Gibbs Spotlight: Wenwen Cheng, Landscape Architecture

In Fall 2020, GCA assistant to the directors Camille Germany (C), sat down with Wenwen Cheng (W), a new Landscape Architecture professor at OU! Wenwen shared the current projects she is working on and her teaching strategies! Read on for highlights, or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

C: Hi Wenwen, how are you doing? 

W: I’m good! A little bit busy preparing for my new position and moving to Norman. Really excited about it! Thank you for having me here today!  

C: When did you first become interested in working for the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture, and what aspects of OU and the College interested you the most? 

W: I started my job search last winter (2019), and I looked at all the LA programs at different universities. The job description at Gibbs caught my eye among all the universities on the list. Later on, I got an offer for the onsite interview for an assistant professor position in Landscape Architecture. I met faculty members and college leaders of Gibbs College of Architecture. I felt there were great opportunities for me to collaborate in both research and design projects. I met several student representatives while visiting, and I could feel their strong motivation and enthusiasm in studying Landscape Architecture here. I remembered a group of students from landscape architecture, urban planning, and architecture were working together for their competition project. I could see good collaboration among them with different perspectives based on their backgrounds. Overall, I feel the interaction between faculties and students and the working atmosphere attracted me to the job.

C: We are so excited to see all of your contributions in action here. What current project(s) are you working on or have you recently worked on? 

W: My research expertise is how urban microclimates can be modified by landscape research and design to enhance the quality of life. I have a few ongoing research projects, and some I just finished. One project was to estimate the Individual Exposure to UVR (ultraviolet radiation) in the landscape. I developed and validated an approach of using multi-UVR sensors to estimate human UVR receipts in different seasons. In another project, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Brown and Dr. J.O. Spengler from Texas A&M (TAMU), we evaluated current heat indices and pointed out their shortages in reflecting the actual thermal condition of young athletes. Two papers relating to these projects were just finished this summer, and they are under review now.

For another project, I’m collaborating with Dr. Robert Brown and Dr. Dongying Li from TAMU in discovering heat-related mental health issues in low-income public housing neighborhoods. I consulted a landscape design project this summer at a suburban waterfront park near Nueces River in Camp Wood, TX. The biggest issue for this area is illegal dumping. We are trying to find a strategy of reusing/ recycling trash/ garbage through innovative ecological design to protect the ecological system and improve local land value at the same time.  

Image credit: Wenwen Cheng, collecting microclimate data

C: That’s interesting! Can you explain what ecological design is? 

W: The first goal [with ecological design] is to protect the existing mature forest. We created different levels of buffer areas based on local forest conditions. The second goal is to protect the river bank and provide some human-natural interactive activities simultaneously. We used part of the waterfront area as an educational center and designed a wetland garden and used another part as a public space for different activities. The third goal is to deal with illegal dumping, most of which is the construction material. We proposed to reuse and recycle the material into our new design. The general idea is to use as much local material and vegetation as possible to deal with existing environmental problems and to create multifunctional space for people at the same time.     

C: What is a project you have created/worked on that you are most proud of? 

W: One of my research projects is to develop and validate a children’s thermal comfort energy budget model. Many children growing up in cities are spending less time outdoors to escape the heat. However, this contributes to childhood obesity and the prospect of a range of diseases in adulthood. In this project, I developed the first thermal comfort model based on children’s body characteristics. This model can be used to estimate and evaluate the site’s thermal condition by landscape architects before and after design. The city of College Station, Texas, invited me to give a guest lecture to their children’s summer camp about this topic. I introduced thermal knowledge to children, how they could protect themselves in the heat, and how our landscape research and design could provide them with a better environment. To me, landscape research should have both scientific and social values. I’m happy that my study contributes to the academic area, has a great applicable value for landscape design, and serves the community simultaneously.  

Image credit: Wenwen Cheng, giving a guest lecture at children’s summer camp in College Station

C: Thank you for sharing that. What is your favorite thing about the career path you chose? 

W: I wanted to become a landscape educator. Teaching landscape architecture is such an alluring job. I believe my role is to stimulate students’ thinking about human-nature relationships and to nurture students’ abilities to apply evidence to design. Casual conversations with students can provide me with clues about what they’re thinking and what they need in their learning. Providing guidance and supporting a student based on their unique development needs give me a strong feeling of accomplishment.

C: Our students are so lucky that you joined us this fall. How does your work here at the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture aid in future landscape architects and designers’ growth and development? 

W: It is important for landscape architects to prove their design efficiency and demonstrate their design benefits to their clients. I emphasize this in my teaching and design projects through evidence-based design. For example, during my studio teaching at TAMU, I asked students to collect ecological and social demographic data for site analysis and developing their design objectives. I provided students with evidence from research that applied to their design. I believe the ability to use evidence-based design can help the development of future landscape architects and designers.  

Image credit: Wenwen Cheng, teaching a design studio class

C: What do you want alumni and future landscape architects to take away from your work here at the University of Oklahoma? 

W: Landscape design involves not only environmental and ecological challenges but also cultural and social ones. Landscape design is not only for the physical environment but also for our well-being and social atmosphere. I want our alumni and future landscape architects to evaluate their roles as interpreters and synthesizers of a place. I want them to understand how personal and cultural motivations ultimately affect landscape design and decisions. I want them to be responsible for both the natural environment and social development in their landscape design. 

C: What do you see yourself doing five or ten years from now to aid the growth and development of future landscape architects? 

W: One important long-term direction of landscape architecture development is to build multi-disciplinary connections, to enlarge and infiltrate the influence of landscape architecture to other majors. The role of landscape architects should be amplified. In the future, I would like to continue my research focusing on the relationship between urban landscape, urban heat island, and human thermal comfort in multi-scales.  I would like to use interdisciplinary and multi-scale technologies such as remote sensing, heat modeling, field measurement, and the human energy budget model. By bringing multivalent expertise, I can easily build the bridge between ecological science, public health, and landscape design. Through my efforts, I want more people to know the value of landscape architecture, which is to solve “the complex, interrelated environmental, social, and economic problems we face today” (LAF). 

C: Wenwen, I’m so glad you could join me today.  Welcome to OU!  We’re so glad you’re here. 

W: Thank you for having me today!

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity