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Landscape Architecture Students, Researchers Help Idaho’s Magic Valley Remain Resilient

In a changing world, U of I has a hand in sustaining the state’s resources by designing landscape and site-scale models.

It’s not hard for Kathryn Frostenson to imagine her hometown of Jerome — part of Idaho’s agricultural epicenter — in the throngs of some pretty hefty changes between now and 2050.

Frostenson grew up running heavy equipment on her family’s farm — swathing and raking alfalfa and harvesting wheat and barley. She’s already seen dairies in the region go belly up due to trade disputes involving foreign governments’ retaliatory tariffs on cheese and milk. She’s also heard chatter of the tech sector moving in to snatch up cheap land, which could put a strain on the region's water supply.

Then there’s the potential for increased water quality regulations, which would further limit farmers’ ability to irrigate.

Going forward, residents of the Magic Valley will need to navigate these issues to maintain their thriving dairy and food processing industry that supports Idaho’s economy with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in sales.

That’s why a group of University of Idaho faculty and students, including Frostenson, are working with the Center for Resilient Communities (CRC), a research center housed in the College of Art and Architecture, along with 25 researchers across the nation — from Alaska to Oregon to New Hampshire — and community members in the Magic Valley, to create models of alternative future scenarios that will allow the region to proactively plan for a very different time.

A map of the Magic Valley in Idaho showing the position of forest, undeveloped land, public lands, and cities and protected zones.
Land Use Plan: Food Insecurity Scenario, Magic Valley, Idaho
A view from above of two INFEWS researchers working on a large drawing with colored markers.
Dan Cronan and Katherine Woodhouse work on a site-scale drawing of Idaho’s Magic Valley.

From the Bottom Up

The team’s research, funded by a $2.7 million National Science Foundation grant, will contribute to the larger Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) initiative, which aims to improve the function and management of water and energy resources, along with food production and processing, by identifying their stressors and ensuring sustainability.

“Our project could have a really big impact on the future for taking preventive measures and progressive steps toward efficiency.”Kathryn Frostenson

The project has brought together students from various disciplines — Frostenson, 19, is studying music in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences and has a background in hydrology and renewable energy. Other students have expertise in landscape architecture, economics, sociology and environmental science.

Kathryn Frostenson
Kathryn Frostenson

The hallmark of CRC’s research, envisioned by co-directors Lil Alessa and Andy Kliskey, is that it maintains relevance to society — particularly communities in Idaho and the Western United States struggling with resiliency in the face of social, economic and environmental instabilities.

But their work is not just about developing solutions to issues. It also helps create a benchmark for research that involves giving affected people a seat at the table when creating models of what the future might look like.

This bottom-up approach — seeking input from community members most affected by anticipated changes rather than imposing a researcher’s perceived solutions to problems in a top-down fashion — is one Kliskey attributes to his upbringing.

Growing up in coastal New Zealand, where the majority of the population is indigenous Polynesian, or Maori, Kliskey was keenly aware that his community placed a different value on land than the majority of New Zealanders. And he knew he had a lot to learn from those around him.

“The cultural idea of land ownership is very different to Maori than it is to many Europeans and Euro-Americans, who think that if you own the land, it’s yours and you can do what you want with it,” Kliskey said. “Maori land can’t be owned by anyone. The tribe has it and it’s theirs to look after and there’s phenomenal spiritual connectivity to it.”

Kliskey’s approach to land planning — understanding people’s perceptions of their environment before suggesting solutions — particularly resonated with Dan Cronan, an assistant professor who joined U of I’s Landscape Architecture Program in 2017.

Andrew Kliskey

Co-director CRC, Professor

Andrew Kliskey

Daniel Cronan

Assistant Professor

AA 308


A native of Louisiana, Cronan describes his hometown – about 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico – as “a landscape riddled with flooding from hurricanes, contamination from ag and petro-chemical companies and an overall lack of land-use planning.”

Cronan also witnessed numerous environmental equity issues, like “putting low-income housing next to an industrial area or flood plain.” That’s why ensuring land users and stakeholders have a voice in regional planning became crucial to his work in landscape architecture.

“It’s not the type of research project where we say, ‘OK, we’re going to look at the area and determine that these are the problems and we’re going to tell you what to do.’ It has to be entirely driven by the people who live there.” Katherine Woodhouse

“It’s not the type of research project where we say, ‘OK, we’re going to look at the area and determine that these are the problems and we’re going to tell you what to do,’” said Katherine Woodhouse ’19, who worked on the CRC team as a landscape architecture student and will now pursue a master’s in landscape architecture at the U of I Urban Design Center in Boise. “It has to be entirely driven by the people who live there because they’re the ones living in it and experiencing it. We can’t be prescriptive.”

Katherine Woodhouse
Katherine Woodhouse
Katherine Woodhouse works at a table with edges that contains sand, with a map projected on it by colored light.
Katherine Woodhouse builds a topography model in the Landscape Architecture Program’s augmented reality sandbox.

Mapping the Future

Woodhouse, 21, spent fall 2018 working with Cronan on digital maps to help visually communicate the future of land-use distribution — for agriculture, urban development and conservation — as a result of scenarios anticipated by community members that involve economic factors, climate conditions and water availability. Then the team will be able to anticipate what water and energy resources the land needs to sustain itself.

The scenario Woodhouse focused on relates to the Magic Valley avoiding drought conditions — in contrast to the rest of the country’s agricultural producers — which could lead to an increased value on food production in the region. Urban growth would then increase to support agricultural development, which would create conflict between water allocation and land use.

The team is also assessing how the dairy industry’s waste byproducts, like whey and other nutrients, could be efficiently returned to the land to sustain development.

“I’m very proud of farming and what we do, especially because we provide food and resources nationally,” Frostenson said. “Our project could have a really big impact on the future for taking preventive measures and progressive steps toward efficiency — and away from the negative aspects of what the scenarios predict.”

“We’re trying to understand key uncertainties with respect to water, the food industry, energy and waste that people think affect and drive the Magic Valley.”Andy Kliskey

Woodhouse, who recently met with community members in the Magic Valley and traveled to the region with her classmates for a site analysis, sees similar value in the INFEWS project for “making the best impact on tomorrow.”

That’s Kliskey’s view as well.

“The Magic Valley is this little place that operates in a much broader economic and social context, and the economic context is certainly global,” Kliskey said. “We’re trying to understand key uncertainties with respect to water, the food industry, energy and waste that people think affect and drive the Magic Valley. I think we’ll come up with some neat solutions. But more than that — a community-driven approach.”

Article by Kate Keenan, College of Art and Architecture

Story updated May 2019

Published January 2019

This project, “INFEWS/T3: Social-ecological-technological solutions to waste reuse in food, energy and water systems (ReFEWS)”, was funded under National Science Foundation grant No. 1639524. The total amount of federal funds for the project is $2,698,207, which amounts to 100 percent of the total cost of the project.

Center for Resilient Communities

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