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Home arrowInclusiveness arrowPatricia M. O'Donnell Interview

Interview with Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, Principal, Heritage Landscapes LLC

Patricia O'DonnellSince 1987, Patricia M. O’Donnell has been the principal and founder of Heritage Landscapes, Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners. She has completed 450+ cultural landscape preservation and sustainability projects with attention to historic character, community engagement, sustainability, environmental quality, handicapped access, education, interpretation. Implementation through construction documents, staff/volunteer initiatives and management guidelines. Her extensive resume includes 66 Professional Awards for Planning and Implementation from National Trust, American Society of Landscape Architects, ASLA Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, Rhode Island and Vermont chapters; Connecticut and Vermont Public Space Programs; Virginia Historic Preservation Award; New York State Preservation League; Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Preservation, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic Construction, and others. Ms. O’Donnell has a Master of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Concentration behavioral aspects of landscape architecture, emphasis on applied behavioral research; and a Master of Urban Planning, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Concentration in historic preservation with emphasis on the history, theories, and practice of landscape preservation; and a Bachelor of Science in Design, State University of New York College at Buffalo, Concentration in Environmental Design.

 

What led you to your field?

The historic parks and parkways of Buffalo, New York, my hometown, led me to a self-designed graduate education concentrating on historic preservation with masters degrees in Landscape Architecture, focused on applied behavioral research and in Urban Planning focused on community historic preservation, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  My specific emphasis in that pursuit, from 1979 to 1982 was on our shared landscape and community heritage, which at the time had limited preservation attention.

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?

The way I frame my work is to say that Heritage Landscapes works toward a vibrant future for places we already care about, that need help. Every day we are engaged in aiding property stewards to understand, respect, protect, document, preserve, restore, or rehabilitate places of heritage value for today and as a legacy to the unborn.

Analyzing landscape integrity is one aspect of cultural landscape report underway. The Lawn of the Academical Village has integrity to the completion to the original Thomas Jefferson directed 1827 construction of the University of Virginia.
Analyzing landscape integrity is one aspect of cultural landscape report underway. The Lawn of the Academical Village has integrity to the completion to the original Thomas Jefferson directed 1827 construction of the University of Virginia.


 Why do you think historic preservation matters?

I believe that historic places imbue our lives with meaning, knowledge, and affirmation of our efforts, that build on the past. The historic communities and properties we value, were gifted to us by prior generations and it is our responsibility, honor, and pleasure to sustain them into the future. My work also addresses adapting heritage to current imperatives, while retaining their character. A range of 21st century opportunities are rooted in uniqueness of places, cultural diversity, traditions, and practices as well as tangible heritage. Heritage is now and will continue to grow in importance globally as a driver of development. Sustaining heritage resources is a “green” best practice in a planet with shrinking resources. These factors matter to our shared global future.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?

The courses available are a banquet today, as compared to those three decades ago when I was in school. I served as a guest this past year in a small seminar and that format was a rich opportunity to delve into preservation practice, principles, and aspirations. I suggest that all the baseline skill development courses are required to be employable, but clear writing, analysis, and creative thinking are required as well, so students should foster those aspects. Heritage resilience, in terms of responding to climate change, natural disasters, and civil unrest is a growing area of interest that should be studied as well. 

In addition to course work I encourage historic preservation students to engage with professional groups, like US ICOMOS, ASLA Historic Preservation Interest Group, APT, and others, to gain form contact with professionals and engage in current dialogues in our field.

Do you have a favorite preservation project?  What about it made it special?

