation of attachment, belonging, ambiguous nostalgia–a kind of rightness. A formless, shapeless feeling, yes, but essential.

A “sense of place” is also, we believe, history in passage, sweeping into the next moment, then the next. Landscape is an important vehicle that guides, records, and naturally becomes a part of that passage. Spaces develop and grow unto themselves in the courses of nature: anthropological expansion, climate patterns, topographic shifts. These are what can make places unique and what endows them with history. We believe landscape is an ancient tapestry onto which stories are woven–stories which never quite disappear either. A “sense of place” is a sense of existence, of all the things that once existed, are existing now, and will exist. It can be a sense of being, of finding your piece in the story and employing your position in an ideally infinite history.

It’s interesting to see the transformations taking place today in modernist landscape architecture that seem to work towards planting a sense of place where it may not have existed before. Take this article, for example, on contemporary landscape “interventions.” Renowned modernist spaces, characterized by their austere sparseness and hard lines, are being redesigned and renovated to essentially supply a better sense of place, where people can relax and linger. While there is some debate over the legitimacy of these redesigns and whether or not they threaten an important part of the country’s architectural history, these projects and transformations reveal a contemporary agenda that attempts to answer and reinscribe (in our eyes, at least) the question of “sense of place.” Thomas Balsley says in the article, “Many of the spaces were impressive, very modernist, but not very human…[y]ou didn’t feel like you were part of the story.”

What’s your definition of “sense of place”?

Bringing green indoors

Whether we like it or not, the majority of us spend a large part of our time within the strict enclosure of our rooms, our offices, work spaces, and most other places we go to. In the midst of all the urban greening and community forestry that’s been trickling through our cities, it remains a small detail to many that nature and its amazing benefits can be incorporated into design indoors, within the four walled enclaves that hold so many of us in thrall.

Maintaining plants inside can be a simple task with low-maintenance African violets that flower continuously in good conditions, the hyper-autonomous and stalwart aloe vera plant, or the dramatic and architectural snake plant which filters air pollutants such as formaldehyde. Talk about plants that pull their weight.

Check out this great article about 10 fabulous houseplants that work as living air purifiers.

Spotlight – Jordan Secter, Principal

On starting Secter Environmental Design…

I started Secter Environmental Design in the spring of 2009 with a focus on participatory design that would bring people and places together. The goals are to work closely with the client and involve them at every step of the design process, plan spaces together, and translate their visions and ideas into real places. SED is strongly community and client driven and thrives on providing clients opportunities to immerse themselves in the context of their space. We work to give them access to a new way of thinking and experiencing their settings. And the best designs serve as a reflection of that process.

On design aesthetics…

An aesthetic that I’m drawn to is the northwestern craftsman style, which is rooted in this relationship with natural materials and textures, neutral tones, and simple lines. On the urban front, I’m attracted to mid-century modern designs with its emphases on minimalism and sleek simplicity.

On the job…

What has kept Secter strong is the energy that comes from working with people and achieving the kinds of results that capture your attention, engage the individual, and showcase ecological  function, form, sustainable materiality. There’s both a cultural and ecological foundation in the spaces we try to create in that it invites us to think about what we’re learning from and what we are a part of.

On the future of Secter…

The successes we’ve gained in the last few years have been profoundly surprising, given the nature and challenge of the business, but SED has really stuck to its guns and stayed focused on what we do well and taking on the types of projects that we are most interested in. Our work has remained deeply value based, emphasizing the role of people within the design process and linking their goals, interests, and ideas to create the best possible results. It is our job to make sure that their  visions are realized while ensuring that the spaces  function both socially and ecologically.

Now, we’re increasing our capabilities and communicating on a higher, more sophisticated plane. We’ve become more polished in our operations, and with more to offer.  Over the last 5 years we  have developed a strong, diversified portfolio of work. Currently, we’re writing scope for 6 new projects and looking forward to finishing a strong year of work and looking forward to a busy 2013.

At SED, our success has also contributed to our team’s commitment to a high quality of work. They represent the values we want to exhibit to our clients and to the community.  It’s an exciting time for everybody here at SED.

Spotlight – Charley Zheng, Marketing

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Meet Charley Zheng, our marketing assistant at Secter. She’s been working with us for the past couple of months formulating content for the blog, our Facebook, and LinkedIn. A recent Lewis & Clark graduate, we took her on to help us fortify and maintain a strong presence in the industry, both online and offline. Here’s what she says about working together with the guys at Secter:

“I came into this experience with little to no knowledge about landscape design, and as a marketing assistant, I felt a little bit daunted by the fact that I needed to communicate what they do in the most compelling and convincing ways possible.

