Archive for the ‘Historic Preservation’ Category

“By exploring the history of designers, we find out who we are as designers,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, at a conference on Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. For Van Valkenburgh, who is well-known for his ecological and contemporary campus, park, and residential projects, “standing in the shoes of Farrand and trying to figure out what decisions she would make in new circumstances is both a responsibility and a great pleasure.” He did just that in restoring and expanding upon Farrand’s original landscape architecture at Princeton University.

To understand Farrand’s work at Princeton, he dug into old photos, seeking out “anecdotal photographs of historical precedents.” He found that Farrand, a consulting designer at Princeton, organized the campus around ecology. Partnering with Ralph Adams Cram, the architect of Princeton University’s old stone campus, she created “passages through sequences of courtyard spaces.” Within the courtyards, she orchestrated a “close relationship between building and planting; there was a taut ground plane, no thickets.” Farrand said her goal was to “adapt one’s self to nature’s way.” She was a “lady intolerant of discords and “evoked effects that were subdued.”

Farrand took on a real “trial and error approach,” trying out plants and trees here and there. While “sexist” critics of her day would view this approach as “ding-batty,” Van Valkenburgh said her way was spot-on. She had a way of “going over things again and again.” Through trial and error, Farrand also perfected her “signature practice: training shrubs on building facades.”

She emphasized seasonality. By testing things out, she also sought to understand what a landscape looked like in “autumn, winter, and spring.” She was “big on palettes.” An early trend-setter, she showed a distinct preference for native plants.

“She had a strong interest in the different maintenance capabilities of plants.” Farrand oversaw the creation of tree and plant nurseries on campus and “actively managed what was grown there.”  Van Valkenburgh said Farrand knew that “grounds people aren’t stupid. It really takes a gardener to raise a landscape.”

Working in Farrand’s shadow, Van Valkenburgh tried to figure out what she would do. Blair Walk, the central grand promenade through the campus, was in disrepair. His firm replaced the stone walkway and used “new old plantings,” an act of preservation, which also involved “restarting elements of the design.”

Because the university wanted to widen the walk in some places due to heavier foot traffic, Van Valkenburgh, in his sensitive historical approach, simply kept the original path width, but tacked on permeable pavements at the edges. “She would have gone for this because she was into stormwater management.”

In another project, he pushed the woodlands into the campus. Because the campus had expanded to such a degree – “Farrand would have been shocked by its size” – his team wanted to recreate the original campus’ woodland feel, which had disappeared with its later expansion. “We re-asserted the presence of the woodland at the edge of the campus,” in effect recreating Farrand’s original relationship between campus and environment. (Apparently, some alums didn’t really get this).

For another campus project, he created a subtle new bridge that weaves through nature. There, Van Valkenburgh said, his goal was to “preserve the beauty of the landscape.” Unveiling his design philosophy, he said landscape architects “have made a big mistake by trying to be modern. The beauty of a landscape is in its fragility. If you remove the fragility, you take out the beauty.” Farrand really understood this, and even went one step further, incorporating “irregularities into her designs as a complement to Cram’s buildings. There was a complementarity through contrast and distinction.”

Other speakers at Dumbarton Oaks spoke about Farrand’s legacy: Dennis Bracale, landscape architect and historian, discussed Farrand’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, an oriental garden in Bar Harbor, Maine, that is a mix of Western, Chinese, and Japanese landscapes. She had worked closely with the Rockefellers — who amassed an amazing collection of East Asian art that would later became the founding collection at the Asia Society — creating a garden that traced paths through priceless stone sculptures. The landscape design was based in Chinese spatial relationships and a Japanese appreciation for using found, natural materials. Mrs. Rockefeller had wanted a “spiritual retreat,” which she got. Farrand studied gates and wall designs from Beijing’s Forbidden City and replicated these designs to a tee. The garden, and its surrounding natural landscape made accessible via paths — which Bracale said also mirrors East Asian landscape patterns – was meant to evoke the maxim, “God is in nature.” So we understand yet another side of Farrand’s versatile practice.

Judith Tankard
, a landscape historian, then covered Farrand’s final years in Maine, where she created the Reef Point arboretum and amassed an amazing collection of plants and trees (and tens of thousands of books, which were later donated to U.C. Berkeley). At its prime, the arboretum had some 4,000 visitors a year, but Farrand complained that most visitors were tourists and not real lovers of plants. By the mid-1950s, Farrand realized the arboretum had no future, so she decided to “obliterate” this part of her life by destroying the buildings and landscape, as opposed to letting it fall apart through mismanagement. Forever the perfectionist, Farrand would destroy things that didn’t live up to her standards.

To learn more about Farrand and other women landscape architects in the early twentieth century, check out these books: Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes by Judith Tankard; Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century by Thaisa Way, ASLA; and Women in Landscape Architecture: Essays on History and Practice by Louise Mozingo, ASLA, and Linda Jewell, FASLA.

Image credits: (1) Princeton campus / DLand Studio, (2) Farrand facade / Princeton University, (3) Blair Walk / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (4) Woodland expansion / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (5) Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden / Fine Art America

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After years of controversy and lawsuits, and then a judge’s ruling in 2004 that allowed the Barnes Foundation to move out of Merion, Pennsylvania, and into the heart of Philadelphia, the new home of one of the world’s finest museums finally opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway last May. The effect of the new building and landscape on Philadelphia is significant. The new 4.5-acre museum seems to raise the quality of the parkway and the city’s cultural offerings almost single-handedly. While the museum building by Todd Williams and Billie Tsien has rightfully received almost universal rave reviews, the landscape architecture got short rift in the major press (as always), perhaps with the exception of the The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s coverage. Their loss: the story about the new landscape architecture by Philadelphia-base landscape architecture firm OLIN is about as fascinating as the story about the new building.

The original home of the amazing art collection assembled by Dr. Albert Barnes, and obsessively arranged and rearranged by the doctor in his final years, was his summer estate, which was later turned into a museum and arboretum. While much has been made of how Barnes’ precise arrangements of art — which involve mixing French modern masters with Asian and African works — were exactly replicated in the new museum, and set against the same canvas background, in rooms with the same proportions, little was discussed about how the original grounds and arboretum guided the new landscape architecture that now provides a frame for the new museum and art. OLIN writes that “it’s impossible to replicate the expanse and full character of a suburban estate on a relatively small urban parcel of land in the heart of Philadelphia, yet the landscape design for the new Barnes Foundation has created a group of spaces of varying size and character that are planted in contrasting and complimentary manner to the institution’s location and to each other so as to offer rich sensory experiences that recall aspects of the historic Merion campus.”

