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Archive for the ‘Public Spaces’ Category

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute

Cities Safer by Design, a report by the World Resources Institute / WRI

Globally, 1.24 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year, with more than 90 percent of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income counties. Traffic-related incidents are the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide, and the number-one leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-29. A response to the United Nations’ declaration to create a “Decade of Action” on improving traffic safety, Cities Safer by Design, a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, offers urban design best practices and real-world case studies both developed and developing world cities can use to put an end to traffic deaths and injuries.

Cities Safer by Design presents five basic urban design elements that create safer travel environments: block size, connectivity, lane width, access, and population density.

Block Size

Safe urban design is about reducing motor vehicle speeds. The faster a driver goes, the more difficult it is for him or her to avoid hitting a pedestrian in their path. Due to less frequent interruptions, larger blocks allow vehicles to accelerate more freely. More junctions means more places where cars must stop and pedestrians can cross. According to the report, to improve safety and walkability, blocks should be 75-150 meters long. If blocks are any larger than 200 meters, mid-block pass-throughs with signals or raised crossings should be added every 100-150 meters.

Smaller block sizes have been successfully implemented in central areas of Shanghai, such as Xin Tian Di, to create more walkable neighborhoods. More Chinese cities that had mistakenly built “super blocks” are starting to apply the same approach.

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A street for pedestrians in Shanghai / Jamie Sinz

Connectivity

The report recommends increasing connectivity to multiples modes of transit in order to decrease travel distances and improve access to destinations. Creating multiple routes for pedestrians and cyclists also helps disperse traffic, discourage car use, and reduce travel time.

Mexico City has also created walkable urban landscapes around its Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system that enables safe bicycle and pedestrian access.

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by  Alejandro Luna

Bikers and BRT passengers outside of the Mexico City Metrobus / EMBARQ by Alejandro Luna

Vehicle Lane Width

The amount of a street devoted to vehicles shapes the amount of street available for pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, parking lanes, and landscape curb extensions. Reducing street widths creates a safer pedestrian experience, because they shorten pedestrian crossing distance and exposure to cars and also slow traffic by “increasing drivers’ perception of impediments.” Again, slower traffic mitigates the potential severity of crashes.

According to the report, evidence from Mexico City shows that as the maximum pedestrian crossing distance at an intersection increases by 1 meter, the frequency of pedestrian crashes increase by up to 3 percent. Other studies highlighted in the report show the most significant relationship to injury crashes is street width and street curvature. As street width widens, crashes per mile per year increase exponentially.

Access to Destinations

According to the report, neighborhoods should be designed to include transit, parks, schools, and stores within walking distance, which is defined as 0.5-kilometers. Having a variety of destinations in neighborhood clusters encourages people to meet close to home, decreasing the need for vehicular travel and improving overall safety.

In the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City, the prevalence of shops and public spaces encourage walking while discouraging vehicular traffic. Recalling an earlier area before sprawl took over the city, Coyoacan’s cobbled streets lead to garden plazas where street vendors gather.

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Santa Catalina Plaza and Church located on Avenida Sosa in the Coyoacan borough of Mexico City / Thelmadatter

Population Density

A 2009 study cited in the report found that for an increase in density of 100 persons per square mile, there was a 6 percent reduction in injurious crashes and a 5 percent reduction in all crashes after controlling for vehicle miles traveled, street connectivity, and land use. In contrast to more sprawling cities, high-density cities not only reduce the need for vehicle travel, but also reduce the need for their associated infrastructure, such as roads and sewers.

Tokyo has successfully developed high-density mixed-use neighborhoods near rail and bus stations. According to the report, Tokyo has a traffic fatality rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents. Compare this rate to Atlanta, Georgia, one of the most sprawled-out cities in the U.S., which has 9.7 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents.

Street in Jiyugaoka,Tokyo

Street in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo / Cozyroom_mimi (Flickr)

With the percentage of the world’s population living in cities expected to hit 70 percent by 2030, reducing traffic fatalities from unsafe streets should be a priority. Safer streets also increase the quality of life for urbanites, particularly for those in developing countries. WRI’s report shows policymakers, urban designers and planners, and landscape architects what works: designing for pedestrian safety means improving urban health and sustainability overall.

