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Architecture Special Coverage

Surveying the Landscape

Robert Ryan

Robert Ryan stands on the green roof of the John W. Olver Design Building.


It’s called Valley on Board.

The effort is part of a federally funded project by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) that involves a comprehensive assessment and strategic planning of transportation routes, services, and facilities throughout the region, one that aims to inform the design of a sustainable transit system to support economic vitality across the Pioneer Valley into the future.

One goal of Valley on Board (VoB) is to develop a route redesign that will serve the PVTA and the Pioneer Valley for at least 20 years into the future while achieving goals such as increased ridership, improved efficiency, and enhanced accessibility and equity of the system.

Since the summer of 2021, graduate students under the guidance of Camille Barchers, assistant professor of Regional Planning at UMass Amherst, have been working with the PVTA on the VoB initiative.

“They did many, many public participation activities to get people’s feedback across the region about what they wanted, what’s working, what’s not working. And they also did mapping of routes to find what areas are served and what areas can be served better,” said Robert Ryan, professor and chair of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP), the innovative, cross-disciplinary department at UMass whose graduates — and, often, current students — are impacting communities everywhere in disciplines like urban planning, sustainable living, climate resilience, transportation planning, and others.

“Landscape architects are licensed by the state to do work on designing landscapes — it could be with a building, without a building, campus-planning work, stormwater management, schoolyard design, streetscapes, large-scale open-space planning, that sort of thing,” Ryan explained. “Regional planning is for students who may want to work as municipal planners in the Commonwealth or with a regional planning agency or as a planning consultant; it’s similar to an urban planning degree.”

The Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department provides professionally accredited degrees (MRP, MLA, BSLA); a sustainable community development degree that UMass touts as one of the most innovative sustainability-focused undergraduate degrees in the country; a skills-based, two-year associate of landscape contracting degree; and a PhD in regional planning. The department’s website claims that “we research, design, teach, and do community outreach to create sustainable solutions to complex problems.”

To that end, students have worked on greenway rail-trail projects in the region, new park and plaza design and redevelopment, residential design, office-plaza design, and public work for cities and towns, Ryan said, through entities like the UMass Design Center in Springfield, which engages in research and projects to create healthier, more sustainable, more walkable cities.

“That’s the landscape-architecture side,” he went on. “On the planning side, they might work on transportation planning, economic development, or land-use planning for a municipality. Certainly in this region, you often find you’re working in places that are built, so it might be a redevelopment project within a larger town or city.”

Students work on climate-change adaptation planning as well, Ryan said. “With the impact climate change is having everywhere, how can we adapt to that changing climate? And how do we sort of mitigate climate impacts by the development we’re doing?”

He said a combined Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department may be uncommon in secondary education, but the projects and issues students and graduates tackle lend credence to the model. And those issues are only becoming more prominent.

“The way that municipalities approach this sort of thing has created an evolution of the program as well,” he told BusinessWest. “When you look at city planning these days, the importance of sustainability and some of the environmental focus have shifted in just the time I’ve been here. There are so many sustainability officers doing hazard-vulnerability plans for municipalities, doing climate-change vulnerability plans. I think cities are more attuned to that impact and how they should plan for it.”

Cities are particularly interested in alternative transportation, he noted, from bike lanes and enhanced train and bus service to creating more pedestrian access and walkable downtowns.

“The master planning for many cities is to make them more walkable and use more public transportation to make it more habitable. That’s an equity issue and a safety issue as well, because if you don’t own a car, or you can’t afford a car, and you need to take the bus and then walk to work or school, then you need a safe place to do that. There are a lot of federal funds and state funds to help cities do that.”


Evolving Picture

Graduates of LARP work in a number of intriguing fields, some of them centered on climate resilience.

