Posts by Wendy Chan

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.

Photos: Wendy Chan

My entire perspective of the urban landscape changed one day while studying to become a landscape architect. I had decided to take a course titled, Plant Identification, with the hopes of improving my knowledge of everything growing around me. Before this class, I did not know the names of the plants and trees commonly found growing within the urban environment of Los Angeles. I came out with an entirely different view of the world.

Through the course of three quarters, we learned about the native origins, habits, scientific names, and characteristics of various plants and trees that thrive across several Southern California ecosystems. We also spent class sessions walking through campus with the purpose of identifying and discussing plants, with supplementary visits to botanical gardens, nurseries, and native habitats to strengthen our understanding of what, where, and how plants grow in urban environments. The Plant Identification course turned out to be my favorite class throughout my term as a student in the landscape architecture program. The tree that was once simply referred to as the “tree with pink flowers and spikes across its trunk” became Chorsia speciosa, aka the Floss Silk Tree; I now knew its South American origins and preferred habitat, alongside the protective nature of those spikes across its trunk evolved to “keep Amazonian animals, especially monkeys, from chewing on the trunks“. The class entirely changed my perspective and perception of the landscape.

During the span of this class I began to recognize my perception of the landscape was previously quite narrow. The only trees I could readily identify were those already associated with personal memories, those growing edible fruits, or ones connected with a spatial experience. The most easily identifiable trees were tied to childhood memories: the avocado tree, jujube tree, pomelo tree, and the mulberry tree. An avocado tree growing in my neighbor’s yard during my childhood would occasionally drop their creamy fruit over onto our yard, allowing us to make various recipes using the ripe fruit. The jujube trees were planted by our landlord; we would harvest them as snacks, drying some out to use later in soups. The leaves of the pomelo tree were gathered by my mother as she walked me to school; she would tie them in bunches to use in a bath – a traditional Chinese medicinal and spiritual practice believed to ward off evil spirits. The leaves of the mulberry tree were harvested for my science project, to feed my family of ravenous silkworm caterpillars.

Ever since this change in perspective, I can’t help but dissect the various layers of the landscape everywhere I go, with various layers of thought processes that lead me to asking: “What kind of tree is that? How does the landscape enhance the experience? Is it a habitat for animals? How often does it shed its bark?”

I now often find a desire to photograph plants and trees while hiking, walking around neighborhoods, or while traveling, all with the purpose of identifying them later. You never know when photos of the landscape can be used in a future project, or when they may again lead to a change in perspective about the landscape all around us.

When my parents moved to California, they settled down just east of Chinatown in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. At that time, my parents decided to settle there due to it’s close proximity to Chinatown and the relatively affordable rent. I spent a good part of my childhood exploring the neighborhood, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to truly appreciate the walkability Chinatown offers.

What makes Chinatown so walking friendly?

I believe it’s partially attributed to the Chinese culture, but also because of the dense residential layouts, short blocks, human scaled storefronts, and most importantly, the small businesses that serve the community. There’s a wide variety of shops ranging from family owned supermarkets, herb shops, seafood, eateries, bakeries, clothiers, and many more serving the tight knit community. Growing up, my parents did all of their shopping and errands within a few square miles. We purchased our birthday cakes at Queen Bakery and Phoenix Bakery, brought our produce at Ai Hoa Supermarket, and picked up fresh chicken from the local poultry shop.

But the small businesses environment in Chinatown is changing. There is now a mixture of new and old businesses that co-exist together, each serving different demographics, both culturally and generationally. The younger generation has moved away from Chinatown, leaving an increasingly elderly immigrant population that relies heavily upon the shops and services for their daily needs.

All photos: Wendy Chan

Amongst the high rise buildings of Downtown Los Angeles are several hidden oases where one can enjoy their lunch, relax, and escape outdoors. There are many privately owned public spaces in Downtown that are hidden, each tucked in between buildings and terrace levels. Privately owned public spaces are publicly accessible plazas that building owners or developers provide in exchange for modification to the local zoning policy. For example, a developer is allowed to increase their leasable floor areas with higher buildings if they provide an outdoor space for the public. But some of these privately owned public spaces aren’t truly “public” due the plaza being locked from the public after work hours; security personal have the option to escort undesirable individuals from these supposed public spaces.

Follow the blue line…

One such terrace plaza space is located between The California Bank and Trust & KPMG building on the corner of 6th and Hope Street. The entrance is located on Hope Street and is accessible by a stairway with a blue line going through the center, leading visitors up to the terrace plaza and Sun Disk.

This plaza is enhanced with a public art component, part of the Public Art Program, organized by the Community Redevelopment Agency, and commissioned by Obayashi America Corporation with the Koll Company. The public art piece is called “Site /Memory / Reflection”. The plaque at the entrance reads, “A single work of art, “Site / Memory / Reflection consists of a numerous sculptural and architectural elements in alignment with each other. These elements draw a site together, relate it to the imagery of the Central Library, and suggest a spiritual universal whole.”

