FIREWISE: Demonstration Garden, Cadillac Michigan

Planners, designers, and citizens are interested in how site design can mitigate the effects of landscape hazards.

February 23, 2017 - Author: Jon B. Burley

Garden gazebo and viewing area.
Garden gazebo and viewing area in Cadillac, Michigan.

Planners, designers, and citizens are interested in how site design can mitigate the effects of landscape hazards. I have studied various aspects of landscape hazards, publishing research papers and winning awards for this work. Wildfires are one form of landscape hazard in which good site design practices can reduce damage. In Michigan, there are actually between 8,000 and 10,000 wildfires each year, damaging 100 to 200 structures yearly. Several years ago, I began work on this topic with Mark F. Hansen from Michigan State University Extension, Michael R. Penskar from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and Dr. Tom Fernandez from Michigan State University’s horticulture department. With the Kettunen Center near Cadillac, Michigan, operated by the Michigan 4-H Foundation, we designed and constructed a firewise demonstration garden in the Kettunen Center’s arboretum.

As an academic, one has to be careful about what types of professional projects upon which one works. Normally, research projects and teaching are my primary activities. If someone approaches me about doing professional work, even though I still maintain my professional license of almost 38 years, I recommend most potential projects to the many fine firms in Michigan who are in business to perform professional planning and design. I learned long ago, before coming to Michigan State University, that sometimes it was not wise for taxpayer-funded academics to compete for projects. I witnessed a quite destructive and combative situation for some academic architects at another university who ran an office through a university setting and consequently encountered political trouble. So I let practitioners do planning and design projects, and I teach and do research. I think it is a good dividing line. However, I might consider a project if it is associated with my institution, it is educational, there are no funds for designer fees, and the project is not large. This was the case with the firewise landscape at the Kettenun Center.

We visited the site, and I led the team through a design process in which the team debated the merits of three different concepts I had developed. I find that it often works best to have the clients engaged in the design through decision making, and for me not to be too wedded to any one design or idea. This helps to keep me open and flexible to ideas while the client is active in the creation of the design, and I become a facilitator of their wishes. The final design was based loosely upon a spatial organization of representational leaves or feathers (planting beds) around a viewing area (the gazebo).

Site construction (earthwork and plant materials) was initiated through the volunteer activities of the MSU Horticulture Club. Materials and construction of the gazebo-like structure were financed with a small grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and completed by arrangements with contractors who worked through the Kettunun Center. After two years of work, an opening ceremony took place in 2010.

I thought the team worked really well together. It was a great pleasure to work with such professional and thoughtful people, demonstrating how collaboration and teamwork can generate a meaningful solution with focus and quality. When I am asked to lecture about landscape hazards in Introduction to Landscape Architecture, I use the material from the firewise project as an educational tool to help students visualize and understand the process of initiating and completing a project. Sometimes I also show this project to students in my beginning design course, especially the part about generating meaningful design alternatives and how to be flexible as a designer.

Every year people visit the Kettunen Arboretum, enjoying educational settings about butterfly gardens, growing Christmas trees, and creating firewise environments. What I really like is the integration of new knowledge about fire-resistant plants and building materials that are studied at the university. With the assistance of state government, federal government, students, and institutions, we produce something meaningful concerning the understanding and protection of the environment, both built and natural. This is how it is supposed to work, and MSU is a place where this happens frequently, across many departments and for many scholars.

Before becoming an academic, I had worked upon approximately ½ billion dollars in planning and design projects. But now, I am getting close to retirement and the firewise project at the Kettunen Center may be the last professional project with which I will be involved. Compared to the big projects of my past, the Kettunen project is small, but because it serves the people of Michigan, it is a nice project with which to conclude a career.

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