Mistretta presents her capstone project at UD; the laser-cut model was produced at UD’s Pearson MakerSpace.
Mistretta presents her capstone project at UD; the laser-cut model was produced at UD’s Pearson MakerSpace.

Leveraging landscape architecture for conservation

May 30, 2024 Written by Molly Schafer

University of Delaware alumna Juliahna Mistretta is leveraging her landscape architecture degree for conservation. This summer, Mistretta completes a master’s degree in global biodiversity conservation at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. The former Blue Hen is building on a strong foundation. At the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, she combined her landscape architecture studies with an internship at the UD Botanic Gardens

Mistretta is adamant that her work should positively impact people, places, and the environment. In 2005, she watched Hurricane Katrina ravage her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. The massive storm overwhelmed the New Orleans’ levee system, leaving 80 percent of the city underwater. Witnessing this life-changing storm and the environmental challenges that followed catalyzed her interest in conservation and sustainable design. 

“Experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change and rising sea levels ignited my interest in creating sustainable environments,” Mistretta said. “Spaces that are not only resilient toward our changing climate but that can reintroduce biodiversity into urban areas and have a profound effect on people’s lives.”

Mistretta presents her UD capstone project at UD, which was based in New Orleans at the abandoned Market Street Power Plant.
Mistretta presents her UD capstone project at UD, which was based in New Orleans at the abandoned Market Street Power Plant.

Mistretta was attracted to UD’s landscape architecture program because the major seeks to address solutions to environmental, natural resources and sustainable challenges at local, regional and global levels.

“I moved across the country to study landscape architecture at the University of Delaware because the program focuses on sustainability and resiliency,” underscored Mistretta. 

At UD, Mistretta worked on her capstone project with Anna Wik, associate professor of landscape architecture and registered landscape architect. Her project sought to transform an abandoned power plant in her hometown of New Orleans into a public space bursting with functional, sustainable design.

At Rathfinny Vineyard in Sussex, United Kingdom, Mistretta records pollinators on the vineyard’s wildflower plantings.
At Rathfinny Vineyard in Sussex, United Kingdom, Mistretta records pollinators on the vineyard’s wildflower plantings.

“Not only did Juliahna approach this goal from the perspective of landscape architecture, designing thoughtful, sustainable, and exciting outdoor spaces,” Wik explained. “She also took risks and succeeded in devising architectural strategies that transformed the building into a lush and dynamic destination.”

In her master’s program at the University of Sussex, Mistretta’s classes included Advanced Conservation Biology. Visiting lecturers presented on various topics, including dark sky preservation, light pollution, and citizen science. In her Science of Climate Change course, Mistretta studied the history of climate change and climate fluctuations. Her favorite class was Decolonizing Development.

“The class asked you to consider your impact on the world,” Mistretta explained. “We discussed ways to ensure that equity and equality are at the forefront of our work and explored issues with gentrification and Indigenous rights.”

Mistretta’s final presentation for the class was on indigenous self-determination and anti-colonial nationalism.

This spring, Mistretta spent three weeks on a field study with the University of Sussex in Zambia, Africa. Her class collected biodiversity data for Kasanka National Park.

Mistretta stands in an African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) footprint in Kasanka National Park.
Mistretta stands in an African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) footprint in Kasanka National Park.

“We captured bats via mist netting and then identified them for the park’s database,” Mistretta explained. “Kasanka National Park has the largest bat migrations in the world from October to December; we were identifying which bats are present year-round.”

Another project involved searching the park for dung beetles.

“We found an abundance of beetles and identified three species not previously recorded in the park,” Mistretta elaborated.

Although she was in Zambia to collect biodiversity data, Mistretta couldn’t help but notice the changing climate.

“You see the effects of climate change everywhere now,” Mistretta noted. “Zambia is usually pretty wet this time of year, but they’re experiencing an extreme drought that is affecting the park’s biodiversity.”

The drought is the worst Zambia has experienced in two decades. In February the president of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema, declared a national emergency. Food production has been affected as well as the nation’s water and energy supply. 

According to Mistretta, African bush elephants were not in the park during the wet season in previous years. They would be nearby, eating the village’s crops.

“This year, during the wet season, there were elephants in the park while we were there,” Mistretta said. “Their presence affects the availability of food sources for other animals.”

During a field course in Zambia at Kasanka National Park, Mistretta captured bats using mist netting and identified them for the park's database. Here she holds a banana pipistrelle (neoromicia nanus).
During a field course in Zambia at Kasanka National Park, Mistretta captured bats using mist netting and identified them for the park's database. Here she holds a banana pipistrelle (neoromicia nanus).

Elephant digestion is not very efficient; it is easy to see what they have eaten.

“A lot of the dung we were looking at was elephant dung,” elaborated Mistretta.” We did find maize and pumpkins, suggesting the elephants had gone to the village. But with the extreme drought, the village did not have many crops, so the elephants returned to the park.”

Kasanka National Park will review the data Mistretta and her class collected as part of the park’s biodiversity conservation efforts.

Back in Sussex, Mistretta is collecting data for her dissertation; researching the effects of wildflower availability on pollinator diversity—Using quadrats, FIT counts, and pan trappings she will survey pollinator visits to flowers at Rathfinny Wine Estate and Vineyard in East Sussex, England. Last year, the vineyard planted the same mix of wildflowers at two different locations. Mistretta will examine both sites for increased insect biodiversity and compare findings. 

After she has completed her fieldwork, a 6,000-word essay, and presented her dissertation, Mistretta will return to the U.S. in search of an apprenticeship with a licensed landscape architect. This multi-year undertaking is a requirement for earning a landscape architecture license. 

Mistretta and her research partner sort insects they’ve collected for identification.
Mistretta and her research partner sort insects they’ve collected for identification.

“Landscape architecture is what I love to do,” Mistretta stated. “I want to find a way to merge the skills I’ve learned through this master’s course, whether it is conservation or decolonization, with landscape architecture.” 

When searching for apprenticeship opportunities, Mistretta noticed that many firms focus primarily on aesthetics, not sustainability. Instead of being dissuaded, she sees this as an opportunity to incorporate sustainable practices.

“With how the world is changing,” Mistretta emphasized. “I don’t think it will be acceptable for much longer just to have a pretty landscape. It has to be functional.” 

“That is why I enjoyed the University of Delaware so much,” Mistretta smiled. “Because a lot of the work we were doing was conscious of the environment.”

Learn more about the University of Delaware’s landscape architecture major.

Mistretta visited Per S. Marco, a bookstore in Venice, Italy. She was drawn to the city, which is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.
Mistretta visited Per S. Marco, a bookstore in Venice, Italy. She was drawn to the city, which is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.

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