Robert Ryan is the Graduate Program Director in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning. His research focuses on sustainability and the positive benefits of urban green spaces and infrastructures.
Tell us about your research.
My research looks at the benefits of landscapes for people—landscapes broadly defined including nature, plants, trees, everything about the natural world and its positive impact on people. I primarily look at urban green spaces and how they can help peoples’ health and well-being. I also look at the importance of ecology, focusing a lot on sustainability. Ecological issues that I look at deal with the idea of green infrastructure, connected networks of green spaces that function for both people and society, such as stream corridors and river corridors.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have several active multidisciplinary research projects funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as the UMass Center for Agriculture, that engage students in many different ways. One of the projects is with the Science Museum Ecotarium in Worcester. We are looking at the new exhibit called City Science, that will teach children about the importance of urban green space and allow them to explore how they want to build the cities of the future.
I work with graduate and undergraduate students on the exhibit. First creating it, then working in the museum and working with museum staff to help children explore this idea. They use tools like magnets, shaped like housing types and roads for instance, and then we talk to the children about why they built the city the way they did.
Another project I’m working on involves looking at urban green spaces in Boston. In many cities, there is a disinvestment in certain neighborhoods that results in abandoned buildings and vacant lots. We are looking at the transformation of these lots and spaces into community green space, gardens, and parks, and investigating the ecological and social benefits of a community-developed green space as opposed to a green space developed by municipality. For instance, we observe the birds, peoples’ behavior, and do research about what people want in their neighborhoods and how they use these green spaces.
Here is a useful link to learn more: www.umass.edu/urbaneco
What is your favorite class to teach and why?
I teach a class called People and the Environment that examines the applications of environmental psychology research to the design and planning fields. This interdisciplinary course teaches students how to analyze, create, plan, and design places that will benefit people. It integrates my research interests in environment and behavior with teaching students from a wide range of backgrounds and majors. The course goals are to offer students the knowledge and skills to analyze how people relate to the surrounding natural and built environment, show students how they can use environmental psychology research to design and plan environments that will benefit and be appreciated by the people who use them, and to build a cadre of planning and design professionals who are more sensitive to the effects their decisions have on the environment and consequently on the people who inhabit it.
Can you dispel any myths about your field of study?
Landscape architecture is sometimes confused with landscaping and gardening when in fact it is a profession that grapples with the totality of the landscape in which we live. The profession trains students to accommodate the needs of growing human populations in a manner that respects the natural world in which we live. Landscape architects design parks and urban plazas, schools and college campuses, regional trails and greenway systems, neighborhoods and residential areas. As a profession, we are at the forefront of green building and sustainability, as we strive to create sustainable sites that sustain existing ecological processes while creating great places for people.
If you are concerned about the future of the planet, if you want to make the world a better place to live, if you want to create a world that is equitable, beautiful, economically vibrant, and environmentally healthy, then landscape architecture, environmental design, and regional planning are the fields of study for you.