Posts by clarencelacy

All images by Clarence Lacy

I recently embarked on a journey, one which took me back to review old studio projects from graduate school. It offered me an opportunity to take inventory of my past work, and identify how those early projects influenced my design philosophy today.

One common thread visible across all of these project was the attempt to understand complex systems beyond the confines of the site. Additionally, two consequential questions arose while working on these graduate school projects:

  • How far out do you make a context map?
  • What is context in the terms of the project?

Understanding complex site systems, diagramming them, and forming a coherent analysis of the site according to the diagram can be as difficult as the design itself. It is an exercise requiring the ability to recognize the scale of the complex web of systems intersecting at the site.

The practice of landscape architecture is inherently tied to site – a very spatial concept. It makes sense we investigate qualitative and quantitative information under the lens of a geographic location. Identifying the exchanges occurring at various scales is imperative to forming a complete understanding of a site. While we will never know everything there is to know, we should attempt to become experts about specific aspects of a site, while remaining a generalist in others. As designers, this context helps us efficiently develop a story.

While working on my thesis, I did a quick mapping about site exchanges based upon multiple mappings I had done. I started by ordering my investigation and analysis based on a multitude of scales: the human user, to the transects, or a conduit on which the site may lie on a greater landscape context. Next, according to the region or network, examining the scale well beyond political boundaries.

The diagram – still nascent in content – helped organize my thoughts about my thesis site. Listing and connecting scales of design with systems on the site was important in developing an understanding about which interventions could occur on the site, and what possible echoes and exchanges are impacted in a larger context. I began to layer my design concept on the diagram where I thought it could be scaled and represented.

In the process of developing this diagram it became apparent that while we may design or represent something at a particular scale, it is a system occurring and impacting across many scales. At first, my understanding of site systems and their overlap was limited to the scale where it was represented most legibly. For example: the scale of the design section (1:96), or the site plan (1:240).

I quickly realized designs share a transaction with multiple systems at multiple scales, creating an exponential combination of exchanges.

This realization impacted not just my thoughts about the diagram, but also how I perceived design as a whole. I began layering multiple scales of information in a logical and methodical manner. My designs were no longer limited within the confines of a specific mode of representation (section, plan and perspective), I was now designing a philosophy of greater urbanism. This urban system theory reified into a small site where I finally applied scaler constraints, developing something legible both in its design and representation. The “map” or “diagram” became a project – a scaled system of principles about urbanism – transforming from a source of investigation into a test of these theories, and also a physical manifestation of my philosophy at human scale.

The analysis phase became as enlightening as the exploration of design interventions. To this day, I reflect upon the lessons learned through this exercise, challenging myself to think through the impact all projects have across the multitude of contexts. In carving out my own methodology, and from experience, I recognize now there is no “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes the analysis of a site.

The global blockbuster Black Panther reveals an unexpected and uncredited star – Birnin Zana – the film’s fictional capital city of African nation,  Wakanda. Organic and dense, the city of Birnin Zana exhibits a preference for street life flowing through a medley of architecture constituting a wondrous and energetic cityscape – an imaginary example of a “traditional city” (a term coined by urbanist Andrew Alexander Price in reference to urban development that emerges organically over a span of time “by people colonizing and building close together”).

The government of Wakanda does not wield technology, economics, architecture, or planning as a means of control. Nor does capitalism manifest as sterilizing culture. Instead, the capital of Black Panther is portrayed as a colorful and vibrant metropolis, one manifested in people with their own distinct music, language, fashion, dance, all surrounded by a dazzling polychromatic palette of patterns representing the numerous tribes unified under the singular banner of a country. Wakanda illustrates an ideal of technological supremacy, but not one antithetical to strong ties to ancient traditions and cultures.

Black Panther’s artists and designers undoubtedly looked to real world architecture like the Reunification Monument in Yaounde, Cameroon (top) and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington,  (bottom) for real world inspiration for their imaginative depiction of Afro-futuristic urbanism. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 photos by Mark Fischer and  Adam Fagen).

Cities are living beings; they consume, respire, and excrete. What makes each city unique is how culture and history manifest in their planning, open space, and architecture. But in modern times, cities now reflect a sterile landscapes devoid of the identifiable unique characteristics traditional cities exhibit – a reflection of the influences of imperialism, capitalism, and globalism erasing regional and human-scale developments. This is not a fault of cities, but instead express the eventuality of a Western notion shaped by mechanized culture and easily replicable architecture. The city of Black Panther diverges away from this notion noticeably.

