Above: Shaine Meulmester ’20 sketching a bioswale at UMass Amherst.

Here at the Conway School, we begin the new academic year outside observing patterns in the landscape. The day after Labor Day, the graduate students arrive to begin a year of intensive graduate study, at the end of which they will earn a Master of Science in Ecological Design. After an introduction to sketchbook drawing as a tool for observation and design thinking, the faculty send the students into the landscape around the studio building. The students are prompted to ask questions. Why does the land slope down in this location? Why are some trees older than others? What are the land use patterns?

Throughout orientation week, the students continue to ask these questions as they embark on day trips to sites throughout the Pioneer Valley. The faculty use these trips to introduce the students to the region, while also touching on key concepts that will resurface throughout the year. Students learn the process of ruthless isolation, or mapping one element of the landscape, such as trees or human circulation, in isolation. This presents the first challenge to a habit of mind: the students need to suspend their judgement, and resist the temptation to identify problems and solutions. They quickly identify the challenge of keeping statements objective. Students then learn how to overlay these layers of elements to begin to think about relationships. As one student commented, they learn to ask, what’s happening here? What happened here in the past?

One student this year who was fairly new to the area described how orientation helped them to feel grounded in the landscape. Even students familiar with the area learned something new.  Peruse the photo gallery below to learn about the sites the students visited:

Learning starts right away: the first day of school begins with a brief introduction to sketching and drawing in plan and section. While some students have experience in this areas, others are new to drafting. Everyone will build upon their experience and teach something to their classmates.

Next, students head outside into the surrounding neighborhood. They search for remnants of the landscape’s previous use as a state hospital. Here, students observe part of an old fountain and the mature beech trees beyond.

Students present their findings to the class and to visiting speaker Thomas Riddell, who taught seminars about the history of the Northampton State Hospital at Smith College.

An excursion to a mountaintop (Mount Sugarloaf) provided an opportunity for observing (and sketching!) the Pioneer Valley’s landscape patterns from above.

Traveling down the valley to the City of Holyoke, students conducted site analysis at an edible forest garden created by Eric Toensmeier (author of Paradise Lot).

Ginny Patson of the Heritage Park Visitor Center guided students around downtown Holyoke’s active canal system, explaining the history of the city and recently repurposed mill buildings.

Students practice section drawing at a levee in Northampton, and learn about the city’s flood control system. Students identified climate change as a theme during orientation week: sites prompted students to think about the consequences of increasing precipitation and severity of storms, hotter temperatures, food scarcity, and shifting patterns in vegetation.

At Pulaski Park, the students learned how to measure their pace and overlay analyses to identify landscape patterns. They examined how stormwater is directed from the street into a bioswale in the park. One student observed how many sites during orientation showed examples of combining function (e.g., cleaning stormwater) with artful design (e.g., flowering plants in the bioswale).

One student commented that many stops during orientation were to spaces at the margins, such as the area around a building, at the periphery of a city, or, in this case, at the edge of a parking lot. At the Renaissance High School in the city of Springfield, students learn about the impacts of stormwater runoff on urban streams.

Students learn about the challenges facing a stream restoration project from Keith Zaltzberg of Regenerative Design Group. Later, a student commented on how multiple speakers mentioned the social challenges they encountered in their design and planning work, such as conflict about access to and use of spaces.

Ibrahim Ali, Co-Director for Programs and Marketing at Gardening the Community in Springfield, showed students how the organization converted a vacant lot into a thriving community farm. Many aspects of the site design follow the plans produced by Molly Burhans ’15 when she was a Conway student.

Orientation concluded with a tour of sustainable stormwater management techniques at UMass Amherst’s campus, led by Professor Dana MacDonald of UMass. Students identified water as a theme of orientation: it plays a significant role in all landscapes. Here, students sketch a bioswale wrapping around the Design Building.