In Praise of Civic Horticulture

As University of Pennsylvania professor David Brownlee set the stage for last Friday’s Civic Horticulture Conference, jointly presented by The Cultural Landscape Foundation and the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, audience members couldn’t help but appreciate our city’s rich heritage in bringing green landscapes to the urban mix. 

Starting with the Penn treaty site and his four squares, moving into the revolutionary Water Works, progressing through to the evolution of Fairmount Park and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, marching on to Bacon’s redoing of Independence Mall and Society Hill and ending with  today’s bounty, including Delaware waterfront work and the Parkway enrichments, Brownlee’s talk was a compelling, if rather academicallly presented, argument for this greenest of countrie towns.

With his summation, the conference kicked off its official program, engaging abut 200, mostly local, professionals, members of the media, and students in an often thought-provoking look at the role in which plants can play in today’s cities. PennPraxis’ Harris Steinberg* introduced the first of three segments, The Street, by examining how the traditional line between street and sidewalk has increasingly been blurred — from parklets to reclaiming streets from traffic, from capturing water to highway transformations. Next, Steinberg offered his panel a few “provocations,” including: How do we define the street today? and Can horticulture redefine urbanism as it mediates scales?

Good jumping-off points, but ones not necessarily addressed by the speakers.

Civic horticulture took center stage at UArts on Friday.
Civic horticulture took center stage at UArts on Friday.

The Florida-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles started, defining himself as a “plant enthusiast” and referring to his apt last name, in what would become a running joke during the conference. Like many of the presenters, he first ran through his infuences — including a lengthy amount of time spent in Brazil — then showcased a few of his projects, particularly the transformation of a banal stretch of Lincoln Road in Miami Beach into a lush, er, Jungle-like pedestrian paradise.


Next up, Matthew Urbanski of New York’s Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates centered his talk on the firm’s decade-old re-do of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Riverfront, saying that such spaces can’t be just pretty but need to do “hard work” and be backed by “muscularity” such as programming and dynamic plantings. “People expect a horticultural richness now that no parks department can deliver,” he said, further offering that this was a “critical moment in the emancipation of landscape architecture!”


The segment’s best moments came from the next speaker, New York-based Henry White who spoke of “biophilia,” a theory developed by Edward O. Wilson that suggests human have a biological need for nature, and of how growing up amongst the woodlands of the northeast had inspired in him a passion for the patterns and forms of nature. He offered a tour of some of the world’s great pedestrian boulevards of Paris, Vienna, and Barcelona. It was a beautiful Spring day and Broad Street beckoned outside — but even with recent improvements, one couldn’t help think it didn’t quite measure up.


After lunch, two afternoon sessions remained, The Productive Garden and Parks and Plazas. Moderator James F. Lima offered several examples of productive landscapes — from fuel cells, to bee hives, to oyster harvesting to community gardens — then invited his three panelists to speak. Elena Brescia presented the work of her firm, New York-based SCAPE, which touched upon many of these examples, then Mia Lehrer of Los Angeles concentrated on the conundrum that while Southern California produces something like 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, only one percent of that production stays local. She talked of one of her projects, Farm on Wheels, a mobile farmers’ market that goes into neighborhoods with produce and recipes.


But it was this segment’s final speaker, again, who shone. Whether reimagining a small Upper East side garden, turning a brownfield gas station site into a tasting room and market garden for a Sonoma winery, or enlivening a three-acre patch in downtown St. Louis, the work that Thomas Woltz showcased was luminous, considered, and complete. He would also sound the day’s most potent rallying cry. “There’s one percent for art,” he said. “Why isn’t there 10 percent for landscape architecture!?”


In introducing the third session, moderator Eric Kramer of Reed Hilderbrand in Massachusetts commented that the “stars are aligned to advance civic horticulture” because during times of crisis, we return to the garden. He challenged his panel to “get past rhetoric” and to assert values and provide metrics. But Sue Weiler of OLIN and Keith McPeters of Seattle-based Gustafson Guthrie Nichol stuck to offering their greatest of recent hits and the thinking behind them. In the matter of programming versus planting, McPeters said, “planting can be an experience in its own right.”


That was a recurring theme of the day — that landscape architects need to emphasize flora as much as they do design — and in his ramblinng but amusing final presentation Peter Wirtz of Belgium drove the point home. Americans are “light years” ahead of the Europeans in such matters, he said, lamenting the poor quality of tree choices across the pond. 


Charles Birnbaum, president and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ended the day by observing that in all the talk of plant material, not one Latin term had been introduced. And he noted that next year marks the 50th anniversary of New York’s Paley Park, one of the first and certainly one of the best examples of an American pocket park. 


The conference might have been speaking to the converted, but in revisiting a topic that always bears repeating, it proved very nicely that, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you can indeed lead lots of horticulturists to Philadelphia — and make them think.




*Harris Steinberg is Executive Director of PennPraxis, and publisher of PlanPhilly. PlanPhilly is a project of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of PennDesign.

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