Posts by Cristhian Barajas

The visual preference survey (VPS) was originally developed as a public consultation tool by urban visionary, Anton Nelessen in the 70s. They’ve remained a ubiquitous tool used within the planning and design fields for evaluating individual components of future built environments. Though originated as an appraisal planning instrument for decision-making, VPS continues today as a participatory design and research tool with valuable applications, with some caveats.

Photo manipulation based survey comparing planting alternatives for a pocket park, conventional vegetation (left side) against xeriscaping (right side). All images:  Cristhian Barajas

We have all seen some form or derivation of these surveys. They use distinct photographs to illustrate and present different proposals, illustrating the options a project can take, while specifying individual design or program elements. Traditionally, there has been a distinction between the conventional approach using non-uniform sets of photographs and photo-manipulated VPS – academically, the latter receiving more praise for their more accurate representations.

Photo manipulation-based VPS are more suitable for academic research exercises, and for projects presenting a narrower spectrum of possibilities. The level of skill they take and the fee-consuming time associated with their production renders them not viable for ordinary practice. But when utilized using common photographs easily collected online, VPS remains a flexible tool offering endless applications, invaluable for projects requiring a component of public engagement.

A photograph-based visual preference survey comparing different types of benches using wood slats in many ways.

How VPS Benefit Projects and the Public

VPS is most valuable when establishing a system of criteria to filter the public’s likes and preferences, and also to shape design decisions operating under a common language between project participants. Factors evaluated may include: materials, colors, shapes, sizes, layouts, styles and functions. Theoretically, the surveys are meant to democratically represent what the stakeholders and users want. However, there are some inherent flaws capable of jeopardizing the public’s objective perception.

Criticisms associated with VPS include their ability to be used as a manipulation tool, alongside their use in engaging in disinformation. Manipulation refers to designers and/or developers who purposely enhance or position design preferences from a favored vantage point over and above the rest of other options. Disinformation refers to biased activity shaped by inaccurately presented options or through the use of higher-quality images to promote favored results.

All photographs are subject to factors like lighting, weather, composition, context, angle, zoom and resolution – each a powerful determinant with the potential to shift the viewer’s reaction toward either a negative or positive rating.

The visual preference survey above does not present consistently sized photographs, strongly favoring those with a higher hierarchy. Similarly, images of some water features may be deemed less appealing due to the captured angle, lighting, or context present.

In the second part of What Are Visual Preference Surveys and Why They Matter, I’ll explore another pitfall related to the use of visual preference surveys, and recommend several do’s and don’ts when utilizing this valuable public assessment tool.


I realize I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable when commercial and institutional projects describe themselves as an ‘ecosystem restoration’ project. Such undertakings often emphasize the importance of native flora, while attempting to control the overall flow of its fauna because it might endanger the public and also drive their maintenance staff crazy.

Human interests have long been a hindrance to the cycles of nature. Even the resilient design mantra “working with nature” suggests we choose which aspects of nature to collaborate with and which should be controlled for our own purposes and interests.

Though I don’t agree with most of his worldview, the late 90s comedian George Carlin found an effective way of criticizing and exposing cultural mindsets harmful to the environment. Carlin’s humor used exaggeration to fashion crude, yet eloquent stories criticizing irrational human behavior.

Inspired by Carlin, the following is my take about stereotypical speciesism:

“I love taking a walk around the neighborhood with Pesky, my wolfdog; quite a beautiful dog but sometimes he misbehaves. That has changed since he’s now wearing a shock collar during the day. He’s great protecting the new barn from foxes and coyotes, though I can’t say much about chasing rabbits…those creatures.They creep under the bear fence just to eat from my garden – good thing I’m switching now to rabbit and deer-resistant plants. Oh, and mosquito-repellent plants, of course!

That’s another ordeal: bugs. I had to install those bulb-like refracting spheres to scare the flies away from the premises. Looks pretty when they catch the light, but it’s a pain when they fall and break. [Dog barking in the background]

I guess spraying pesticides isn’t enough nowadays, they’re growing more and more resilient every time. I have about three different sprays just for june bugs, bees, and mosquitos. Butterflies are fine, I guess, since I am protecting most of plants with netting. But moths are a different story. I’ve been hoping that some birds would just land on my property to get rid of them, but birds represent an even more troublesome deal! I had to install bird spikes all over my house because it seems to me those doves love nesting around here. [Dog barking in the background]

I’m afraid I will have to get rid of my collection of Purple Martins too, those Starling-Resistant Entrance Holes did work for a while, but now I just don’t want any kind of bird around my house – I’m sick of them. Good thing my friend Rob got me that sweet solar-powered sonic bird repeller, since the bird reflector mirrors were not doing much about it, so we’ll see. [Dog barking in the background. Rob uses dog dazer to stop Pesky’s barking] All my neighbors are doing the same, that’s what I like about it here: we’re all on the same page.»

All I want to do is to raise the question: When, how much, and to what extent should we keep denying the fauna of a place for refuge in our future developments?

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.

Photography that reconciles poetry and minimalism with the natural landscape is unusual. Calvin’s exploration of the snowy Japanese landscape of Biei captures what happens when you successfully compose with these concepts in mind – stunning photographs reminding us the landscape does not always need to be fully grown, alive, colorful, nor complex to visually trigger catharsis.

The photographs are a visual documentation of life struggling in harsh conditions, each photograph of the beautiful landscape carrying a weight and deeper layer of meaning, evoking hope and perseverance. I believe everyone – perhaps unconsciously – can grasp and identify with this feeling: no matter how cold or difficult the situation around us, we can still aspire toward simplicity and beauty.