Both architects and Laurie Olin, FASLA, saw this approach as the way to respect the site, while also creating a vital contemporary design for the new spot, which was once the site of a children’s jail. In a work session with Williams, Tsien, and Laurie Olin in Rome, a new plan was developed to offer a “modern geometric structure inside and out, a sequence of spaces moving first one way and then another, that flowed into and through each other, that were large and ample, even stretched, were alternated with smaller, more compressed spaces, then back to spaces that give release.” While creating a new sense of harmony and movement through the site, the team also wanted to make sure they paid “homage to the earlier work of Paul Philippe Cret and the Barnes’s without aping the style and habits of that earlier period.”

Trees found in the original arboretum were then used in the new landscape design. “The planting openly recalls that of Merion and any number of private gardens in the Delaware Valley. Here the trees are a Japanese Cryptomeria, Star Magnolia, and Korean Dogwood along with a number of broadleaf evergreen shrubs, such as Winterberry, English Laurel, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Summersweet, Viburnum, Mountain Laurel — all found in the earlier Arboretum — along with Astilbe, Vinca, Fothergilla, Spirea, Sweetspire, and other ground covers and perennials.” Beyond finding ways to recall the actual landscape design of the original grounds in the new museum, OLIN also looked to the art for inspiration. “Planting selections were made to reflect some of the flora frequently seen in the Impressionist paintings of which Dr. Barnes was such a significant collector.”

Now, the way in. One of the nicest features of the new landscape architecture is the entryway, which feels like a small, contemporary piece of Europe just landed in Philly. As you walk off the parkway, you are greeted by a unique black granite fountain, sleek and contemporary, offset by benches.

Past this fountain terrace, you move either towards a small pavilion, which provides a coat check and service entrance, or meander along a path over a river bedded with rocks to the actual doorway.

The door itself is almost hidden, with the sign for the museum at hip level. Within this entry zone are small trees, with plinths as a backdrop hiding the parking lot beyond.

At the front of the building (facing the parkway), one piece that didn’t seem to fit at first was the raised bed. While it helps break up the building so it doesn’t provide a monotonous facade to the parkway, it seemed jutting, out of place. Upon learning that it’s there to provide a view of greenery for visitors looking out the window and also serve as a visual break so that art gazers don’t just see cars, it did make sense though. As OLIN explains, “this plinth and its planting fulfills several roles. One is to provide a buffer between the multistory tall windows of the south-facing main gallery with its important collection of art and the busy pedestrian and vehicle circulation and events of the Parkway, so as to preserve a desirable calm atmosphere for those in the room with the, allowing them to concentrate on the art without distraction. The other motive is to supply as much green as possible outside the windows without constructing high barriers. Matisse is known to have remarked that the color palette he chose for his now famous Lunette murals of The Dance that were above the south facing windows of Cret’s original structure was in part a response to the green of the garden beyond in the sun.”

Within, the materials are enticing, making the building feel like it can last hundreds of years and not look dated even then. Williams and Tsien incorporated African patterns in the furniture, referring to pieces of Barnes’ collection. Limestone walls seem to begged to be touched. There’s also reclaimed Ipe wood floors — from the old Coney Island boardwalks that were ripped up, no less. This is perhaps the only acceptable use of Ipe given what we now know about how wood is harvested from the Brazilian rainforests. (Designers: try the just-as-good domestic Black Locust). Outdoors, OLIN pays close attention to materials, as always, so the experience feels rich. “Paving in the site is composed either of cut granite or decomposed granite, a natural material that has been selected for its remarkable life cycle cost benefit – the longest that is known or achievable if well detailed and installed.”

All of this was accomplished while also creating a highly sustainable LEED Platinum museum and landscape. The building roofs either have skylights to let in light, solar panels to create energy, or green roofs filled sedum to catch rainwater and insulate the buildings. Around the buildings is a landscape purposefully designed to capture stormwater. Any excess water is steered towards a cistern, which captures stormwater for later irrigation on the site. “Water is directed through planted areas and granular materials to aid in filtering and cleaning it.” And even within the building, there’s a new interior courtyard filled with trees and enclosed in glass. While not accessible to people, the green space provides a glimpse of nature, a brief respite from room after room of art. Even during a tour of the museum in January, the courtyard was bright, refreshing.


There’s also a sheltered outdoor space next to the museum cafe, which is easy to imagine as a swanky event space on a summer night. The space is enlivened by a trio of trees set within a wooden bench and other plantings.

Upon leaving, one of the memorable experiences is actually walking all the way around the building, and seeing how all the new grading, series of trees, and street designs come together for pedestrians. The connection to OLIN’s Rodin museum landscape is especially welcoming, as there seem to be multiple paths leading from the edge of the Barnes into Rodin if that museum’s gates are open.

Towards the south, Logan Circle has also been revitalized. The new Sister Cities park by Studio Bryan Hayes with its fun watery playground and a green roof-covered angular pavilion by Digsau bring a burst of contemporary design to the fairway. The new pavilion with its much-needed cafe is great right next to an old church.

The revitalized fairway then is Philly at its best. The streetscape seems to have gotten as much attention as the new museum and its landscape. Next time you visit, walk from the new Sister Cities Park to the new Barnes Foundation, through it and then around it, and then have a coffee before heading to the Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Fairmount Park. You may find that you just end up doing this anyway. This what you’ve been asked to do — through the design.

Image credits: (1-8) barnes Foundation / OLIN, (9) Sister Cities Park Pavilion / Philly Visitor’s Center

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Lawrence Halprin’s now defunct Skyline Park in Denver gets the full treatment in a new book by Ann Komara, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Colorado, Denver. In more than 140 pages filled with beautiful drawings and photographs, Komara delves into the economic and social trends that spurred the creation of Halprin’s park and led to its eventual decline.

Komara writes that Halprin, who recently died, is one of the most substantial and influential landscape architect of the second half of the twentieth century. His Sea Ranch in Sonoma, California is rightly famous in the design world, while millions of visitors love the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. Halprin, who won innumerable design awards and the highest American presidential medals, also designed the landscape approach to Yosemite National Park.

In this book, it’s his designs and design process for the park, more than his design theories, that we see and understand most vividly. Komara writes: “While a critical appraisal of his legacy is still needed, it is possible to glean insights into his design process, his design expression, and the experimental aspects of his works by taking a closer look at one of his works — Skyline Park.”

Skyline Park came out of urban renewal efforts in the late 1960s in downtown Denver. Occupying a central 100-foot-wide swath of downtown, the 3.2-acre park, which was finally completed in 1976, was seen as a way to create a vital community space in a dense downtown while also boosting commercial activity. The park was one of the first designed to be a “cooling microclimate” in tune with the local natural environment. It’s certainly a prime example of Mid-Century Modern, but in landscape form. The park is almost more sculpture than park, with its “experimental materials, spatial forms, or images.”