The art pieces were conceived by Lita Albuquerque in collobration with Kohn/Pederson/Fox, Langdon Wilson Architects, The SWA Group, Lonny Gans Associates, and Peter Carlson Enterprise.

The plaza is a great lunch spot, offering a shaded refuge from the sun and surrounding urban sounds of Downtown, mostly drowned out by a water feature named the Hemisphere Fountain. I often observe office workers enjoying their lunches here, conversing with their co-workers, with other Downtown denizens reading or lounging by themselves. The plaza does not appear to be gated from the Hope Street entrance, but there is a gate where the terrace plaza connects to the Central Library. The plaza is fairly quiet with ample seating, and a recommended escape during the summer heat (but it can be a bit chilly during the colder months).

Check out this public plaza oasis the next time you are looking for a spot to eat your lunch in Downtown Los Angeles!


Grinnell Glacier with Salamander Glacier. The glaciers were once connected, measuring 710 acres in whole in 1850, but now have separated separated. Between 1966 and 2005, Grinnell Glacier lost about 40% of its acreage, and was last measured at just 220 acres in 1993. Photo: Wendy Chan

A couple of weeks ago I attended, “Our National Parks at 100: Confronting Change and Committing to Science”, a public lecture hosted by the UCLA LA Kretz Center. The event invited speakers from the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and Santa Monica National Recreation Area to give the public an overview of how the NPS is responding to climate change.

The NPS efforts to confront the challenges of climate change are focused in these four areas:

Science: Using science to help us manage.
Adaptation: Adapting to an uncertain future.
Mitigation: Reduce carbon footprint within the national parks.
Communication: Educating visitors about climate change.

During the talk some of the NPS presenters were asked how the new Trump administration is affecting how the NPS responds to climate change and management of the parks.

The National Parks themselves exhibit the realities of climate change: shifting mitigation patterns, coastal erosions, disappearing glaciers, and changing plant communities and biodiversity. One of the things that was evident from the lecture is that the NPS depends heavily on science and research; the data gathered by scientists and partnering agencies is used in the decision making process and management within National Parks in regards to climate change.

On my way home from the lecture, I thought of my favorite National Park to date, Glacier National Park in Montana. Named after its glaciers, the health of Glacier National Park’s ecosystems are directly threatened by climate change. In 1850, there was a recorded 150 glaciers inside the boundaries of Glacier NP. Today, only 25 remain, and they’re all shrinking. It’s estimated that by 2030 these remaining glaciers will entirely disappear from the park.

In order to track the rate of which the glaciers are shrinking, scientist are taking GPS data points at various points across the glaciers. One of the valuable tools for communicating the effects of global warming on the glaciers is repeat photography. The comparison between historic images of the glaciers taken decades ago to their current state is shocking, and a testament to the urgency of action to preserve our environment for future generations.

Left: Grinnell Glacier 1938 (T.J. Hileman). Right: Grinnell Glacier 2009 (Lindsey Bengstson)

To learn more about various case studies within the NPS, I recommend watching the video series,
The Science of Climate Change in NP Video Series.

April is World Landscape Architecture Month, an international celebration of landscape architecture. WLAM introduces the profession to the public by highlighting landscape architect-designed spaces around the world. Today we visit Seoul, Korea to highlight the transformation of Cheonggyecheon River from concrete waterway to a revitalized urban park.

Photos by Wendy Chan

I like to visit urban parks while on vacation. Visiting parks allow me the opportunities to people watch and observe how different cultures use and interact within public open spaces, especially in dense cities where open space is often rare, but easily accessible by public transit.

I recently visited Cheonggyecheon, a 3.6-mile-long stream corridor located in downtown Seoul, South Korea that attracts over 60,000 visitors daily. For years, the Cheonggyecheon stream was paved over with concrete with an elevated highway built above it. But recently, the government removed the roadway and transformed the once concrete channel into a public open space. The stream was restored with vegetation, walkways, stages, crossings, water play, and seating areas, creating a multifunctional and sustainable public space for the citizens of Seoul.

Conceptual site plan presented in 2002 by the Research Center Director of the Seoul Development Institute, Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The Cheonggyecheon River is supplemented by potable water pumped from the Han River, but the benefits to the surrounding community, biodiversity, and quality of life is still apparent. Depending upon the access point, visitors can experience a slowly changing landscape – from an urban experience with concrete walls and edges to a more natural stream experience. The redesign kept remnants of the highway that once covered the stream. Art, historical photos, and monuments of cultural significance related to the stream were integrated in the design.

The park never closes. I’ve visited the park during the day, but also during the late evening and early morning. No matter the hour, I’ve always felt safe walking through Cheonggyecheon. The urban park is heavily populated at all hours with people leisurely walking, exercising, and commuting to their destination without having to worry about cars. While walking the Cheonggyecheon’s length I thought of our own Los Angeles River, an urban waterway slowly undergoing a similar transformation from an inaccessible concrete channel to a thriving open space. My only interaction growing up with the Los Angeles River was through the backseat car window driving across the Broadway Street Bridge in Lincoln Heights. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be if Angelenos one day are able to access the entire river from start to end at the ocean, our very own version of Cheonggyecheon River linear park.