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Brian Davis

Professor of the Built Environment

456 Kennedy Hall

Brian Davis is an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, director of the Borderlands Research Group. He is also a registered landscape architect and a member of the Dredge Research Collaborative. His research and teaching is part of the emerging field of fluvio-urban morphology; the study of form and process of rivers and cities, and the way they are related. He focuses on urban river systems throughout the Americas through both theoretical and technical research methods. His background and current work center on the overlap of urban design, water infrastructure, and public space.

Research Focus

My research in fluvio-urban morphology and landscape architecture focuses on urban rivers throughout the Americas. I am particularly interested in how the design of public landscapes can improve water quality and flood protection, and access. Geographically, I focus on the Great Lakes Basin, New York State, and Latin America, which has been a focus of my work since my time living in Argentina. In order to undertake this project much of my work is about blending the fields of landscape studies and hemispheric studies, which considers the Americas as a set of interrelated cultural geographies.

As contemporary cities face the twinned challenges of environmental justice and a rapidly changing climate, the cleanup and management of urban rivers stands as one of the great tasks currently facing societies around the globe. Urban waterfronts and rivers are the site of much historical industrial development, some of the most important and sensitive ecological zones, and a wide range of human settlements which often simultaneously include the most desirable and the most vulnerable populations. Because of this they powerfully unite legacies of economic growth, social injustice, toxicity, and environmental degradation. This story is common particularly throughout the Americas, where the similar time and pace of industrialization, the large-scale waves of immigration and patterns of population settlement, and great disparities in wealth and income make for a particularly problematic and dynamic ecological and cultural situation.

Large cities often have an intimate and reciprocal relation with their river: think of the New York and the Hudson, or Lima and the Rimac. As industrial development proceeded throughout the twentieth century many urban rivers were converted from civic places that provided space for social interaction as well as water for domestic and industrial consumption to an outlet for externalizing industrial effluent and domestic waste. These untreated discharges, especially during and after storm events, combined to create difficult and dangerous conditions for vulnerable communities along the edges, often composed of poor and immigrant communities. In the last generations urban rivers have become the site of different cleanup initiatives through a combination of grassroots activism, shifts in public policy, new technological developments, movements in public health, and a growing environmental ethic. They are also proving to be one of the front lines for combatting storms and floods of increased frequency and intensity. My research is aimed at assessing and understanding these relationships and using design methodologies ranging from parametric modeling to on-the-ground work with communities to better design civic landscapes associated with urban rivers.

Currently I have four research projects: 1) looking at the impact and potential of public landscapes in relation to combined sewer overflows into the Hudson in Troy, NY, 2) developing new phenotypes for public, urban living shorelines using dredge material in Baltimore, 3) developing a modeling methodology to propose new sediment management techniques in Great Lakes port cities that have cultural and ecological value, and 4) creating new landscape types for managing floodwaters along the rivers in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Outreach and Extension Focus

My current outreach efforts are focused on developing and applying cartographic, fieldwork, and data visualization methodologies for and with local communities, especially for studying changes to the local landscape and the performance of water-related infrastructure such as sewers, green infrastructure, dredging operations and bulkheads. I am currently working with communities in Troy, NY on the Hudson River through the Water Resources Institute and the Hudson River Estuary Program. The intent is to create new maps and representations that capture and visualize sewer overflows across a range of spatial and temporal scales. The hope is that these forms of representation can help bridge divides between technical disciplines and affected publics. I have recently begun similar work with communities in Buffalo, NY regarding water infrastructure and public space in post-industrial and industrial sites.

As a member of the Dredge Research Collaborative I organized- with Sean Burkholder of the University of Buffalo and Vincent DeBritto and Ozayr Saloojee of the University of Minnesota- an event called DredgeFest: Great Lakes which aims to bring together environmental scientists, design students, planners and logisticians, engineers, and community activists for a public event (symposium, field tours, design workshops) surrounding dredging in the Great Lakes Basin.