Komara is thoughtful about the history and has clearly done her homework, but uses a light touch with all the historical information. She delves into the history of downtown Denver’s development but seems to take off when she gets to Halprin’s design process, which was detailed and intense. Enlivened with drawings from Halprin and his designers, you get a real sense for how Halprin worked with the local development authority and developers and conceptualized, designed, and implemented the park.

At the start, Halprin set the park in its local natural environment. He “studied local landforms and ecologies to create a design for the park that would resonate with Denver residents and visitors.” His notes and drawings show the influence of the Colorado foothill landscape and the sand stone rock formations of the Rocky Mountains. The region’s arroyos, deeply cut streams or channels, which “support cooler, moister micro-climates with indigenous trees and shrubs,” are clearly represented in Skyline Park’s designs.

The park’s rich material palette also refer to Red Rock’s sandstone. “As sandstone itself was deemed too expensive, concrete mixed with a local sandstone aggregate was specified to simulate the stone. A tawny rose color tint was fully blended throughout, and the stone matrix was visible on all surfaces once they have been sandblasted, thus forging the local connection through color and also somewhat through texture.” Halprin and his team also introduced Native American beadwork patterns into the original design, but they were later abandoned.

The park’s overall design also shows Halprin’s unique take on urban renewal. Streets were transformed into “linear spatial structures threaded into a system of pedestrian movements that hold a linear directional flow regardless of where they are entered.” The plazas show how Halprin’s skill in designing public spaces that could provide “nuanced experiences for visitors.”

The mix of trees and signature use of water helped make the place a “connected and unified whole.” “From the consistent planting and the line of street trees to concrete coloration and treatment, from custom lights to trash receptacles,” all worked together to form a new, unique place. The fountains also succeeded in drawing people in. Komara eloquently states: “It was not a traditional park; it was an experience of place, a choreographed sequence of spaces in a sculptural landscape.”  

When the park came online in the mid-1970s, it was celebrated. In a local publication, it was highlighted as among the best Denver had to offer, a “restful spot in the center of a major metropolis.” But Komara says its success may have also ultimately undermined it. As taller buildings came in, this “small yet significant public space” was subsumed. People “desired more from the adjacent park,” calling for its renovation. Komara lists the many “points of vulnerability” that led to its decline: new development messed with the access points so that the surrounding storefronts no longer “activated it;” an “elevated pedestrian system around the park had become “outdated;” a new mall siphoned people off the park; programming and maintenance dropped off; and, lastly, the park had become vulnerable politically, seen as a “haven for young ‘mall rats,’ a destination for the homeless, and a hidden zone for outre behavior such as drug use.” Perhaps equally as important as those other causal factors: the park’s “style,” its design, may also have been come to be seen as outdated. It’s strong sculptural forms “did not mesh with popular conceptions of parks as grassy, leafy, rolling terrain, reminiscent of natural meadows.”

Beginning in the 1990s, the park spurred a debate about how downtown Denver should look. The park had declined (Komara says relatively slowly) and the business community that had once supported the park now actively sought to replace it. As Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) just argued in a recent Huffington Post article, many factors, including the lack of maintenance or programming, can undo masterful Modern landscapes like Skyline. In his intro to this book, he also adds that in contrast to buildings, “landscapes…often die quiet deaths.”

Perhaps with the death of Skyline Park along with the recent demise of Peavey Plaza, more cities will work a bit harder to keep their Modern jewels shining brightly. Who knows? They may come back in style again.

Read the book.

Image credits: (1) Princeton Architectural Press, (2) From the RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment, George Braziller, 1970, (3) Lawrence Halprin & Associates, (4) photo courtesy of Gifford Ewing

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Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, is principal at Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. Smallenberg, who has 20 years of experience leading large and multidisciplinary teams, is one of the most highly recognized landscape architects in Canada.

In Toronto, your firm, Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, just announced the opening of Canada’s first underpass park, a public space that transforms one of the city’s least desirable spots into an asset. The first pieces of the park offer a playground for kids as well as basketball hoops and skateboard ramps for teenagers. Why put a park under a highway? Why design this park for exercise?

There are probably more examples in the United States than there are in Canada, but cities in western societies are littered with spaces that can only be considered incidental. They’re leftover pieces of the urban fabric. They’re generally a result of urban infrastructure — and usually some form of transportation infrastructure — that ran amok in the ’40s,’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Cities have been faced with all sorts of these leftover spaces ever since.

With respect to the park we developed under an overpass in Toronto, the site was centered within a newly redeveloping community that Waterfront Toronto is putting forward called the West Don Lands. So it needed to be easily traversed and it had to be done safely and securely. We felt why not actually make it interesting fun and give it some community use? Together with Waterfront Toronto, the idea was born that the space would become a park, in large part just to take advantage of the free weather protection. In Toronto, there are not a lot of places where you can play basketball, or go skateboarding 12 months of the year without getting soaking wet or covered with snow. So the project was really  about turning something that most people looked at as a constraint into an opportunity. Now, that it is partially complete — for some weird reasons — it’s achieving celebrity status in the City of Toronto.

The park is being developed in two phases. The first phase is complete. The second phase is under construction. The first phase is primarily underneath the influence of the overpasses. There’s a couple of openings in the overhead structure that have allowed us to create a softer kind of landscape with trees that humanize this space, but for the most part, it’s a space that doesn’t get a lot of light or any rain and so the solution was a hard surface one where we put in largely recreational opportunities that could best take advantage of this obvious design response. At the same time, we created enough flexible space within the first phase so there could be a farmer’s market, informal performance theater and the likes. The second phase, that will be complete by spring of 2013, is much greener. It’s almost out from underneath the overpasses—so, lots of trees, community gardens, etc. When the park is read as a whole, it’s going to feel like there’s a good balance between recreational and passive park space, hard surface and soft surface.

We have been working with the Planning Partnership from Toronto in the detailed design of the entire West Don Lands public realm. In addition, Michael Van Valkenburgh’s firm has been central to the open space of the West Don Lands, designing the Don River Park, and a smaller space called River Square. All of the public realm pieces, under the direction of Waterfront Toronto, are flowing well together to create a bigger whole. The program offering of Underpass Park is just one component of a much larger basket of public amenities that are unfolding throughout the whole community.

