“We are in a perpetual state of discovery, experimentation, and research, constantly striving to improve our own practice and the design industry as a whole… This spirit of inquiry ensures that our work is thoughtful, thorough, and timeless.”
The above is from an interview between Mooool.com and Michael Grove, ASLA, PLA, Sasaki Principal and Chair of Landscape Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Ecology. The article focuses on Grove’s reflections on the field of design, his discerning perspectives on social and environmental issues, such as urban renewal in China and global climate change, and how Sasaki’s interdisciplinary practice reinforce design for holistic urban development.
Below is an excerpt of the interview, which you can view in its entirety here.
Mooool: Sasaki has been active in the design field for over 65 years, with projects around the world. What are the strengths of Sasaki since the company has developed? What are your big achievements and reflections on the field of design?
Michael Grove [MG]: I joined Sasaki over 20 years ago, so have personally experienced nearly 1/3 of the firm’s history. The key aspects of Sasaki’s culture that inspired me to join the firm back in 1998 are the same today—a passion for curiosity and experimentation, and the depth of knowledge that stems from our interdisciplinary practice.
“The key aspects of Sasaki’s culture that inspired me to join the firm back in 1998 are the same today—a passion for curiosity and experimentation, and the depth of knowledge that stems from our interdisciplinary practice.”
Because Hideo Sasaki was the Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University, the foundation of the practice is one that is built upon intellectual curiosity and academic rigor. In many ways, Sasaki feels much like a university. We are in a perpetual state of discovery, experimentation, and research, constantly striving to improve our own practice and the design industry as a whole. This is reflected in our project work as well. We are a firm of ideas, not authors, which means that we don’t gravitate towards any one particular style or trend, but rather take a more holistic view of problem-solving. This strategy allows us to tackle complex projects, looking at them from multiple perspectives as part of an iterative design process. This spirit of inquiry ensures that our work is thoughtful, thorough, and timeless.
Mooool: “Urban Renewal” has been repeatedly mentioned. In today’s North American and European cities, what new problems they are facing? What kind of design considerations do you have in this case?
MG: Every city in the world has its own unique challenges based on its context. These are often driven by demographics, political forces, investment priorities, geography, and a host of other contributing factors. Therefore, it is difficult to identify any one common problem facing cities in Europe or North America, each of which have their own unique identity and set of issues. What I have learned, however, is that having any one issue dominate more than any other leads to problems. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, which, at the time, was very much an industrial city focused on steel production and all of its associated manufacturing-based industries. Much like Detroit and other “rust belt” cities, Cleveland experienced economic decline when it did not maintain its focus on global connectivity, innovation, and a host of other outside forces.
Today, I live in Boston, which has a much more robust and diverse economy centered on education, healthcare, technology, and finance. The common denominator in Boston is that all of these diverse sectors have a direct relationship with the area’s multiple academic institutions. Boston’s world-class universities supply a never-ending supply of knowledge, talent, research, and innovation that allow its economy to adapt to rapid change. Being based in Boston, Sasaki certainly captures this spirit as well, which is why I think we are able to constantly evolve as a firm—it is in our DNA.
Mooool: China has developed rapidly in the past 30 years. What problems do you think have been brought to the urban environment in light of this rapid growth? How does Sasaki’s work respond to these questions?
MG: Sasaki’s first project in mainland China was in 1998, and I have spent all 20 years of my career working in the region. Each city in China has its own individual set of problems, but in general I believe some universal issues are related to environmental protection and habitat loss, quality of the urban public realm, and community input and participation.
At Sasaki, our work in China has focused on restorative ecology and habitat conservation at both the planning and built-work scales. For example, our work at Jiading Park in Shanghai transformed channelized canals into soft-edged waterways that are abundant with native plants that are attracting amphibians, fish, waterfowl, and beneficial insects—none of which existed on the site previously. In fact, we even collaborated with East China Normal University to conduct a post-occupancy study of the park which measured improvements to water quality because of our design interventions.
