Posts by clarencelacy

All photos by Clarence Lacy

When I moved to Southern California, I arrived with an understanding of some of the challenges related to landscape design in a semi-arid and arid climate. Prior to my relocation, I had experiences with turf renovation projects and low water landscape projects in the California Central Valley, another region facing similar water scarcity issues as Southern California. With these projects, I became fascinated with the desert and desert plants, specifically the harsh environments that host unique ecosystems of flora and fauna, life easily missed if one doesn’t recognize their subtleties underfoot.

My fascination with the desert has inspired me to make a list of arid destinations in Southern California, all with the purpose of documenting one of my favorite ecologies. On that list is the Salton Sea, a curious large body of water with an interesting past and present hydrology (a curiosity shared by others here at AHBE).

The Salton Sea is a 343 square mile saline lake located in the Coachella Valley. Inflows include the Alamo River, New River, and Whitewater. The wild part is? There are no outflows.

The lake is actually a historically dry bed that only filled after a catastrophic canal flooding and overtopping after a late storm. The storm caused unprecedented peak flows from the Colorado River into the lake bed, forming what we know as the Salton Sea in 1905. This landscape is another great example of nature’s adaptability after human intervention.

Over time the Salton Sea has become a stopover for migrating birds. Various small wildlife can be found taking advantage of the landscaped spaces and the created water body.

While a new ecology has existed since the lake’s unforeseen creation, the lake is continually shrinking with every passing year due to surface evaporation and decreased inlet flows related to drought and lower volumes of irrigation runoff. Salinity and boron concentrations continue to increase, decreasing the chances of a habitable environment for the various aquatic plants and animals that currently call the Salton Sea home.

The Salton Sea – once a popular freshwater lake used for recreation – has continuously become more and more polluted, its increasing salinity unideal for most recreation. Eutrophication and alageblooms from concentrated runoff have caused fish populations to decline among all introduced stock fish, with only the Mozambique Tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus, eking out an existence. Dead fish litter the shores of the lake, the results of fish kills, their life cycle, and the fact there are no outlets from the lake.

As the lake shrinks in size, the landscape will begin to take another form. The dry lake basin and its salt deposits will become an ever-changing dynamic landscape. The birds that have used the space along their migration paths will (have to) find a new place to stop. Fish will continue to scatter the shores, and the place will take on a new ecological form.

What was a heavy-handed anthropologic destruction of a natural ecology became something new. How will nature’s resilience continue to adapt to these changing conditions? Is this a temporal landscape, nature’s way of healing a wound. Or is the Salton Sea just another example of a failing ecology?


The Los Angeles River. Photo by Clarence Lacy

It was after a recent visit along the great Los Angeles River I began thinking about the adaptability of the natural environment in response to large infrastructure interventions. My thoughts wandered from Los Angeles across 2,500 miles, along the Toronto waterfront to the Leslie Street Spit,  a protective barrier constructed over the past 75 years to control wave action along the city’s port and harbors. Leslie Street Spit is also home to Tommy Thompson Park, one of my favorite parks/open spaces.

Following Toronto’s growing prominence in the banking sector, skyscrapers began to climb and dominate the city’s skyline. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing well into the 1980s, international architects left their fingerprint on the formerly manufacturing and packing dominated cityscape. One of the most famous being Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre.

With this construction boom, subway development, and the development of the underground city known as the PATH, construction and demolition waste needed a place.  Land reclamation and the construction of bulkheads extended the shoreline into Lake Ontario, and a new spit was created in order to protect the port from erosion and sedimentation.

The main structure of the spit is constructed with hard material. This structure holds embayments made to hold earth fill and dredgate from the harbours. In the mid-1970s, Toronto Region Conservation Agency (TRCA) began to push for a plan for the future use and designation for the land as an open space.

By this time the inactive portions of the Leslie Street Spit had undergone ecological succession. This purely accidental ‘Nature’ became a feature and amenity on the Toronto lakefront. Additionally, it became a stop for migratory birds, earning the designation as an Important Bird Area. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted at the Park, with over 40 being species breeding within the headland of the spit.

