“One hundred years ago, USDA operations covered a large plot of land between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Castle. Prior to the McMillan Commission’s 1902 plan for a new grand civic space to be called the National Mall, the USDA operated many acres of experimental farms and research laboratories. There were greenhouses, propagation gardens, an English landscape style arboretum, grand walkways, sculpture, horse and bison pastures, an agricultural museum and a conservatory. Residents and tourists visited by the thousands, and learned about modern agriculture and nutrition. They also enjoyed educational and recreational opportunities in the farms, gardens and museum.” – Bob Snieckus
About Bob Snieckus: Bob works for the National Resources Conservation Service, a USDA agency. He is “the National Landscape Architect.” (More about what Bob does in the Q&A below). I first met Bob in 2009, at the USDA’s People’s Garden Partnership Forum, held at the Whitten Building in Washington, D.C. Bob shared design plans for the People’s Garden at that meeting; I was struck by his passion for the public education mission of the USDA…“The People’s Department.”
Later that year, I was back in the capitol. I went with four colleagues over to the USDA for another meeting about the People’s Garden Initiative. While walking by the garden – which looked very different from when I saw it the previous March, a scant five weeks after it was planted – I saw Bob. He was working in the garden on his lunch hour, doing some volunteer work to perfect what already looked wonderful.
It’s a privilege to speak with Bob about his work at NRCS/USDA, which is increasing sustainability and boosting efforts to engage the public around important issues.
Bob holds a degree in landscape architecture from Rutgers University. He is an American Society of Landscape Architects Fellow.
Q: What does the national landscape architect do?
Bob: I work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on the Conservation Engineering Staff in Washington DC. NRCS is a wonderful agency that has a strong environmental focus working with private landowners. Our assistance is on a voluntary basis to farmers, ranchers and rural and urban communities. Our mission is to increase environmental awareness and reduce environmental impacts; to help landowners conserve, maintain and improve their natural resources. We offer technical and financial assistance to implement conservation measures to grow healthy food, and save energy.
I’m part of the team involved in planning and designing conservation projects. At the large scale, I work on flood control and watershed projects that reduce property damage, protecting infrastructure, improving wildlife and fishery habitat and repairing damaged landscapes after wildfires. I also prepare Federal policy and design and construction guidelines. At the smaller scale, I work on recreation trails, historic landscape restorations, and park design. I enjoy involving stakeholders and the public in the design process to ensure that their concerns and creativity are incorporated into final designs.
From the beautiful family farms of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the large farms of California’s Central valley, I love that farmers have a strong sense of stewardship about their land. They are proud of the food and fiber they produce and how well their farms look on the landscape. NRCS makes sure that our designs not only solve environmental problems, but that they complement the farm and surrounding landscape.
I spent much of my career in California, working with flood control districts, and the state department of fish and game to restore polluted and eroded streams. That work involved determining why salmon and other anadromous species no longer migrated up these streams. Our team excelled at designing fish passage structures, resting pools, spawning sites and riparian habitat.
Q: You were involved with the USDA’s People’s Garden project. What can you tell us about that?
Bob: It has been very successful. Our garden network currently features 1,828 school and community farms and gardens across the globe, that have donated 3.8 million pounds of fresh produce to local food banks. Our apiary atop the Whitten building has produced hundreds of pounds of excellent honey. Our new website showcases resources for gardeners, community networking and case studies. Garden design videos, webinars, lectures and the video streams from our “BeeCam” are available. We’ve started a new farmer’s market season and a have great team encouraging local farmers to sell healthy foods, meats and vegetables. Annie Ceccarini, Program Coordinator, has greatly improved the market. The increased number of vendors and extended hours has brought in many new customers and greatly increased sales. Visitors enjoy ready to eat specialties, local musicians, and recipes by guest chefs. There are numerous educational opportunities for students and the public and free pollinator plant seeds for home gardens.
Q: How did some of the more recent work get started?
Bob: It started in 2007 as an idea between USDA’s Office of Operations, (OO), Ed Murtagh and Ed Hogberg; the U.S. Forest Service Chief Landscape Architect, Matt Arnn; and me. At the time, the USDA buildings and landscape were requiring enormous amounts of maintenance, energy and water. Invasive plant species and expensive to maintain lawns were irrigated with city water. The team wanted to save money and improve the building and landscape’s sustainability. Since USDA is located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we wanted to reduce storm water runoff and eliminate pesticide and fertilizer use.
