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  April 30, 2001

State's Communities Benefit from
Work of Student Landscape Architects

The effects of the University's landscape architecture program have taken root under Connecticut skies in towns and cities throughout the state.

More than ever, town officials, town planners, and conservation commission members are turning to the nationally accredited program for help on community projects to create environmentally sensitive, functional and beautiful places.

Several major projects are under way in Mansfield, East Windsor, East Hartford, and Haddam, to name a few, providing students with not only hands-on experience but the opportunity to work with experts in the field and interact with government officials.

The discipline combines a variety of skills.

"Landscape architects are not architects, yet we must understand fundamental architectural issues," says Peter Miniutti, an associate professor in the program. "We are not engineers, yet we need to understand solutions to control forces of nature. We are not horticulturists, yet we must create appropriate planting strategies. We are not artists, but we create poetry."

Some of that poetry is being created in a basement studio in the Young Building on the Horsebarn Hill side of the Storrs campus. The studio has the appearance of a busy town planner's office. The walls are covered with colorful and detailed maps: slope maps, vegetation and endangered species maps, and a wealth of geographic information on towns throughout the state.

The studio is the advanced design workplace of seniors about to graduate with a degree in landscape architecture. They will enter the workplace as practicing professionals, on their way to becoming licensed landscape architects.

The students, who are already skilled at digital design technology, will bring their technical expertise and planning strategies to small and large firms, helping to shape, design and preserve land.

In a true sense, the students are the new guardians of the environment and they're not shy about sharing their sentiment.

Michael Gervickas, a senior from Waterbury, says he and the 12 other seniors in the senior design workshop will be working toward something memorable for future generations.

"For me, landscape architecture is tying science and art into a meaningful creation for future generations," says Gervickas.

It's a comment that would greatly have pleased the late professor emeritus Harold O. Perkins, who in 1932 taught the first landscape course in the University's horticulture department.

And it's a comment appreciated today by professor emeritus Rudy J. Favretti, who took over Perkins' courses in 1966 and laid the groundwork for the program's formal growth.

Today, the landscape architecture program is part of the Department of Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The program now has an enrollment of 65 students - with about 14 students graduating each year - and a full-time staff of four associate and assistant professors.

Associate professor John Alexopoulos also wears the hat of program coordinator. In addition to full-time faculty, he enlists the help of outside specialists. "We frequently use practitioners for juries and reviews of design work by the students, as well as adjunct faculty, including an architect," he says.

Kirklyn M. Kerr, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says the faculty do an excellent job of involving students in community public service projects. "Everyone involved - students, faculty, volunteers, and community leaders - benefits from these efforts," he says.

During recent weeks, a small group of seniors in the design studio have been working on a study for the Town of Mansfield that analyzes all existing land features to determine the most logical and reasonable future land uses, balancing such elements as conservation, preservation, and sensible development. The town has allocated a $55,000 grant for the study and the University has matched that with in-kind services.

Other students are involved in a project with the Town of Mansfield and a Maryland consulting firm hired to develop a plan to enhance the character of downtown.

Gregory Padick, Mansfield's town planner, who has been involved with UConn's landscape architecture program for the past 15 years, says he appreciates the program's professionalism and 'home-grown talent.'

"Landscape architects work on projects that range from small sites, such as a park or a garden area, to large land-use studies of thousands of acres," says Mark Westa, assistant professor.

"Our program is very interested in maintaining the rural character of towns in Connecticut and we've created 'The Center for Village Design,' he says. "We view this as a way to help villages and other areas of more compact development. This will lead to sensible development in areas that can support growth while maintaining the rural character of nearby lands."

Westa and his colleague, assistant professor Kristin Schwab, have involved their students in a wide variety of projects, including the Sustainable Site Development Demonstration Project in Haddam, the East Hartford Accessible Community Garden, and Winton Park in East Windsor.

The demonstration project at the Middlesex County Extension Office in Haddam is a collaborative effort to create and evaluate a site that uses a variety of pavements, storm water management systems, landscape plantings and other elements to demonstrate sustainable site construction. Undergraduate students created and presented 14 different conceptual designs for the site.

This same group of juniors has also worked on a grassroots effort to create a therapeutic garden in East Hartford that can be shared by everyone, but especially people with disabilities, senior citizens, and school children who are in close proximity to the planned garden.

The project, to be implemented later this year, will be the first such municipal garden in the Northeast.

Schwab is also currently working with her junior studio class on a proj-ect in East Windsor that would allow for public access along the Connecticut River. The students are working with the National Park Service Rivers and Trails Program and the American Heritage River Commission, a local, permanent river commission for development and preservation.

"The project exposes the students to a design environment and allows them to interact with members of the community," Schwab says. Sometimes interaction with the community means coming face to face with local politics, that may include resistance to some of the proposals.

Gerald Berkowitz, professor and head of the plant science department, is pleased with the range of projects under way throughout Connecticut.

"Our faculty and students are providing expertise to towns, conservation programs, even the Department of Transportation, about land use planning and managing development," he says.

That expertise will be measured more closely beginning this week, when a team of three professionals from the national Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board, a branch of the American Society of Landscape Architects, assembles at Storrs to review the program for reaccreditation.

Claudia G. Chamberlain

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