Well known for her dedication to vegetation management with a special interest in indigenous plants, Cynthia Cohlmeyer owns the Winnipeg firm of Cynthia Cohlmeyer Landscape Architecture Ltd. Born in the United States, she holds the distinction of being the first woman in Canada to graduate with a Master of Landscape Architecture from a Canadian university.. Upon completing a liberal arts degree at Carleton College, Minnesota, she discovered landscape architecture more satisfying for her cross-disciplinary interests in science and art. A stint in Toronto from 1970-71 was enriched by her friendship with urbanist Jane Jacobs, where she developed an interest in the area of citizen empowerment.
Cohlmeyer and her husband, Steve Cohlmeyer, moved to Winnipeg in 1971. Steve studied architecture, while she began her masters program at the University of Manitoba, graduating with an M.L.A. just before their first child was born in 1977. Her thesis on aspen parkland was supervised by Professor Jennifer Shay. Hydrologist Bob Newbury was also a valued mentor in how the characteristics of water impact an environment. The Landscape Architecture student body was small. Each student received personal attention and any academic deficiencies were given extra assistance.
With a new baby and husband in tow, Cohlmeyer spent a stimulating year touring Europe and living in France, immersed in the landscapes and architecture. The couple then found work in Winnipeg. For the next few years, Cohlmeyer focused mainly on family responsibilities but was often a silent partner in her husband's design proposals and projects. This was a period for gaining practical design skills.
It was during this time that she gained intensive experience with seed collection and the propagation of native plants, before any commercial sources were available. Frequent visits to the Living Prairie Museum, combined with close study of the hardiness and gentle beauty of indigenous plants, cultivated a respect for prairie ecosystems, while repeated experiments in their cultivation fortified her depth in a new and specialized field. Cohlmeyer came to lead citizen awareness and action in the rescuing of Winnipeg’s beleaguered smaller streams, particularly Truro Creek and Omand’s Creek. This involved not only convincing City officials, but organizing neighbourhood stakeholders and even slogging into the creeks to remove garbage. The installation of a series of riffle structures on the creeks slowed the flow, riparian regions were returned to a more natural state and Truro and Bruce Parks were overplanted with indigenous trees and plants. As wildlife returned and the areas naturalized over a 14-year period, lessons were learned by Parks staff and citizens.
As an outcome of the hydrologic study of Truro Creek, it was determined that glycol from de-icing planes on the runways of the Winnipeg airport was toxic to the creek and thence to the Assiniboine River. A lengthy pressure campaign led by Cohlmeyer and some of the same community activists convinced the airport authority to install an apron around the runways to collect and process the glycol, a victory for the environment and the activists. This also led to Cohlmeyer undertaking a long-range vegetation management plan of the large tract of land adjacent to Richardson International Airport. This was done for 17th Wing Winnipeg, Department of National Defence flight squadrons. During 1994, formal and naturalized areas were introduced; wild plants and small animals returned but eventually most of these naturalized areas did not survive being mowed, an ongoing challenge for landscape architects dedicated to sustaining engineered wildlands.
Opening her own practice in 1983, Cohlmeyer was involved with the development of an indigenous horticultural site in Lockport, Manitoba, through the active ARC Agreement. It is a compact site on the east side of the Red River where for 3,000 years First Nations people fished, grew corn and built large storage pits for their crops. Such a significant archaeological site called for great sensitivity to the interpretation of landscape, and a regime of non-mowing of the suckering plants was installed, although repeated flooding has altered some of the site interpretation and plantings from the 1984-88 period.
Cohlmeyer served for many years as the chair of the Environmental Committee of Nature Manitoba, and produced an Inventory of Natural Areas that informed the City’s 1993 new strategies for the management and development of wildlands in its Ecologically Significant Natural Lands guidelines. Her work identified that the abundant river bottom forest storey within the city, being mostly undisturbed, offers some of the best examples of that ecosystem available to experience. Translated into action, this strategy assisted her five-year engagement with the creation of Henteleff Park, a restored riparian forest in south St. Vital, reopened by the City in 2002 for its association with Metis settlement, early market gardens and the Henteleff family’s tree nursery. Extensive planting of native trees and shrubs, the establishment of public access routes and an engaging interpretive component are the product of professional landscape guidance and citizen participation. Recent interpretative panels installed along the river trails in Assiniboine Park, and written by Cynthia Cohlmeyer, display a rigorous understanding of the interaction of humans with evolving riparian spaces and water courses.
Another example of Cohlmeyer's desire to educate through design is her work on the Forks National Historic Site in the early 1990s. This includes the re-development of a Prairie Forks Garden in the nucleus of the site, the limestone Wall Through Time retaining wall embedded with the remarkable narrative of this significant archaeological site, and the installation of flood markers on the canopy posts over the Forks Plaza, all designed to make a visit to the Forks a personal discovery of human interaction with the natural world.
Mayor Susan Thompson commissioned a series of landscape statements, called Gateway Greens, at Winnipeg's main portals in 1994. Cohlmeyer designed Highway No. 1 West and East, both at the Perimeter Highway. `Rings of Habitat`, is a series of 65-metre circular plantings of indigenous trees designed to cultivate islands of habitat, with the centres harvested for hay.
Cohlmeyer was honoured with the commission to design the Women’s Memorial Grove on the east grounds of the Manitoba Legislature. The site commemorates the 1989 slaying of 14 female engineering students, at Ecole Polytechnique, Montreal. Here, she chose a quiet space enclosed with 14 Tyndall limestone carved seats, for quiet reflection on the resilience of women in the face of violence. The site was dedicated in 1995.
Cohlmeyer has been active with both the Manitoba Association of Landscape Architects (MALA) and the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) Board of Directors. In 2006, she was named a Fellow of the CSLA.
Collaborating with her husband’s architectural practice positions on a variety of Canadian and international projects provides Cohlmeyer with colleagues and access to the professional support services in their joint offices. Planning and design for City Square Plaza in Regina, from 2008 to 2010, was a highlight in their joint urban planning and public space skills.
In 2013-14, Cohlmeyer headed a signature project in the City of Winnipeg Public Works East Yard redevelopment, off Nairn Avenue. Satisfying LEED criteria for sustainability, the project recovered waste lands from a fill site through the creation of two large detention ponds heavily planted with many native species, with the goal of cleansing the water and creating wildlife habitat, now actively happening. The site is also welcoming to workers, school groups and neighbours, a vibrant landscape in a previously bleak and toxic industrial setting.