The Gibbs Spotlight: Haley Powell, Landscape Architecture Student

GCA communications intern Haley Sandell (H) sat down with 3rd year Landscape Architecture graduate student Haley Powell (P) to talk about her experience as a student here at Gibbs, her thesis project on food forests, and everything her senior year and graduation will bring. Read on for highlights, or click the link below to access the full podcast.

H: Hey, Haley! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

P: Hi Haley! Sure! I grew up as an army brat, so it is really hard to say I’m from any one place. I lived a few years overseas, and that has really impacted how I approach my work as a graduate student and also how I came to find landscape architecture. 

H: That’s awesome! So, what brought you into the world of landscape architecture? 

P: Growing up, I lived three years in South Korea, two years in Japan, and while we were there, we got to visit all different sorts of countries like Czechoslovakia, Thailand and China. That really impacted my love for people and culture, so I majored in anthropology. As I approached the end of that degree, I realized I’d have to pursue something else with it, and so I started looking around. I’d never heard of landscape architecture before, but I have always loved nature and the environment, and I also had a background in art, so my mom suggested it. When I looked into it, it seemed like the perfect blend of all three of those interests.  

H: Nice! In today’s world, landscape architecture is so important.

P: Yes, it really is. It can make all the difference in how we experience our environment. 

H: That’s so cool. What do you think sets the landscape program at Gibbs apart from other programs? 

P: I honestly think it’s our access to our professors. We still have a fairly small program, we’re still growing, but we have an amazing team of faculty, and given that we are so small, you get so much face time with each one of them.

We have an amazing team of faculty, and given that we are so small, you get so much face time with each one of them.

Haley Powell

As the classes get bigger, it becomes more of a time stretch, it becomes harder to get an in-depth discussion, whereas when you have a smaller group, you can all get together and you can all talk about things with your professor or get one-on-one time or go to their office. In larger programs, you don’t necessarily have that privilege because there might be 300 of you. 

H: Yeah, it definitely is more of a family environment. What brought you from anthropology to landscape architecture? They are similar, but what was that transition for you? 

P: Anthropology is the study of human society in culture, and that is something I still geek out about to this day. Landscape architecture is essentially providing that bridge from the environment and nature to people. So, you’re finding a way to format nature in a way where people will enjoy it because not everybody wants to go stomp around in the woods. I do, I’d love that, but that doesn’t work in a city, that doesn’t work in every environment or every place, so you’re finding ways to present things to people in a way where they can enjoy them. You can have a whole range of designs from a streetscape where it’s pretty paved and hardscape-y all the way to a restored meadow. That is all within the realm of landscape architecture and the way that you present that is always to get the user to feel comfortable, so having that focus on people has really helped me.

I think anthropology has given me a leg-up in learning how to create a usable design

Haley Powell

It was pretty difficult transitioning from anthropology to design because I don’t have a background in design, I just have a background in art. I have a foot in the design world, but I don’t like architecture where I learned how to sketch and where I learned all these different skills sets, so the transition was difficult, but the mindset was already there for me to think about the user and how things were going to be perceived, and that intense focus on people has really helped me shape the context of my designs, the goal of my designs, so it hasn’t been the smoothest transition, but I think anthropology has definitely given me a leg-up in learning how to create a usable design.

H: That was a perfect answer. I started my minor this year, in architecture, and one thing that Hans Butzer always stressed was human-centered design. So this is the perfect example of architecture at Gibbs.    

P: It truly does make all the difference. When you walk into a space, and you don’t feel comfortable. It might be gorgeous; it might be super well maintained, but sometimes you get that feeling that it wasn’t made for you. Sometimes there’s something missing. 

H: Like it’s made for the grandeur and not the user. 

P: Yeah, absolutely, and I love that Hans has really integrated that into his work and how he approached Gould. 

H: Sweet! To trampoline off of that, can you tell us about a project you’ve been working on? You’ve been working on your thesis, right? 

P: I sure have! It’s actually coming up on the end date, so hopefully, it turns out well, but I have been working on a permaculture food forest in Oklahoma City (OKC). It’s all hypothetical, unfortunately, but I was interested in permaculture before landscape architecture, and I actually (in a small way) found landscape architecture through permaculture. Permaculture is basically mimicking nature and ecology to do the work for you when it comes to food and things like that. As a broad example here: instead of mowing your lawn, how can you get nature to keep your lawn that length. Something that a lot of permaculture enthusiasts will use are sheep. They actually don’t eat grass to the roots, they just “mow it” and they leave 3-4 inches of that grass there. So, you’re finding species to do work for you, so that it becomes was less maintenance or a burden for you, and you still get the outputs and the benefits of it, and it also really helps the land because you’re not using fertilizers or pesticides, you’re using minimum inputs to get maximum outputs. So, the goal of this permaculture food forest is to mimic an actual forest with all of its different layers and different niches and to create a productive source of food for a community in south OKC that actually really suffers from severe flooding and they live in a food desert, so they don’t have a lot of access to fresh produce.