One hundred years ago, USDA operations covered a large plot of land between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Castle. Prior to the McMillan Commission’s 1902 plan for a new grand civic space to be called the National Mall, the USDA operated many acres of experimental farms and research laboratories. There were greenhouses, propagation gardens, an English landscape style arboretum, grand walkways, sculpture, horse and bison pastures, an agricultural museum and a conservatory. Residents and tourists visited by the thousands, and learned about modern agriculture and nutrition. They also enjoyed educational and recreational opportunities in the farms, gardens and museum.
The USDA supported the McMillan plan and agreed to relocate and demolish all its buildings and farms to make way for the new public space. In the 1920’s, USDA completed a new administration building on Jefferson Drive, but the experimental farm and research facilities were moved out of DC to Beltsville, Maryland. That move eliminated the educational opportunities USDA enjoyed with the many visitors and tourists streaming into downtown DC.
So in 2007, our team felt that USDA could recapture the public’s excitement for learning about agricultural innovation by converting parking lots and lawns around the Whitten and South Buildings into an outdoor learning center and a national USDA initiative.
Q: What was the design process like?
Bob: It was very exciting. We held a design charrette – where participants are invited to share ideas, and sketch creative solutions to USDA’s environmental problems and educational needs. It turned out to be one of the coolest Fridays of my career. Held in the USDA cafeteria, we invited design professionals from local planning and park commissions, university professors and students, and private practice. Seventy people showed up to share ideas for converting USDA’s headquarters landscape into an inviting agricultural education center. The concept would recreate a smaller version of the demonstration farms and gardens from the previous century.
We refined the most creative ideas into a draft plan, and hired an experienced consultant to refine the design and proceed through the Federal design review process. While researching the early design work, the original site and landscape plans were discovered. Prepared by the Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects, the plans illustrated a creative planting design, a unique drainage system and the transplanting of trees that were to be cut down for the Mall. Our new landscape plan will continue the Olmsted’s concept and even include the construction of unbuilt fountains and other features found in their design.
Midway through review, our team was asked to include “Post-September 11th” security features. The USDA headquarters is the only Cabinet level agency located on the Mall; we needed to upgrade security. The team came up with a very sensitive design that will be installed along with the new landscape. It will create a safe zone for the Whitten building, but not be visually intrusive for visitors to the new gardens.
We’ve started implementing phase 1 of the plan. We started removing non-native trees and shrubs. We’re improving the layout and educational value of our organic vegetable garden to coincide with the farmer’s market growth. We’ve planted additional agricultural displays around the Whitten building and started the new landscape for the South building. The replacing of street trees has begun, and installation of three “green roofs” and a prototype cistern to capture rainwater has been completed. Numerous energy conserving lighting, recycling and composting systems have been implemented.
The Whitten building and grounds have become a showcase for sustainability. The journey through design and review was long but heartwarming – I met many new and creative colleagues in the Washington DC design community that I now network with.
Q: A lot of your work is focused on sustainability. What kinds of projects are you currently working on?
Bob: I’m producing national policy on pollinator habitat [read about the national strategy here], removing dams, green roofs, urban agriculture, community gardens and storm water management.
I’ve been documenting the successes of several large watershed and flood control projects, storm water filtration systems, wildlife habitat and fishery restoration projects we’ve designed and built over the last three decades. We utilized early “green infrastructure” systems in our designs and have been monitoring their effectiveness. My goal is to make this information available to our technical staffs throughout the country, students, researchers and future designers.
Q: How did you get into this work?
Bob: I started with NRCS while studying landscape architecture at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I was offered a summer job with their Trenton, New Jersey office performing surveying, mapping, and construction inspection for a large multi-dam flood control project. I was amazed at the damage floods caused in several Trenton neighborhoods and the complexity of engineering, design and planning needed to protect residents. After completing my degree, I was offered a permanent job as the NJ NRCS state landscape architect, designing bike trails, a park from an abandoned gravel pit and concepts for an Olympic size rowing course on one of NRCS’s future flood control dams.
It’s been wonderful to work with so many technical disciplines, and on teams of specialists to solve difficult environmental problems. I’ve been fortunate to have diverse mentors in construction, engineering and conservation to advise me and learn from.