What's Out There Cultural Landscapes Guides
The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Client: National Park Service Northeast Region
"Created by a partnership of the Cultural Landscape Foundation and the National Park Service, the What’s Out There Cultural Landscapes Guides are an extraordinarily comprehensive and compelling online public resource. The well-designed website leads the visitor through the broader legacy of five city landscapes, describes and directs people to significant designed places in the community, and introduces the designers and visionaries who created them. The guides counter the reality that landscape architecture has too often been undervalued in the public mind by demonstrating through a rich collection of images and text the impact of landscape architecture and landscape architects on the quality of American urban life."
- 2019 Awards Jury
- Project Lead:
- Charles Birnbaum, FASLA
- Project Team (alphabetically):
- Brendan Ayer
- Margo Barajas
- Bartlett Bickel
- Justin Clevenger
- Scott Craver
- Barrett Doherty, ASLA
- Thomas Klein, ASLA
- Kristi Lin
- Ayla Mangold
- Zachary Peak
- Mikayla Raymond
- Dena Tasse-Winter
- Matthew Traucht, ASLA
- Nord Wennerstrom
- Yuan Zhuang
- Graphic Design:
- Oviatt Media
An outgrowth of The Cultural Landscape Foundation's What's Out There database, the What's Out There Cultural Landscapes Guides artfully present the landscape legacy of five of the nation's great East Coast cities. Produced in partnership with the National Park Service and offered free to the public, each online guide includes essays on scores of sites and their designers, comprising a visually engaging and constantly expanding digital inventory of landscapes searchable by type (e.g. Neighborhood Park), style (e.g., Modernist), theme (e.g., Urban Renewal), and designation (e.g., National Historic Landmark). Meant to broaden the traditional audience for landscape architecture, the guides allow the sites to be grouped and understood through new interpretive lenses, highlighting their connections to larger cultural and historical themes. The guides are also seamlessly linked to myriad related content on TCLF's website and are integrated with GPS-enabled, interactive maps, making them especially useful to digital-native users and encouraging exploration of the urban environment on foot.
In 2009 The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) launched What's Out There (WOT), a free, searchable, illustrated, and carefully vetted online database of the nation's historic designed landscapes. The WOT database has grown to include more than 2,000 site descriptions, 1,000 designer profiles, and 12,000 images, with new sites, images, and profiles added weekly. The database is also optimized for handheld devices and includes a feature called What's Nearby, a GPS-enabled function that locates all sites in the database within a customizable radius of the user.
A direct outgrowth of the WOT database, the What's Out There Cultural Landscapes Guides present the landscape legacy of five of the nation's great cities. The online guides were produced by TCLF and the National Park Service (NPS) Northeast Regional Office to celebrate the NPS' 100th anniversary (the NPS was founded with the passage of the Organic Act of 1916). The partnership has produced guides to Philadelphia (March 2016), New York City (October 2016), Boston (May 2017), Richmond (June 2017), and Baltimore (February 2019).
Each online guide includes essays (initially 50, but ever-growing in number) on sites and their designers, comprising a visually engaging, digital inventory of cultural landscapes searchable by type (e.g. Neighborhood Park, Scenic Reservation), style (e.g., Modernist, Picturesque), theme (e.g., Urban Renewal, Nature Conservation), and designation (e.g., National Historic Landmark, National Natural Landmark). TCLF and the NPS Northeast Regional Office have worked together closely to produce the guides, identifying, researching, documenting, and vetting a varied collection of landscapes in each subject city. Advised by NPS and TCLF staff, interns conducted field work and research in order to develop original documentary essays about the history, design, and current condition of the selected sites, as well as biographical essays about their designers. The essays (which are also fully integrated with and linked to the What's Out There database) are accompanied by contemporary photographs that illustrate the design character of the landscapes and the oeuvres of the designers. Moreover, the sites within each city are displayed on an interactive map and are linked to TCLF's recently updated What's Nearby feature, which allows users to see the landscapes within a customizable distance of their current location, with the sites presented in a color-coded display. Users can also filter the nearby landscapes according to walking time, in increments of 10, 20, or 30 minutes, roughly corresponding to distances of 0.5, 1, and 1.5 miles. This functionality is an essential enhancement to the guides, encouraging exploration of the urban environment on foot.
