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Design Disrupted / featured

Cornfields: The New Landscape Frontier

Katy Kraszewska

Landscape architecture is tasked with designing humanity’s common ground. As the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s New Landscape Declaration puts it, “Food, water, oxygen – everything that sustains us comes from and returns to the landscape.”

And yet, according to Designer in Residence Katy Kraszewska, landscape architects are seldom involved in designing the landscape most responsible for sustaining us: the agricultural landscape. Worldwide, the percentage of land used for agriculture is 40%; in Illinois, it’s 75%. How might landscape architects help design the world’s largest landscape and address some of agriculture’s biggest challenges?

Students in Katy’s 2017 fall design studio explored new ways farmers and landscape architects can work together to solve one of agriculture’s biggest challenges: nutrient pollution.

Their project, “Water and the Agricultural Landscape of Illinois,” won a prestigious ASLA Award of Excellence for its compelling ideas that offer a glimpse into the future of the profession.

Although nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus help crops grow, they have disastrous effects on the environment when applied in high concentrations. As the students explain, these nutrients seep into subsurface drainage and eventually into larger aquatic systems where they cause extensive damage to wildlife and water quality. Agricultural runoff from farms in Illinois is the leading non-point source of pollution in the Mississippi watershed.

Katy’s students took strategies landscape architects commonly use in urban environments to manage stormwater (bioswales or constructed wetlands, for instance) and applied them to agricultural landscapes to address this challenge. Most agricultural landscapes’ sole purpose is to produce food or energy. The students’ designs contribute additional layers of purpose: they help to prevent agricultural runoff, they provide a habitat for migrating birds, they provide recreational opportunities and tourist attractions, and they educate the public about sustainable farming practices.

Katy hopes to see some of the students’ design strategies implemented someday. “Agriculture is a source of Illinois pride,” Katy says, and farmers want strategies that can help them boost their image. Ultimately, she would like to see a stronger partnership between landscape architecture and agriculture. Her vision is that they will find ways to work together to design the agricultural landscape.

Check out the students’ designs at

Team: Jacqueline Carmona, Maria Esker, Layne Knoche, Carmeron Letterly, April Pitts, Cesar Rojas-Campos, Zi Hao Song, Yuxi Wang, Xiaodong Yang, Dongqi Zhang, Nathan Burke, Yizhen Ding | Faculty Advisor: Kathrine Kraszewska

I am Katy Kraszewska. I teach here at the University Illinois Department of Landscape Architecture. I am interested in water quality and the agricultural community.

Agriculture makes up the majority of the global landscape, the American landscape, and the Illinois landscape. Yet, it’s one of the few landscapes that landscape architecture is not involved in and it’s making the largest impact on water quality.

I wanted my students to question and ultimately to put into design how we take these beautifully designed urban practices with stormwater control and water quality management that we see, we love, and we travel to enjoy, and apply it to the agriculture community without changing the way agriculture is done?

How do we take these canals, these river’s riparian zones and convert them into areas that are treating the water for quality? Or areas that are hopefully preventing flood damage, but also are inviting the community in to use the space? How do we convert them into areas that are using agriculture as a three or four-layered design project rather than just one: the production of food or energy?

In the studio, we looked at Illinois and the conditions within Illinois and tried to incorporate the “rails to trails” initiative to turn some of these rail corridors into trail systems that had constructed wetlands and bioswales associated with them. So, they were treating this water, they were polling the community throughout the state, and showcasing agriculture as a sense state pride; something that is feeding the world, and that Illinois is known for.

Illinois has received bad press for the water quality in the past and it’s something that so many people within the agriculture community are trying to change, but there’s no policy requiring that change, so it is based on the individual.

Every year, the American Society of Landscape Architecture holds a number of categories for students to submit either their personal, studio or course work to show the direction in which the field of landscape architecture is going within the educational community. Then, ultimately there are submissions for the practice.

Ning Zhang, student: “The whole studio won that award so like, each of us contributed a lot to this award. We have done a lot of research and analysis about the type of soil, about how the agriculture and the farmland works, and how the government regulates the older agriculture land in Illinois. We researched how the farmers meet the requirements and how agriculture farmland goes.”

I had a feeling that they would win because they’re all incredibly talented students, but it is a discussion that isn’t very common within the landscape architecture community and to showcase what design can do in that landscape was just beautiful to see.