MLA Studio III Collaborates with Davis Arboretum

APLA Professor Charlene LeBleu and Visiting Assistant Professor, Thomas Hogge, led their Master of Landscape Architecture’s (MLA) Fall 2020 Studio III in a partnership with the Auburn University Donald E. Davis Arboretum to develop plans for the garden’s future growth and development. The 13.5-acre botanic garden is one of the oldest among universities in the SEC and functions as a plant museum with a core collection of scientifically ordered plants and provenance documentation. The primary mission of the Davis Arboretum is “to display and preserve living plant collections and native southeastern plant communities; to inspire an understanding of the natural world and our connection to it; and to promote education, research, conservation, and outreach” (Donald E. Davis Arboretum, 2020). The Arboretum is supported by the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) and functions as an outdoor classroom for university classes, local schools and community groups, providing visitors with a place to enjoy a natural setting and experience the native plants and habitats of Alabama.

The MLA students’ responsibilities included re-examining the spaces, ecologies, management strategies, programs and uses, cultural significance and other values and concerns of the Davis Arboretum, while engaging prior campus planning efforts, and developing a new framework plan for the future of the arboretum based on its unique characteristics. Paired with a fieldwork class, the studio involved on-site and remote research across several related ecological, socio-cultural, and spatial contexts. The studio also connected to the Green New Deal (GND) Superstudio, a national initiative primarily sponsored by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), that links design schools and practices to translate the GND’s core goals—decarbonization, justice, and jobs—into design and planning projects for their respective regions. In envisioning a future for the Davis Arboretum, students manifested the GND’s ethos into a plan that accounts for its broad goals and lands them on-site with regional and local specificity.

The studio worked closely with Morgan Pendergrass, Arboretum Director, and had preliminary input from AU Campus Planner Judd Langham. Presentations, at midterm and final reviews of the projects involved Pendergrass, Langham. External reviewers included Warren Byrd, Principal Emeritus at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBWLA), who led a round of master-planning for the campus and arboretum in 2014-2016; Travis Beck, Superintendent of Parks, Santa Cruz, CA, and former Director of Horticulture for Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, DE; and Lesley Conroy, a landscape architect in Washington DC, who has worked with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, WA, and Michael Vergason Landscape Architects (MVLA) in Alexandria, VA. The reviewers’ response to student concepts was positive. The critics noted appreciation for the degree of authorship and range of approaches to address both the mission of the arboretum and suggest new visions for education and conservation. Both LeBleu and Hogge continue to engage the arboretum during spring semester 2021. Several students are also refining their projects for submission to the LAF Superstudio in the spring semester. This collaboration with the arboretum provides MLA students with a unique opportunity to engage with an on-campus client and a place that provides a vital service to the AU community.