American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2008 Professional Awards
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Site Plan. (Image: California Coastal Project with Legend by Van Atta Associates)
UCSB Lagoon. (Image: Van Atta Associates, Inc.)
Above: grading for the vernal pools on the previously existing gravel parking lot.
Below: view of area in spring with planted vernal pool.
(Photo: Saxon Holt)
Nature: vernal pool, vernal marsh, grassland, coastal sage scrub. (Photos: Saxon Holt and Susan Van Atta)
A boardwalk of recycled composite lumber brings visitors to the largest vernal pool and cuts a directed path from the residence halls to the ocean bluffs.(Photo: Saxon Holt)
Nurtures: runners, families, bicyclists, beach goers. (Photos: Saxon Holt and Susan Van Atta)
Studying and gathering areas in the newly created coastal sage scrub with recycled plastic picnic tables and walls planned as rammed earth. (Photo: Saxon Holt)


Lagoon Park: Living at the Edge of Wilderness, Santa Barbara, California
Van Atta Associates, Inc., Santa Barbara, California
client: University of California, Santa Barbara

"Proof that you don’t have to have a huge budget to do fabulous things. To create an ecosystem that will thrive is incredibly difficult and this landscape architect paid a lot of attention to detail throughout the project. It’s heavily used by students and sends the right message. Well done!"

— 2008 Professional Awards Jury Comments

PROJECT STATEMENT: This park achieves aesthetics, function and sustainability on a limited budget. Created wetland habitats, an inviting place for students, and a system that filters and cleans runoff—all have been incorporated into a site that was once a gravel parking lot. Our role as the landscape architect in this accomplishment was unique, as we saw great potential where the client thought only habitat creation was possible.


Problem as Opportunity
What the University saw as a disaster, we perceived as an opportunity. Our firm received an urgent message from the University Housing Office. "Are you available immediately to begin design for a habitat creation project?" The California Coastal Commission had just denied the University's planned residence halls.

A plant named tarweed- indicating the presence of wetland habitat- was found in numerous areas in and around the existing gravel parking lot to be replaced by the residence halls. The Coastal Commission was requiring preservation of these potential wetland areas, along with 100 feet wide buffer zones, before approval would be granted. The Housing Office was dismayed by the delay. Worse yet, they envisioned six acres of valuable coastal bluff land behind chain link fence and barbed wire. This was the technique used by the University to protect its other natural areas.

Even though the University described the budget to be "as little as possible", as landscape architects, we imagined something completely different from cordoned-off habitat. These six acres could become a place were students are immersed in nature and encouraged to appreciate the subtle beauty of vernal pools and marshes, while overlooking the wilderness of the Pacific Ocean. Native Coastal Sage Scrub vegetation, not fences, could protect the wetlands from trespass. Access to the beach could be enhanced with ramps and stairs, and amenities such as surf showers, bike racks and outdoor study areas could protect the newly created habitats by concentrating existing uses in defined areas. The new wetlands could create habitat for birds, invertebrates and other animals, while the plants remove pollutants from runoff on its way to the Lagoon. We also told University the new park could be subtlety beautiful and self-sustaining.

Design Solution
As described above, our solution was to create an environment that is as good for people as it was meant to be for plants and animals. We also sought to:

Use local building materials (both natural and manufactured) for their aesthetic appropriateness. This also minimizes the energy embodied in the materials and their transport. This includes native Santa Barbara sandstone, decomposed sandstone for pathways, road base spoils as finish paving, and onsite soils for rammed earth seating and walls.

Design pathways along the established 'desire lines' from the existing residence halls to the best view spots along the coastal bluff, eliminating the need for cutting across habitats. Paths and fire access lanes are of permeable paving, allowing rainwater to infiltrate the ground where it lands.