Teaching Focus

For me design is a fundamentally creative act where the problem at hand is something that must be continually construed in a collaborative and creative fashion as an effort to create conditions in which to carry out processes of inquiry and making. Teaching design is less about delivering knowledge and more about creating the conditions for learning through making. Teaching landscape is a fundamentally synthetic endeavor that completely avoids culture-nature divides, ranging across spatial scales and considering change through time.

In teaching I place equal emphasis on concept and technique, idea and execution. This can be seen in the courses I teach, which range from a unique theory course on Latin American urbanism and landscape (LA 3140) to Site Assembly (LA 3180/6180). I also emphasize integration of different forms of expertise into the design process (whether technical or local knowledge).

My studio courses are organized according to two main lines: borderlands, and instruments. Each of these draws from a theoretical foundation related to my own research and challenges conventional ideas and practices of landscape-making. The first foregrounds social territories that function as contact zones between multiple publics, ideologies, and cultural histories. The second emphasizes the relationship between instruments and landscapes. In this framework, instruments can range from modern paradigms or concepts to geotextiles and horticultural specimens, from a diesel excavator to a specific form of representation or drawing type.

Awards and Honors

  • National Honor Award, Communications Category (2016) American Society of Landscape Architects
  • Outstanding Research Paper 2014 (2015) Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture

Selected Publications

Journal Publications

  • Davis, B., Holmes, R., & Milligan, B. (2015). The Force of Things: Landscape Design and the Panama Canal. Landscape Research Record.
  • Davis, B. (2015). Wider Horizons of American Landscape. Landscape Journal. 34:79-96.
  • Davis, B., & Oles, T. (2014). From Architecture to Landscape: The Case for a New Landscape Science. Places Journal.
  • Davis, B. (2013). Landscapes and Instruments. Landscape Journal. 32:293-308.

Book Chapters

  • Davis, B., & Jensen, A. River Landscapes of São Paulo: Várzeas and Piscinões. River Cities, Historical and Contemporary John Beardsley and Thaisa Way (ed.), Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C..

Conference Proceedings

  • Davis, B., & Putalik, E. (2013). Reserva Ecologica: Three Streams of Material Excess in Buenos Aires. New Constellations, New Ecologies. Ila Berman and Edward Mitchell (ed.), Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Washington, D.C. 29-38 p.

Magazine Publications

  • Davis, B., Vanucchi, J., & , (2014). Urban Forests as Landscape Artifacts. Scenario Journal Carlisle, Stephanie and Pevzner, Nicholas (ed.),.

Presentations and Activities

  • Piscinões: Fluvial Infrastructure and Civic Landscape in São Paulo. Water Infrastructure in the City. September 2016. Sao Paulo Ministry of Urbanism. Sao Paulo, Brazil.
  • Piscinões: Fluvial Infrastructure and Civic Landscape in São Paulo. 4th International Congress of Landscape Architecture. September 2016. ABAP (Brazilian Association of Landscape Architecture). Sao Paulo, Brazil.
  • Modeling in Fluvio-Urban Morphology. Harvard Graduate School of Design Media Course. March 2016. Harvard GSD. Cambridge, MA.
  • Piscinão: Problems and Possibilities of Stormwater Detention as Civic Infrastructure. Water, Megacities, and Global Change. December 2015. UNESCO. Paris, France.
  • A Thousand Years of River Cities: Urban Rivers as Borderlands in Sao Paulo. River Cities: Historical and Contemporary. May 2015. Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.
  • Urban Rivers in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo: A Comparative Case Study. CELA 2015. March 2015. Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. Manhattan, Kansas.
  • Hypersublime: Public Landscapes and the Aesthetics of Toxicity. EDRA 45 New Orleans. May 2014. Environmental Design and Research Association. New Orleans.
  • The Engineering Shockwave of the Panama Canal Expansion. EDRA 45 New Orleans. May 2014. Environmental Design and Research Association. New Orleans.
  • The Force of Things: Constructing the Panama Canal. CELA 2014. March 2014. Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. Baltimore, MD.
  • Borderlands in Landscape Architecture: Parque San Martín. CELA 2014. March 2014. Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. Baltimore, MD.