Landscape architecture plays central role in University’s latest conservation project

An in-depth look at the Musser Gap to Valleylands project

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – In December, Penn State President Eric Barron announced that the University has partnered with ClearWater Conservancy to explore environmentally responsible land use options for the roughly 365 acres it owns between Whitehall Road and Rothrock State Forest at Musser Gap. The area has been dubbed the Musser Gap to Valleylands, or MG2V, site. 

“Our vision for this area is to not only help protect the local water supply, plant and animal species, but also make it a place where people can enjoy nature, learn about the environment and be inspired,” said Barron.

Barron was also eager to engage students in this project as a real-world learning opportunity. At the request of the Office of the President, the Department of Landscape Architecture took the reins of the design project and Eliza Pennypacker, professor and head of the department, jumped at the opportunity to lead this important effort.

“We’re delighted to assist the University with this forward-thinking project that falls squarely within our department’s mission to do environmental and social good,” said Pennypacker. “Through the MG2V project, our faculty and students have the unique opportunity to work with the University and local citizens to have a positive impact on our land and on our community.”

ClearWater Conservancy was a natural fit for the project as they partnered with Penn State on the Musser Gap Greenway Trail, an important link within the MG2V site, to connect downtown State College via Whitehall Road to the Rothrock State Forest at Musser Gap.

A two-phased process emerged as the logical approach to this project and was developed by Pennypacker, Associate Professor Emeritus Tom Yahner, Associate Professor Andy Cole and Distinguished Professor Ken Tamminga. First, a fall course would challenge faculty and students to take a deep dive into understanding the site. Next, a course in the spring would engage stakeholders so the class and faculty could learn about their personal values and concerns regarding the site. The entirety of the background would be used by students to develop possible future scenarios for the site within the second half of the spring course. 

At the heart of the MG2V project is the department’s Ecology + Design (E+D) research initiative, which stresses the importance of environmental scientists and designers partnering from the onset of the design process to balance the environmental priorities with the social opportunities of a project.

“E+D is intended to bring ecology and design together at the very beginning of any project,” said Cole, who is the director of the emerging E+D center. “It is important for the MG2V class to reflect that same philosophy, as the MG2V site is ecologically sensitive and we want to make sure that ecological principles are included in whatever design options might arise by the end of this spring semester. As such, the MG2V classes are definitely supported and sponsored by E+D. It’s right where we want to be.”

In fall 2018, Tamminga led an interdisciplinary course of graduate and undergraduate students to evaluate the land and its biophysical, geological, ecological, agricultural and historic characteristics.  Although it was a landscape architecture class, half of the students (and numerous guest experts) came from other disciplines, particularly in the earth and life sciences fields, which Tamminga says was key to the initial investigation of the land.

“We were doing an analysis of all of the values of the land over time, so we really needed to take a holistic approach to the site,” he said, “Having students who specialized in fields outside of landscape architecture forced us look at the entire picture in front of us.”

The group also identified four key aspects of the land that they say need to be kept at the forefront of their efforts: (1) water quality and source water protection, which is a major concern among the community; (2) land conservation and ecosystem restoration; (3) agricultural integrity, as the land has been farmed for more than 200 years and is known for having rich soil and rolling pastures; and (4) the recreational aspects and experience of the landscape, which is enjoyed by both members of the community and visitors to Happy Valley.

The MG2V land itself has a rich agricultural history with up to five farms occupying the area over the years; however, there may be more to the site beyond farmland, said Yahner. “A map from 1822 shows the area just west of the MG2V site labeled as ‘plains,’ which suggests that this part of the valley could have been grassland or prairie prior to its conversion to agriculture,” he said.

Yahner retired in 2017 but came back to teach a course last spring and stayed on to help with MG2V because, as he says, “I just love this project.”

The area in question is a karst landscape characterized by sinkholes, closed depressions and underground fissures and caverns formed through dissolution of limestone and dolomite. Because surface water travels easily through these rocks, landscapes such as these are vulnerable to ground water contamination. This, says Yahner, is why the most important value of the land, and the project, is protecting the aquifer. “Then we have to ask ourselves, ‘What kind of land cover best facilitates protection of the aquifer and well fields?’”

The fall class conducted visual analyses of the land, taking soil samples, doing vegetation assessments, looking at the biophysical attributes of the land and learning about the cultural and natural qualities of the site and the larger landscape. This allowed the students to provide a thorough analytic study to hand off to the next group of students in the spring 2019 course.

In the spring course, students are engaging with the community, listening to their concerns and aspirations, and thinking about potential designs and management strategies for the land. Lisa DuRussel, an assistant teaching professor of landscape architecture and practitioner in residence who has extensive experience with community engagement projects, is leading this effort.

“This semester we are looking at applying the analytical aspects of the site, which Ken’s class uncovered in the fall, and augmenting that information by reaching out to the community [e.g.  Penn State officials, concerned citizens, local government, municipal officials, community organizations] to understand what their values and priorities for the site are now and also looking to the future,” she said. “Based on all of that information that we cultivate, we will then develop a series of prospective scenarios for both short- and long-term use of the land.”

The course has proven to be popular among students as many spoke about the opportunity to work on a collaborative project involving their University and the community in which they live.

“I was really interested in taking this course because of the community engagement aspect,” said Ben Chronister, a senior studying landscape architecture. “I think Penn State has a responsibility to be a true steward of the land and working with community members and giving them the opportunity to really use their voice is a huge part of that.”

Tamminga’s class last semester also looked at the geospatial data of the site to better understand both the environmental and social characteristics of the land, which is known as geodesign.

“This is a unique project in that we are using feedback from the community and coupling it with a geodesign strategy, which means we are taking real-time data based on what community participants say and integrating it directly into an online dashboard of information so we can create maps and diagrams that show priorities in real time,” said DuRussel. “This is very important in a project with so much community engagement because it really allows us to be completely transparent throughout the process.”

The first community conversation focused on the MG2V project was held Feb. 7 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County with more than 100 people attending, including Barron.

“I thought the overall mood was cordial and that really, the community members were there to listen first, and then tell us their thoughts and concerns,” said DuRussel. “The students were great facilitators and there was open dialogue throughout the gathering, including with President Barron.”

Chronister echoed DuRussel’s sentiments about the meeting after initially being uncertain about the community’s reception of the project.

“Honestly, it took me by surprise the amount of times I heard ‘Thank you so much for doing this’ from all the attendees,” he said. “It was so cool to see the smiles on their faces when they saw their ideas put down on paper right in front of them. I think that’s definitely the most rewarding part [of this project] – seeing a community so happy and grateful to be prominently engaged in a project.”

Additional community meetings will be held throughout the semester, culminating in an exhibition and open house for the students to share the final strategy ideas they come up with for the MG2V land.

“I cannot wait to present our work back to the community,” said Chronister’s classmate and fellow landscape architecture senior Logan Staley. “I know from experience that having a say in what happens in my community is a very fulfilling feeling and I cannot wait to give this community that same feeling of accomplishment and happiness when they see the ideas they expressed to us take form on the page!”