The goal of this permaculture food forest is to mimic an actual forest with all of its different layers and different niches and to create a productive source of food for a community in south OKC that actually really suffers from severe flooding and they live in a food desert, so they don’t have a lot of access to fresh produce.

Haley Powell

Hypothetically, this could be a really unique situation to try out a food forest because it heals the land, improves the soil to help reduce flooding. It’s definitely not going to stop the flooding, I’ll be completely honest there; the flooding is a way larger problem than this one site that I’m dealing with, but it’ll help mitigate that. Over time, it can help produce a source of fresh produce for these people with hopefully minimal inputs for them over time. To me, that’s the big crux of this; these people may not have the time or resources or tools to do something like a community garden. It’s just not realistic for a lot of people, so I’m creating something that I can essentially, theoretically, help them install and overtime takes care of itself. A food forest self-regulates because it is mimicking that ecology. Things that can’t survive there won’t survive there because its pretty laissez-faire. It’s a unique opportunity to try something out that I may never get the chance to design again. 

H: That’s really awesome, and this is the best environment for you to try out those big ideas. I’m an OKC native, and just from growing up there, I know that is something that could be so useful. Not just in OKC, but everywhere. We need a more mutual relationship with the environment. 

P: I 100% agree, and something I love about food forests is they provide that layer of resiliency that I think is missing from a lot of our communities. I actually saw an award-winning project where the woman who was presenting it was proposing food forests in Puerto Rico, because after Hurricane Maria, I think, boats couldn’t really come in, and they relied on those shipments for a lot of their food. So, they were stuck high-and-dry because there was no plan B. And that’s part of my goal with this food forest. It may not be where everyone gets 100% of their food and that’s fine, but if you can’t afford to get organic apples from Wholefoods, you can maybe go find something in this food forest that can help supplement your diet and help relieve some of the stress and burden of financially supporting your food intake, and it can also improve health because, let’s be honest, Oklahoma is one of the lowest states for fresh produce consumption. It’s something that I think would be a great solution for this area, and it’s been tried other places like Seattle, Austin, even in Tulsa, so it seems like the perfect time to give it a go here. 

H: These are things that we need to consider. We have to take care of our little planet! 

P: Yeah, it’s the only one we have! 

H: On this topic as well, what have been the most challenging and rewarding things about this project so far? 

P: I would say definitely one of the most challenging things is that the food forest I’m trying to design is a true succession and an ecosystem. You’re going from basically a “blank slate,” essentially, mostly, a monoculture of grass, and you have to phase in a series of plants. You have to get to a mature forest from this monoculture of grass that’s been supported by fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, moving, and irrigation. So, you have to rip all of that away and somehow improve the soil, which is already poor; you have to improve it so that it can support all the seven layers of the forest; canopy, understory, shrub layer, herbaceous layer, ground cover layer, vines, and deep-rooted plants. You need to get from one to seven, and it’s daunting to think about, and it’s a long process. But, it can be accelerated by using permaculture techniques because you start off by putting in your pioneer plants, dynamic accumulators, nitrogen fixers, things that naturally improve the soil. Pioneer plants are meant to hang tough, they can do full-sunlight, no water, they embrace the suck, and while they’re there toughing it out, they improve the soil. 

H: It’s the perfect Oklahoma plant! 

P: It truly is! So you have all of the pioneer plants that you phase-in, and eventually, you can mulch with those. You cut off some of the leaves, throw down some mulch, and that helps retain some water and some moisture in the soil. Then, you gradually, very gradually start phasing in more productive plants that need richer soil, so you keep nitrogen fixers in through the entire process because you constantly want to enrich that soil so that your productive plants have something to work with. If you just put in a peach tree in your backyard and the soil is not good, it isn’t going to produce well, it needs that specific environment, and it needs to be babied a little bit. The nitrogen fixers are kind of like your babysitter because they can provide shade to new growth on plants that are delicate, and they can also improve the soil. So, you go from monoculture to grassland, you can start introducing perennials there and it becomes shrubland, where larger plants can start to get established.

The nitrogen fixers are kind of like your babysitter because they can provide shade to new growth on plants that are delicate, and they can also improve the soil. 

Haley Powell

You still want to maintain a good population of nitrogen fixers but you can start introducing productive plants; you can also introduce your canopy trees because they are going to be so small, but you want to get those in because eventually, you’re going to need those to provide shade for your understory trees. Understory trees can’t go full-sunlight, or they will fry. The whole succession, learning that, and figuring out how to communicate that is the difficulty because it’s not a design when we can go install it quickly. We can’t just go in there and plant some plum trees because they aren’t going to do well; the soil is not ready for that, and it just doesn’t work. I have to figure out how to walk people through a succession, this progression, and that’s been something I get theoretically, but when it comes to actually make a board, I have to figure out how to thoroughly communicate that to people who may not have any clue what I’m talking about.  

H: Yeah, and it’s a practice in patience, that’s for sure. 

