For its debut year, the Design Futurist Student Award centered on transforming the plantings surrounding Coit Tower, a San Francisco landmark dating to 1933. Perched on Telegraph Hill, the 212-foot white tower—loved for its 360-degree bay and city views—features four historic fresco secco murals wrapping the inner base, each depicting agriculture, immigration, and politics. The landscape had suffered from lack of maintenance in recent years, and the design brief asked students to transform it to better support the local ecosystem, climate resilience, and human health. The Top-Prize-winning design scheme, “Migrating Mosaics,” combines art, history, and a thoughtful vision that both adapts to changing climate conditions by embracing appropriate plants and seeks to enhance the local ecosystem, including supporting locally threatened insect species.
Rather than using only historical plants, the design evokes local ecosystems with an agile approach, seeking plants from as far south as Baja California that may better meet the needs of shifting conditions.
Four first-year Master of Landscape Architecture graduate students at the Seattle-based University of Washington teamed to create the design: Sarah Chu, Chris Copeland, Liz Forelle, and Matt Jernigan. The amalgam of their varied interests in ecology, gardening, permaculture, and art made for a dynamic combination, Chris Copeland said. If he had to pick three inspirational themes for the project, he said they would be art, plants, and maintenance.
Working mainly from photos, the students met between classes and during summer break to hone their creation. “From the get-go we were interested in learning about California ecosystems,” Copeland said. It helped that “Sarah is from the Bay Area, so she had some experience with Coit Tower.”
The background of the site absorbed them right away, Liz Forelle said. “We went down different rabbit holes and got really sucked into the history. We spent a comical amount of time researching the site,” she said.
According to their submission:
“If historically native species are no longer suited to this climate, these garden beds will be experiments in how to create climate adapted ecologies for the future. In other words, our design looks to the past to show the ecologies that made California what is today and looks to the future to understand how we can make it healthier for the next generation.”
The design blends multiple “landscape mosaics”—ecological templates for plant communities for specific environments and conditions. It incorporates three overarching ecotypes: oak woodland, California grassland, and chaparral—further divided into North, Central, and South Coast subtypes.
Coincidentally, the 2023 US Department of Agriculture hardiness zone update indicated that more than half of the country got warmer, which correlates with the team’s thought process, Copeland said.
“We looked at a lot of literature and chose a lot of species that were climate adapted analogs to locally adapted,” said Copeland. “A lot of the idea was about basing on using the keystones for the chapparal and the live oak forest and then finding climate adapted species that fit with those keystone native species.”
Sarah Chu’s design submission notes, “Importantly, our design for this one site in San Francisco can be a node in a larger system of biodiversity across a region. No site is too small for these types of actions.”
The judges particularly appreciated the designers’ focus on plant stewardship—a crucial but oft-forgotten piece that can make landscapes falter after implementation. The plan’s section on maintenance includes not only reminders to water even “drought-tolerant” plants well for the first few seasons to establish roots, but environmentally friendly care recommendations like avoiding deadheading altogether, leaving stems for insect nesting, and allowing woody material overall—like acorns and leaves—to remain on site to build soil and “create soft landing zones for insects like caterpillars.”
Plants that are working will establish well, attract pollinating insects, and thrive without dominating their companions, according to the plan’s maintenance section. Conversely, plants requiring too much pampering that aren’t providing food or shelter for local fauna are candidates for replacement.
The Design Futurist Student Competition centered on designs that could revitalize the landscape surrounding Coit Tower in San Francisco’s Pioneer Park. The San Francisco landmark has suffered a lack of maintenance and stewardship over the years. Pacific Horticulture invited student designers to re-envision the landscape around the tower to better support the region’s ecosystem, climate resilience, and human health. >> Read Here
The design specifies different substrates for each ecotype. In the North Coast chaparral, one-leaf onion (Allium unifolium) and seaside buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) take fine and rocky with some organic matter. Central Coast California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) prefer dry and sandy with more organic matter. South Coast/Baja Maritime desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) and golden-spined cereus (Bergerocactus emoryi) should thrive on well-draining rocky soil with large rocks.
Where a section of existing lawn is reimagined as a “semi-wild space that evolves over the season with selective mowing,” the plan reminds caretakers to sow fast-growing annuals like California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and Phalacia spp. the first year to inhibit weed growth and let the perennial woodland/grassland plants take hold, and to mow red fescue (Festuca rubra) mid-season to form wandering pathways.
The “Migrating Mosaics” design plan also educates city officials and potential gardeners about the ecological power of native oak woodlands and grasslands—of which California has lost 99 percent—to support biodiversity, filter water, and sequester carbon.
Butterfly gardens near the entry welcome monarchs (Danaus plexippus) passing through, while the coastal scrub chaparral section supports locally endangered coastal hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum) with coastal buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) and seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus). The irresistible charm of seeing butterflies in flight highlights the beauty and importance of the natural world for visitors.
The historic murals at Coit Tower were commissioned in the 1930s by the Public Works of Art project, a precursor to the Works Progress Administration. As a subtle cue, the group included “vectors” of figures from the murals in the design renderings, harkening to that era.
Currently the design remains an exercise, a potential, but its thoughtful and adaptive approach offers compelling ideas for creating regenerative, resilient landscapes across the US.
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