Posts by Jenni Zell

All photos: Jenni Zell

By developing a biodiversity report of my home (Zell_2018 Biodiversity Report_Part 2), I have made the following observations and conclusions.

1. Generalist species like the honey bee, squirrel and raven, thrive in my garden.
2. Plants from all the world’s continents except Antarctica, live in my garden.
3. My garden contains plants I selected and cultivated for one or more of the following reasons: beauty (to my eye), fragrance (to my nose), food production (for me, my family and neighbors), ease of maintenance, or to feed my curiosity.
4. My garden is anthropocentric.

What I have missed in cultivating a garden is how it supports life other than mine. The orchids did not evolve their exquisite fragrance for my olfactory pleasure, but to lure a pollinator likely thousands of miles away. I have been a good student of Aristotle and Linnaeus and can name, classify and sort living things, but I have learned and applied less of the lessons taught by teachers and philosophers of the Pre-Socratic and Romanic periods. It is time to discover the invisible (to me) interrelationships between non-human organisms. “Then approach nature, then try like the first human being to say what you see and experience and live and lose.” Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

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These orchids in bloom smell like warm honey. (All photo: Jenni Zell)

Did you know the city of Los Angeles lies within a global biodiversity hotspot? I did not, at least until Australian landscape architect and academic Richard Weller presented his Atlas for the End of the World at USC in 2016. Weller’s presentation – combined with the call to action embedded in the books, The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humbolt’s New World and The Sixth Extinction an Unnatural History – challenged me to reevaluate my concept of nature. The presentation and books also helped aid my understanding of the richness of species and endemism of the place I’ve practiced landscape architecture and called home for most of my life.

Click here to see my entire 2018 Biodiversity Report (PDF).

Last month, the city of Los Angeles published their 2018 Biodiversity Report, which makes LA the first city in the United States to measure biodiversity using the Singapore Index. The report represents an important first step toward protecting and enhancing biodiversity, establishing a baseline measurement to compare change over time. The body of the report also establishes a framework for building a customized Los Angeles Index, pointing the way forward in the utilization of published academic journals about biodiversity to help develop, fund, and implement both policies and projects.

Landscape architects share responsibility for the homogenization and dramatic reduction of native biodiversity in developed areas, and in turn, play a substantial role in restoring and strengthening biodiversity in urban, suburban, and agricultural areas, both in the role of policy development and its implementation.

This convergence of conviction and new acquired knowledge inspired me to create a biodiversity report of my own home. The first step in the scientific method is observation, so what better way to gain a more complete understanding and appreciation of the value of biodiversity reports than applying it to the world immediately around me.

 


 

Awaiting these ripening figs to be gathered soon for breakfast.

Epiphyte hanging by my front door

Dyckias and cobweb hena and chicks.

Native California verbena and dudleya.

An annual poppy being visited by a honey bee.

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All photos: Jenni Zell

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is their effects upon the way I see and experience the world. Last month I viewed the exhibition, “Robert Irwin: Site Determined” at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach. The exhibit focused on the artist’s luminous and arresting drawings and architectural models. In fact, I have never seen drafting as beautiful and precise as Irwin’s. It is not for want of looking. Last weekend I saw Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes and a few of LeWitt’s wall drawings at SFMOMA. The works felt like formal and conceptual warm-up exercises to Irwin’s site determined works. Creating art that exists outside the domain of a frame and the walls of a gallery and instead in the perceptions of a viewer, is the legacy of Irwin’s body of work.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how his art continues to develop along a trajectory he set out for himself early in his career, one grounded in the philosophy of phenomenology. At 89, Irwin continues to create influential new works. His installation at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas was completed in 2015. At my ripening age his example motivates me to push myself – not toward some predetermined outcome or achievement, but to follow my own inquiry.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how it informs and guides my work as a landscape architect. Several years ago I had the good fortune to deep dive into Irwin’s body of work. I read the books, visited all the installations and exhibits, spent a week (wearing white cotton gloves) reading and looking through the Robert Irwin Papers at the Getty Research Institute. I have interviewed Irwin, and listened to and transcribed these conservations. He is a warm, approachable, and generous teacher.

