Let us Discuss Evidence-Based Design with Dr. Robert D. Brown

Welcome to our first Research Hub Post! 


We were fortunate enough to catch up with the highly awarded Dr. Robert D. Brown, legend of the University of Guelph Landscape Architecture department, to talk about Evidence-Based Landscape Architecture (EBLA) just days before Brown makes his transition from Guelph, Ontario to College Station, Texas.

As co-founder of the EBLA movement with fellow professor Dr. Robert Corry (OALA, CSLA), a brainstorming session with this team was a first priority on Sprout’s Research Hub To-Do list. We met with Brown to explore the idea of there being Evidence-Based Landscape Architecture and that research might be informing what Sprout’s doing, not just for professionals but also for how communities are using their lands and empowering them to take a leadership role.

Brown has long played the standard bearer for a more rigorous and evidence-based approach to landscape architecture. His advances in microclimatic research and design has made him a key consultant on some of the most tricky design challenges in the field bringing him to the Manhattan skyline and now the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where he is part of a team planning the Olympic marathon course.

After 31 years as a professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, Brown (SALA, FCSLA, FCELA, RNG) is stepping out on a new adventure at Texas A&M University to reach an ever-expanding group of students and to further microclimatic research.

Along the way, Brown has not shied away from challenging the industry to be more ambitious in their approach to landscape by ‘basing their expertise on factual evidence’ (Brown and Corry, 2011). There are a lot of challenges we face in the landscape and adapting to a changing climate or creating habitat in the face of continual human development are both tall orders. Brown notes that leaders in the field, such as Andropogon & Associates, represented by Emily McCoy who gave this year’s annual University of Guelph EBLA Lecture, are taking evidence-based practice seriously. Andropogon now saves a portion of the fees for each project to fund ongoing research and to review past projects to explore what has worked and what hasn’t in their own practice.

Evidence-Based Landscape Architecture is not about turning design into a statistical tool, but about informing the work of landscape architects so that the execution measures up to the design intent.

And while some fields such as microclimate or storm water flows may be more amenable to quantitative testing, research in any number of areas is critical to the professional growth of landscape architecture and relevancy of our work.

We were enlivened to hear Brown identify that the understanding of community engagement and community-led design is an on-going gap in literature, which may present the perfect research niche for Sprout to explore!

This gap exists despite continued efforts from groups like the Project for Public Spaces, Jan Gehl and Associates, and other urbanist groups. So many of our engagement efforts meet with minimal response from the community, notes Brown. Even seemingly well designed spaces sometimes meet with apathy. By looking at our public spaces and examining the public’s involvement at all phases of the design and use of the site, we expect that EBLA could distill some practical truths about the experience of public space, community engagement and community-led development that escape us today.

During our brainstorming session we uncovered other great ways to leverage our blog to empower community groups, for example, by sharing the cutting edge work of fellow landscape architectural researchers – especially in the realm of urban agriculture advancements. Could locally grown bitter melon crops one day be available for sale in Toronto? 

Reference: Brown, R.D., Corry, R.C., 2011. Evidence-based landscape architecture: The maturing of a profession. Landscape and Urban Planning. Vol. 100 (issue 4), 327-329


Here are the highlights from our interview with Professor Brown:

Attendees: RB (Dr. Robert Brown), JW (Jon Woodside, Sprout), MM (Michelle Moylan, Sprout)

JW: [Sprout] is trying to bring some of the ideas that came out of our initial [community] projects and publish a little bit of what we’ve learned and what those community groups have also learned. These experiences will integrate it into a wider research collection.

JW: First question – what is EBLA and how to you see it being used in the industry?

RB: When I think of EBLA it’s not that every step in the process needs to be based on the best evidence, but maybe one of the critical questions about the project needs to be based on the best evidence.

Emily McCoy, head of the firm Andropogon’s research department is responsible for bringing evidence into their various projects. She actually goes back to things that they’ve done 10-30 years ago, she measures the effects using various quantitative research methods, learning from it, and then using that [evidence] for future projects. Emily was saying that [Andropogon] doesn’t really have [a large] budget, clients aren’t really prepared to pay very much to do that. So what they’ve done is they’ve partnered with some universities.

