Episode 1: Quantifying the Landscape

Hi! Today we’re sharing the first episode of DeepRoot’s new podcast, Remarkable Objects!

For this episode, I spoke with Barbara Deutsch, Executive Director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation — a small non-profit dedicated to research, scholarship, and advocacy.

Barbara said something in our interview that really struck me: “It takes a long time to grow a tree. But when you have an old, mature tree, it’s like a spiritual experience. It just speaks to you in a way that you can’t get from anywhere else.”

I feel exactly the same way. The honey locusts that lined the block where I grew up in New York City, the sweetgums in Riverside Park where we walked the dog, the ginkgoes outside my elementary school. All were indelible features in the landscape of my childhood.

Barbara and her team are trying to advance the landscape architecture perspective by quantifying the benefits provided by landscape elements like plants and water – thereby making the business case for sustainable development practices.

By measuring the performance of landscapes, they’re creating tools in the movement to change minds and policies – and, ultimately, the places we live.

Listen to the episode by clicking the player above (or subscribe in iTunes or SoundCloud).

A transcript of the episode is below.

Thanks for letting me share this; I hope you enjoy listening.


TRANSCRIPT: Quantifying the Landscape
GUEST: Barbara Deutsch, Landscape Architecture Foundation

Oh, my first degree is in business, so I was a marketing and MIS major, graduated with marketing computers. Now what do I do? Oh, work for IBM, they have the best sales training in the world. Then after two years I’ll know what I want to be when I grow up, and then I can go do it, because I had this great training – I can do whatever I want. It took me 7, 8 years to discover the profession of landscape architecture. And I thought, wow, this is the greatest profession there is, but no one knows what you do!

My biggest fear when making the career change was, OK, I have 5 weeks of vacation, I’m making a ton of money, and I can travel wherever I want to. So, I’m not going to be able to do this as a landscape architect. I had this, uh, this kind of vision, it just kind of came to me, where I literally was standing on the top of this really pointed mountain, and it was, there was another pointed mountain, and I was taking this leap of faith to get there. And I just looked back and thought, I love what I’m doing, but I want to promote the environmental issues that are important to me. So I just took a deep breath and then jumped.

You literally had the vision you described?

Yeah (laughing).

My name is Barbara Deutsch and I’m the executive director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation here in Washington DC.

I’m Leda Marritz, and this is Remarkable Objects, a podcast from DeepRoot about the intersection of nature and the urban environment.

Barbara did more than just switch careers – that vision she had eventually led her to the Landscape Architecture Foundation, an organization dedicated to investing in the profession through research, scholarship, and leadership programs.

She and her small team have been trying to drive sustainable design decisions by quantifying the benefits provided by landscape elements like plants and water. For the past six years they’ve been building a collection of over 100 case studies from various projects, mostly across the United States. They call this collection of case studies the Landscape Performance Series. Each case study evaluates the contributions of the landscape in three areas: social, environmental, and economic. You can sort through the library by drilling down into each of those three areas, or by searching for specific site features – for example native plants, or green roofs, or traffic calming.

The purpose of the case studies is to arm designers and policy makers with hard, research-driven evidence of the dollar value benefit of the urban landscape. By bringing the business practice of measuring performance to the outdoors, they’re creating a tool to change minds and policies – and, ultimately, the places where we live and work.

How would you explain what landscape performance means to someone who isn’t steeped in it all day everyday like you are?

Well I kind of break it down into its component parts. Inherent in that is an understanding of, what is landscape? Landscape is designing for natural processes, natural resources, and people. And then introducing this idea performance, so how something achieves its intended purpose. So if the purpose is to achieve sustainability, then how is landscape contributing to that? In our case we’re looking at sustainable landscape solutions, so how are these projects, these landscapes, helping to achieve sustainability?

Building regulators, policy makers, even the general public, understand what you can do in a building to be more environmental, or sustainable. But there was little, if any, awareness (this was six years ago) about what you can do in the landscape to achieve sustainability, so how do we assert the landscape architecture perspective in planning, design, and development?

You mentioned bringing the perspective of landscape architects, you know, to design. Is that where some of the idea for the Landscape Performance Series started?

(Laughing) Well, that program came about, let’s see… that came about because you know how sometimes things drive you nuts, and then you have to figure out solutions? I think what was driving me nuts was this idea that, wow, landscape architects, landscape architecture, has a lot to offer to help achieve sustainability, but we need, just like IBM marketing training, sales training, you need to show the value of what you do in order for others to be more open to receiving it, or to value it.

