Meeting challenges of a changing landscape

by Richie Davis

Greenfield Recorder September 17, 2012, Page A01

The lay of the land has sure changed since Walter Cudnohufsky left his teaching job at the University of Massachusetts four decades ago to found the Conway School of Landscape Design at his home.

The lay of the land has sure changed since Walter Cudnohufsky left his teaching job at the University of Massachusetts four decades ago to found the Conway School of Landscape Design at his home.

For one thing, the school, under new leadership, has moved to a new home atop a hill up a half-mile-long, winding driveway. More important, though, the terrain of “landscape design” has evolved since 1972, when “the environment” was still a new buzzword and “sustainable” wasn’t yet in vogue, says Paul Cawood Hellmund, who in 2005 became director of what’s now “The Conway School: Graduate Program in Sustainable Landscape Planning and Design.”

“Walt created this incredibly nimble educational system that could respond to the needs of communities

and people,” says Hellmund, who taught at Harvard University, Virginia Tech and Colorado State University before coming to Conway. The school may have dealt with more traditional landscape design issues in its early days, with some early graduates going on to become prominent landscape architects, he said, but the school’s flexible structure has allowed it to adapt to the interests of its students — numbering 18 this year.

The latest concentration of interest, for example, is local food growth, Hellmund says.

With students working on three true-to-life projects with clients during their 10-month stay, the school’s slogan, “real world, real results” takes on a meaning that’s … well, real.

“That’s what’s kept us relevant,” Hellmund says.

That relevance will be highlighted at the school’s 40th anniversary celebration next weekend, with a keynote address Friday by environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, considered by many to be the Rachel Carson of our day.

“Who better to help the Conway School commemorate its first 40 years?” asked Hellmund. “Climate change is one of the most important yet most elusive issues facing ecological designers and planners.”

In the beginning

Cudnohufsky was just 32 when, frustrated by the “institutional impediments to education” that he found in the university setting — the bell’s ringing at the end of class curtailing meaningful discussion, for example — set him to chart his own course, in the same alternative-inspired era that also gave birth to Hampshire College and the College of the Atlantic.

“Everything was hypothetical and there was competition, plus the projects and clients weren’t real,” recalls Cudnohufsky, who as an instructor shied away from the role of “expert” in the classroom, preferring instead to tell students, “I’m going to be a learner with you. Let’s learn together.”

He took that approach with him when he started his own school.

Cudnohufsky, who still maintains his own landscape architectural firm in Ashfield, also had a disdain for his profession’s fascination with being “avantgarde and artistic, and almost nothing more than that.” Landscape Architecture Magazine at the time was “celebrating purple tires and the occult …. You couldn’t find an article on sustainability anywhere.”

From the outset the Conway school emphasized community and the primacy of the environment and natural systems, just as the landscape design itself is rooted in Frederick Law Olmsted’s pioneering work solving functional problems like draining sewage from Boston’s Back Bay by creating the Fenway, and designing New York’s Central Park so that it wasn’t bisected by traffic.

Far from being just an ornamental or aesthetic domain concerned with the pretty use of shrubs and plants, Helmund said, landscape planning deals with “the setting for every aspect of our life.”

And, as suggested by McKibben’s presence and the school’s recent projects assessing the potential for increasing food production in Greenfield, in Northampton and around Franklin County, landscape planning is becoming more vital than ever, says Mollie Babize, the school’s associate director for admissions. In light of climate change and the need for communities to become resilient, she asks,

“How can we anticipate and train ourselves and re-learn how to work with the land that supports our lives?”

Hundreds of projects

Babize, who graduated from the program in 1984, says the school’s continued emphasis on enhancing and restoring natural systems has played out in hundreds of projects designed by the school’s 600 students over the years.

Those projects have dealt with restoration of streams, wetlands and habitat, as well as with conservation planning to protect farmland, wildlife and historic landscapes. And then there’s the more recently

emphasized domain of “regenerative design,” highlighted by permaculture, foodsheds and carbon sequestration. Projects have been done for clients as far away as Chile, Panama and Italy.

But students have also worked on Greenfield’s streetscape, a land-use feasibility study for the former Yankee Atomic plant in Rowe, design alternatives for Cushman Park in Bernardston, a food security plan for Shelburne Falls, feasibility studies of the former Griswold cotton mill in Colrain, Strathmore Mill in Turners Falls and the Usher Mill in Erving, and a regional farmland assessment for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. And there are literally dozens of other projects around western Massachusetts.

“We’ve had a tremendous impact on this region, and we look forward to being more fundamentally of service,” said Hellmund, explaining that a new fellowship program being started on a trial basis this year emphasizes training of planners who will later work as community interns around the region on projects they’ve begun at Conway. “We’re working internationally, but that doesn’t mean we’re not totally committed to this area.” The school’s educational method, essentially teaching students how to analyze problems systemically using an integrated approach that looks at not only the aesthetics of the landscape but also at the economics, the science and the technology, came in handy when Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston approached the school to analyze how to incorporate “green burial” principles — preferring use of a biodegradable coffins to embalming chemicals and concrete vaults.

“We hadn’t done a green burial project here,” Hellmund said, “But our students know how to ask the questions.”

Apart from Hellmund, who also teaches design and planning at Conway, the school has just three faculty members, but makes use of adjunct instructors from around the region and also has a weekly series of guest speakers, some of whom are drawn from the region’s large pool of experts in a range of disciplines, including permaculture and regenerative design. Using Skype, the Internet communication service, there are also interactive sessions with experts working on a range of environmental issues in Bangladesh, Ireland and elsewhere around the globe.

‘Sense of urgency’

Originally conceived as a graduate program for students from other fields — it still attracts welders, social workers and other people transitioning to new careers — The Conway School has trained landscape architects, but also environmental planners, land-trust conservationists and people working in other environmental fields, like the Conway-based “Learning By the Yard” school-grounds consulting firm.

The Conway School has graduates in 45 states and 13 countries, says Babize, but there’s also a strong concentration in this area. Abrah Dresdale, for example, heads Greenfield Community College’s new “Farm and Food Systems” program, while Mary Praus, a regional land-use planner at the Franklin Regional COG, is working on a substainability master plan for the region. And then there are Ashfield farmers Kate Kerivan and Amy Klippenstein, and Conte Wildlife Refuge’s invasive species control coordinator, Cynthia Boettner.

While focusing on whatever plot of land they’re given to work on in their projects, Hellmund says, The Conway School’s students over the years have a larger “sense of urgency” about the problems the entire globe is facing — from deforestation to degradation of soils and warming of the planet.

Starting with Cudnohufsky’s radical premise — that “since the world is the best teacher,” the school should be about getting people started and giving them enough groundwork so they can learn on the job, Hellmund sees the school as well tuned into the changing environment.

“We’re training people not by giving them all the answers, but by telling them, ‘It’s going to change, next year’s going to be different, and in 10 years it’s going to be different still. But if you understand that this is a system, then you’re going to learn how to be effective’” Hellmund says. “That’s what’s needed now, more and more and more. That’s what we hope we’re preparing students to do.”