In addition to their interactive features, each guide also includes an overarching essay that spans multiple centuries and chronicles the city's cultural landscape legacy, richly illustrated with maps, archival images, and contemporary photographs. These introductory essays frame the history of the city from its earliest origins and chart its growth to the present. The guides also present a brief history of the NPS and identify several themes that communicate the breadth of cultural landscapes within its purview. The list of sites can then be sorted to reveal the landscapes associated with each theme (i.e., Nature Conservation, Lifeways and Cultural Associations, Transportation and Industry, City Shaping and Urban Planning, Urban Renewal, Patriotism, Historic Preservation, and Recreation). The sites can also be sorted according to several designations recognized by the NPS, such as their listing in the National Register of Historic Places, as a National Historic Landmark, or as a National Natural Landmark, etc. These designations and their importance are explained on a separate web page within each guide.
In addition to significantly expanding the interactive and user-friendly What's Out There database, the guides specifically highlight the diversity, interconnectedness, and importance of parks, heritage areas, and historic sites in urban areas. This reflects recent efforts by both the NPS and TCLF to broaden the scope of their programming to reach a wider and more diverse audience. In fact, the What's Out There Cultural Landscapes Guides were conceived to complement the NPS' "Urban Agenda," an initiative that seeks to engage a diverse, 21st-century American public. The Urban Agenda is guided by three principles: Be relevant to all Americans; bring the NPS parks, programs, and partnerships into alignment; and collaborate internally and externally to serve communities. Recognizing that one-third of all NPS sites are located in metropolitan areas, the initiative is working to increase the visibility of urban landscapes and to foster local collaborations.
In that regard, the guides' use of expanded themes is particularly important. While the WOT database has long identified each landscape's type and style, using a thematic approach to further classify the landscapes ensures that a wider audience can engage with the content through additional interpretative lenses. For example, querying any one of the guides based on the theme of Lifeways and Cultural Associations reveals a list of landscapes with associations to the civil rights movement or to LGBTQ history, such as New York City's Christopher Park, Richmond's Frederick Douglass Court, or Boston's African American National Historic Site. Along with information on landscapes, the guides are also broadening access to the lives and careers of a diverse collection of pioneering designers. As Allison Meier reported for Hyperallergic when the guide to New York City launched, "[it] is an interesting way to explore the names behind landscape design, particularly women, such as at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx where Beatrix Farrand planned a rose garden, Ellen Shipman the perennial border, and a conifer arboretum was envisioned by Marian Coffin. Each of these places, whether the bird-watching refuge Udall's Park Preserve in Little Neck or the former burial ground James J. Walker Park in Manhattan, is part of the city's continuously developing landscape heritage."
As a digital medium, the guides are completely free to the public and are expanded as new landscapes or designers are discovered and added to the database. They are thus a freely accessible resources to students, educators, researchers, design professionals, heritage travelers, and the public more generally. Because they are linked to the WOT database and its GPS-enabled mobile interface, the guides are communicating with new audiences—especially those accustomed to receiving information in a digital, online environment—about the nation's landscape heritage, a goal shared by TCLF and the NPS.
The launch of each guide was coordinated by TCLF's communications director along with staff at the NPS. The initiative was announced in print publications as a feature of TCLF's Season of Events, and in targeted local media in each of the subject cities. Moreover, TCLF promotes each guide among its 30,000+ e-newsletter subscribers, 70,000 social media followers, and to its extensive network of allied educational and cultural institutions. Most importantly, however, the guides reside permanently on TCLF's website (which experienced more than 1.2 million page views in 2018), where they are seamlessly linked to myriad related content and are perpetually updated and expanded. The Global Grid listed TCLF's website as one of the top ten landscape architecture websites for 2018, mentioning the guides as one of the organization's growing programs.
The What's Out There Cultural Landscapes Guides have significantly expanded public access to information about cultural landscapes in some of the nation's largest cities. Their graphically rich, user-friendly design raises the awareness and visibility of national parks and historic sites in urban areas, demonstrating the value and cultural significance of landscape architecture and its practitioners to a new, digital-native audience. With recognition from the ASLA awards program, TCLF hopes to expand this initiative to include other urban centers across the nation.