My most rewarding projects are those that we have had the opportunity to research, plan, and implement preservation actions. These projects benefit from enduring relationships with caring property stewards or visionary public officials. For example, from 1997 to 2006 we worked in Camden, Maine, with the Camden Library Board, citizens committee, and town on a historic landscape report, community engagement for project direction, and a sequence of implementation projects to restore the Camden Garden Amphitheatre, design by modern master Fletcher Steele (recently listed as an NHL) and to rehabilitate Camden Harbor Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. These efforts to revitalize the green heart of the Camden community are enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

We have contributed to the efforts of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a civic-focused non-profit working in collaboration with the City of Pittsburgh, for some 15 years on dozens of planning and implementation projects that together have truly uplifted the regional parks of Pittsburgh. These works has combined historic preservation, ecology, and community by applying best practices that will sustain some 1,700 acres of public historic parks and parkways. While each project was positive, the cumulative progress on the communities green resources is truly inspirational.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?

Heritage Landscapes contributed to an interdisciplinary team, led by HOK, assembled the documents for a major effort to reconstruct the turf and soils at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Work underway on the three east panels includes amended soils for drainage and healthy turf, new curb inlets and cisterns to capture rainwater, cleanse, and reuse it to irrigate the carefully graded, domed lawn panels, to withstand 25 million visitors and 3000 permitted events annually. Heritage Landscapes contributed to an interdisciplinary team, led by HOK, assembled the documents for a major effort to reconstruct the turf and soils at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Work underway on the three east panels includes amended soils for drainage and healthy turf, new curb inlets and cisterns to capture rainwater, cleanse, and reuse it to irrigate the carefully graded, domed lawn panels, to withstand 25 million visitors and 3000 permitted events annually.

The National Park Service is an exceptional steward and client and our collaborations with them, at various historic parks are significant as works that underpin the NPS mission of stewardship for today and legacy to pass to the future unimpaired.  Our currently working National Mall team, for NPS National Mall and Memorial Parks, led by HOK with a group of interdisciplinary members, is addressing phases 2 and 3 of soil and turf improvements to the country’s front lawn, with healthier soils, rainwater harvesting, cisterns and irrigation. Our particular expertise in historic landscapes was applied to researching the history of the physical character and features of the Mall, early 1800s to present, and creating an overlay showing disturbances, for the environmental impact review of the project. We championed the domed grading of the 180-foot wide lawn panels to promote soil and turf health.

For Jefferson’s Academical Village, a World Heritage Site, and the historic core of the University of Virginia, we are preparing a detailed cultural landscape report Part 1, history from 1817 to 2013, existing conditions and analysis, that is rich and deep. With guidance from the University Landscape Architect, and the Office of the Architect team, we are collaborating with a local archaeological firm, and incorporating the efforts of summer interns and a recent planning graduate to enrich this detailed report. It is the first comprehensive study of this globally significant designed historic landscape.

How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?

My community is both local and global. In Vermont, the Preservation Trust of Vermont is a strong actor that aids communities. For the recovery from mega-storm impacts, the preservation community is working more closely with partners in disaster response, infrastructure, and community resilience. These trends are nationwide.

I participate in the global preservation community through serving as an active ICOMOS expert, US ICOMOS board member, chair of the International Federation of Landscape Architects Cultural Landscapes Committee, and participant in UNESCO World Heritage expert meetings. These professional volunteer activities are both important and rewarding.

Two weeks ago I contributed to a World Heritage Center expert meeting on mainstreaming the UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape, approved in November 2011. Addressing the sustainable future of heritage cities, it was a rich and productive gathering with global representation. These are the kind of opportunities to serve our preservation profession that I think we must apply our time and talents to. We are a worldwide tribe of those that value heritage, and working together we can achieve a great deal.

The ACHP’s mission is “preserving America’s heritage;” can you give us an example of how your community is preserving their heritage?

I live in Charlotte, Vermont, a small town with two village centers and a strong commitment to the cultural landscape of this rural community on the shore of Lake Champlain with Adirondack views to the west and Green Mountain views to the east. The initiatives most valuable to me are those of the Charlotte Land Trust and the Town of Charlotte that seek to preserve our working farms, fields, and forests. We have made substantial progress on conservation easements through a fund sustained by a small tax citizens voted on themselves.

Read more Q&A stories about the preservationists in your neighborhood!

 

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