The annual Patrick Curran Fellowship is a program for funding research and innovation by outstanding employees.


xl: Experiments in Landscape and Urbanism

Anya Domlesky & Emily Schlickman

As our cities and environments become more complex and face unprecedented challenges, we think it is no longer sufficient to design for aesthetics alone. The practices of urban design, landscape architecture, and city planning require advocacy, research, collaboration outside of design fields, and experimentation. The innovation lab at SWA aims to address emerging complexities from a think tank-like platform. Funding from the 2016-2017 fellowship supported a pilot for xl: Experiments in Landscape and Urbanism. Over six months we structured the lab into four areas of work—foresight, research, visualization and simulation, and issues—and executed projects in each area; we assessed the state of research at the firm by canvasing designers for past and ongoing research projects and identified nine central areas of thought leadership; we ran innovation workshops in all studios and extracted reoccurring topics and issues of concern firm wide; we created a roadmap for strategic future research projects and made recommendations for integrating SWA’s four existing research initiatives. Our work was well-received. xl was part of two exhibitions, was awarded one grant, engaged in two AEC conferences, and was covered in eight design/urban planning publications. SWA states, “Our identity is founded on research, experimentation, and risk-taking.”  xl continues this history of innovation by aligning past and current investigations and by executing new projects.


The Rise of Practice-Based Research in Design

Anya Domlesky

For her fellowship, Anya Domlesky looked at rise of practice-based research in design. The research surveyed how design firms, including SWA, have addressed increasingly complex environmental, technical, and cultural issues by evolving their practice models to include formal research initiatives, foresight efforts, or innovation programs. With six case studies, Domlesky detailed how select firms in varying disciplines are pursuing similar aims: the expansion of their practice, the refinement of their craft, or the further evaluation of their work and processes. Each of these firms customized their research program through a combination of nine strategies. As we move into a time when it is no longer sufficient to make landscapes and urban places that are solely beautiful and well-built, we must investigate how practice can adapt to this progressively complex design environment.

Traces of SWA

Emily Schlickman

“Traces of SWA” is an introspective research proposal based on the premise that looking inward is a necessary step in design innovation. It is focused on transitory moments of inspiration, on rough sketches, on process – the notion that there is something inherently insightful about unfinished, raw ideas that may never make it to reality.

The goal of the project is not to present a holistic picture of the firm; rather, it is to present an honest compilation of internal snapshots, documenting the day-to-day design processes that form the foundation of our work. In a small way, the project aims to serve as a platform for discussion within SWA, sparking dialogue about the invention of design ideas and methodologies: how can we build upon existing research to inspire and generate new content?


Wildlife Infrastructure

Amanda Kronk

Building wildlife resiliency into the design paradigm for urban landscapes is important to ensuring that critical human infrastructure and wildlife infrastructure operate as a synchronized system. Critical infrastructure typically refers to electricity generation, gas production and distribution, telecommunication, water supply, etc. However, a carefully constructed overlay of regional wildlife infrastructure is crucial in designing a solution where human resource conveyance can work in tandem with wildlife migration trajectories and habitation patterns. Current urban development essentially push wildlife to the periphery, leaving behind traces of habitat fragmentation that can result in detrimental conditions for species migration. With the exception of isolated occurrences of wildlife corridors, there exists no overarching connectivity to allow for a network of wildlife movement at a regional scale. The response should be geared toward using our urban project sites to catalyze the development of this network. The fellowship focused on acquiring regionally specific sources (used and created by professional organizations and agencies, online databases, etc.) linked to wildlife data sets that yield information about the ecosystems containing potential project sites. A digital data source library was designed in the form of an interactive infographic cataloging these sources into an organized collection for the efficient extraction of data. Avian data was the focus for the library's first phase, as birds are a keystone species indicating the growth of healthy ecosystems.

Re-Imagining Playgrounds

Chuhan Zhang and Xiwei Zhang

The population of urban youth is rapidly growing while the development of child-friendly infrastructures and playgrounds has stagnated. Only risk-free, cookie-cutter playgrounds or digital games and electronic products that keep kids on the couch seem available.

"Playscape" evolves from the term playground. By combining the functionality of "play" and the spirit of “landscape” design, it encourages recreational and interactive activities through the shaping of landscape. Moreover, playscape aims to take on a broader social function that links neighborhoods and cities together and bring them close to nature.