Your firm has played a major role in the rebirth of the Toronto waterfront. With the latest contribution being Sherbourne Common, a fascinating hybrid: a park that is both a water treatment plant and public space. Visiting the park, I noticed how the infrastructure can’t be separated from the park. How was the park designed to be both infrastructure and public space? How well does it function as a neighborhood water treatment facility?

Early on, we were involved in the precinct planning of East Bayfront, the area that Sherbourne Common sits in. We worked with Koetter Kim, an architectural firm out of Boston. They were responsible for the built form. We were responsible for the public realm. We put together a plan that essentially took this brownfield site along a fairly disused portion of the Toronto waterfront and created a plan for a new neighborhood, which was, again, part and parcel of the whole Waterfront Toronto vision.

In this work, we were able to order the community both by circulation and open space. The open spaces took on different roles. For example, Claude Cormier’s park called Sugar Beach, which just won an ASLA award this year, is part of that. West 8 / DTAH has done a waterfront promenade and they’re building a significant streetscape along Queen’s Quay that will run right through the central waterfont and the East Bayfront community.

Sherbourne Common was intended to be the heart of this new waterfront community. It needed to be many things to many people. Interestingly, because the park is an example of building public realm in advance of private development, when it was completed it appeared somewhat alien because there was nothing around it. It’s still a bit desolate in the area but very quickly evolving. A commercial office building promoting film and media was recently completed and, directly adjacent to the park, a new 3,000 student university college has just opened its doors. Hines Development out of the States is in the process of developing a significant residential and mixed use component, which is directly east of the park, so, eventually, the park is going to be bracketed by all of this really interesting and meaningful community development. It’s going to be surrounded by commercial, educational, residential, and retail, which was always the plan from the beginning. This multi-use type of new community development is going to be different than anything we’ve seen in Toronto.

Sherbourne Common was intended to be the big green heart of the community. In terms of design, it’s centered around the idea of sustainability. It’s actually one of the first LEED-rated parks in Canada. We decided early on that we wanted to do something about stormwater. In the East Bayfront planning process the idea was that we would collect all of the stormwater within the community, and, ultimately, figure out what we were going to do with it. We weren’t going to just deposit it into the city storm sewers. That wasn’t on. This was a new twenty-first century community.

When West 8 came into the planning for the central waterfront in about 2006, they had developed this idea for the water’s edge, which includes what they have built now — this hard surface promenade, and, in the future, a floating or slightly-stepped boardwalk going the full length of the East Bayfront community. Underneath the boardwalk is planned a series of connectedbox culverts that will accept all of the storm water from the whole of East Bayfront. So, generally speaking, all of this water will move by gravity from the developing area into these containment culverts along the water’s edge where sediment will filter out and eventually the water will come back into the park.

From there it travels through one of the most sophisticated UV treatment systems in the Canada if not the world. The water travels up and through the dramatic art sculptures by Jill Anholt, which you would have seen when you were in Toronto and then into biofiltration beds, taking out most of the remaining contaminants. The water eventually makes its way back into the lake in a very clean state.

The intention from the very beginning is that there wouldn’t be a dividing line between design and disciplines. First and foremost, this is landscape architecture, but it was done in a way that collaborated with artists, architects and engineers. PFS, as a firm, is always trying to do this. Landscape architecture, as a profession, is hopefully trying to do this. You do get mixed results when one discipline takes over or something else happens to skew the balance, but in Sherbourne Common, the balance was there. The engineers were very creative. The architect was very creative. The artist was very creative. PFS set out the concept andthe others plugged in all of their resources to making this thing a reality. It’s almost impossible to see where the engineering starts or where the landscape architecture ends because we intentionally wanted boundaries blurred. The same holds for the art and the architecture. So from that perspective, it’s a huge success for us.

Do you think, given the incredible lack of space in cities and the increasing value of that space, more urban, public spaces need to be like Sherbourne Common and double as infrastructure? Is this the model for urban parks of the future? What are the challenges to this approach?

I think it’s one model for some urban areas. If you can see an opportunity where you can ride on the back of an infrastructure project or an infrastructure need, why not? In Canada, the budgets that are put forward for things like sewers and roads are exponentially greater than any budget put forward for landscape. Yet, these kinds of projects can go hand-in-hand. So why not piggyback on budgets like that? Why not make something that isn’t a hindrance or a distraction in the community? If you can make it fantastic, usable, and beautiful, why not do it?

There is a real opportunity here. There’s leftover urban infrastructure everywhere and there’s all sorts of new urban infrastructure projects coming on line. Urban open space is scarce and you just don’t find many conventional open space opportunities anymore because cities are built up. The tastier bits are all gone. We have to be really creative in how we look at opportunities.

A number of other works by your firm elegantly repurpose historical buildings and landscapes, reusing sites, but making them contemporary in the process. I was struck by the Canadian Embassy in Rome, Bellevue City Hall in Washington State, as well as Coal Harbour, the historic seawall in Vancouver. Please explain how you translate cultural landscapes– large and small– significant or not– into new works.

We’re very interested in cultural landscapes and there are different ways you can look at this..a the artifact or the ritual. Personally, I’m more interested in the rituals. In other words, the things that have happened in places that we’re asked to take a look at as opposed to the artifact. They’re both important, but I think ritual is more important.

We’re very respectful of historic properties, but we will always look for a way to put a contemporary layer on any sort of historic site or project that we’re asked to come into. From our perspective, that’s the way you actually make places relevant. You need to design for the next generation. The next generation has to feel like they’re a part of it. If there’s no relevance, then they will eventually lose interest. And, ultimately, there will be a loss of the synergy that happens between users and these spaces.

In the case of Coal Harbour, it was built largely on reclaimed land. We were very interested in  tracing the old shoreline. We did it in a way that recalled some of the area’s natural processes, the scouring of the sandstone cliffs by the ocean and the granite lenses that were revealed in this process. We designed a wall in Harbour Green Park that in subtle ways picks up on this.

With respect to the Canadian Embassy in Rome, its located on a vestige of an old villa estate in Rome near the Villa Borghese. It’s called the Villa Grazioli. There’s a lot of history there. The building itself is an eighteenth century Tuscan-style villa that was renovated to accommodate the Canadian Embassy. They had pretty much finished the villa and realized that the grounds, which took up a little under five acres of property, had been ignored during the restoration. Our firm was called in to design a plan for the grounds that could do two things: appreciate what was there before in terms of historic patterns and uses and recognize that there would be a whole new program that had to be established on that site. The challenge was how to weave those two things together.

This project was on a fast track and I went to Rome several times over the course of a year. I worked hand-in-hand with clients and contractors there through a daily ritual of sketching then meeting then re-sketching. It wasn’t a design-build, but at times it felt that way, when I would go out there and work with these amazing Italian craftsmen. For me just the process was about appreciating and understanding a cultural landscape.