And so the concept of the Landscape Performance Series was basically integrating a basic business practice of performance, planning, measurement, evaluation, and documentation so we build a body of knowledge, a consistent body of knowledge, that then we have data, or content, in today’s terms, that you can then use to show the value or make the case for more sustainable landscape architecture.

Here’s how it works:

Each fall, they have an open call for applications, and landscape architects submit their projects to be considered. LAF is looking for sites that include unusual or notable design elements that advance sustainability. Over a period of about six months, projects that are selected are researched, evaluated, and quantified. Teams use tools a variety of tools to father and quantify data, like on-site user surveys, and a program like i-Tree, even thermometers. After that process is completed, each site is written up into a case study and published on the Landscape Performance Series website. Academic partners are required, creating a unique collaboration that brings together landscape architecture theory and practice.

It’s taken LAF a few years to refine this approach. And, of course, there have been a few bumps along the way.

I think it’s interesting to contrast expectation and reality; sometimes they’re close together and sometimes they’re not. Can you talk a little bit about what you expected from this effort and the ways in which it has either fulfilled those expectations or not?

I think when we first started with  the program we thought, “Oh, this will be easy” – we just develop this template and you have the quantified waste, water, and energy benefits, and a cost-benefit analysis, and you just do it! And then we had the reality.

Practitioners, designers, in their scope of their work they aren’t commission to do this, they don’t necessarily have the time to do it or feel confident in knowing the methods, or survey science, or some data collection tools. So when we first started we thought, “OK, these case studies will just come flying in because everyone will want to promote what they’re doing!” And we realized when we piloted it with our board members, who are leaders in the profession, and none of them could do it, it was like, “Oh no, what do we do?” And that’s we kind of stepped back and took a deep breath and then adopted the Buddhist mantra to start where we are.

We decided to invest in faculty researchers with their research assistants to work with the designers in a unique collaboration to identify exemplary projects, understand the project goals and objectives, develop the metrics and methods, collect or synthesize any data, determine the performance benefits, and then document it into our case study format. That’s how we went about investing in the profession and the marketplace, both, and bridging that gap between practice and academia, work together to develop these case studies which provide the content for a variety of decision makers.

So we are, through this process, building content for others that they couldn’t do on their own, and we’re also integrating this basic business practice into design practice, so that’s a way of transforming practice.

There are now over 100 case studies in the library – each different, and none perfect. Some of the earlier ones, before academic researchers were involved in the process, are a little less comprehensive. But all of them contain innovative designs that prioritize sustainability, and they are all peer-reviewed before being published.

What kind of reaction do you get from the design community when you talk about high performance landscapes, or quantifying landscape performance?

I think people at first were a little, “Oh no, we don’t want the pendulum to swing all the way over to this quantification, what about beauty, and inherent feeling, and experiential value of a place?” But I think now people realize that it’s not either/or, that it is both.

The landscape needs to function; we want it to function, because we’re all interested in doing what we can to help with these larger society and environmental issues — whether you’re talking global warming, and climate change, and adaptation and mitigation, uh, whether you’re talking about species extinction or urbanization. You know we’ve doubled the amount of people in the last 50 years, and they all need a place to live, work, rest, and play. And certainly as landscape architects, that’s what we do. For multiple benefits: for people and for the environment.

So recognizing that it is a way, it’s a tool to help show the value of what we do, so that we can do more of it. I think that’s important. There have been times where it has been form versus function, but I think now people realize it has been, it should always have been both, and it needs to be both, because we have these larger goals.

There is a lot of research that’s done about the landscape, obviously, although not all of it puts dollar values on things. I’m interested in what trends you’ve seen, now that you’ve done so many of these, and whether you’ve found anything unexpected?

I think of course, as a landscape architect or systems thinker, we all wanted to look across the hundred case studies and look for commonalities, or gaps, or strengths or weaknesses – do the old SWOT analysis. And we are in the process of doing that across the first 60 case studies, to look for common metrics and methods and for different types of performance benefits.

So when you’re evaluating how something is performing, sometimes it doesn’t perform the way you, it doesn’t work the way you wanted it to! And that could be a result of the design solution, or a change in the process, or that something wasn’t implemented as designed, or it got value engineered out and that made a critical difference.

So we try to include that in the case studies because it’s really powerful to learn from what didn’t work as well as what did work. And it also takes so people to feel comfortable with exposing themselves, “we tried this and it didn’t work.” But, I think people are getting more and more comfortable sharing that.