This fellowship encourages the exploration of “playscape” design and expertise within SWA. Based on literature reviews and field trips to successful cases worldwide, the fellowship identified good characteristics of playscapes and indexed playscapes according to age constraints, materiality, scale, and design strategy. Besides offering a design toolkit for playscape, this fellowship also looked into local codes/regulations, market potential, and the possibility of establishing a firm-wide platform for sharing information and exchanging ideas.

Watermark: Notes from the California Aqueduct

Katie Jenkins

This fellowship investigates junctures in California’s landscape that have been shaped by the appropriation and reallocation of water. It does not attempt to solve the water crisis, but rather, seeks to challenge public misconception of the character of California’s land and the source of water that has so altered it.The project poses the following questions:

1. The State Water Project was envisioned in an era of engineering triumph - its contexts have since changed. How can future design of California’s water infrastructure reflect new understanding of this critical/essential resource?

2. Can a richer vocabulary—written or visual—improve discussion of the endemic diversity of regions in California that are so often reduced to the single descriptor: dry?

3. How do we understand an aqueduct in relation to a river? Has the channelization of California’s waterways impacted the public’s attitude towards water as a resource?


Garbage Landscape

Zhongwei Li

The waste generated by growing urban populations is increasing worldwide. The majority of this waste is disposed of in landfills. To complicate matters, most landfills in China are located on the fringes of the cities and most of the projected city growth will be established on top of the landfills. Beijing is the most extreme example of this phenomenon. There, per capita waste production is much higher than in other Chinese regions, almost as high as that of developed countries. The total amount of existing solid waste in Beijing is currently more than 6 billion tons, occupying over 50,000 hectares of landfills. In planning future city development, we have a great opportunity to exploit this condition and turn the landfills into parks.

Eco Corridors

Justin Winters, Chris Hardy

The 21st century will experience global urbanization on an unprecedented scale. While the industrial world has already witnessed the damage of unchecked urban expansion --disruptions to our natural systems, degradation of human health and well-being, depletion of resources -- the developing world is currently undergoing transformations at a rate that could exacerbate these issues beyond reconciliation. Due to their size and density, however, cities also offer us our greatest opportunity to enact the greatest impact for change. This fellowship explored integrated strategies for sustainable urban design, focusing on the essential role of landscape as the foundation of the next generation of green and healthy global cities. Through studying the ecodistricts movement and other similar programs, this fellowship identified key contributions that can be made in the public landscape. In addition to site visits, interviews with industry leaders, and a literature survey, this fellowship provided a roadmap for better facilitiating sustainable design at SWA, including intiating a digital library, a marketing strategy, and ISIS, the Integrated Sustatinability Initative Strategy, which focuses on process improvement at SWA.

Art for Public Spaces – Why Do Cities Need Public Art?

Jean Pierre Casillas and Shannon Scovell

A recent study by Americans for the Arts reported that each year the government provides four billion dollars to nonprofit arts organizations. In return, the arts industry generates nearly 30 billion dollars in revenue. Undoubtedly, cities are recognizing that public art is a driving force in the economy. Although it's difficult to isolate the monetary impacts of public art, the social and cultural effects are invaluable. Public art enhances and often creates the identity of public spaces. It transforms cities as well as the way people recognize and contemplate the world around them. It has become an essential tool for making cities stand out and attract new businesses and young professionals. The fellowship study focused on New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle, all of which have “percent for art” programs. The resulting book, Art for Public Spaces, is intended to be a working tool for designers, with information regarding the process for commissioning art for both private and public entities. The desire is to create more awareness of project typologies, artists, and cultural organizations to help streamline the inclusion process and minimize individual research time.


Hope Initiative

Huicheng Zhong

This is a public-spirited design project within a courtyard of Gongxing Hope Primary School located in Gongxing Town, Mianzhu City, Sichuan Province, China. The goal of this project is to design the reading garden and prepare appropriate design drawings which will guide later construction phases.

The approaches of this project include:

1. Use local solutions to reduce the cost.

2. Encourage user-interactive participation to guide the design process.

3. Work with YOUTHLA (www.youthla.org) in later construction phases.

Buffalo Bayou Bliss

Pavel Petrov

Buffalo Bayou Bliss is a film that chronicles the rich history of Houston as it relates to the evolution of Buffalo Bayou and its connection with the growing identity and fabric of the region. Originating 35-miles west of downtown, Buffalo Bayou winds through a patchwork of diverse landscapes towards Allen’s Landing, the historical birthplace of Houston. Akin to many other cities, Houston has been striving to overcome perpetual issues of flooding, pollution, public health, and a lack of equitably distributed open space, all the while attempting to foster an environment that stimulates economic development. By way of expert testimonials, Buffalo Bayou Bliss examines these complex social and environmental concerns uncovering how Houston has dealt and continues to solve these matters by leveraging its greatest natural resource, Buffalo Bayou.