What has always been clear from the very start is Jordan’s command over his work. The guys at Secter know what they’re doing, and they are devoted to the processes of their work, and they generate thoughtful results to design problems. In my initial meeting with Jordan, in which I laid out, at the time, a tentative marketing strategy for the company, I told him what impressed me most about his business, and what distinguished Secter, was that it had almost a pedagogic approach. Secter seeks to create solutions that will last and that will bring attention to the ways in which space operates as important, functional, and meaningful extensions of our lives. Space is more that just that; it is a story both written and unwritten. Thinking about the land is a continuous act, and Jordan does it in a way that is different from, but not uncooperative with, the focus on urbanism and rapid development that is taking place in urban environments today. Secter explores and articulates the relationship we have with the places from which we came, the places we go to, and the places we see ourselves inhabiting in the future.

It’s great to see Jordan and Nate’s work out there. One of their most recently completed projects is in Fossil, the site of a new trail named after Bill Bowerman. These kinds of projects really support the fact that Jordan and Nate are working to give others opportunities to connect their lives with the landscape.

Since working with Secter, I’ve acquired a mountain of information, resources, and guidance. The work that Jordan and Nate do is infectious–I even found myself one day at a volunteer event at Forest Park, performing trail repair work on National Public Lands Day. This is important, because I’ll freely admit that I have not been especially inclined towards this kind of thing in the past–but that means the Secter philosophy is effective, and true. There is not a better time to examine, define, and redefine your relationship with the natural objects, space, and textures around you. Secter communicates and executes this very, very well.”

West Shore shoreline visualization

Nate just wrapped up this awesome photomerge simulation for our West Shore day use project. This is what the shoreline trail looks like currently:

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This is what the trail will look like after we give it the Secter treatment:

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Notice the big difference? The guard rail has been eliminated, replaced by materials (wood and corten steel) that work in concert with the surroundings. This separates the asphalt road from the compacted gravel, providing a safe border for pedestrians. Boulders line the edge on the right with added vegetation, enhancing the scenic value of the area. The result: looks and feels better.

We’re lucky to have Nate on the team for projects like these to help us evaluate and assess the visual impacts of a proposed development. It’s a huge boost to the area, don’t you think?

Fossil, Oregon – Bowerman Trail Under Construction!

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Fossil, Oregon is the site of a project we’ve been working on since January. Our work is finally in the construction stage! We planned and designed the first loop of a nascent trail system and once completed, the Bowerman Trail (named after Bill Bowerman) will be Fossil’s very first recreational, pedestrian use route intended for hiking and running.

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We were enlisted by Oregon State Parks and Recreation to plan this trail, and through extensive review and with in-depth input from the community, we generated a design that would make the trail accessible, user-friendly, and visually and environmentally responsible. The design works with intricate property lines while taking visual impact into consideration. For example, we’ve aligned the trail along the hillsides in such a way to prevent visual impairment, so that the route doesn’t hinder the value of the scene. Strategically located viewpoints will give way to notable scenes along the path, as less attractive viewsheds will be concealed via (potential) vegetation screens.

For the path itself, we’re utilizing locally gathered materials that will fit the context of the landscape and the community that inhabits it. Once completed, the Bowerman Trail will allow residents to partake in a healthy movement towards an active lifestyle and engagement with the outdoors. It will reinforce and integrate Fossil’s Old West roots and reintroduce its residents to the land.

We’re excited to see the construction completed (hopefully) by October!

Re-using abandoned land

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Looks like a set from a steampunk movie!

The Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord is virtually unknown outside of Germany, so we were happy to stumble upon a great post about this park, built on a bygone coal and steel production plant in the north of Duisburg. In 1985, the steel industry abandoned the area and left its ponderous structures to decay and crumble. In 1991, Peter Latz of Latz + Partner initiated a project to rehabilitate this lost zone with an objective to heal and resuscitate the land. Latz’s idea of the land’s ecological recovery, however, involved keeping as much of the existing sites intact. The result is a park that retains a strong industrial legacy and a strikingly pre-19th century agricultural heritage.

It’s this balancing of elements and integration of history that make Landschaftspark so remarkable. There are important precursors: Latz’s preceding “Harbour Island,” and Richard Haag’s “Gas Works Park” in Seattle.

These are successful instances of the ways in which abandoned sites can be treated, and they are magnificent not only because they show how defunct, inoperable land can transform into breathing, multi-functional parks, but also because they connect memory into the design strategy. By preserving these gargantuan industrial monuments, the viewer is given an experience of past and present–first a connection to the agricultural and industrial antiquity from which the park has sprung, and second the process of framing and making sense of the sites which the viewer encounters. Themes of temporality and transience attend the park as the steel continues to degrade throughout the area, while nature quietly reclaims pockets of the land.

It’s dynamic and relevant–a vital demonstration of function, of culture, play, history, and place.

More about this amazing place here.