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5 Questions with Cheryl Barton

August 10, 2015

Cheryl Barton, PLA, FASLA, FAAR is a landscape architect, sustainable sites educator and the creative director of the O|CB studio in San Francisco, which she founded in 1994. She has established a national reputation for the seamless integration of design excellence and environmental intelligence in her work. She is an internationally known lecturer and visiting critic.


What are you drawing inspiration from right now?

The unique physical and cultural circumstances of our projects are my greatest source of inspiration. This concept of ‘being where you are’ is fundamental to my Theory of HERE, which I discussed recently in a lecture at the Black Rock Design Institute (think Burning Man). More specifically, I am inspired by:

Design Science. We teamed with knowledgeable natural scientists and computational designers on a master planning project for a new global campus for Google. It was an opportunity for us to foreground ecological systems thinking and to enlighten software engineers about the extraordinary potential for a future green/blue infrastructure for their campus and a new landscape ‘operating system’ for the next 100 years. Trans-disciplinary collisions around the approach to future-proofing the site — net-zero water, for example — exposed additional opportunities for us to drive the infrastructure conversation. On another project trajectory, employing the client’s computational design approach inspired us to create new visualization tools to assist them in understanding site and landscape programming options.

Berlin. More than 50% of the world’s population now inhabits cities and that trend is continuing. Berlin is a great model of ‘life between buildings’ that exemplifies city re-making that is authentic to place, yet diverse. Wartime destruction of the urban fabric resulted in opportunities to develop green infrastructure corridors from the edges of the city into its center. Neighborhoods, memorial spaces, museums, and parks are eccentric and culturally genuine; they inspire experimentation; the city has retained grit and character without sanitizing everything.

The (California) Drought: To paraphrase a radical 60s adage: Never let a serious drought go to waste. We are in a pivotal moment to modify public behavior about water and to drive home the message that strategies for recharging aquifers are a more critical priority than the standard engineering approach of shunting stormwater away from a site. On every project, we are challenging the stormwater management strategies of civil engineers and jurisdictional agencies to move beyond bio-swales. We seek to demonstrate how intelligent site and landscape design can integrate recharge, stormwater management, new habitat and poetic, resilient landscapes.

What potential for sustainability most excites you on one of your current projects?

As the awareness of resource limitation becomes more publicly evident, I have advanced two specific approaches to empower our clients to create vibrant, future-proofed places.

The first, Dirt is the New Water, is intended to focus clients’ attention on the critical interrelationship between the soil and water that support the visible landscape. Although many scientists and writers have documented the correlation between the rise and fall of civilizations and their understanding of soil, this concept must still be better understood at a site-specific level. For a recently completed visitor center complex at a well-known cultural institution and botanical garden in Southern California, we recommended the removal, stockpiling and re-application of all healthy topsoil to prevent it from compacting into a useless medium that could no longer retain water or support robust plant growth. Although the $1 million budget line item caused initial sticker shock, the client ultimately became convinced that the approach was congruent with its mission. Working closely with both building and site contractors and communicating via 3D models, we choreographed a ‘soil ballet’ that resulted in a growing medium that retained moisture and needed no amendments in most areas. Success was immediately visible in the vigorous response of plants. It has become a real-time demonstration project for the client and a fantastic educational tool for visitors as well as contractors.

The second approach, Commissioning the Site, is a concept that I invented out of necessity several years ago because it had not been addressed by the LEED or Living Building Challenge rating systems, and the Sustainable Site Initiative was in its infancy. As landscape architects are well aware, there is a critical juncture between the construction implementation of a project and the ongoing management required to sustain it into the future. Client groups who participate in the design process are often not the ones who will manage and operate it going forward. I talk about site commissioning to clients from the inception of a project and define it as the ‘site systems phase’ following construction. Several notable clients who initially opted out of this ‘additional’ phase have called us in (predictably, about two years after construction completion) to train them to understand and manage their site and landscape. Recently, a client for a medical campus 10 years in the making realized the business case for long-term site resilience and the need for commissioning the site. We have developed a commissioning action/monitoring plan and are under contract to guide the evolution of the project’s green infrastructure into the future.

What do you need to know, but you don’t know right now?

Infrastructure — both gray and green — is increasingly in the hands of private capital, and regeneration can become gentrification or an unrealized promise to secure entitlements. We need to become fluent in specific technical strategies to leverage our impact in this arena. A deeper understanding of philanthropic pathways and unique funding mechanisms would be useful. Additionally, how can what we do, our process and product, become more of an economic driver in a developer-heavy system? It would also be great to know how to move beyond murky and conflicting political agendas to achieve more clarity about the real metrics of climate change. Tall orders all, I know.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders in the profession?

Develop strong diplomatic and design negotiation skills so you can stay at the table and lead green infrastructure conversations and decisions.

Be prepared to develop the business case for everything you do, while retaining design excellence and intelligence. The creation of beautiful and resilient landscapes remains a sustainable act.

Understand and participate in data-informed design metrics and decision-making; also understand the corollary: when and when not to regard people and sites as Big Data.

Stay agile/nimble/observant: the profession is changing rapidly. Look back while you are looking forward. Take risks.

What challenge would you give to emerging leaders in the profession?

Think about making an impact on the Global Commons with every project. Clean water, clean air, healthy soils, and nutritious food are rapidly becoming commodities rather than belonging to the public trust.

Answer these questions: If cities are the future, what becomes of them? What becomes of non-city landscapes?

Office of Cheryl Barton (O|CB) is a nationally recognized design leader in the shift toward a more sustainable future through landscape architecture and green urbanism. O|CB’s work ranges broadly in scale, including dynamic landscapes in cities and campuses; green infrastructure on urban brownfield sites; the cultural landscapes of national parks and World Heritage properties; and intimate, artistic and evocative spaces. Since its inception in 1994, the O|CB studio has been committed to the creation of healthy cities, robust ecologies, and beautiful, habitable spaces, integrating a strong design ethic with the principles of resilient thinking.

Any opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the author. Their inclusion in this article does not reflect endorsement by LAF.

LAF is grateful to the many individuals and organizations that provide financial support towards fulfilling our mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment.

Much of what LAF is able to accomplish would not be possible without the thought leadership and financial investment of our major supporters, including ASLA, which provides over $125,000 of in-kind support annually.