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Floating Pool Lady, NYC / Inhabitat

Before the industrial boom that transformed waterfront cities into dirty manufacturing hubs in the 19th and 20th centuries, urbanites would take a dip in the rivers, harbors, lakes, and oceans that are a part of many cities to cool off in hotter months, enjoying a break from the steamy weather. But as these water bodies that served as conduits for cities became increasingly polluted, only the bravest or perhaps poorest swimmers would dare go in. Today, as smart cities reclaim their riverfronts as places for recreation and invest heavily in improving water quality, they are getting closer to turning their aquatic resources back into the natural swimming pools they once were.

Some cities still aren’t there with water quality, so they use floating pools in barges, which keep the river and pool water separate. In South Bronx, New York City, Baretto Point Park, which was transformed from a toxic brownfield into a park, became home to the Floating Pool Lady, a floating barge-pool in the East River, in 2008.

And in Berlin, a wooden footbridge filled with hammocks leads swimmers out to the 30-meter-long barge-pool Arena Badeschiff. There is a small cafe and bar where Berliners can hang out after playing volleyball.

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Arena Badeschiff / Berlin Circus

A more ambitious new wave of offshore pools aims to use river water for these offshore pools, but filtering out pollutants first. In NYC, + Pool seeks to create a 200-feet wide by 200-feet long pool in a plus-sign shape; its walls will filter out pollutants using a system of membranes set right into the East River. The plus-sign shape will enable greater flexibility: the pool can be separated into four different segments for separate audiences, combined into an Olympic-length swimming pool, or opened up into a big free-for-all space. Earlier last year, they began testing a pilot membrane in the river to evaluate its performance against different conditions over 6 months.

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+ Pool / + Pool

And Studio Octopi proposes the same thing in the Thames River in London, with their Thames Baths, which will also form a swimming pool out of river water, filtering pollutants with a bio membrane. But they imagine a more natural setting than + Pool. “Imagine swimming in the river, surrounded by reeds that frame tantalizing views of the city around you. The Baths are not just for swimmers, but provide refuge and habitat for fish, birds, and a wide range of flora.”

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Thames Bath / Studio Octopi

Both + Pool and Studio Octopi are relying on grants and kickstarter campaigns to make their filtration-enabled pools, which will be managed by non-profit organizations, possible. + Pool has raised more than $250,000 but needs about $15 million.

While these floating pools are certainly great amenities, the most sustainable long-term solution will be to simply clean up these polluted bodies of water so urbanites can safely swim in them once again. This is what Copenhagen achieved in 2008. The city then took advantage of its newly-cleaned-up harbor with Harbor Baths, a set of designed pools that make their waterfront even more accessible. Locals get to it via pedestrian and bicycle paths that wind along the waterfront. And there’s even a heated bath in the complex for winter bathing.

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Harbor Bath / Kibisi

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Harbor Bath / Visit Copenhagen

A floating wooden deck created by Danish architecture firm BIG and JDS features a fantastic diving board, so locals can jump right into the safe harbor sea water.

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Harbor Bath / Hotels We Love

The pool is also free of charge to all Copenhageners. Now, this is the idea.

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The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design / University of Washington Press

The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design / University of Washington Press

If landscape architect Richard Haag had stopped with Gas Works Park and Bloedel Reserve in Seattle, Washington, “these two projects alone would have assured his place in American landscape architectural history,” Marc Treib asserts in the forward to the new book, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design, by Thaïsa Way, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Yet these two projects are but a fragment of the works that have earned him fame in the realm of urban ecological design. In the book, Way places Haag’s nearly five decade-long careers as a landscape architect, activist, and teacher in the context of the “changes in the practice of landscape architecture” in the U.S over the same time period, ultimately providing a lens through which landscape architects can study urban ecological design.