The original post here: Biei – “A Silent Landscape”

A traditional two-step altar with a modern touch.Creative Commons Photo:Luis Rojas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Tomorrow, November 2nd, marks Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – a long observed Mesoamerican tradition born from a marriage of indigenous folklore and the pre-existing All Soul’s Day Catholic festivities. The holiday began as syncretic practice, later evolving into a clear example of enculturation. Its celebration has long been a recognizable part of the Mexican-American experience and woven into the Los Angeles cultural landscape.

Traditional altars are set up during Dia de los Muertos to honor and prayer for the souls of the dead, each equipped with an arrangement of necessary spiritual and physical accessories to aid the deads’ transition to the afterlife. Below is a list of the most common components of a Dia de los Muertos altar.

Photo by Lemad.resaeva (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fragrances, plants and flowers

The infusion of some flowers and herbs like bay leaf, thymus vulgaris, rosemary, and chamomile in a pot covered by a prickly-pear cactus leaf is said to produce a pleasing fragrance that helps guide souls back to Earth. Other aromas like copal resin and incense are also used.

The key component of a Day of the Dead altar is the floristic color, prominently characterized by the Mexican/Aztec Marigold (Targetes erecta). Their colors may vary, ranging from white, pink, yellow, or orange. Its flowers are used to form shapes and platters to make the altar more attractive; the flowers are often combined with other plants like the Chenille Plant (Acalypha hispida) and Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila paniculata). Other flowers not native to Mexico, like birds of paradise and tulips are also used to add to the color themes of the altar arrangements.

Another element is the inclusion of an ‘arched portal’ at the top level made out of vegetation using reeds, ferns or ferns. The portal symbolizes the entrance or gateway to the netherworld.

Here is the Targes erecta, the characteristic flower that surrounds all ‘Dia de Muertos’ representations of altars. Creative Commons photo: Ana Rodriguez Carrington (CC BY 2.0)

Sugar skulls
With the importation of sugar into the New World, the indigenous people of Mexico began sculpting sugar in the shape of skulls to portray their beloved departed.

Steps or Levels
Steps are used to represent the dualist perspective of the physical world, both sky and ground. When three levels are used, each level represents a plane of the spiritual world: Heaven, Earth & Purgatory (or the netherworld = Hades or Sheol in Hebrew [שְׁאוֹל]). Seven levels references the Seven Deadly Sins faced and overcome during a lifetime.

Papel Picado
The Aztecs used amate bark paper for carving or painting figures, deities, and sceneries as a codex. With the introduction of other paper types by the Spaniards, the indigenous population began using other colors and patterns. Yellow and purple symbolize purity and grief respectively, but other colors are used commonly as well.

The element of fire is represented using candles, their flame believed to be essential to guide the souls toward their afterlife journey. Some people arrange candles in the shape of the cross or to point out the four cardinal directions.

A glass of water is meant to satiate the thirst of the souls. Mayans believed cenotes (sinkholes) were sacred entries to the netherworld, therefore some altars include a larger receptacle of water symbolizing cenotes.

The earthly plane is represened with fruits, seeds, spices, and other objects extracted from nature. Usually, corn kernel and cocoa beans are used to form artistic patterns at the foot of the altar. The arrangement also connotates a connection with the Book of Genesis/Bereshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית) and its devotion, “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.

Since the journey of the dead is deemed long and difficult, the family of the deceased usually cooks his/her favorite meal, offering it as pleasing sustenance for their journey. Traditional food like mole, pozole, tacos, and tamales are often depicted, representative of Mexican cuisine. Pan de muertos (“bread of the dead”) is another important and characteristic component on its own, representing the bones and the tears of those souls seeking rest.

Some candles, sugar skulls, pottery and food are placed surrounded by flowers. Creative Commons photo: Angelica Portales (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other elements
Families may also place personal items of the deceased like clothing, favorite objects, etc. at the altar. Some even quietly play the deceased’s favorite music while the altar is up.

Religious items may include imagery, rosaries, crucifixes, etc. while others add sculptures like the traditional black Itzcuintli Dog believed to guide souls across the Itzcuintlan River in the netherworld. For the same reason, coins supposedly made out of gold are placed at the altar – the fee to pay the boatman Caronte to sail his/her soul to the other side of the river.

Want to know more? The Chicago Tribune just shared a great post about the Anatomy of a Day of the Dead altar we highly recommend checking out.


Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

Looking back at my favorite memories during landscape architecture studies at Cal Poly Pomona, I realize they all happened outdoors – field trips that help further reinforce my understanding of design through context, content, and intent. During this period I found an opportunity to take part in a few courses that at their very core encouraged students to really understand the site, its surroundings, and the regional ecosystem that provide us with landscape resources.

Here are a few memories from these field trips that helped me grow as a landscape designer.

This photo was taken at Mt. Baldy’s chaparral and coniferous vegetation for our plant ecology class. During another field trip I also had the opportunity to go to Evey Canyon and compare both ecosystems, admiring how much the landscape can change in such short distance.

A couple of pictures from my visit to the Huntington Library, where I came to learn more about world gardens. I was especially captivated by the Japanese and Chinese gardens because of their beauty.

In another class, alongside learning about landscape design techniques, we were given the opportunity to visit real life examples of successful interventions as reference for future projects like the Audubon Center shown above. The Audubon Center illustrates how to create a wildlife-friendly garden.

A pair of fun photographic memories captured during a trip to the Bay Area as part of an urban residential development. The resulting product happened to be featured in Nadia Amoroso’s recent book “Representing Landscapes: Hybrid” (p. 295) as an example of a large scale illustrative plan.

This final photo was taken during a camping trip to Owens Lake, where we came face to face with a shocking lesson about the real cost of comfort and its consequences upon the landscape. The Los Angeles Aqueduct literally dried this once pristine lake, and now landscape architecture firms like AHBE alongside civil engineering companies are dedicated to dust mitigation tasks through site interventions.