“That’s what I’m most involved in,” Ryan said. “Green infrastructure is using natural systems to clean stormwater to provide climate-change adaptation to cool urban cities, to deal with water cleansing, that sort of thing. That’s a big issue in a lot of our cities that have EPA declarations; we have to clean the water up in the city, to kind of capture stormwater and treat it — instead of a catchbasin, using natural systems like ponds and pools to collect it, allowing sediment to drain out and cleaning the water before it goes into natural water bodies.”

The John W. Olver Design Building, which houses LARP (more on that later), is a good example, he explained. “There’s water that comes off our roof and adjacent parking lots, and then it’s treated in these rain gardens, these sort of swales around the building.”

Some cities are also making an effort toward urban greening, he added, planting more trees along streets to cool the city and make it more aesthetically pleasing for pedestrians.

Another specialized focus for LARP students is preservation of cultural landscapes, such as cemeteries, historic homes, and state parks. Students have been able to work with the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, and state historical groups on such issues.

“As landscapes change, trees grow, things fall down outside, so can you restore that landscape to something that might have been historically?” Ryan asked, pointing to recent efforts in Franklin Park in Boston as one example. “It was designed over 140 years ago. So there’s parts of that park that have changed over time. So which part do you preserve, and which part can you redevelop? Which parts do you change?”

Many students also develop a passion for biodiversity, he added.

“Can we change the design aesthetic of what’s been planted around our buildings and landscapes to plant more native plants and species that will then promote the biodiversity that’s native to the region? You can have your lawn, which is nice and beautiful, but doesn’t have a lot of biodiversity associated with it, or you can replace it with something that’s native plants and trees, and you can increase the biodiversity associated with that.”

The Olver Design Building reflects that priority as well; it’s a former parking lot that how boasts a green roof featuring native plants. But it’s much more than that.

Touted by UMass as the most technologically advanced cross-laminated timber (CLT) building in the country, the structure opened in 2017 to house three academic units: the department of Architecture, the Building and Construction Technology Program, and LARP.

Built of CLT timber and glue-laminated columns, the 87,000-square-foot facility saves the equivalent of over 2,300 metric tons of carbon when compared to a traditional energy-intensive steel and concrete building. It is one of just two buildings in North America using CLT for wind and seismic resistance.

The building has won numerous awards since its opening, from the WoodWorks Wood Design Awards, where it won Jury’s Choice for Wood Innovation, to the American Institute for Architecture’s (AIA) Committee on the Environment Top Ten Awards. Most recently, the AIA cited the building again with one of its 2023 AIA Awards for Architecture.

“The LEED Gold-certified building was constructed with a cutting-edge composite cross-laminated timber system, taking its cues from the Building and Construction Technology department’s research on mass timber,” the AIA noted. “It is the largest such building in the United States, demonstrating the university’s commitment to sustainability and innovation. The building’s envelope functions as a protective weather jacket that shields its wood structure. A durable rain screen enclosure composed of copper anodized aluminum panels and vertical windows suggest the patterns of historic tobacco barns and the region’s forests.”


Passion for Preservation

That language, again, reflects the balance of preservation, development, and sustainability at the heart of LARP studies — and the hearts of its students, who often see this work as mission-driven.

“Especially in our graduate programs, people are sometimes changing careers to come back to school via Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning,” Ryan said. “They’re really devoted to making the world a better place, which might include making cities healthier and greener, or dealing with degraded landscapes and healing them and bringing natural systems back. They could be promoting equity in our cities via more affordable housing or transportation. So there are definitely folks who have that passion to come in and do this sort of work.”

They’re also encountering a strong market for job seekers; Ryan says he posts job openings he comes across every day.

“All the firms I talk to are growing, and they can’t find the employees, so graduates are very sought after,” he added. “We do innovation here, but it’s also practical — when you graduate, you can work as a professional in a public or private office and do this work. And we have a lot of examples in our classes where you’re doing work with real clients, not just as an internship, but as a regular class.”

Like those graduate students working to improve transportation — and quality of life — close to home.