The Northern portion of Leslie Street Spit has been designated Tommy Thompson Park, with plans in the coming years to convert the entire Spit into part of the Park. Even James Corner Field Operations was involved in a Parks Master Plan for the Spit. It’s one of my favorite spaces in North America, showing the true tenacity and strength of “Nature” to reclaim and adapt to human constructed infrastructure.

The Leslie Street Spit. Creative Commons photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

So, back to the Los Angeles River….

How can we use the Leslie Street Spit as a precedent for redeveloping the LA River? How do we begin to understand the ecological systems currently at play? How do we begin to deconstruct and design small changes, sowing the seeds that allow for succession of this infrastructure system? And how can we strike a balance  so it still functions efficiently, but affords ‘Nature’ a chance to thrive?

Even though some parts of Leslie Street Spit have become heavily vegetated and give the appearance of a natural landscape, the archaeology of the site presents a purely anthropogenic construction. Its less about creating a space that looks like a river or a forest, and more about the functionality of the conditions. The Leslie Street Spit is still a designated dumping ground, receiving brick, concrete, stone, rebar, and excavation waste from large projects across the Greater Toronto Area.

The current river has the potential to provide a diverse range of ecologies. We only need to augment the Los Angeles River to create the right conditions. If given enough time and opportunity, Nature’s resiliency will do the rest, creating a new adapted ecology unique to the river winding through our city.

Photo: Clarence Lacy

After a long weekend, we all need a bit of recovery, especially after a long weekend filled with headlines about espionage and missile defense tactics.

I chose to relax on Saturday by looking overhead and watching clouds. No, I wasn’t looking for the rabbit-shaped cloud chasing a carrot or the hopping kangaroo (although, I’m not averse to the hunt).

Cloud watching can be relaxing and stimulating to the imagination. The activity can also be used to inform wind direction and impending weather events.  There are entire websites dedicated to watching and photographing clouds.

The term ‘Nephelococcygia’ – derived from the city in the sky in Aristophanes’ Greek play, ‘The Birds’ – means, “to discover shapes in clouds”. What is often considered simple child’s play is actually the observation of truly complex systems at work: the formation of cloud shapes, their distance from us, and their movement across the sky. We were taught to look up and expand our imagination, assigning a cognitive correlation between abstract forms and real-life objects and features.

Photos: Clarence Lacy

These puffs of condensation can take on four main forms: cirrus, stratus, cumulus, and nimbus. Magical images appear in the sky, dissipate, then reappear again. The longer we stared at the amorphous meteorological phenomenon, the more their shapes became something we could easily recognize and name. This was one of the first and most impactful interaction with landscape’s ephemeral quality – the fourth dimension’s effect on nature around us.

Clouds create a visual ceiling and a beautiful backdrop for photography. They can obfuscate, create mystery, and reveal a different perspective than originally imagined. For the designers out there: Have you ever notice how much better those daytime renderings look with a few clouds in the sky?

Sit back this weekend, put on some Carly Simon, and look up at the sky. On a clear day with a slight breeze (this weekend’s forecast for Los Angeles looks warm and clear), the pleasures and perspective of childhood can be yours again, one cloud at a time.

All photos by Clarence E Lacy Jr.

There are three questions that can never be answered:

What is the meaning of life?
What is love?
What is nature?

I don’t dare attempt answering the first two, but I will take a shot at answering the third.

Landscape architects and hipsters alike occasionally take a pilgrimage in search of the #authentic. Defining nature is like finding an authentic taco truck: it’s authenticity is solely within the parameters in which you examine it.

Looking to Merriam-Webster, “nature” is defined as inherent character or basic constitution, also as the external world in its entirety.

So, nature is everything outside? This makes it seem as if nature includes plants and animals in all exterior spaces; parks, conservation areas, recreation areas, plazas, any exterior space.

Let’s dive deeper.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives us a more interesting definition:

“All of the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all of the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.”

That’s a mouthful. Even offers a definition that refers to nature as a phenomena of the physical world void of the human impact or hand. That is one heck of a lens in order for us to focus upon the  authenticity of nature.

According to this definition, nature is a state of untouched beauty. Although there are still places on Earth that have not been touched by humans directly, it is important to note the impacts upon the planet are never localized to our physical footprint. Thus we must consider that our impact upon these “natural” processes is felt well beyond where we live. Small things done locally have impacts on a global scale, and can alter the future.