Material Research in China

Shuang Yu

The goal of this fellowship is to research the available construction materials in China, the local manufacturers, distributors, and explore suitable construction methods in China. This research will not only focus on material/manufacturer information collection, but will also focus on finding out the construction potentials of local/traditional materials and the potential of using contemporary materials in China. After the four-week process, the research summary will be internally published on SWAP for all SWA employees to share and the research structure will be formed as an open database for everyone in all offices to be able to update during our future work in China.

Social Entrepreneurship

Andrew Watkins

More than half of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas. Of this, 70% of the population is located in developing nations and this percentage is rapidly rising, increasing to about 95% by 2060. Urban populations in developing nations face severe challenges—socially, economically and environmentally.  For example, 30% of urban populations worldwide live in slums. As designers, we have skills that can affect change in these environments—we have the ability to coordinate programmatic needs with spatial solutions that improve the quality of life.

As the world’s population is shifting to urban cities in the developing world, how can we develop a business model that is flexible enough to interact in this exploding market, a market that is 2.5 billion people strong and growing? Developing markets are rife with challenges—direct funding capacity, political stability, location and complex social structures to name a few.

Yet, these areas are also ripe with opportunities—multifaceted funding interests, abilities to leapfrog technology, innovative organizational models and creative forms of sustainability that are often non-technical. It is easy to understand how the skills we’ve acquired from working on some of the most innovative projects in the developed world could benefit projects in the developing world. Could this also work in the other direction, can we learn skills from working in the developing world that would give us an advantage in the developed world?

A business approach that may prove useful in strategizing how to increase our design work in the developing world is the concept of social entrepreneurship. Though this concept is nothing new, it has attracted increased attention in the last five to ten years, both as a way for businesses to have a greater and more direct impact on issues they find important and as an alternative to international aid models that have increasingly come under criticism for their long-term sustainability. Social entrepreneurship attempts to organize business around a social issue rather than a client. They are mission driven. This model may have multiple clients that each support the engagement of a single issue, possibly with different agendas that are organized and aligned by the entrepreneur. This model is therefore far more challenging in developing and managing clients or funding sources, yet provides distinct opportunities in its ability to focus an organization’s mission. Social entrepreneurship is ground up rather than top down.

Two primary business models exist for social entrepreneurship. As defined by Samer Abu-Saifan in Social Entrepreneurship: Definition and Boundaries, social entrepreneurship can either be a non-profit organization with an earned income strategy or a for-profit company with a mission driven strategy. On the non-profit end of the spectrum, these organizations would aim for mission growth while operating as a self-sufficient entity from their earned income and not reliant on grants or donations in the way that most non-profits currently are. Alternatively, for-profit companies would be aim for profit growth in order to sustain a mission goal.

How can social entrepreneurship be incorporated into the way we do business? How can we explore new funding sources to do project work? What business models are we not considering as the basis for project creation?

SWAapp + Place APP

Yu-Peng Hu, Ji Hyun Yoo

Originally two submissions, the following project is a combination of two similar submissions. The goal of both projects is to connect SWA to the community, professionals, clients and potential clients.

The SWApp seeks to create an app exclusive to SWA that will provide a map service of all SWA projects around the globe. The app will act as an interactive projects tour guide, helping potential clients who seek to visit the firm’s public projects but do know how to get there.

The Place App will allow you to browse through the firm’s current portfolio of design and architecture. It will provide exclusive access into its award-winning buildings in the form of interactive guides when visiting the buildings.

Urban Villages

Judy Qu

This project seeks to observe the changes of urban villages in Guangzhou under the background of urbanization. This project included visits to redeveloped and under-redeveloped urban villages, and developed case studies on urban and landscape design in order to understand potential new business opportunities in China for SWA.

Digital: Real

Mandana Parvinian, Don Xu

The “design process” is undergoing significant change as a result of the new tools of advanced 3D modeling software. This new process offers designers new forms with sophisticated patterns and spatial curvatures that surpass conventional geometric forms. Visually intriguing, these forms are both difficult to represent in technical drawings and manufacture with conventional methods. This project will explore how these forms become a reality.

