SUS 7700A Sustainable Soil and Water

Spring 2019. Subject to refinement/updating.

Instructor: Professor Marcha Johnson
Schedule: Wednesday 2:00 p.m. to 4:50 p.m.
Location: Spitzer, Room 2M11A
3 credits 3 hrs/week


Marcha Johnson, Ph.D., ASLA, Registered Landscape Architect (718) 760-6646 work


This is a lecture course with field applications exploring ancient and contemporary approaches to manipulating soil and water in building human communities that conserve and sustain local resources over long periods of time.  It is primarily for Landscape Architects, Architects and Sustainability students, and includes practical applications of principles and theory in realistic projects in NYC. The class will research and address complex topics related to conservation and management of soil, surface water and groundwater in urban settings undergoing social, political, climate and environmental changes.

This semester’s case study/ collaborative design will explore topics related to multiple purposed garden structures that address water quality and habitat in the context of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Water Conservation Projects. Other assignments will address novel, man-made pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and microplastics, using the Hudson River as an example. This topic is current, has significant implications for human and environmental health, and is something of a microcosm of urban sustainability issues. The legacy of inadvertent, casual disposal of a wide variety of powerful medical drugs, and the presence of plastic waste in the world’s water bodies affects every kind of living organism in the water.  Considering how to address these complex materials in water, aims to engage students in architecture, landscape architecture, planning and sustainability in the search for innovative solutions.   

The course responds to current interest in “nature-based infrastructure,” preparing students to better understand floodplains and coastal zones, the role of moisture in soil ecology,  treating polluted soil in brownfields; the relation of soil and groundwater in natural and urban/designed settings and “sustainable details” such as porous infrastructure and water filtration using living organisms.   It will combine lecture format, reporting on related research and activities, field methods for understanding soil and ground water; and design exercises applying student research on living filtration systems, porous pavement, bioengineering and/or other ground-water interactions.


The issues associated with water in urban development -- for example, the development of floodplains, distribution of water in areas of scarce resources, sea level rise, hydraulic fracturing and its effect on groundwater, loss and restoration of wetlands, over-extraction of ground water in arid land and designing conservation buffers -- facing the design fields require knowledgeable professionals and creative thinking in order to solve both mundane and urgent problems.  While entry level architects, planners and landscape architects will be expected to be competent in understanding and addressing soil and water problems in their future professional projects, this course aims to prepare students to think beyond that, reaching toward new solutions and approaches at the forefront of advancing professional specialties in green infrastructure and adaptation to rapidly changing coastal conditions.

Below is a sample of lecture topics, some of which will be coordinated with excursions to local examples illustrating typical problem conditions and sustainable best practices:

1.  Ancient and modern soil and water management techniques

2.  Soil ecology/ biology of soil microorganisms/ living aspects of soil

3.  Water movement in built environments

4.  Sea level rise, coastal dynamics and development - context and responses

5.  Desertification - context and responses

6.  Urban agricultural soil - character, concerns and techniques for improvement

7.  “Nature based infrastructure” storm water and erosion management

8.  Addressing novel, man-made “emerging” pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and microplastics in water and soil


  1. Understanding how soil and water conditions drive urban development decisions, architecture and landscape architectural design
  2. Understanding basic geology and hydrology principles related to surface and groundwater, sediment transport and coastal dynamics
  3. Practice in assessing a variety of typical urban soil and water conditions and diagnosing problems
  4. Competence in choosing, adapting and designing nature-based and/or bioengineered solutions for water and soil management

Course Requirements

Attendance is mandatory for all sessions.

Site visits.  Two local site visits are being planned in which the class will meet knowledgeable professionals and/or look at conditions related to the class projects. One will be during class time, the other is an optional Saturday field trip within the NYC area.

Required Reading

Bookstore Link: Sust Soil And Water
Exploring sustainable management of soil and water at the interface with adaptation to climate changes and sea level rise.

Sustainable Landscape Construction: A Guide To Green Building Outdoors , WilliamThompson and Kim Sorvig, Island Press, 2007- available as a free pdf. ISBN-13: 978-1597261432

Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens, Brooklyn Botanical Garden All-Region Guide Handbook #192, Niall Dunne, Ed. 2009 : ISBN 1889538469

Climate-Wise Landscaping, Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future, Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt, New Society Publishers, 2018 ISBN 978-0-86571-888-3

Design for Flooding: Architecture, Landscape, and Urban Design for Resilience to Climate Change, Watson, Donald; Adams, Michele, John Wiley & Sons, 2011 ISBN 978-0-470-47564-5

Free web resources on various course topics to be announced through the term.