In 2016, the Washington Post published an article about “untouched nature”. The article notes the impact humans have had upon the earth, and also how untouched landscapes haven’t really existed for thousands of years. Of course the validity of this perspective depends on your definition of human impact and how you judge the human footprint, but the discussion brings other questions to light.

If we are all part of nature, what is the tipping point where technological advancements and the accompanying wastes related to these systems warrant the label of “unnatural”? Is it mass farming? Species extinction? Animal husbandry and domestication? Hybridization and species introduction? The Industrial Revolution and fossil fuel usage? What were the anthropological moves that started this deterioration of the pristine landscape?

I propose instead of searching for an authentic, pristine nature of yesterday, designers should adopt the responsibility to protect the clean air, water, land, and species still existing today. We should take the opportunity to understand what works in these new environments we have created, specifically what is adaptable and what is resilient.

I did not answer the question, did I? Truthfully, I never really wanted to. My goal was to offer a departure point for the reader to discover their own definition. Like life and love, it is more important for each of us to develop our own definition and meaning, back it up, and finally believe in it. It’s in our best interest and nature.

Village Of Yorkville Park; Photo by Duncan Rawlinson (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Situated in one of the wealthiest retail districts in Toronto is Village of Yorkville Park, an urban open space just over an acre in size. This small neighbourhood park lends itself as the front door plaza to high-end retail, capping the Bloor Subway line, and directly abutting a parking garage. Because of its location, Yorkville Park experiences a high volume of traffic. This park brings up questions about the role of landscape architects in making nature more accessible for urban environments, the impact of post-modernism and contemporary design ideals in landscape design, and the need of a designer ecology.

“Designer ecology, while valid and desirable in urban contexts for many reasons, is not operational ecology; it does not program, facilitate, or ultimately permit the emergence and evolution of self-organizing, resilient ecological systems—a basic requirement for long-term sustainability.” – Nina-Marie Lister


The design we see today is the result of a 1994 Design Competition won by a team of Landscape Architecture Stars. Conceptually, the park is a Victorian keepsake box of Canada’s pristine nature. This nature reserve is realized with a highly designed selection of some of Canada’s natural features: a birch grove, a pine forest, a wild meadow, and of course, a massive rock plucked from the Canadian shield.

Photos by Clarence Lacy

Yorkville Park’s designer ecology, 2006; “Sustainable Large Parks: Ecological Design or Designer Ecology?” by Nina-Marie Lister

To find some answers I turned to Nina-Marie Lister – graduate program director and associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning. Lister’s academic piece, “Sustainable Large Parks : Ecological Design or Designer Ecology?” examines designing natural systems and landscape around existing ecologies in large park design. Lister also explains how a highly designed “clean” version of natural ecology – “designer ecology” – may be more appropriate for smaller and more fragmented landscapes.

Lister’s wrote that piece back in 2006, the height of the landscape urbanism movement. Landscape architects were searching for ways to validate designs extending ecologies into cities. Assisted by very sexy and evocative images, ranging from the infamous minimal lone coyote collage, to illegible “complexity” diagrams, the landscape architect took more time explaining and researching ecology than actually designing them.

Small spaces do not have the capacity to host 180 species of migratory birds, 3 wolf species, and 18 threatened plant species, so maybe Yorkville Park makes sense. I don’t have the answers, and I’m sure Kanye would reiterate that point if I ever got the chance to interview him. (I hope you all got that reference).

My personal critique of Yorkville Park and this era of early contemporary landscape design is how clean and selective it is. I really would have loved if the birch grove had a supporting understory, and if the wildflower meadow actually appeared more than a collection of urban weeds (maybe some small woody species interspersed?).

I was charged as a student to create a critique video formulating a critical look of designer ecology intended as a melange of components intended to form something larger, but a solution missing a few key ingredients – and a proper reparation in response. The video uses jump cuts and free associative symbolism, reinforcing the discontinuous and referential nature of this type of design within the urban landscape.

Warning the video is slightly gross and mildy graphic.

I hope no one is offended. Yorkville Park is a great space, a great example of this notion of designer ecology.