Holmes Receives CELA Excellence in Research Award

Assistant Professor Rob Holmes has made a career out studying “how human society affects – and is affected by – the movement of sediment,” and was recently recognized by the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) due, in large part, to the robust quality of years of work on this topic.  Prof. Holmes specifically focuses much of his research on dredging, an activity many people may not realize is a typical process associated with waterway management. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines “dredging as the removal of sediments and debris from the bottom of lakes, rivers, harbors, and other water bodies. [Dredging] is a routine necessity in waterways around the world because sedimentation—the natural process of sand and silt washing downstream—gradually fills channels and harbors.”  To extend/expand research possibilities, Holmes co-founded the Dredge Research Collaborative in 2010 to function as a research network of like-minded colleagues who work together surrounding themes of sediment, infrastructure, and landscape. The efforts of Holmes and the DRC have helped define a new understanding of sediment by considering how it functions as infrastructure, and developing potential ways that landscape architecture could contribute to rethinking that infrastructure. Professor David Hill states that, with the Dredge Research Collaborative, Prof. Holmes has “expanded sediment management beyond the traditional silos of engineering and industry experts and have slowly and steadily established a new space for landscape architects.”

The DRC was initially formed with a research agenda centered around publication, which then evolved toward organizing a series of events identified as DredgeFests.  Early on, the DRC’s intention was to publish speculative design projects that would demonstrate the value that landscape architecture and other designers might bring to “dredge landscapes”.  After speaking with engineers, scientists, and agencies that shape these landscapes, though, the DRC began to recognize that this was premature. They saw two major barriers to designer participation in these landscapes that needed to be addressed:

  • Dredging is an invisible infrastructure. It is essential to the economic and environmental processes of contemporary estuarine cities, but its operations and effects are not accessible or appreciated by the general public.
  • There is interest to address these landscapes through landscape architecture, but the working relationship between designers and the actual agencies, corporations, and decision-makers that deal with dredging are rare.

The intentions of the DredgeFests became two-fold. On the one hand, the events helped build interest in sediment as a topic within landscape architecture while simultaneously bringing together contacts, collaborators, and others with expertise across the diverse fields of science, engineering, planning, and policy that currently make most decisions about the infrastructure of sediment. At the same time, DredgeFest opened up avenues for public conversation about what the DRC refers to as the “dredge cycle”, conversation which was at once documentary and speculative.

Four DredgeFests, held in New York City, New Orleans, Minneapolis, and the Bay Area, completed the DRC’s “Four Coasts Project”, an effort to examine regional variations in sediment management on the four coasts of the lower 48 states.

The final DredgeFest allowed the DRC to shift toward their goal of collaboratively designing sediment systems. Unlike the workshops in Louisiana and the Great Lakes, the California participants worked together in large teams, aiming to produce actionable, decisive recommendations that were presented to local experts and stakeholders. The research and recommendations from this effort became a motivation for the approach of the Public Sediment team to the Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge, a design competition focused on resilience for the San Francisco bay Area in 2017-18. One of the ten teams selected to participate in the year-long design process, Public Sediment was led by SCAPE Landscape Architecture with engineering firm ARCADIS, comprised of faculty from the UC Davis Departments of Human Ecology and Design, local landscape architects TS Studio, the CCA-based Architectural Ecologies Lab, artist Cy Keener, and the DRC. The team’s approach centered around the contention that sediment is a public resource, vital to the health of the Baylands that surround the rim of the bay, providing crucial habitat and serving as living infrastructure that protects Bayshore communities. The team’s final proposal, “Public Sediment for Alameda Creek”, which received a 2019 Honor Award from the ASLA, centered around the role of the Bay’s largest tributary, Alameda Creek, as a potential source of sediment for the Baylands, a recreational resource, and a migration corridor for fish.

Through the DredgeFest event series, the DRC developed a strong relationship with the United States Army Corp of Engineers’ (USACE) “Engineering with Nature®” (EWN®) program. In the past two years, Holmes has been the Primary Investigator for $100,000 in grants awarded by the USACE’s Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC) through the Southeast Region Cooperative Ecosystems Services Unit. To date, Holmes and DRC colleagues, including co-investigators Sean Burkholder (University of Pennsylvania) and Justine Holzman (University of Toronto), have worked with EWN® colleagues on six different projects for five different districts to help the individual districts to identify ways that their engineering goals can be met through either the use of landscape as infrastructure (like marsh or dune systems) or the incorporation of landscape performance into hybrid infrastructure systems. As a result, the DRC have the opportunity to help elements of the USACE and the EWN® program prototype 21st century infrastructure.

So how did sediment, and dredging, capture the interest of Rob Holmes?
“I had my first encounters with dredged sediments in graduate school. First, I was invited by one of my professors, Laurel McSherry, to work on an entry for a Van Alen Institute competition, “Envisioning Gateway”, which focused on New York City’s Floyd Bennett Field, an urban park that on land that was constructed with fill. We proposed, among other things, extending the long history of dredging in adjoining Jamaica Bay to gradually construct an inverted index of the bathymetry of long-lost marsh channels. Second, while I was working on my thesis, which dealt with infrastructure but  not sediment, one of my classmates, Brian Bolen, had this incredible site for his thesis project, Craney Island. Each time he took a trip down to Hampton Roads to visit it, he came back with photos of an otherworldly, alien landscape of cracked mud, ruderal plants, and flocking shorebirds – a dredge landscapes. I was immediately jealous, and that initial impression of the strange but compelling aesthetics of the landscapes that dredging produces stuck with me. So sediment has been a part of my relationship with landscape architecture from the beginning. That said, it wasn’t until I formed the DRC in 2010 with colleagues Brett Milligan, Tim Maly, and Stephen Becker that sediment became a core interest. And that wasn’t a matter of strategic planning so much as following a thread of interesting clues until it became clear that there was a whole world in dredge.”


Related people:
Rob Holmes