Create an authentic habitat re-creation by working with established University departments and groups with restoration implementation expertise. Although an obvious advantage, it was these same groups that got the project stopped in the first place. We convinced Housing and Residential Services that this collaboration was the only path to a good result- and the only means they could afford. As a result of the University Department involvement, diverse and authentic vernal pools habitats were 'inoculated' with native populations of plants and invertebrates. This was accomplished by spreading a thin layer of soil mined from vernal pools created by the University 10 years earlier at the a nearby vernal pool preserve. All of the plants in Lagoon Park, including marsh, coastal bluff and grassland species, were propagated from within the watershed for genetic accuracy.

The Coastal Commission loved the concepts, as did the State Architect. The University was convinced as well, and proceeded with enthusiasm.

Benefits to Wildlife and Users
Lagoon Park is now six acres of restored native California grassland, and vernal pools, meadows and marshes- all threatened habitat types- as well as diverse stands of Coastal Sage Scrub and Coastal Bluff vegetation. 1,300 linear feet of bio-swales were created as part of the overall project. More than 80,000 native plants were propagated and grown from local genotypes at the University's greenhouses and nursery, and planted over a period of three years. These new wetlands and uplands provide diverse plant, insect, bird, mammal and invertebrate species habitat, including nesting habitat for red-winged blackbirds, common yellowthroats, mallards, and other birds.

Instead of flushing the seagull guano from the roofs directly to the ocean, the concentrated mix of nutrients and water is detained and filters through wetlands and bio-swales, nourishing native wetland plants on its way to the lagoon. This 'plants not pipes' solution drains and treats 75 percent of the residence halls site (now called Manzanita Village). The system demonstrates how excess water and nutrients considered to be a waste product of urbanization can be turned into a resource used to enhance the environment. More than 27 species of local native wetland plants are growing in the bio-swales and two shallow marshes strung together along the universal access ramp to the beach.

Lagoon Park brings the ocean and wetland wilderness to the front doors of the students, and is laced together and protected with trails accessible to all. The many recreational amenities support student activities amongst the species that have re-inhabited this former gravel parking lot. A boardwalk brings visitors to a deck at the center of the largest vernal pool, where close observation leads to a better understanding of this subtle and rare habitat.

Ongoing Success
This is one of the few of our projects where we have seen PhD candidates pulling weeds. Research for advanced degrees has been based around the implementation and monitoring of the project, including the effect of wetlands and bio-swales on nutrient levels in water runoff, and native grassland planting techniques.

Students have adopted portions of the park to create new habitats, such as a dune garden, which is clearly intended to be beautiful, as well as functional. These gardens are a most meaningful sign of Lagoon Park's success.


Van Atta Associates, Inc. Project Team:
Susan Van Atta, ASLA, Principal
Guillermo Gonzalez, Senior Associate, Van Atta Associates
Ken Radtkey, Principal, Blackbird Architects
Yianni Doulis, Blackbird Architects
Carol Bornstein, Horticulturalist, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Van Atta Associates:
Lane Goodkind
Bethany Clough
Jack Kiesel

Plant Propagation and Planting:
Wayne Ferren, Museum of Systematics and Ecology
(now the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration)

Architects for the Adjacent Manzanita Village Residence Halls:
Executive Architect: Steve Carter, Paul Rupp, DesignArc,
Design Architect: Moore Ruble Yudell

Civil Enginee
Steve Wang, Penfield and Smith

Landscape Contractor for Pathway
Joe Scholle, ValleyCrest



Bush sunflower - three-square, bulrush, and others - deer weed. (Photos: Saxon Holt)
Bicycle path.(Photo: Saxon Holt)
A bio-swale that runs along the universal access ramp to the beach. 1,300 linear feet of bio-swales were created as part of the overall project, supporting more than 27 species of local native wetland plants.(Photos: Saxon Holt)
A stairway of recycled composite lumber brings visitors to the ocean front and to the lagoon.(Photo: Saxon Holt)
Golden-Yarrow - Succulent Lupine - Monkey Flower.(Photos: Saxon Holt)
View into the vernal pool from the central observation platform on a foggy day.(Photo: Saxon Holt)
(Photo: Saxon Holt)
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