There’s another driver to quantify landscape benefits, which is that clients like data! It reduces the element of risk in their decisions. But it’s tricky to do with a living thing, like the landscape, that changes shape over seasons and years.

Any bottom-line thinking requires that you quantify benefits. And so, this has always been challenging for landscape, right, because of the special and temporal issues involved. You can’t contain it and read the electric meter or the water meter. So to your question about actual and predicted and the responses that we’re working on, again we’re starting where we are to get actual performance data versus predicted.

Now that being said, I know for some decision makers, predictive data is fine especially if you’re dealing with some stormwater calculations and modeling, and other aspects therein. So you’ll see a range of different types of data or performance benefits. Some are predictive, some are actual. But we’re moving, again, moving the needle to more methods, and understanding, and experience, and how to actually enhance site analysis to look towards these larger goals and to be able to communicate the value of them therein.

I want to address the inherent complication with measuring something that’s always changing and maybe to have a brief discussion over, how we can continue to improve given that we are always looking at snapshots?

Yeah, we’re also taking snapshots. So the question is, the art of what snapshot to take and how to interpret it, recognizing that some may be perfect and some may not. You may not be ever able to come up with the perfect metric. But then, look at things in context — so landscape is all about context and understanding that, and then the same way with evaluation and interpretation. Yeah, it means you need to keep assessing it over time to understand how it’s working so you can do it better, right? I mean that’s, again, the process of evaluation is for self-improvement, continuous improvement processes. And since the landscape is always changing, you always want to go back and check so you can see how you can do it better next time, or how you need to adapt. Because you’re right, the world turns, things change, maybe your goals change, maybe how it’s functioning changes, or how the people want to use it is changing. So yeah, it requires going back.

Landscape doesn’t look its best necessarily at the ribbon butting, it needs to grow in. It needs to be maintained, it needs to evolve. And so it does require a patience to see and learn from that over time.

Personally I see that patience as one of the biggest challenges that we face. I often hear education cited as a barrier to, sort of, acceptance of a more nature-based design, and I definitely think that is true as well. But it also feels to me sometimes, at least in DeepRoot’s work, like we’re fighting… like we just have a totally different worldview basically. We’re trying to get people to see it as the long game and that even if they understand the principles of why we take this approach that if they’re not willing to apply those values to the designed landscape, then it becomes sort of a moot point.

It’s really hard! I think it’s human nature to do what you need to do now; I think it’s hard to comprehend the future, especially in this changing world. But yeah, trees are considered disposable.

In my neighborhood we’re looking at, the historic preservation board wants to protect the view shed of this building that is nearly 100 years old, yet they’re willing to chop down all the trees that create a nice entry to it that are over 100 years old, and it’s like, “Wait a minute!” So yeah, it’s frustrating; it’s really frustrating, because it takes a long time to grow a tree. But when you have a tree that, like an old mature tree, it’s like a spiritual experience. I meant, it just speaks to you in a way that you can’t get from anywhere else.

Barbara and her team have a lot of plans for advancing the landscape performance series case studies.

On the advocacy side, they want to get more case studies about other aspects of the landscape – like transportation – to enable those groups to advocate for their shared interests. They also want to target the kinds of projects that will get the attention of the people on The Hill who create green infrastructure policy.

And on the research side, they’d like to do longer-term studies that track project performance over a full year, or longer, and also to look across similar project types to see if they can draw conclusions about trends in performance.

We’ve kind of gone out opportunistically and I think in the future we want to target more where content is to help drive some of these larger transformations. It’s hard dealing with the city planning office, and the HOA, and the urban forestry administration if you have one, and all the different constituents that are somehow involved with, in this case, getting a tree in the ground, and getting it done well, so that the trees grows to what we want it to be. And trees, and housing, and everything in the landscape. So, it is hard.

But we do feel that if there was an age of engineering, and there was an age of architecture, that this the age of landscape architecture, this is the time when the world needs what we have to offer.

If you want to read more about the work of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, or browse the case study library, visit landscapeperformance.org.

Remarkable Objects is produced and edited by me, Leda Marritz, with editorial assistance from Aylara Odekova. You can find us online at remarkableobjects.com, and on Twitter @remarkableshow.

This podcast is a production of DeepRoot Green Infrastructure. DeepRoot provides landscape solutions and technical support services to promote mature tree growth and sustainable stormwater management in the built environment.  Find out more at deeproot.com.


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