In Grounded, a new book on your firm’s work, you said, “Green is the future, and landscape architects are critical to meeting the challenge of green cities in the broadest sense.” What is a green city? Getting specific, what do landscape architects need to do to occupy a central role in creating this green, urban future?

Everybody has a take on green cities. There’s a different perspective whether you’re a planner, architect, or landscape architect. To me greening a city just means optimizing land and resources in a way that makes a city livable. To optimize it, it seems to me that you need to have a lot of people onboard. If you want to make a city green, it’s got to be a true collaboration. And it starts with politicians and local administration. Then, you have to have smart architects designing really smart buildings. You need great engineers designing and building fantastic transit. And you need landscape architects that are able to hold the whole thing together.

Ian McHarg nailed it years ago when he talked about how critical it was that cities understand there were these natural processes all around them and that they were a part of, and that you had to draw these processes through the city and make them real. Then, 20 years later, Jan Gehl talked about a city’s vibrancy, which got better and better with increasing social interaction and integration. For me he’s essentially talking about  people bumping into one another, striking up a conversation, or maybe just observing people with friends and families or getting a sense of what they’re doing or what interests them. I think that these ideas have influenced landscape architects and their approach to green cities. We’ve read McHarg. We’ve read Gehl. And most have read Lewis Mumford, who postulated that cities are ordered through transportation and open space.

You also said the future of cities could belong to landscape architects because people were becoming “weary of the way cities are rolling out or, in some cases, imploding.” What do you mean? As an example, how can landscape architects undo the damage of sprawl?

If we’re trying to undo the damages of sprawl, then we have to make density interesting. We have to make living in the core of the city interesting. Our firm’s from Vancouver. Vancouver has been noted around the world as one of the most livable cities in the world. A lot of that has to do with reengaging the public’s imagination in living in a dense, downtown environment.

For many cities around the world, there was a great exodus out of the core. Cities were left to the offices and some commercial pursuits. In large part, this didn’t happen in Canada to the same extreme it did in American cities, where there was a lot of hollowing out of the centers and there are still many stark reminders of that. What Vancouver ended up doing was coming up with a variety of ways to encourage people to first live in the core, and then when they started living there, to encourage them to shop there, socialize there, raise their kids there. In 25 to 35 years, it’s turned from a uninteresting, fairly unpopulated downtown into one of the most vital downtowns in the world. It’s not Tokyo, Shanghai or New York, but it’s pretty good and was partially achieved through this idea of building optimism and imagination. Landscape architecture, quite frankly, was a huge part of achieving this.

At one point in the book you say that landscape architecture in Canada is still struggling a lot. You argue that landscape architects aren’t flourishing despite the great projects all over Canada. Why is that? What are the main challenges still facing landscape architects? What are the future opportunities?

I kind of regretted saying that in the book. PFS does very well. There are a lot of firms like ours that do very well. And there are lots of successful individual practitioners. But I do think the profession continues to struggle in Canada. I think it still struggles in the U.S.

I’d be very interested in getting into more of a conversation about this with other practitioners in Canada and the U.S. For me, the profession needs to continue getting out from underneath architecture and engineering. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way to those disciplines. We enjoy working with great architects and great engineers. We seek out multidisciplinary approaches in our work. I do know that for some though there is this sense that landscape architects are the butlers or the handmaidens of these larger, more organized, better financed professions. The truth is landscape architects should end up trumping the professions of architecture and engineering. The solutions we collectively bring to bear as landscape architects on urban problems is seen in a much brighter light because people are tiring of the other solutions. I think people aresearching for solutions that reside closer to their hearts. So, in Canada, landscape architects will continue to do well. I’m optimistic about that, but, as a profession, we need to define ourselves a little bit better.

Image credits: (1) Underpass Park / Waterfront Toronto, (2) Underpass Park / PFS, (3) Sherbourne Commons / Tom Arban, (4) Sherbourne Commons / Frederick Moeser, (5) Coal Harbour / Scott Massey, (6) Canadian Embassy in Rome / Giacomo Foti Fotographia

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Beginning in 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright began creating his winter studio and architectural campus Taliesin West, his ode to the majestic Sonoran desert. Still a working architectural college to this day, the place is dramatically different from his urban masterpieces like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and Robie House in Chicago. The buildings are unassuming and seem to purposefully nestle into the cacti-filled landscape.

The campus’ main buildings took four years to build. During that time, Wright, his 3rd wife, and 25 apprentices all slept in tents under the stars. During the first years, there was no well, so water had to be brought in from miles away. On the 640 acre site, Wright left his tent to first build a document vault, then the studio, kitchen, dining and bedrooms. Using wood from local trees to build the frames and quartzite boulders to establish the foundation, the buildings are very low to the ground, and were originally filled with open window frames covered only in canvas. It was only after many years of protest by his wife that glass windows were put in.

Wright thought the glass wasn’t needed because he oriented the spaces to maximize solar and heat gain in the winter and minimize the sun’s glare in the summer. However, he eventually discovered that the glass windows only enhanced the passive solar capabilities of the buildings. Ever careful about how light interacted with interior spaces, Wright used his windows and canvas shades to further control the interplay of light and dark in the interior spaces, diffusing light and bouncing it off the interiors to create more comfortable spaces. So Wright was not only an early innovator in the use of solar passive technologies but also controlling light through shades.

The patios, gardens, building were all set in patterns of 16-foot-square grids, said our tour guide. The interior frames are also all standard sizes so once a visitor figures out the size of the grid and frames, they can quickly figure out total square footage.

Outside, the gardens were meant to deeply complement the buildings and work together as one. Like Richard Neutra’s work, Taliesin West is rooted in its native landscape. You can’t really imagine it elsewhere.

In the gardens that provide middle-grounds between the home and the desert and mountains, Wright’s original landscape architecture, one of his few works of landscape, has been faithfully preserved. In between the view of the home and Papago mountains, there’s a triangular pool, which was created as an amenity, source of comfort in the hot months, and security measure in case of fires. The triangular pool, which also mirrors the triangular shapes of the mountains, is dramatically juxtaposed with a bright red door into the studio and 75-year old Joshua trees. In this space in the early 1950s, the gravel came out in favor of grass.

The desert views Wright, his wife, and workers enjoyed are made even better by the flora and fauna: grand Sagauro cacti and fuzzy Jumping cacti make a dramatic statement and we even saw wild Gambel’s quails running together in the campus. But this landscape is no cultural desert either – it’s been used for thousands of years by the Hohokam indians. Their dense network of canals were basically copied by the settlers who took over their lands.

