On Knowing How To Do Things

UEC Painted Rivers

A few years ago, I was given the pro bono project of painting the concrete floor of the Urban Ecology Center with the Milwaukee rivers, streams and the shore of Lake Michigan.  The building, by their design, echoes a map of the area: vertically from basement to second floor and horizontally from west to east.  As I was working with paper stencils, a teenager watched quietly.  After a while, we talked, and he started helping.  After a while more, he paused, and asked, “how do you know how to do this?”.

My brain spun.  My brain realized that it was my training as a landscape architect that taught me how.  I knew how to use GIS to access the watershed data.  I knew how to scale drawings and maps.  I understood, from a communication and learning perspective, that having a scale on the floor that could be easily worked with (200′ to the inch) would help.  And later, in the making of aerial photograph floor tiles for kids to interact with as overlays on the floor, that we could size the tiles as section-sized, square miles (26.4″ square).  I could even align the sections, roughly, as they were marked on the ground by the GLO surveyors of 1835-1836 — and as their echoes remain as major streets and municipal boundaries.  I also understood about projections, and hence to start the alignment of section lines at the location of the UEC on the map, because the alignment wasn’t going to exactly hold (the earth curves).  I knew how to turn digital data into paper stencils, working with the local print shop and the available paper roll widths and inexpensive grayscale plotting.  I knew that paper stencils were an inexpensive low-tech way to transfer the data to the floor accurately.  Accuracy was important, so that the aerial floor tiles would match the painted rivers below.  I also knew why some of the streams and rivers started and stopped (underground in pipes) and how to make that clear in paint.  I knew why some smaller streams had very straight sections (farmed, drain-tiled, ditched).  I knew how to paint illustratively; how to paint the rivers to convey their story, their aliveness and dynamism.  So… here’s to many more teenagers knowing about landscape architects and what our training helps us do for our communities.

Nancy Aten


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