But the big thing is being open-minded to the idea that you might have failed or it might not be working and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t look at it too closely.

MM: [Sprout’s research] is going to be more so qualitative but post occupancy evaluations is something that if we have enough time or enough projects would be useful. [Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) involves observing the performance of a landscape. POE helps assess the degree to which the reality of a constructed project meets the goals and objectives that were determined during pre-design and design, typically from the individual or site-visitor’s perspective.]

RB: Very useful! One of the things about EBLA is that as we start to consider what we know and what we don’t know, there are some areas like some of the physics and the biology and so on that we know quite well, but there are also gaps that we’re starting to identify and you’ve found a gap! That’s so neat. From an academic point of view it‘s the sort of thing that can be really daunting to try and study at the university but could very well be studied in your format.

RB: One more thing about EBLA –Emily McCoy also said that the big offices, the top name offices are starting to have a research arm or an evidence-based arm. They save a bit of money on each of their projects and use that as a chance to do the research and follow-up and so on.

RB: Another gap to consider is when landscape architects hold public meetings and try to get people to come out and get involved, they sometimes get three people [attending]. There’s obviously a real gap in that. Why don’t people come out? Why aren’t they interested? Why don’t the get involved? And then later when it turns out to be something controversial…everybody on the street signs a petition and so on.

JW: Yes we had a project like that! …with extreme opposition from a very small group of residents but quite a lot of support for it outside of that. So we had their first public meeting and it was an intergenerational ruckus affair. I think the discussion of intergenerational [community] participation and negotiation might become one our early research projects.

MM: Today we also wanted to discuss the idea of the target audience, which for EBLA is specifically the landscape architecture community itself. Sprout’s Research Hub audience, on the other hand, is intended to include landscape architects but more so other grassroots community groups. So we’ll have to be strategic about how we disseminate our research findings to this diverse audience.

RB: EBLA is for landscape architects but it’s also a powerful tool when you’re talking with client and you can say “Here’s the evidence and this is why we’re going to do this.” I think that’s where [Sprout] could go as well. If you could begin to see some patterns that would give you evidence for the next time saying to the community groups “here’s what seems to work with community groups” and give them ideas for how that might work.

MM: Something that comes to mind as you’re talking is that we hadn’t thought about - taking research and applying it – to share and apply the papers that have been written and studies that have been done.

RB: Yes! I want to show you a paper that I was working on just before you arrived. And it relates very strongly to your [urban agriculture focus]. I had this idea that urban heat islands are always thought of something to get rid of. But I asked is there anything you could do that would actually see it as an advantage? I wonder if you could grow tropical plants? We did a study and found that a lot of people in Toronto were ethnic and would like to be able to grow their crops that wouldn’t necessarily grow in Toronto. We found that Growing Degree Days and Frost Free Days and so on have increased so much in Toronto that we’re pretty sure you could actually grow some tropical plants in these urban heat islands.

JW: I could see trying to assemble the research that is really appropriate to those people to give them the resources to say “this is a realistic thing!”

RB: And you know, we’ve done all the calculations and all the modeling and we even showed where in the city what prototype would make really nice microclimates for these different crops, but what we really need is somebody to try and grow [the crops] there and see if they would actually work.

MM: Great idea! That would certainly address our overall research goal to empower these groups! It’s unfortunately now time to wrap up our discussion – would you like to make any final remarks Bob?

RB: Let me throw out an idea here…You’re sort of at the beginning of this and it could turn out that just by gathering information and observing and analysing and putting together this database you might actually start to understand the system and it might be a fairly straightforward system that you can eventually find is emerging. Every case doesn’t have to be unique - maybe you’ll find some commonalities! So this is no small thing you’re doing! …That’s what E.O. Wilson’s Consilience text (1998) is suggesting - that right now it’s pretty complicated all this qualitative stuff, but eventually we’re going to find that it’s not all that complicated once we figure out what the theories are and what the commonalities are and so on.

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