Wright also oriented the home so that there were distinct breezeways, which provided comfort for those living there. The breezeways double as spaces to enjoy certain perspectives of the mountains. Wright set up a few views of the mountain peaks he loved best.

Moving through one of those breezeways, there’s a central plaza, with gardens filled with native cacti set out on grids. While the space seem designed to be moved through as opposed to inhabited, the guide said Wright constantly used the space for events, reconfiguring the outdoor spaces for garden parties. The guide said Frances Nemtin, one of Wright’s original apprentices from the 1940s is still managing the gardens in keeping with Wright’s original design. The only major change: there had been a set of palm trees but they grew so large architects in residence thought they were messing with the proportions of the site. They were dug up and given to a nearby resort.

According to our tour guide, Wright knew that sprawl would eventually surround his beloved Taleisin West. Until the 1960s, they managed to keep development at bay. Now it’s basically found at the end of a cul-de-sac. Sadly, it’s one of the few remaining intact desert habitats in the broader Phoenix region, which sprawls out some to a gargantuan 1,650 square miles. Our guide said developers are ever swarming over their parcel of nature but always let down when they hear that the entire 550 remaining acres are a National Historic Landmark. Let’s hope it stays that way forever.

Image credits: Ben Wellington, Student ASLA 

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Arcosanti is an experimental town located 60 miles north of Phoenix in the Arizona desert. Architect Paolo Soleri founded Arcosanti in 1970 to test his concept of “arcology,” which is a literal co-joining of the words architecture and ecology. An arcology was envisioned as a hyper-dense city within a building, concentrating the complexity of human settlement into a single, compact structure. Developed as a response to the wasteful and destructive process of suburban sprawl, Soleri describes the arcology as a process of “miniaturization,” a dramatic shrinking of the footprint of human settlement. Viewing urban expansion as fundamentally destructive to the environment, Soleri’s arcology promotes an ecologically harmonious settlement.

Arcosanti was designed as a tiny arcology prototype. Planned to develop into a community of 5,000 people, Arcosanti has only grown to a fluctuating population of around 100, as I learned on a recent tour of the site with Cosanti Foundation president Jeff Stein. Even with its small size, it’s a truly otherworldly place to visit. Consisting of a series of large, mixed-use complexes, Arcosanti describes itself as an urban laboratory where theories can be tested.

The city in the desert is composed of a series of concentric crescents and apses, with living spaces built into the edges of the crescents and open communal spaces in the centers. Benefiting from the high desert climate, these communal spaces are open to nature, designed to maximize beneficial environmental conditions. This arrangement allows the passive heating and cooling: heating is largely accomplished through buildings’ orientation toward the sun. Vents even run from the greenhouse into living spaces, providing an additional source of warmth. Built into the side of a cliff, the moderating properties of the stone help keep the buildings cool in the summer.

In addition to their environmental function, the open spaces within Arcosanti are designed as social spaces. These are spaces are flexible and intended for a variety of uses: the East Crescent is composed of living spaces that trace around the perimeter of an amphitheater, where, during my visit, a theater troupe was preparing a production.

The vaults form another flexible space. The first structures built on the site, the area enclosed by the vaults is used for large events and projects.

Perhaps the most distinctive, and surreal, characteristic of Arcosanti is its economic engine: windbell production. The inhabitants of the arcology work in the apse-enclosed foundry, pouring bronze over handmade clay and sand molds to create bells. Open to the environment and overlooking the stunning desert landscape, this process is unlike anything I have ever seen. Watching clay molds being smashed against the ground, Arcosanti felt lost in time.

Significantly, the production of windbells is not a recent development. In fact, the crafting of windbells is how Soleri has financed his career as a theoretical architect in the first place, and they are largely responsible for funding the construction of Arcosanti. In other words, windbells are not just a source of revenue for Arcosanti, but a fundamental component of the project’s existence.

Arcosanti is a strange and fascinating reaction against suburban sprawl and American car culture. While highly attuned to its environmental context, Arcosanti does not attempt to integrate ecology and settlement (as many contemporary landscape architecture projects do). Instead, it recommends we reduce our environmental impact solely by shrinking our footprint. According to Soleri, who is still active into his 90s, to preserve the natural environment we must leave it alone.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credits: (1) Ben Wellington, (2) Cosanti Foundation, (3-9) Ben Wellington

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The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and Central Park Conservancy are hosting a conference on October 5 in New York City called Bridging the Nature-Culture Divide II: Stewardship of Central Park’s Woodlands. The conference will focus on the challenges involved in crafting a sustainable future stewardship program for Central Park’s woodlands, but also leap off into interesting debates about man and nature in urban parks, tackling issues at the heart of what landscape architects do.

The woodlands, writes TCLF, may appear “feral” but are actually a “historic designed landscape.” In today’s world, with the focus on climate change, TCLF and the Central Park Conservancy wonder what it means to sustainably manage such a seemingly wild place, a landscape Olmsted described as representing “the superabundant, creative power of nature” but found at the heart of a great city.

TCLF writes: “The 843-acre Central Park, originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux, with a succession of additions and refinements by Samuel Parsons, Jr., Michael Rapuano, Gilmore Clarke and others, is also host to 230 bird species, along with turtles, fish, and countless species of butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects.” Focusing in on the park’s great man-made woodlands in particular, TCLF writes that they are “among the most historically significant designed landscapes in the country, they provide valuable refuge for wildlife, and they are a vital recreational resource for New Yorkers.”

But, given these places aren’t wild, how should they be managed? TCLF and the Central Park Conservancy see a new approach: “When we expand our definition of ecology to include people and cultural values and recognize that human activity is part of any ecosystem we touch, the question becomes not ‘how do we strike a balance between nature and culture?’ but ‘how to do we interact with nature in a way that is both meaningful and sustainable?’”  

The one-day symposium will feature panels of officials from New York and San Francisco along with landscape architects and environmental designers from the around the country. The discussion will zoom in on the specific challenges involved in woodland restoration and management in Central Park, but panelists will also look at other cases from around the U.S. exploring design, management, and stewardship, and “how their lessons can be applied to Central Park’s woodlands.” 

TCLF conferences attract some of the best landscape architects, both as speakers and attendees. Moderators and speakers include Christian Zimmerman, FASLA, Vice President for Design & Construction, The Prospect Park Alliance; Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA, Associate Professor, University of Virginia, School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture; Dennis McGlade, FASLA, President/Partner, OLIN; Margie Ruddick, ASLA, Margie Ruddick Landscape; and Keith Bowers, FASLA, Biohabitats. See what they will be discussing in more detail.