Graphic Library

Zane Busbee

The goal was to collectively strategize and develop a digital library that would increase daily efficiency and workflows of production through the development a comprehensive system for cataloguing and managing the graphic resources of the firm. The idea was to create an updated and expansive library of graphic materials to improve and assist the efficiency of creating SWA’s daily illustrative product in plan, section, elevation, and perspective.

Material Reuse

Alec Hawley, Michael Hee

Material Reuse is geared towards providing a better understanding about reuseable material availability/sourcing, costing and implementation. The project seeks to create a template that can provide valuable information to SWA employees regarding investigated materials as well as a structured format for further investigation and reporting in an effort to streamline and encourage greener practices within SWA.


Health & The Built Environment

Josselyn Ivanov

Health is a vast and far-reaching topic, so for the purposes of my research, I focused on the emerging public health disaster of our time – the sedentary lifestyle that leads to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and spans the gamut of so-called first-world diseases. Related to these is the growing body of research on lifestyle-related mental health problems, such as ADHD and depression.

Please click on "Download PDF" to view the "Healthy Design Handout"

What is the Role of the Bicycle in China?

Amirah Shahid

An urban designer's attempt to understand the role of the bicycle in China - on the ground with wheels spinning - by riding from Beijing to Shanghai.

Amirah Shahid takes a break along the 800-km bicycle route across China. Check out the full blog at Cycle-China.com


Landscape Urbanism

Sarah Peck

When writing about landscape architecture does take place, it is often technical, boring, or self-referential – how does the written and design work of landscape arhictects reach out to the public beyond built projects? Why can’t writing about landscape architecture be the same as our projects – fun, playful, exciting, useful, relevant, innovative, revealing, smart?

Why is landscape architecture so underwritten? There is a dearth of writing about landscape, urbanism, and the pressing issues of landscape architecture today. The field has progressed immensely over the last 50 years but occupies a relatively underappreciated realm of public perception.

This project aims to connect landscape architecture to the public – to communicate the profession's ideals and impact beyond immediate professionals involved in its creation. The average person doesn’t know the importance of public space, how space gets designed, or who is involved in the design process.

In addition, we need more relevant references and public resources for landscape architects, planners, architects and designers of the built environment.

The goals of this project are to: increase involvement, presence, connections within and beyond landscape architecture field; to tap into digital networks and connections to reveal the interdisciplinary nature of landscape architecture; to showcase architecture, planning, design, preservation, policy, and art; and to create an accessible resource for and about landscape architecture and landscape urbanism.


Chih-Wei GV Chang

With treatment wetlands becoming a practical and widely accepted method for water quality improvement, landscape architects are challenged to be not only an advocate, but also a knowledgeable practitioner. The research explores three critical compartments: hydrology, medium and layout, which inform the design decision making and translate knowledge into physical form shaping.


Urban Heat Islands 2009

Alex Robinson

A broad survey of contemporary literature and case studies for combating urban heat island and global warming impacts with landscape design and technologies. Research includes a study of the countermeasures enacted by the Urban Climatology Department in Stuttgart, Germany and highlights from the proceedings of two international conferences.


Urban Agriculture 2008

Ellen Burke

Farm Plus investigated mechanisms by which landscape architects can create and preserve active farmland in urbanized areas. Research focused primarily on innovative partnerships between landowners and farmers. A secondary focus was identifying new formal expressions for urban farms. The research engages some of the critical issues surrounding community food security, the urbanization of farmlands and environmental sustainability, while suggesting an innovative arena of action for landscape professionals. Ten farms were visited over a span of five months, in four U.S. metropolitan areas and in Europe. Projects studied included a CSA in Portland, OR operating from two locations – sixteen acres on city-managed open lands and twelve acres in a public park; a forty-five acre farm in a planned housing community outside Chicago, IL; a twenty-five acre CSA farm in a public park outside Boston, MA; and an ag park where six farmers share parcels on eighteen acres located on a public utility easement near San Francisco, CA.

All projects were small organic farms, ranging in size from two to forty-five acres. The farms are businesses, almost all financially self-sufficient, not educational or demonstration farms. The farms used a variety of markets including CSAs, farmers markets, food cooperatives, produce brokers and direct sales to restaurants. The farms uniformly reported strong business growth and potential, and positive or neutral feedback from the surrounding community. Ability to assess yields from the farms varied, but on average a farm with diversified crops was able to provide produce for nineteen families from one acre.