As someone obsessed with exploring ideas about experiencing urban form, watching Black Panther inspired numerous thoughts related to design, urbanism, and culture. The following are reasons why Black Panther depicts an urban ideal worth aspiring toward:

Technology strengthens tradition: In typical depictions of the future, highly advanced technology coupled with trans-national economies results in a homogenized global culture, one where clothing, architecture, vehicles, and people adopt uniformity. Diversity in culture has given way to globalism and the ‘design’ of new technologies. Everything is sleek, colors are muted, and the city is building upon building, connected through flying cars, transport tubes, and transport pods. Machines, infrastructure, and technology are in the forefront of urban form, and life occurs inside. In Black Panther, Wakandan culture and tradition plays ever prominent. Coupled with the efficiency and power of technology is the expression of culture through color, pattern, and form.

Urban form targets human-scaled interaction: One critique of the modern city is it focuses architecture over its inhabitants. Modern cities have lost touch with human scale, trading in human interaction for mechanical and technological transactions. Commerce was once local, and life was centered on the street. One of most memorable scenes of the film unfolds within the capital city of Birnin Zana, on its streets, where people are shown in relation to the surrounding urban form. Even in technologically advanced Wakanda, the street remains the place for social interaction,  shopping, dining, and play.

Culture expressed through architecture: Instead of a city of shiny glass towers, Wakanda’s architecture is shown spanning various ages with numerous traditional motifs applied across buildings. Old one-story buildings stand proudly next to 10-story buildings, with skyscrapers reminiscent of the real-life La Pyraminde in Abidjan or Kigali International Airport interspersed. This futuristic marriage between old and new architecture parallels the aforementioned merging of technology with tradition characterizing Wakanda as a nation and culture.

Respect of Nature and Organicism: Wakanda portrays an imbued respect for the natural environment. The city is shown embedded within a beautiful natural environment, and throughout the film, the power and awe of the surrounding vast and pristine natural landscape is alluded to. Here, the landscape is not merely a backdrop, but the actual stage on which the capital city sits.

The city is not a machine: Contemporary urbanism and planning tends to focus upon creating machines for living. Capitalism fed this notion as a form of public process and urban culture. Conversely, the traditionalist would say a city should serve the people, citing human interaction as the defining attribute of urbanism. Cultural nuance and variety physically expressed in urban architecture is important in establishing a city as purposefully human, and not a machine. Wakanda follows this standard.

This is only a quick list of observations and thoughts after watching Black Panther. Someday I’d love to dive deeper and explore the influence of urban form in shaping the landscape of the city and their effects upon urban behavior. For now, Wakanda can serve as an imaginative ideal, one melding culture, nature, and architecture.

Wakanda Forever.

Photo: Creative Commons

Uber began in 2009, offering what seemed then like a nicer alternative to traditional taxis. The ride sharing service took over cities around the world quickly, with many other ridesharing services springing forth soon after. Most major cities today are served by some app-based rideshare service(s).

With rideshare services now ubiquitous, new developments are beginning to incorporate Uber and Lyft drop-off areas in site planning. Rideshares are now part of the discussion of planners, designers, and policy-makers globally. Recent research has undertaken the task of understanding the impacts of these services on planning, urbanism/urban sociology, and our environment.

Source: Clewlow, R.R. & Mishra, G.S. UC Davis Report

Rideshare services differ from traditional ridesharing or carpooling, because the destination for a passenger is not necessarily the destination for the driver. These services don’t aim to get more cars off the road. Instead, Uber, Lyft, and similar services are a convenient alternative form of transportation, each depending upon a driver being mobile, driving within the vicinity of passengers, or making a drop-off nearby. Quite often these drivers spend a certain amount of time driving around without passengers, waiting for a new route to pop-up on their phones.

A recent CityLab post investigated habits of rideshare app users and overall transportation trends in 10 major US cities. The article is based on emerging research from UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.

‘Ride-hailing’, as the article calls it, has been leading to a “substitutive versus complementary nature of ride-hailing varies greatly based on the type of transit service”. While increases in walking and heavy-rail commuter trains (3%) are noteworthy, so are decreases in the use of light rail (3%) and buses (6%). The study also found that between 49-61% of trips made by “ride-hailing” wouldn’t have been made at all, or made by walking.