The book is organized both thematically and chronologically, starting with Haag’s humble upbringing in rural Kentucky. Haag’s family was closely tied to the land in their agrarian community of Jeffersontown, and the legacy of successful farmers and growers there “shaped Haag’s view of the world as he has described it: living and working with nature as a lover.” This mindset intersected with an increasing focus on the scientific understanding of ecological processes that was taking hold in profession just as Haag began learning about it. His curiosity about landscape architecture led him to academia. But despite his extensive education at the University of Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design — as well as his apprenticeships under Modernists Hideo Sasaki and Dan Kiley — Haag remained true to his roots. As Way states, he has been known to frequently quip that one should “never trust a landscape architect without mud on his shoes.”

Haag on a tractor / Washington University PRess

Haag on a tractor / University of Washington Press

Perhaps much of Haag’s success can be attributed to the many contrasts he created for himself in his professional life. Though he had a deep tie to his rural hometown, and always sought to return to it, he pursued his interests in Japanese design through a Fulbright scholarship. Way’s portrayal of Haag’s time in Japan is enough to convince any budding landscape architect to study in Kyoto. He then jumped on the bandwagon of California residential design in the early 1950s and finally headed to the Pacific Northwest where he made a name for himself.

He is portrayed throughout the book as a highly adaptable individual whose design style closely follows suit. Way notes that Haag’s teachings in the classroom at The University of Washington, where he founded the landscape architecture department, emphasized landscape architecture as not only a profession, but a life perspective. “In the 1960s, the practice of landscape architecture as a civic engagement that addressed growing concern for the environment and cultural practices offered one of the most exciting opportunities in any design field,” Way writes.

Richard Haag teaching "Poetic Response." Drawing by Laurie Olin for the College of Architecture and Urban Planning yearbook, 1960-61 / Washington University Press

Richard Haag teaching “Poetic Response.” Drawing by Laurie Olin for the College of Architecture and Urban Planning yearbook, 1960-61 / University of Washington Press

Though Way states it was not necessarily her intention to celebrate Haag’s work, it is difficult not to celebrate a landscape architect who has made such significant contributions to the field. Of the many projects highlighted in the book – entire chapters are dedicated to Gas Works Park and Bloedel Reserve – some of the Haag’s more fascinating and less recognized contributions are his dedication to the Pacific Northwestern landscape and his use of landform as art.

With his interest and training in Japanese design, Haag was uniquely suited to practice in the Pacific Northwest where there was a Japanese character to both the architecture and landscape architecture. Haag has created hundreds of residential gardens in the Pacific Northwest from Seattle to Vancouver to Portland, Oregon. While these gardens are not only expressive of Pacific Northwestern regionalism, they are also reflective of Haag’s own design intentions. The result is an identity intrinsic to both the landscape and the designer. To say it another way: Haag was inspired by the Pacific Northwest, and the style we now consider pervasive there is undoubtedly Haag-inspired.

As fascinated as Haag was by the idea of public place as democratic space, the art of form-making with earth was of equal importance to him in its ability to shape spatial experience, ecological process, and convey infinite narratives. One of his most dramatic use of land forms before the great mound at Gas Works Park was at Jordan Park in Everett, Washington. Using five thousand cubic yards of sand from the recently dredged marina, Haag experimented with this remove-and-reuse process that he would later refine at Gas Works Park. Though the park was demolished in 2008 with the intention to develop the site for mixed residential use, its memory provides a replicable example of one of Haag’s most iconic design approaches: “One man’s waste is another man’s treasure.”

Richard Haag's Jordan Park in Everett, Washington / Washington University Press

Richard Haag’s Jordan Park in Everett, Washington / Washington University Press

Though his work is not entirely finished, his legacy is already well established. Even at 90, Haag still continues to practice in Seattle. His work continues to provide an alternative to a profession that often still struggles to move away from its perception as a “luxury-oriented practice of garden design.”

If anything, Haag’s thinking and experimentation related to remediation and reclamation will only become increasingly important to a post-industrial society, making this book, and a deeper consideration of his novel design thinking, a necessity for all landscape architects.

Read the book.