Suggested reading:  Phyto, Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design,  by Kate Kennen and Niall Kirkwood, 2015


Grades in this course will be based on a series of assignments including:

  • one-week design or research problems
  • a 3-4 week project with:
    • a written report
    • a midterm exam
    • a final exam

Grading for the class will be determined according to the following criteria:

2 short assignments on topical issues20%
midterm exam on readings and lectures30%
final exam on readings and lectures30%
final project: research, conceptual design, and presentation20%

Course Outline


1.1/30  Overview of the semester.  Interactions of soil /sediment, fresh water and tidal water on coasts.  Impact of urban development on soil ecology, water quality and biological systems. Regional concerns/ opportunities. One week Assignment #1  A Round table on Addressing Emerging Environmental Pollutants.   Reading for 2/13  Climate-wise Landscaping, Section 3 Water p. 73-92;  SLC Waters of Life p. 183-234

2. 2/6   Library Research workshop with Nilda Sanchez.  MEET AT TECH Center - Room STC3 (1st level of the NAC Cohen Library) 2-3:30PM.   Roundtable on emerging pollution-present Ass. 1

Reading for 2/13 Water Garden, Brooklyn (webpage)

3.  2/13  Discussion of BBG Water Conservation Projects. Guest presentors Alex Renner, eDesignDynamics and Matt Bird, Michael Van Valenburg Associates.  First Floor Lecture Room #107.  Reading for 2/20:    Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens  p. 7-33.



4. 2/20  Overview of Hudson R. Estuary/NYNJ Harbor,  historic and current water-soil-sediment interactions,  quality, circulation, deposition and erosion patterns.   Contaminants and treatments- passive/natural and active;  what, where, how do contaminants and nutrients enter the water, significance to environment, fish populations,  human health; how they degrade or are filtered out.  Carbon cycles, storage and relationship with soil/water quality. 

5.  2/27  SITE VISIT TO Brooklyn Botanical Garden water features, sustainable approach. MEET AT 1000 Washington Ave. Entrance.     Reading for 3/6:  C-W Landscaping p. 100-155. Ecosystems and Soil. 

6. 3/6.  Soil formation and ecology. Conserving/augmenting soil’s to cleanse water.  Weather- dependent soil probe demonstration.  Team Assignment #2 – Part 1: Concepts for structures that improve water quality and habitats   Due 3/13.  (Part 2 due 5/8)  Reading for 2/28: Sustain. Landsc. P. 71-109 Heal Injured Sites.



7. 3/13    Assignment 2 Part 1 due. Presentation of conceptual proposals for multi-functional water-side garden structures  ROOM 107, joint session with Len Hopper’s class.

8.  3/20 Midterm   Surface water + ground water interactions.  Watershed planning, Graywater reuse, Green Infrastructure; Groundwater hydrology and urban drainage, Reading for 3/27: Yacouba Sawadogo, the African Farmer who stopped the desert (web article) (video)



9. 3/27  Water and soil interface with social/cultural issues   Conclude groundwater and graywater.  Y. Sawadogo’s techniques.  Traditional agricultural soil/water management practices; Urban farming, permaculture; hydroponics; Distribute one week Assign. #3, due 4/3

10. 4/3  Discussion of Assign. #3.  student suggested topic- NYC Park project in phytoremediation of soil.  Desertification; Xeriscaping.  Reading for 5/1 Sustainable Landscape Construction  p. 113-148 Living Materials;

11. 4/10 Nature-based technologies for brownfields.  Historic urban fill,  beneficial reuse in NYC.  Reading for 4/17 SLC 323-332 Maintain to Sustain 

12.  4/17  COASTAL CONSERVATION   Ocean water and sediment processes. Global coastal conservation programs,  Wastewater treatment, Wetland restoration, Coastal dynamics, flooding, sustainable coastal human settlements- prehistoric to contemporary.

4/24 NO CLASS, Spring Break

13.  5/1  PRESENTATIONS of Assign 2- part 2, joint session with Len Hopper’s class. Proposals for Brooklyn Botanical Garden – Multipurpose Garden Structures that improve water and/or soil quality and habita


 5/15  NO CLASS, following a Mon. Schedule

15.  5/22 to be confirmed. FINAL EXAM