Register for the symposium on October 5.

For those who can’t make the conference but will be in NYC, there’s no excuse to miss out on TCLF’s free What’s Out There tours, which follow on October 6-7.  The 25+ tours in all five boroughs are led by landscape architects, designers, and other professionals. TCLF writes: “Some are places we see daily, while others are ‘hidden in plain sight.’” Some great ones include the Noguchi Museum in Queens; The Cloisters in upper Manhattan; Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx; multiple Prospect Park tours in Brooklyn; and Snug Harbor in Staten Island. The Weekend is organized in cooperation with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, the New York chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (NY-ASLA), Archtober 2012, the Central Park Conservancy, the Municipal Arts Society, the New York Restoration Project, New Yorkers for Parks and Open House New York.

Image credit: Central Park Woodlands / TCLF

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By name, Athena Tacha may be little known beyond the art and landscape architecture worlds, but her work is beloved by many, particularly all those who experience her 50 plus public sculptures first hand in cities across the world. In Greece, her home country, a recent 40-year retrospective brought in thousands. The High Museum in Atlanta also did a major retrospective of her work in the late 1980s. But these days, Tacha, who teaches art at a number of U.S. universities, is no longer creating her unique environmental sculptures, which are so closely related to landscape architecture, like she once did — so there’s even greater reason to save one of her masterworks in New Jersey from the wrecking ball.

Created in the mid-1980s in honor of Green Acres — New Jersey’s famed land conservation program — right in front of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection building downtown, her work, also entitled Green Acres, is 77 by 85 feet. It’s an example of “site-specific environmental sculpture,” an art form Tacha helped create. These kinds of pieces are different from land art found out in the wilderness because they are rooted in social contexts, often taking shape in city plazas and other high-trafficked areas.

Tacha out-competed many other artists to get her piece in that place. Winning a competition by the New Jersey State Council for the Arts’ % for Art program, all 1.5 percent of the state’s alloted budget for the environment department building project went to her $417,000 sculpture. 

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which is lobbying to save the project, “The sculpture [...] contains 46 slabs of green granite onto which photographs of state landscapes, plants and animals (many of them endangered species) have been sandblasted. Crescent shaped planters with stepped seating ring the edges and the whole design recalls Roberto Burle Marx’s biomorphic modernism.”

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of TCLF, says a number of experts think the sculpture also works perfectly well with its surroundings. On three sides, there are three 7-story concrete buildings; another side is a lane of Sycamore trees, which act as a buffer to the cemetery next door. The work acts a badge for the building, offering a sense of quietude for the cemetery.  

Unfortunately, Artinfo.com writes, the New Jersey government is no longer feeling it. Larry Ragonese, a representative from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, said: “It’s not that we don’t like it. The intent is just to do something different, something that would characterize what we are preaching and set an example for others.” That something different would be a rain garden designed by environmental protection department staff. (While we applaud public education on green infrastructure, isn’t there a way to accomodate both the historic sculpture and those efforts?)

In April, the New Jersey Treasury Department sent Tacha a letter saying Green Acres was to go by the end of July unless it could be removed on the artist’s own dime. Arguing that the maintenance would be too high and not available in these economic times, the New Jersey Treasury seems at odd with the state’s legislature, which recently appropriated a million for restoration of the courtyard. Seems the crucial piece is that the building’s tenants no longer want it.

Birnbaum told us: “There’s a huge irony here. Some want to tear out an environmental sculpture designed to honor the Green Acres program and send it to the trashheap. It’s a hell of a way to memorialize the program, one of the most respected environmental programs in the U.S.” How could “ripping out the work and replacing it with something new be a good example of sustainable financial practices?” To preserve the sculpture, Birnbaum said Tacha’s career could be “bracketed” so that her work can be “assessed under criteria C of the National Register of Historic Places  — the work of a master.”

The New Jersey Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has also stepped up the pressure, telling the state, “We urge you to reconsider your decisions and investigate the potential to restore the paving that is in disrepair instead of completely removing the art piece.” Richard Bartolone, ASLA, the New Jersey chapter president, also argues that “relocation, one of the suggested options offered to the artist, is completely inappropriate as it is a site-specific sculpture; the etchings of New Jersey flora and fauna are uniquely related to the DEP core mission ‘to protect the air, waters, land and natural resources of the state to ensure the continued public benefit.’ The removal of the art work will result in the loss of this significant and defining work of social art.” Basically, you can’t relocate an art work designed for a special place and have it make sense; the work is also embedded into the ground plane. 

Bartolone concludes: “There are so few significant, socially relevant art works in New Jersey, let alone in our state’s capital. I hope you can understand our frustration with the potential loss of this artwork.”

If you want Tacha’s work to stay, let New Jersey know. Write to: Guy C. Bocage, Deputy Director of the N.J. Department of Treasury, P.O. Box 034, Trenton, NJ 08625-0229. 

Image credit: (1) Athena Tacha, (2) Richard Spear

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On the heels of WalkScore and the new BikeScore, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) just launched its own park rating system: ParkScore. Covering 40 major cities in the U.S., ParkScore enables any park lover to create customized maps for each city, evaluate park access by neighborhood, and determine where parks are still most needed, writes Peter Harnik, ASLA, Director, Center for City Park Excellence at TPL. The goal of the project is to help communities lobby for more parks and better parks. “We hope that city leaders, park providers and park advocates will use the information at ParkScore as a valuable tool to help plan park improvements. Over the long run, a rising ParkScore will mean healthier people, higher property values, and more vibrant and livable communities.”

The new tool ranks the park systems of the 40 most populous U.S. cities on a scale of 0-100, with an easy rating system of 0-5 park benches. The top 10 cities:

1. San Francisco (74.0)
2. Sacramento (73.5)
3. New York (72.5)
3. Boston (72.5)
5. Washington, D.C. (71.5)
6. Portland (69.0)
7. Virginia Beach (68.5)
8. San Diego (67.5)
9. Seattle (66.5)
10. Philadelphia (66)

And the five cities at the bottom of the list:

35. San Antonio (35)
36. Indianapolis (31.0)
36. Mesa (31.0) 
38. Louisville (29)
39. Charlotte (28.5)
40. Fresno (21.5) 

TPL goes into some detail about their methodology. Ratings are determined by data on three factors: “park access, which measures the percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park (approximately a half-mile); park size/acreage, which is based on a city’s median park size and the percentage of total city area dedicated to parks; and services and investment, which combines the number of playgrounds per 10,000 city residents and per capita park spending.”

