Celebrating Student Excellence in Design


The site of Ridge Lane Park. Graduate student Nahal Sohbati won ASLA’s 2017 Excellence in Student Community Service for her work on the Ingleside street park. Photo courtesy of Nahal Sohbati.

In its seven years of existence, the School of Landscape Architecture at Academy of Art University has had a slew of successful prominent wins in the last few years. 

In 2015, a group of students swept the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show for the design and installation of their Sublimation garden.

Last year, graduate student Eric Arneson—who was involved with the Sublimation project—took home a Student Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) for his Bendway Park design, which aimed to restore the riverfront into a multi-use park in the Sonoma county river town of Healdsburg. 

This year, the School of Landscape Architecture celebrates Nahal Sohbati, a graduate student who is taking home ASLA’s 2017 Award of Excellence in Student Community Service for her work on Ridge Lane Park, a sustainable, community-collaborative street park in the Ingleside area of San Francisco. To no surprise, Sohbati was a Sublimation designer as well.

“This award isn’t just about me, it’s the result of all the [Ridge Lane] community,” Sohbati said. “Without them, this project wouldn’t be possible; It was definitely a group project and the ASLA is just a recognition of all the hard work. I think the real prize for me is seeing the community actually use this public space.”

Sohbati was one out of 295 entries from 52 different schools throughout the various student categories. In addition to the ASLA award, the Ridge Lane project received recognition from the California State Senate and Assembly, the City and County of San Francisco and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. 

As a former ASLA winner himself and having experience in large scale parks and habitat restoration projects, Arneson knows a thing or two about the ASLA organization’s high level of critique and expectations. He called it, “the most prestigious award in the field,” which recognizes its recipients as “leading the charge in landscape architecture for future generations.”

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cademy of Art University School of Landscape Architecture graduate student Nahal Sohbati. Photo courtesy of Nahal Sohbati.

“I think what Nahal’s project did really well that stood out from maybe past or other ASLA projects is that it’s a balance of concept, process, presentation as well as execution,” he continued. “Nahal’s project was conceptual and beautiful, but it was also so very practical and that’s what landscape architecture should be trying to do.”

The Ridge Lane Park project started in a 2014 Site Design studio class (LAN 620). Sohbati’s concepts were selected out of 11 students by the Ridge Lane Neighbors (RLN) community alliance that had reached out to then-School of Landscape Architecture Director Heather Clendenin. Now the department’s online director, Clendenin said the RLN park project was the perfect circumstance for students to try their hand at working in a real-world scenario. 

Ridge Lane Park was initially an underdeveloped strip of land residents cut through to reach the Balboa Park BART station and several other Muni streetcars and buses. Prior to redevelopment, the area was neglected, dangerous at night and during bad weather.

RLN members made their wishes clear and simple. They wanted space that provided convenient access to public transportation, beautiful scenery and was safe to enjoy leisurely. Sohbati said while she couldn’t meet every single person’s needs, she listened and took extra care to think about why any one person would make such requests. 

Taking these into consideration, Sohbati worked these details into her design, which was inspired by the native butterflies that used Ridge Lane as their mating grounds. Together with Arneson, they selected a California-native ‘plant palette’ that were pollinator-friendly for “good ecological value.” 

“From my point of view, [Sohbati] understands what landscape architecture is all about,” praised Clendenin. “And that is the creation of spaces for, not just people, but for all living systems and creating a place that didn’t exist before that is healthy, beautiful and an addition to the world, if not forgotten. She also brought in the whole issue of democratic design, bringing people together to make decisions about their own environment and acting as an overarching guidance.”

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An overview of the Ridge Lane project. Image courtesy of Nahal Sohbati.

Clendenin says the consecutive ASLA wins is a huge testimony to the department, its students and the Academy at large. She emphasized that what sets the Academy apart from other landscape architecture programs is the freedom and community access students are allowed with projects such as Ridge Lane. 

Moving forward, Sohbati says the process to start Ridge Lane’s second parcel is underway. Each of the five parcels needs its own funding, so the community group has to re-apply for grants after one section is completed. But Sohbati said that the first parcel was such a success, that it has been much easier to gain those grants. She aims to continue to oversee the project’s progression. 

“When I started at the Academy, I knew nothing about landscape architecture; I had a bachelor’s in interior design,” she explained. “Everything I applied to this project, I learned through the school. Everything I learned, I owe it to the Academy, to my instructors and my director.”