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Reconnecting Cities to Nature Profile: Calvin Abe, FASLA, President AHBE Landscape Architects

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Calvin Abe, FASLA

A Fellow of the ASLA since 2006, Calvin Abe received his Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design and his Bachelor of Science degree in Landscape Architecture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. In addition to his practice, Calvin Abe also teaches design in the Department of Landscape Architecture at UCLA Extension School.

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"As landscape architects, we are uniquely qualified to bridge the technical practice of healing the planet by creating a quality environment that meets the needs of human beings and society," states Abe. "One can't just have beauty for beauty's sake, or just functionality. You need both to create quality of life. That's how I define sustainability."

Photos courtesy of Jack Coyier

"I grew up on a 40-acre farm in Sacramento," Calvin Abe remembers, "with grapes, strawberries, Elder creek running in the back field--and as a child, I really had the opportunity to connect with nature. When I moved to Los Angeles, it was the absolute antithesis of that experience. Later, when I became a landscape architect, I realized that when working in the urban environment, there was always a need to recreate that experience of nature. That fundamentally shaped my career, the way I see my role and my fundamental approach to design. But it was not just the farm that formed me. My love for nature really lives in the mountains, the Sierras, backpacking and hiking."

"The majority of our projects are urban--both in Los Angeles and overseas," explains Abe. "We transform the urban landscape. That is where my particular passion lies. That's why most of our projects tend to be infill--recreating industrial sites or inserting new landscapes and spaces for people (such as the Port of Long Beach park design seen above) into the existing infrastructure."
Illustration courtesy of Wenji

But his decision went through some iterations. "When I started out, my declared major was civil engineering. At the time--I was 18 or 19 years-old--I was working for a landscape architect and he discouraged me from continuing with engineering. He said, 'If you're really interested, you should look into this new profession, landscape architecture. Don't do civil engineering. Go to Cal Poly and get into the design side.'"

LUMA, a mixed-use tower in the South Park neighborhood development of Los Angeles, is all LEED certified for both the shops and the residential condominiums. When describing his view of the landscape architect's mandate, Abe says, "I believe our profession's work is really more about how the landscape functions, how it's working, how it's dealing with critical urban issues, how it works with water, air and wildlife--and at the same time--how it feels."
Photo courtesy of Jack Coyier

He continues, "I went to a symposium given by Dennis Dubois who gave a lecture on landscape architecture. It was that lecture that opened the doors to this whole new arena. Dubois talked about the environment and the profession, and it was more than planting trees and shrubs. It was about community, and process, and recreation. I thought 'Wow! This is more than just doing planting plans.' A whole new window of possibility opened before me."

"Similar to the South Park Streetscape, we are really drawn to the challenges presented by projects that push the boundaries of standards by deviating from accepted norms and practices," Abe notes. "As an example, the Vermont Avenue Median Park we are working on with the Community Redevelopment Agency is an unprecedented exercise in creating open space in a Department of Transportation right-of-way."
Photo courtesy of AHBE Landscape Architects

"I have the soul of an artist. As an annual exploration for myself and for the office, we create a temporary art installation based on some idea, or theme, or question I pose to the staff," Abe explains. "We started with the concept of sustainability, how we practice it and what are some of the fundamental ideas we have pertaining to this issue, and the Shreddings grew out of that. Our installations were quite formal for the first two years. In 2008, it became more of a celebration than an installation. It became a 'Shreddings Happening.' We invited guests to participate in the art installation during a party."

As part of Abe's quest for knowledge, he points out, "How we design is how we live. I attend lectures and seminars every weekend, and am always learning more about sustainable plants, natives, healing plants and how we can adapt them to our lives. As the research and information evolves, we need to continually understand the technical aspects of how we can create higher functioning landscapes for our Southern California environment."

Abe goes on to note, "These installations have turned out to be something I truly enjoy doing. However, even more important, they function as critical thinking exercises, a way of rethinking how we practice. I usually pose the question in the Fall so we can do the installation in the spring. This year I was invited back to do a Shredding installation at Cypress College."

Winner of the LA Business Council 2008 Award of Excellence, and Winner of the AIACC 2008 Honor Award for Urban Design, "The South Park Streetscape project in Los Angeles Park has become a poster child and prototype that Los Angeles is using as the green street example," according to Abe.

As a defining principle, Abe points out, "I am committed to the possibility of healing the planet. I don't know if it will ultimately happen in this lifetime, but it's something I practice on a daily basis. As landscape architects, we're unique in that we can combine the infrastructure part of the practice with creating places people will use and enjoy. That's also how I define sustainability--bridging the functionality of an urban space while creating beauty in it as well. I always cite the example of the Los Angeles River. It was a great infrastructure feat at the time, but it devastated the quality of life of residents of Los Angeles. Los Angeles would have been totally different if they had followed Olmsted's concepts. Think about the Emerald Necklace in Boston. That was all about stormwater, too, but they made a park and we made a big concrete structure."