One particular conservation with Irwin I transcribed took place at the University of Alabama on March 29, 2007 and remains particularly memorable and representative of what I like most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin:

“What I am trying to test, or the game I am playing doing a garden and being an architect and all that is … what I try and do in that situation is make what I do respond to all those things which are existing cues and I do not invent or design anything. I pay attention to those existing cues and finally assemble them… the thing I am really involved with is not just changing or making a garden, but changing the whole process of how we make it a garden, conceptually to make things different in the world, and that is where I am going.”

Image: AHBE Landscape Architects

Graphic: AHBE Landscape Architects

This month Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Los Angeles will be joining the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, revealing our first citywide Resilience Strategy. In addition, the mayor signed an executive directive to create Chief Resilience Officers, new positions for leading the way in taking steps to make Los Angeles a more resilient and stronger city. The Rockefeller Foundation has been taking charge in supporting governments, residents, agencies and designers to reimagine solutions to the complex problems facing our cities today.

By joining the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, the city of Los Angeles taps into the momentum of other places sharing common problems and solutions. After Hurricane Katrina, a strong partnership was forged between engineers, designers, and policy makers from the Netherlands to address water disaster issues and to plan in Louisiana. Similarly, The Bay Area Resilient By Design is forging new knowledge and solutions to strengthen the region’s resilience to sea level rise, severe storms, flooding and earthquakes. AHBE submitted a proposal with Tetra Tech, Restoration Design Group, and Professor Barry Lehrman of Cal Poly Pomona (view our video here), working together to create small-scale implementable, testable, and scalable strategies for sea level rise.

A still from Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge by Evan Mather for AHBE Landscape Architects.

Southern California can learn from the research and site-specific design proposal generated by the Bay Area Resilient By Design initiative. These privately funded efforts and partnerships with local research universities are a force in creating a vision for mitigation and adaptation challenges facing our communities. We hope to see similar collaborations between the scientific and design communities addressing the issues specific to Los Angeles and Southern California coastal cities.

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Jessica, Jenni, Chuan, and Wendy searching for sea turtles along the San Gabriel River. Photos by Jenni Zell.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of exploring the Lower San Gabriel River and Los Cerritos Wetlands with colleagues, students, and Professor Barry Lehrman of Cal Poly Pomona. We abandoned our computers for the day to  set out to explore the waterways by kayak, bicycle, and on foot with the express purpose of direct and unmediated experience of this landscape, and also to collect primary perceptions to inform meaningful design.

I was there for adventure and to provide support AHBE’s collaborative studio with fourth-year landscape architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona. The students are spending their winter term exploring the speculative transformation of the AES Alamitos and the DWP Haynes power generating facilities from fossil fuel burning behemoths into something still yet unimagined (my colleague Brett Miller wrote about the collaboration).

Jessica and Chuan in the San Gabriel River channel. Photos by Jenni Zell.

The AHBE staff is playing a mentorship role again, collaborating with the senior Cal Poly Pomona studio to work together on a Long Beach remediation project exploring …

As we rode our bicycles along the levee of the soft-bottomed channel of the San Gabriel River we witnessed dozens of large silvery fish jumping out of the river with the seeming symmetry and choreography of a Busby Berkeley dance. Biologist Eric Zahn later informed me the fish were striped mullet, a species of fish commonly found in coastal estuaries and in the lower reaches of coastal streams.

Wendy and Chuan stopping to check out where the river channel transitions from a concrete lined waterway to a soft-bottomed flow.

But, why were these fish jumping? Striped mullet are known to feed on organic detritus like diatoms, bacteria, and micro-invertebrates. The fish were not trying to catch insects for food; and unlike topsmelt, which jump to avoid being eaten, the stripped mullet are about 18” and 3 pounds in size and had little need to jump to escape predators. According to Eric, we don’t really know why the fish jump.

During our bicycle ride we also observed several Pacific green sea turtles, a docile species occasionally found swimming in the San Gabriel River.

It is essential for landscape architects to know the occurrence and distribution of plant and animal communities in order to protect and restore critical ecosystem functions and to better understand how plants and animals respond to various conditions. The relationship between ecological science and design must be strengthened in our profession. AHBE’s collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona students is one effort to focus on the complex infrastructure of human modification and natural systems.