In Chengdu, we are working on protecting 69 square kilometers at the Chengdu Panda Reserve which builds upon ongoing research efforts and focuses on habitat restoration and research, as well as pre-release strategies to integrate juvenile pandas back into the wild. These projects are just a small example of our thinking at the intersection of the environment and human development, where our planners, urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and ecologists are all working together towards the same goal.
“Gaining perspective from the constituents who will eventually use the spaces we design—especially public landscapes—is a critical part of our process that results in a stronger design.”
Another area that we are very interested in improving in China is community engagement and participatory design. In the United States, we are celebrated for being a firm that is very inclusive of the communities in which we work. Gaining perspective from the constituents who will eventually use the spaces we design—especially public landscapes—is a critical part of our design process that results in a stronger design. When the community is involved in the ideation of a space, they often feel a stronger sense of ownership and therefore tend to appreciate and take better care of these spaces. In China, however, community engagement is a relatively newer concept, though it is one that we feel brings great value to our work and to our clients.
At Zhangjiabang Park in Shanghai, we worked with our internal software development team to design a tool which helped the community provide feedback regarding that programmatic uses they would like in the park. And for the Yangtze Riverfront Park in Wuhan, we developed a web-based outreach effort that generated fruitful public support of the design, and consensus on the future of Wuhan’s waterfront. When the public is engaged in the process, they often gain a better understanding of the problems and are incentivized to be a part of the solution.Built upon a strong consensus from the public engagement, the master plan for the Wuhan Yangtze Riverfront Park creates a socially inclusive and ecologically meaningful waterfront with a strong cultural identity that embraces the Wuhan’s unique philosophy derived from centuries of living alongside a dynamic river.
Mooool: China’s urban development is transitioning from quantitative to qualitative models. What do you think are the prospects and opportunities for current design practice?
MG: Experiencing this transition from quantity to quality of design in real time is an amazing phenomenon. Because of its willingness to try new ideas, China is very much like a tech start-up—falling down, getting back up, learning from past mistakes, and creating something better in the next round. This is a normal part of the innovative process, but this type of evolution is not typically experienced in the physical realm so quickly. The real remarkable change is the ongoing transformation of these spaces into beautifully designed, well-crafted, and environmentally functioning landscapes. This is where the design profession is truly needed, ensuring that the spaces we build consider the people who will use them, how they fit into the urban context, and what they are contributing ecologically. All public spaces should contribute to the betterment of society in some way, and it is our responsibility as designers to provide a meaningful and lasting benefit to humanity and to the planet.
Mooool: What are your most recent thoughts on design? What are your plans for the future?
MG: My mind is constantly on fire with new ideas, but right now there are a few specific things that I am cultivating. First, I am interested in broadening Sasaki’s reach. We are a small firm with a big voice, and I would like to use that voice to influence change and spread the word on how the design professions—especially landscape architecture—can play a key role in helping to find solutions to curb climate change.
I have also been thinking a lot about our responsibility as designers to create spaces that are not only beautiful and poetic, but also function as part of a complete ecosystem. We have honed our design approach over the past few years to become increasingly focused on ecologically-beneficial solutions. The next step is to build more of those types of landscapes, measure their impact with empirical, evidence-based data gathered from post-occupancy evaluations, and learn from those studies to refine our design thinking. The ultimate goal is to create places that are energy and carbon neutral, and that provide necessary green infrastructure and habitat diversity.
“Design is something that is meant to benefit everyone, and we must take a proactive approach to ensuring that all members of society, regardless of socioeconomic status, have equitable access to good design.”
Finally, I am interested in ensuring that all of our work is moving towards being more equitable and inclusive. Often, design is reserved for the communities and people that can afford it. Cities tend to direct resources to design high-quality landscapes in highly-visible areas that already have the highest property values. I’m interested in bringing the same level of design investment to historically underserved and underrepresented communities who haven’t had the same access to well-designed public open space.
Design is something that is meant to benefit everyone, and we must take a proactive approach to ensuring that all members of society, regardless of socioeconomic status, have equitable access to good design.
Mooool is an emerging media adhering to sharing high quality global excellent design companies and discovering excellent design around the world. It is committed to the dissemination of global excellent design concepts, focusing on the landscape design industry, to discover and display outstanding design works, to make the design more valuable.