The largest takeaway from the CityLab post is these services are likely to contribute to the growth of vehicular miles travelled in major US cities like Los Angeles. Not only are these miles travelled with a passenger, but also the in-between ‘idle miles’.

In addition to added congestion, these added miles contribute to air quality and water quality issues resulting from personal vehicular use. “Avoiding drinking and driving” and “parking difficulties” are often cited as the most important factors for using these rideshare services, but what steps can be taken to eliminate the idle-miles associated with the popularity of ridesharing?

Source: Clewlow, R.R. & Mishra, G.S. UC Davis Report

Are micro-transit systems such as Leap Transit or Via – both which are modeled after carpool – the answer? Is it designated parking station electric car sharing services like BlueLA offer a way to eliminate the parking issue surrounding personal vehicle use? Or will it be a new form of ride-hailing incorporating dispatch centers, stations, and autonomous vehicles that will eventually decrease idle miles? The challenge ultimately will be to make transit options more appealing to as many commuters as possible, in turn decreasing user demand for vehicular travel altogether.

Ridesharing and ride-hailing will unlikely go away any time soon. So as technology advances and cities become more congested, we will need to conceive new planning strategies and alternatives to our existing models to incorporate ridesharing into our cities without the negatives associated with a city of idle drivers waiting for their next rider.

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

It was my colleague Katherine’s photos of buckwheat that first grabbed my attention. What is this wirey, yet elegant star dancing on a hillside stage set by summer’s dry conditions?

I was still new to Southern California when I read Katherine’s post, In Praise of Buckwheat. I was immediately drawn to the plant’s presence and beauty that endures at a time when other plants go dormant. Inspired by her post, I began my own hunt to document native buckwheat while hiking and strolling around Los Angeles afterward.

Upon further reflection, I thought deeper about the beautiful subtleties summer dormancy – during the time when most people say, ‘everything is dead’. I began noticing how even the land of endless summer has seasons that manifest in plants like buckwheat. The questions I was left pondering with this new insight about this native plant: How can we as designers use these stars of our dry summer to create a beautiful, natural, and sustainable landscape? How can we best convey the beauty in dormancy?

The original post here: In Praise of Buckwheat

Downtown Savannah. All photos by Clarence Lacy

I’ve been feeling a tinge of excitement building thinking about my impending return home to the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia will always have a special place in my heart, specifically Hampton and its location on the Peninsula. The Bay is home to some of the richest ecologies, including my favorite, the estuarine/salt marsh.

During a trip to Savannah and Tybee Island, I observed this ecosystem up close in a different context. While attending Landscape Architecture School I began to understand the importance of this ecosystem and the role it plays in our lives as coastal residents. Armed with my hipster camera and some old found film, I was ready to explore a new territory.

Panorama of Tybee Island.

My adventure begins amongst the enchanting oak woodlands. These woods feel and smell like something straight out of the pages of a fairy tale. Spanish moss covered live oaks shade a flood of palmettos, creating a varied texture unique to southern live oak forests. Wandering through these woodlands, each tree feels like an ancient spiritual guardian welcoming you into the equally divine salt marsh.

Skidaway Island State Park.

Leaving the woodland, solid ground gives way to a reedy edge. The oak woodland smell is quickly exchanged for an overwhelmingly familiar smell reminiscent of my childhood on the Chesapeake Bay. Those early days were spent visiting the wharf to buy a bushel of crab, where I would also stop to watch swarms of gulls perched or gliding mid-flight overhead over the piers. Many boats are docked here – a true show of Savannah’s boat culture. From this edge, my journey begins upon the water.


Our boat weave in and out of small tributaries that wind around the subtle topography of soft ground. A new understanding of the eco-diversity and local nuance of this landscape revealed itself through its broad visual monotony. A vigorous smell of salt water intermingles with a subtle, yet captivating smell of decomposition, accompanied by the surround sound symphony of life teeming within this ecosystem.


A combination of childhood nostalgia, love of seafood, and my education brought me to a truly spiritual nexus – a discovery of something unfamiliar, yet familiar. This moment solidifies my love for this ecosystem.


Looking back at my photos, the place feels ghostly and magnificent, yet also tinged with a spirit of the sentimental past. To this day, this trip holds great importance to me. The visit taught me that a true understanding and appreciation of an ecology requires more than academic research, but also a firsthand experience within it.