Sketching outings

By Meghan James

We’re starting a new office activity to keep our drawing skills sharp, fuel new design ideas, and just spend a little time together outside: sketch outings!

Thursday, during the lunch hour, Drew and I strolled over to Occidental Square to sit in the sun and sketch.  It was a gorgeous day and the bricked plaza was filled with people sitting in the sun, eating lunch, and listening to live music.  It took us a minute or two to find a spot to sit, as the place was so crowded.  We eventually settled on a seat near the bakery and next to the chess game.

I decided to focus on the chess pieces in front of me.  I was drawn to them because they were so huge; each one stood at least two feet tall.  I worried that the pieces would be moved around before I could finish sketching each one, but the game was nice and slow.  Drew had his eye on paving patterns in the plaza, and capturing people as they relaxed in the sun.

Sketching is a critical tool for designers, even today when nearly everyone has a digital camera on their phone.  Sketching is not just about recording the facts of a sight; sketching is about truly seeing your surroundings.  Sketching forces you to deeply observe a place and capture it on paper with lines, tones and textures.  In this way, you see the space much more vividly and sear it into your memory.  Taking a snapshot is certainly faster, but sketching makes the place your own.

Observation – through sketching – trains the eye to see patterns, composition, and themes.  We all tend to see the world with a visual shortcut.  We see: car, building, child.  Sketching teaches us to really look and see how the car has a dented bumper, how the building has a torn awning, and how the child has an ice cream stain down the front of his shirt.  Ice cream stains may not directly translate to good landscape architecture, but it’s a richness of detail that does turn into excellent design.

We’re planning to make our new sketch outings a weekly event.  Although this first trip was just the two of us, this will hopefully become an occasion that the entire office looks forward to.  In fact, I have a new sketchbook and a handful of watercolor pencils which need to get some exercise.  Keep an eye out, because we’ll keep posting selections from our sketchbooks.


Swan Creek Public Meeting

Jim Brennan

Last night Jim and Mike presented the schematic design for the 1st phase of Metro Parks Tacoma’s Swan Creek Park.  The meeting was open to the public, and held at the Portland Avenue Community Center in Tacoma’s Eastside neighborhood, where the 380-or so acre park lies.  The meeting was attended by neighborhood residents, former-residents, members of the Friends of Swan Creek, community gardeners, and other folks interested in the proposed improvements.  The plan calls for a new gathering space focused around community gardening.  This area will serve as a launching point for park visitors to venture off into the miles of wooded trails being added at the park.  The improvements will surely give east side residents a good means to access and behold this gem of a park.

Evaluating the Performance of Bio-Swale Plant Material

by Drew Coombs

July 2012


In 2008-2009 J.A. Brennan provided design services for a bio-filtration drainage system at Marra-Desimone Park.  We collaborated with Davido Consulting Group to improve roadway drainage in this South Park neighborhood for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU).   For more background info see here.

We return to the site two to three times a year to evaluate the performance of the plants and to see how the system as a whole is functioning.  The focus of this article will be about plant selection and the success of certain species.  I’ve kept the discussion to a select few plants as there is a diverse plant palette and I could get carried away…


With the early onset of summer I visited the site with my co-worker Meghan to see how the system was faring.  Given that the local weather personalities had recently described the season as Junuary due to unseasonably wet and cool weather in our region I was anticipating the plants to only be performing at an O.K. level.  To my pleasant surprise the majority of the plants looked robust, vigorous, lush, beautiful and healthy.  (How many words can you use to describe a good looking plant!?) 

Post Construction, September 2009

Plant Selection

During design we carefully selected emergent marsh species appropriate for the wet and dry conditions of the bio-filtration system.  The upland plants reflect the context and character of the Marra Farm community garden and urban farm environment.  A selection of native plants and fruiting ornamental plants were used to attract wildlife and suggest the farm quality of the site.

During construction, 2009

Seeds versus Plugs?

Plants were an expensive part of the project.  During design, to meet the project’s budget, we made a decision to use a combination of seed and plugs in the bottom of the bio filtration swale.  The combination of seed and plugs of emergent species reduced the quantity of emergent plugs required and provided some savings during construction.   (Emergent plugs are more expensive than seeds).

I have to say after four years, it’s not possible to distinguish the areas that were seeded from the areas that were planted with plugs.  The system as a whole appears to be performing well.


The emergent plants species doing particularly well are the Carex sp (sedge) and the Scirpus microcarpus (small fruited bulrush).  Both are content and performing as planned.

Of the shrub species, Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’ (Kelsey dogwood) and Salix purpurea (Arctic willow) look wonderful.

We used a select few groundcover species.  The one plant that is struggling and has had a high rate of loss is Mahonia nervosa (Low Oregon grape).  The site may have been too exposed for this particular plant.

Overall the plants are performing quite well and the system as whole is performing as designed.  There is little evidence of invasive plants like blackberry or reed canary grass.

The performance of the plants is a combination of the selection but also a measure of the ongoing maintenance by the owner, in this case SPU and Seattle Parks.  It is my understating that SPU staff continues to maintain the swale.

In conclusion, with proper maintenance and irrigation, it is apparent, given the right conditions during the early establishment period, that the application of seed in combination with plugs appears to be a successful approach within this bio-filtration system.

j.a.b.LOG Roundup of Recent Interesting Articles

Landscape Architecture Related

 “You have to build coalitions of unlikely partners to get parks built, restored and maintained.”

The long-standing tradition of landscape architecture and sustainability

Paver Power in Europe

The Real High Line Effect — A Transformational Triumph of Preservation and Design

Value of homes near wildlife refuges higher

Why Cities are Better for Watersheds than Suburbs: “High-density areas reduce pollutant loading on a per capita basis, acting as a truer indicator of damage to receiving waters than low-density areas.”

A field guide about how we view urban plants, native and non-native

Vertical Park in Barcelona

NW Related

Corps, Puget Sound Partnership agree to collaborate on levees

Seattle Center’s new food options and perhaps a new Bubbleator!

Competition for adaptive reuse of 520

Historic building in Bellingham a teardown?

Sea-Level Rise studies in Richmond, BC