Landscape architect Thomas Woltz speaks to Garden Club of Santa Barbara.

Landscape architect Thomas Woltz speaks to Garden Club of Santa Barbara.
(Courtesy photo)

Thomas Woltz, one of America’s leading landscape architects, spoke at the Westmont College Global Leadership Center March 12, offering hope and inspiration for community members still reeling from the 2017 Thomas Fire and Jan. 9, 2018, debris flow.

The Garden Club of Santa Barbara offered the free public event so Woltz, with his thoughtful approaches to resurrecting damaged land, might provide encouragement as the community finds its way forward.

Throughout his talk, Woltz emphasized that “Healing the land can be symbolic of healing a community. A moment of grace occurs when you enter the landscape and discover the stories it has to tell. Ask what is the history, what are the dynamics, who are your people.

“The stories of who we are and how we got here are under our feet; listen to these stories, they can lead to the future. The more awe and respect we have for these stories, the more resilient our landscapes will become and the greater partnership we will forge,” he said.

Woltz spoke of several damaged landscapes he and his firm have restored to vitality and balance.

» Orongo Station, North Island, New Zealand

Woltz and his team reestablished the area’s original rain forest ecology, planting more than 600,000 trees, and attracted wild life back to the area, including the tuatara, a prehistoric reptile as old as the first dinosaurs.

All of this was woven into a profitable working sheep and cattle farm and agricultural operation. Much of this land is sacred to the local Maori people, and that informed and inspired much of the landscape design.

Woltz described the restoration process: “By looking back, we found a way forward to establish a balance of culture and ecology.”

» Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, PA

A former strip-mining operation, this park is now a landscape of memory, honoring the individual and collective voices of those killed aboard Flight 93 on 9/11. A circular allée of maples that turn flaming red in early September embraces the field.

Woltz portrayed the memorial as “a natural system that eloquently captures the loss of a nation.”

» Karen Cragnolin Park, Asheville, NC

This is perhaps the most damaged landscape Woltz has tackled. An automotive dump along the French Broad River in Asheville contained years of toxic waste and had been paved over with concrete slurry. Old cars lined the river bank.

When complete, the riparian park will provide a needed place of repose and welcome in the center of Asheville. Woltz cited this park as a prime example of how “Our landscapes must be resilient; they can’t simply be precious.”

» Memorial Park, Houston, Texas

This site, twice the size of New York’s Central Park, had experienced multi-year droughts and a 500-year hurricane and flood. It had suffered an 85 percent loss of tree canopy and was surrounded by freeways.

Now well on its way to becoming a healthy and vital city park, “It was designed not in the hope of preventing the virulence of nature, but to establish a resilient ecology that could remain dynamic and balanced in the wake of disasters,” Woltz said.

» Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, Fla.

This park had devolved into a tropical landscape, ignoring the old native Florida flora. By showcasing natives, Woltz’s team hoped to encouraged residents to introduce such plants into their own yards, abolishing the ubiquitous green lawns requiring so much water and so many chemicals.

The response he wanted from visitors: “I’d like that in my yard.” Woltz designed a children’s garden as part of the project, where kids learn how they are keystones in nature and integral to its vitality.

What all these endeavors have in common, Woltz said, “is landscape that offers a line of beauty for the eye, stories of place to hold the mind, and an atmosphere of quiet contemplation to hold the heart.”

On March 15, Woltz participated in the grand opening of Hudson Yards in New York City. He was chosen as the landscape architect for the project, the largest private development in the history of the country.

City officials mandated that part of Hudson yards would include the largest public space created in New York in 100 years. “In his heart,” Woltz said, “he is working for the people of New York, present and future. This is their space.”

Woltz is the owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, He was named the Design Innovator of the Year by the Wall Street Journal Magazine in 2013.

In 2011, he was invested into the American Society of Landscape Architects Council of Fellows, among the highest honors achieved in the profession.

During the past 20 years of practice, Woltz has forged a body of work that integrates the beauty and function of built form and craftsmanship with an understanding of complex biological systems and restoration ecology that has yielded hundreds of acres of reconstructed wetlands, reforested land, native meadows, and flourishing wildlife habitat.

His design work infuses places where people live, work and play with narratives of the land that inspire stewardship. Many of these projects focus on restoration of damaged ecological infrastructure within working farmland and create models of biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.

Woltz was educated at the University of Virginia in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, fine art, and architectural history. He holds master’s degrees in landscape architecture and architecture.

After working in Venice, Italy, and Paris, he returned to the states to launch his career in landscape architecture. Woltz serves on the boards of directors of the Cultural Landscape Foundation and the University of Virginia School of Architecture Foundation.

The Garden Club of Santa Barbara ​is a private nonprofit service organization, founded in 1926. The club is a member of ​The Garden Club of America.

— Tina Wood for Garden Club of Santa Barbara.