"We're really involved with standardizing green streets as a result of our South Park streetscape project," Abe points out. "There is a Green Street Task Force within the Department of Public Works that is charged with developing the formal standard for green streets and a green alley policy. We're directly and indirectly participating with details, comments and input into their guidelines."
Photos courtesy of Jack Coyier

When asked about William Whyte's influence, Abe said, "Although I am not a student of William Whyte's, he has influenced the profession's task of creating spaces that are usable for people. His theories are about studying urban spaces and how they work. Some spaces look great and win awards, but when you go to some of these spaces, you don't see anyone using them. They're high design, but they are missing the ingredient of bringing people together."

Santa Monica Airport Park is the winner of the 2008 Award of Excellence from the Los Angeles Business Council, the 2008 Westside Prize from the Westside Urban Forum, and the 2007 Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects Southern California Chapter (ASLA/SC). "I am discovering the challenge of finding a new beauty in the landscape--redefining beauty. How do you find beauty in this new paradigm?" he asks. "For one thing, it is multifunctional. As an artist, that's what I'm curious about--finding a new aesthetic that hasn't been defined before."
Photo courtesy of Ken naverson

"Today, the most challenging and rewarding projects for us are those that deal with the public realm and work to build consensus in the community," according to Abe. "The Vermont Avenue median project is 180 feet wide. Our design takes 60 to 80 feet of that unusually wide Los Angeles street and turns it into a linear community park; this concept presents multiple challenges: Funding, the feasibility of working within a street right-of-way with multiple agencies, traffic, lighting and drainage. We also need to get buy-in for a park in the middle of the street. Obviously, this is not a typical median, nor is it a typical park--it represents the unique opportunity for a large community park within a street. This is about introducing recreational activities such as biking, cycling and the social components of amenities such as community gardens."

"All we are really about is reconnecting the city back to nature. When I was first starting out," Abe remembers, "I didn't word it quite that way, but that is always what our work has been about. We strive to provide access for people to experience nature and natural systems in the real world. Even deeper than that, it is about creating the natural world so people can share the experience I had when growing up." This feeling is evidenced in the Santa Monica Airport Park design, seen here.
Photo courtesy of Jack Coyier

"The biggest challenges working on this plan have been the concerns raised by the community," he continues. "We anticipated that a large new open space park was a positive addition to a neighborhood lacking open space. We discovered that many equated park and open space with gang activity because the existing open spaces are not being kept up. To the community, more open space can only mean more un-kept areas. Traffic safety was also an issue because the park would be adjacent to a street--children needed to be protected on the way to and from the tot lot. That, however, could be solved by design."

"The city of Los Angeles has been very supportive of the Vermont Avenue Median concept, even though it means changing streets and modifying the level of traffic flow, while raising many land use concerns. Vermont Avenue is a wide street and mostly paved, so why not have it be available for public use? That kind of thing has been done across the United States, in Asia and in Europe as well. It's really changing the paradigm that the street is just for cars. It is for transportation of people, too."

Columns of shredded paper, all from Abe's office, became abstract trees forming a "forest" in the gallery that visitors could walk among. This resulted in Shreddings, Part I and Part II, winner of the 2007 Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects Southern California Chapter (ASLA/SC). "The film we made about 'Shreddings,'" Abe notes, "won the ASLA National Award for Communications." He goes on to explain, "Our annual Shreddings installations are an exercise not just for me, but a way to create a conversational process for the staff," Abe explains. "I want to engage in the conceptual deepening of a particular issue. We create a temporary art installation based on some idea, or theme, or question I pose to our staff. It's out of this question that ideas emerge."

"There is now new legislation called Complete Streets, which developed out of the U.S. Congress," Abe points out. "Now, each state has adopted their own policies and created guidelines for streets which include multiple modalities giving users of all ages and abilities the right to safely and comfortably move along and across a complete street. Originally introduced by Rep. Doris Matsui in Sacramento, the Complete Streets movement has forced many cities to rethink and reprioritize their streets so they serve many, many uses."

"My greatest joy is working to solve these new challenges. That's what requires us to rethink how we practice as landscape architects," says Abe. "Landscape architects are coining the term 'Landscape Urbanism' to mean converting existing infrastructure for more balanced, humane uses. We, as designers, can transform the functionality of an existing site into something that is living and integrates all the components of a sustainable space."


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November 19, 2019, 10:21 pm PDT

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