For access, a ten-minute walk to a public park is defined as a “half-mile to a public park entrance, where that half-mile is entirely within the public road network and uninterrupted by physical barriers such as highways, train tracks, rivers, and fences.” Going through the data, TPL found that 26 percent to 97 percent of the population of a given city lives within the ten-minute range, with a median score of 57 percent. 

To determine acreage, TPL weighted two measures equally: “median park size and park acres as a percentage of city area.” They say that including overall park acreage helped account for the “importance of large destination parks.” City park agencies provided the data for that metric. Median park size was determined to be nearly 5 acres. Data aggregated by TPL shows that park acres as a percentage of the whole city area range from 2.3 percent to 22.8 percent, with a median of 9.1 percent.

For the “services and investment” component, ParkScore awards points based on two equally weighted measures: playgrounds per resident and total spending per resident. “Playgrounds are a basic amenity for any city park system. They also serve as a reliable proxy for the presence of other recreational facilities. In our national sample, playgrounds per 10,000 residents ranges from 1 to 5, with a median of 1.89.” Spending, which is calculated on a three-year average to “minimize the effect of annual fluctuations,” includes federal, state, and local financing. Spending per resident, which could also in part be a proxy for maintenance, ranges from $31 to $303, with a median of $85.

While the methodology covers a lot, in future iterations, we would love to see points offered for aesthetic quality (the quality of park design and maintenance), cultural value, and even ecological value. There has been some debate over how to quantify the benefits of aesthetics and the numbers would clearly be hard to come up with. Perhaps one proxy for design quality would be the number of local, regional, or national design awards a park has won. Or points could be given for positive user survey results on the overall quality of the park’s aesthetic experience. On cultural value, points could be awarded for parks with sites of great historical, cultural, or design value. Francesco Bandarin, head of the UNESCO World Heritage Program, spoke with us about the value of cultural landscapes and the global movement to protect them. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) does much of this work in the U.S. on identifying and preserving cultural landscapes, particularly ones threatened with the wrecking ball. Still, there has been lots of discussion, but no clear metrics on how to determine whether one park has more cultural value than another. Lastly, ParkScore could also begin to factor in ecological value. How well does a city’s parks handle stormwater runoff? How much oxygen does a city’s parks produce? What’s their contribution to biodiversity? One future proxy for this could be the number of Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES)-certified parks in a city. Or park systems could actually begin to collect data on ecosystem services.

TPL invested lots of time and resources in this ambitious, well-produced Web project. But it’s all worth it. As Harnik writes, “parks are important to communities. Close-to-home opportunities to exercise and experience nature are essential for our physical and mental well-being. Studies show that parks can encourage physical activity, reduce crime, revitalize local economies, and help bring neighborhoods together.” It’s clearly worthwhile to measure the incredible value of a city’s parks across every dimension.

Image credit: Trust for Public Land

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It’s not often that a new work of landscape architecture makes it on to the front page of The New York Times, even if it isn’t described as such. In April, that paper ran a story about the successful conclusion to a major local dispute in the Bronx, which had flared up because of the closing of the many parks surrounding the old Yankee Stadium. When the city decided to build a new ballpark on top of the bones of two old public parks and close nearby parks during the construction process, Bronx residents were rightly irate that their parkland had disappeared. The city finally made amends with an ensemble of eight new or restored parks, designed and built at a cost of more than $190 million. The new 10.8-acre Heritage Field ballpark designed by Stantec and Thomas Balsley Associates, which is found across the street from the new stadium and on the site of the old, demolished one, cost $50 million alone, but it may be the best public ballpark ever if you are a Yankees fan.

The New York Times writes: “Nearly every inch, from the pavement stones underfoot to the three natural grass ball fields, has been elaborately designed to pay homage to the Yankees and their celebrated former home. Even the sod is the same that the Yankees, professional baseball’s biggest spender, chose for their new stadium.” That was intentional. According to Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner, “We felt an obligation to deliver superb parks to this community in particular because of the disruption they had to endure.” 

Thomas Balsley, FASLA, the landscape architect who leads Thomas Balsley Associates, says the new public ballpark was built with “extensive community input.” The idea was to commemorate the “history and heritage of the stadium in a vibrant space with broad appeal throughout the seasons.” Stantec’s Gary Sorge, FASLA, Practice Leader, Planning and Landscape Architecture, added: “This is sacred ground for the community and baseball fans all over the world.”

Other projects completed by the same team include Mill Pond Park along the Harlem River and Macombs Dam Park (site of the new Heritage Field), which fans out across from the new stadium. These parks bring back what was lost but also totally reconceive these spaces, making them more flexible and accomodating of multiple uses, as well as more sustainable. The cost of these projects were largely out of the hands of the designers — the numbers grew because of the clean-up challenges. According to The New York Times, the timeline was ultimately extended by a year to deal with the poor soils and left-over structures.

Thomas Balsley Associates clearly thinks the wait was worth it though. The Macombs Dam Park, an adaptive reuse of the old space, now offers “active and passive recreation and fosters social connections and healthy lifestyles. The new park partners with Yankee stadium to bring activity and economic vibrancy to the neighborhood beyond the obvious game days.”  

Heritage Field, the community ball fields, which sits where the old Yankee Stadium once stood, now features lots of commemorative design elements that cost a bundle but tie the site to its illustrious sports history. The New York Times writes: “The city splurged for $1.2 million in commemorative touches to enhance Heritage Field, including $450,000 for a 12-ton chunk of the old Yankee Stadium frieze that has been preserved like the Berlin Wall in one corner. Another stadium relic — a 130-foot-high chimney shaped like a baseball bat — cost $120,000 to refurbish, though it no longer serves a purpose other than as a local landmark. Even the old diamond and outfield have been saved, delineated with five-foot-wide swaths of blue polymer fiber stitched into the sod by a Desso Grassmaster machine that had to be shipped over from the Netherlands.” 

In a non-scientific survey of local residents by the Times, many locals seemed thrilled with the new site. Oldanny Morillo, 18, who plays second base for the nearby Cardinal Hayes High School baseball team, said: “Usually when we run in the outfield, we have to watch for ditches and bird poop, and there’s none of that. Here it’s like a carpet.” 

Now, many want to play in the places where Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle played so many years ago. Apparently, there’s been an explosion in applications from teams who want the “chance to swing a bat on the same site.”

Read the article.

Also, check out another landscape designer who made it into The New York Times. Melissa Potter Ix, ASLA, a principal of SiteWorks, a landscape architecture firm, is now teaching middle school students in Queens how to design the eco-playgrounds the Trust for Public Land is building in five NYC schools.

Image credits: Thomas Balsley Associates and Stantec

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