Blog / Cover Story

Adaptive Landscape Master Planning [Land8x8 Video]

How can we better prepare for the future unknown?

Martha Desbiens, Associate at MNLA, recounts how the last few years brought radical change and emphatic proactivity to the heart of her work at the Land8x8 Lightning Talks.

Desbiens reflects on how much landscape architects have improved communication skills between colleagues, clients, and communities alike during the COVID-19 pandemic. The voice landscape architects have forged in the public discourse, especially around social issues and the climate catastrophe, has been massively impactful, but “largely reactive”. Looking towards the future, landscape architects must shift communication and action to proactive, adaptive design choices and communication efforts. To provide precedent, Desbiens details how MNLA’s Smith College “20-Year Vision” Landscape Masterplan radically shifted in a reactive way to ensure positive proactive solutions in for a sometimes-unpredictable future.

Smith College of Northampton, Massachusetts set out to formulate a 20-year master plan under the direction and guidance of MNLA. In 2020, halfway through the project, COVID-19 shut down campus facilities and ultimately cut off communication with the student body. At the same time, social justice movements made students and professionals alike alert to new goals, responsibilities, and communication efforts. “Our office realized that we needed to pivot the way we think about landscape masterplans” says Desbiens.

In order to gather even more community input, Desbiens’ team launched Groundswell Magazine, a Smith College publication that helped to share what was happening with the masterplan and also allow a “constant dialogue” with the community. From that input, the Master Plan gained four new goals: Education, Inclusivity, Adaptability, and Connection.

The goals from community input meant radical change. Desbiens, without dismissing the ideas of the community, laid out graphic examples of what that change in the landscape would mean for the campus. Diagrams scaled out examples of how increasing ecologically connected spaces on campus would come at the cost of open lawned regions, something Smith had become accustomed to. “We got much tempered reactions,” she states.

Image: MNLA

How did the 20-Year Masterplan change? Much of it came in the form of implementation and instruction. MNLA shifted gears in order to provide a detailed and highly attuned Landscape Implementation Guidelines package. Within the 300-some pages, the firm applied professional knowledge to separate the campus into relevant sections and detail an instructional guideline of how to amplify opportunity in each of the regions. What’s more is that the package included more general guidelines that speak to access, comfort, and safety. To provide adaptability in the face of an ever-changing future, the Masterplan also lays out Pilot Project Guidelines, or small, tactical implementations that tests concepts before committing to large scale changes, such as rain gardens, naturalized lawns, gathering spaces, and more.

“What I’m hoping is that we’ve given the client the tools so that they can make decisions on their own… We’ve empowered them so that their landscape follows their vision.” – Martha Desbiens


This video was filmed on September 9, 2021 in Brooklyn, NY as part of the Land8x8 Lightning Talks sponsored by Anova Furnishings.

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Published in Blog, Cover Story
Student blogger and landscape designer, Kim Ferrara is a New England based landscape architect in training. With a passion and focus in high end residential design, Kim's work aims to hone in on social and ecological context and complexities. After receiving recognition by Land8 during the 2020 Social Media Awards, Kim has been a social media manager for Land8 for over a year. In her spare time, she blogs her activity and growth as a budding professional as well as emerging critical theory around landscapes, technology, capitalism, and sociology.

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