P: Oh, yeah, so the thing with permaculture is it’s way less maintenance when it gets established, but the payoff is that it’s just going to take time. Today, we like to just rip the band-aid off, spend a lot more money, get instant ambiance, and I’m all for that in some scenarios, but that just does not work in permaculture because you’re working with the land and with nature.

Today, we like to just rip the band-aid off, spend a lot more money, get instant ambiance, and I’m all for that in some scenarios, but that just does not work in permaculture because you’re working with the land and with nature.

Haley Powell

You don’t get to go to the finish line and have an amazing, productive, food source in six months, it just doesn’t work like that, the earth doesn’t really work like that. There’s a food forest in Morocco that is estimated to be 3,000 years old; once established, they are there. They can live because they self-regulate, they maintain themselves like a real forest would, but you’re not going to get there in a year, or 18 months like a lot of people would prefer. I would prefer that too if I’m being honest, but that’s just not how the earth works. 

H: Of course, and what a beautiful ecosystem to have in a developed city. 

P: Yeah, that was another driver for me because it’s so biodiverse. It provides for everything, and you can get all sorts of animals in there. Where I’m planning it is in the heart of south OKC, and it’s not going to become a jungle in there, but I visited the site, and there’s just not a lot going on in terms of biodiversity or any kind of habitat for animals, and the stream I’m working on is channelized. It’s concrete and that contributes to the flooding problem because it really accelerated that water, and then it hits an actual portion of the creek that an earthen channel, so that slows down the water.

Creating this forest around there also helps to beautify and add some life to this area that didn’t feel fully alive. I think it would be a gift to this neighborhood . . .

Haley Powell

It hits this logjam essentially, and it overflows into this neighborhood, and this concrete channel is hideous, it’s ugly, it’s tagged with graffiti, some of it is eroding. Creating this forest around there also helps to beautify and add some life to this area that didn’t feel fully alive. I think it would be a gift to this neighborhood to give them something that would mitigate the flooding, beautify the area, and help strengthen their resiliency, even in times like this where grocery stores are struggling to provide for people during the coronavirus outbreak. 

H: Yeah, and places like Lowe’s right now are popping because people are deciding “Oh, maybe I should grow my own food.” This is a great solution to that issue. 

P: I hope so! That’s the reason I was attracted to this kind of project: it just seemed to check so many boxes and help in so many ways, and it actually frustrated me that there weren’t more of these. If they solve so many problems, where are they? Why haven’t we been doing this? Then, when I started getting into it and learning about the process of establishing one, it made a little more sense to me why there weren’t as much. It’s hard to convince somebody that they’ll have something great it ten years; nobody wants to hear that. And it’s fair, this solution isn’t suitable for every single place, but I wish we could have more of these around the world because I think it could be a very fascinating shift in our culture.  

H: I absolutely agree. It’s very “community-by-community,” but it’s taking that small step and planting that community garden, and from there moving up into peach trees and pecan trees. That you for sharing all about your thesis, that is the coolest thing! I have learned a lot today. 

P: I hope so! It’s hard to talk about because you have to brace yourself to walk through the entire thing because nobody knows what a food forest is. Truly, I can geek out about permaculture all day, and I love getting to share that with people because most people don’t know about it, and some people aren’t interested, but if you are, you have an opportunity to help change your own environment. You can improve your well-being, your community’s well-being, and the earth. That’s what I love so much about permaculture; it’s providing for you, but it’s not taking advantage of the earth and its ecosystems. You’re healing this earth by helping the soil and providing biodiversity, and I love that. I loved talking with you today! Sorry for talking your ear off, I get pretty nerdy about these things. 

H: No, this is perfect! I’m so glad you went so into detail. As I said, I’ve learned a lot today, and I feel much more inspired to go plant my little vegetable garden! 

P: What you need to do before that is you need to plant some pollinator species; go plant a vitex or something that flowers. Feed your local bees and then plant your veggies and your fruits because they are going to do so much better when you have your bees buzzing around. If you feed them they’ll feed you, and they’ll make your garden and your world a little more beautiful! 

H: Thank you! I have added that to my list! Off of this, do you have any plans after graduation? 

P: Yes, actually! I interned with a firm down in Dallas called TBG partners. I interned with them through the summer and the fall, and I’m actually going to go return in June. I’m super excited about it, it’s a great firm; they really care about their people which really attracted me. It has been such a great experience working for them, and they still check-in on me, and they’re a great firm to work with. They’re communal in the sense that you can ask anyone anything. 

H: That’s awesome, good for you! Thank you for sitting down and taking the time to talk with me about this! Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

P: I’d say as a general piece of advice for anyone looking to plant stuff; Stay away from annuals, if you can, plant a perennial and it’ll make your life so much easier because it won’t die in the winter. It’ll come back and it’ll get bigger and better, and look into permaculture, and enjoy life! 

Thank you so much, Haley, for taking the time to speak with us about your experiences at Gibbs!

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