“Truly Inspiring”: Courageous by Design Symposium

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Feature Stories

“Truly Inspiring”: Courageous by Design Symposium

“Truly Inspiring”: Courageous by Design Symposium
Oct 21, 2021

“Thank you for bringing all of these amazing practitioners together in one place!  It was truly inspiring,” wrote one attendee about Courageous by Design, the daylong symposium organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) about the leadership of women landscape architects addressing the climate crisis in New York City. Another described the proceedings as “intimate and very open.” Participant Lisa Switkin, principal at James Corner Field Operations, said, “This conference felt different - a place of inspiration, sharing, cooperation, and spurring collective action. I truly believe that this spirit and everyone’s generosity, honesty and thoughtfulness contributes to that culture of care we are trying to propel in the world.”   

The inaugural Oberlander Prize forum took place just one day after the announcement of the winner of the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, Julie Bargmann. The event was the first of the two years of public engagement activities associated with the biennial Oberlander Prize.  The night before the conference, ABC Stone hosted a sumptuous reception at its beautiful New York City showroom. The festive two-hour event closed with a live simulcast of the PBS NewsHour feature about Julie Bargmann.

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Julie Bargmann (center) with (left to right) Maura Rockcastle, Joe Bargmann, Ross Altheimer, and Jennifer MacAdam - Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, 2021

Nearly 250 people attended the symposium at Highline Stages in the Chelsea section of New York City on October 15. Panels of speakers tackled the question “How does a world class city deal with a worldwide problem?” Participants addressed the theoretical – understanding the scope and scale of the climate crisis, especially in New York City – and the practical – including how to navigate bureaucracies to get projects built with environmentally/ecologically sound practices – along with pathways to civic engagement.

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Courageous by Design conference held at Highline Stages - Photo by Barrett Doherty, 2021

The morning started with a few words from Charles Birnbaum, TCLF’s president and CEO, who spoke about the role of courageous women in the field of landscape architecture. He dedicated the day to Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Julie Bargmann, and Heather Morgan, three women he said were “feisty and full of fight and ready to lead the charge.” Beth Meyer, Merrill D. Peterson Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia, introduced the opening panel, which featured Martha Schwartz, Senior Partner of Martha Schwartz Partners, Lisa Switkin, and Kate Orff, Founding Principal of SCAPE, with remarks about how the panelists were addressing climate change through design, not policy or legislation. “That takes courage.”

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Kate Orff - Photo by Barrett Doherty, 2021

Schwartz started with the problems facing New York including rising sea levels and heat and failing infrastructure and offered up solutions like the fifteen-minute city and to re-spatialize New York. Switkin shared projects like Qianhai Water City, the South Bay Sponge, and the Tidal Basin and discussed their role in mitigating climate change. The group was rounded out by Kate Orff who discussed the landscape architecture’s role in ecocide and encouraged designers to think outside of their standard work flow and encourage clients to think critically about the effects of a project.

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Rebecca McMackin (left), Edwina von Gal (center), and Barbara Wilks (right) - Photo by Barrett Doherty, 2021

Heather Morgan, Director of Climate Risk Adaptation, AECOM Metro New York, started off the panel on “Preparing and Adapting Bureaucracies for our Future Climate” advocating the importance of private companies engaging government and NGOs in dialogue regarding climate change and nature based, applied ecology, risk performance landscapes. Signe Nielsen, Principal, MNLA, then took the stage to discuss the role of state and local agencies in permitting, planning, and setting policy.  The session was closed by Annette Wilkus, Founder, SiteWorks Landscape Architecture, who spoke about the myriad challenges associated with the permitting process during construction and educating clients on the cost of maintaining the design after its built.

After a brief interlude for lunch, Inaugural Oberlander Prize Chair, Dorothée Imbert discussed the process of the jury selection and why Julie Bargmann was selected as the first laureate. The next session was "What We Can Do Part 2: Biological Diversity is as Important as Social Diversity." Rebecca McMackin, Director of Horticulture, Brooklyn Bridge Park, kicked things off with a presentation of the ongoing stewardship efforts at Brooklyn Bridge Park, which included the cultivation of bird, insect, and plants to bring wild nature back to New York along with the many databases, available to the public to share their work. Next Barbara Wilks, Principal and Founder of W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, discussed the importance of biological diversity and cultural diversity to foster engagement from both people and the environment. Edwina von Gal, Founder / President, Perfect Earth Project, concluded by challenging attendees to make a commitment to biodiversity through her program "Two-thirds for the Birds," an initiative to stop the use of pesticides and encourage the use of native plants (two out of every three). Von Gal presented a short video in which pioneering art world and electronic music performer played the spoons while singing the song "Two-Thirds for the Birds."

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Courageous by Design Symposium participants - Beth Meyer (left), Lisa Switkin (center left), Martha Schwartz (center right), Kate Orff (right) - Photo by Barrett Doherty, 2021

The final panel, moderated by John Beardsley, Oberlander Curator, featured Mary Margaret Jones, President & CEO of Hargreaves Jones; Amy Freitag, Executive Director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund; Miranda Massie, Director of the Climate Museum; and Olivia Georgia, Executive Director, City as Living Laboratory (C.A.L.L.). In addition to being respondents who offered thoughts about the day’s proceedings, each offered stirring and inspiring declarations about landscape architecture leading role in addressing the climate crisis. The day closed with Bargmann taking the stage and briefly addressing the group to acknowledge her receipt of the inaugural Oberlander Prize.

The event clearly made an impact to judge from the comments and emails received. “I wanted to learn more about the ways NYC is responding and adapting to climate change. As a landscape architecture student, I understand the urgency to learn proper ways to design for change over time. The symposium gave me great ways to think about speaking with future clients and communities,” shared one attendee. “I was so inspired by the many smart, thoughtful and innovative women fighting the good fight—at a point in time when I need some inspiration,” said Jackie Snyder, Vice President & Director of Strategic Marketing, Metro New York at AECOM.

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Domino Park, Brooklyn, NY - Photo by Dena Tasse-Winter, 2021

The next day, attendees took part in five field sessions. Signe Nielsen led two groups through the recently opened Little Island. Attendee Alexis Woods said “One of the best site tours I have ever heard. [Signe] gave incredible details and was so engaging.” Next was Domino Park led by Sanjukta Sen who shared how Field Operations took the history of the site and integrated it throughout the design. Rebecca McMackin led a group through Pier 6 and Pier 3 of Brooklyn Bridge Park discussing the park’s long-term goals and what goes into maintaining a park of its size and budget. The weekend was closed out by a tour of Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park in Queens. Led by Marion Weiss, Thomas Balsley, and Annett Wilkus, attendees arrived to the site by ferry to see the park in context of its surroundings.

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Little Island, New York City, NY - Photo by Keith LeBlanc, 2021

In the weeks ahead TCLF will post the speaker presentations on its YouTube Channel.

Courageous by Design would not have been possible without the speakers, moderators, and support from our sponsors ABC Stone, Vermont Quarries, Lapitec, Victor Stanley, and Highline Stages.