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30 Years of Emerging Voices / Princeton Architectural Press

30 Years of Emerging Voices / Princeton Architectural Press

The Emerging Voices Award was created in 1982 by the Architectural League of New York to showcase the work of early- to mid-career American architects, landscape architects, and urban designers. Each year, through an invited competition, a jury selects practitioners or firms with a “significant body of realized work that represents the best of its kind and has the potential to impact the future of architecture and landscape design.” 30 Years of Emerging Voices: Idea, Form, Resonance, a new book by the Architectural League of New York, documents and assesses the first three decades of the League’s Emerging Voices program, highlighting firms that have been recognized for their innovation, insight, and influence.

Organized chronologically by year of submission and interspersed with essays by leading design critics, this book is a true reference, valuable as a comprehensive snapshot of the past three decades of design. The Emerging Voices award is unique in that it recognizes professionals who are no longer students, but are not yet “fully mature practioners.” As Ashley Shafer, an associate professor of architecture at the Ohio State University, states in the book’s first essay, this career phase often gives way to work that is “idealistic, experimental, and formally clumsy on occasion.” While some of the work in the book may have been “dismissed as hypothetical, utopian, or even naïve,” it’s work we now look at with appreciation.

Take for example Steve Holl’s Bridge of Houses proposal for the then-abandoned High Line in Chelsea, Manhatttan, which was recognized among several of Holl’s other projects with the 1982 Emerging Voices Award. The firm’s proposal for the disused High Line was to construct many different houses over the rail. Each villa is, in itself, a slightly different looking bridge that provides pedestrian passage. While the ambitious project was merely conceptual, it served as a precedent for James Corner Field Operations’ High Line park, which was recognized with the award in 2001 and is also featured in the book. While seemingly unrelated projects, “a host of newly created buildings” engage the High Line as was intended by Holl almost two decades earlier.

Bridge of Houses, New York, NY, proposal, 1979 / Steve Holl Architects via Princeton Architectural Press

Bridge of Houses, New York, NY, proposal, 1979 / Steve Holl Architects via Princeton Architectural Press

The same phenomena is true of Reiser + Umemoto’s 1995 design for Yokohama’s International Port Terminal, which was recognized by the Architectural League of New York in 1996. The complex network structure for the building seemed fantastical and impossible to construct at the time of its conception. However, Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto’s Taipei Pop Music Center, which is arguably just as structurally complex as their design for the International Port Terminal, is currently under construction. While many of their ideas were considered outside the realm of possibility in the mid-late 90’s, Reiser + Umemoto’s designs became not only feasible, but well-received, at the turn of the 21st century.

Taipei Pop Music Center Competition images / Reiser + Umemoto via E-architect

Taipei Pop Music Center Competition images / Reiser + Umemoto via E-architect

While the majority of the book is devoted to architects, several landscape architects are also featured, including Susannah Drake, FASLA, Dlandstudio; Chris Reed, FASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism; Elana Brescia, ASLA, and Kate Orff, ASLA, SCAPE; Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, and Douglas Reed, FASLA, Reed Hilderbrand; Ken Smith, FASLA, Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect; and Julie Bargmann, ASLA, D.I.R.T. Studio.

Bargmann was one of the first, if not the first, landscape architect to be recognized with the award when she won in 2000. While she has since gone on to design many recognizable projects, such as MASS MoCa in North Adams, Massachusetts, and the Urban Outfitters Headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2000, she was best known for her work at the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. This regenerative project transformed an industrial icon into a model of twenty-first century sustainability through the use of ambitious ecological systems, creating “a new model of environmentally integrated manufacturing.” Bargmann is a true example of the kind of practitioner the award seeks to recognize — someone who has been a novel thinker from the beginning of her career and has made this innovation a career-long pursuit.

Ford River Rouge / D.I.R.T Studio

Ford River Rouge / D.I.R.T Studio

The most recent landscape architect featured in the book is Susannah Drake, Dlandstudio, who was recognized with the award in 2013. Applauded for her unique voice in projects like BQ Green and Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, both in Brooklyn, New York, Drake has quickly proven that interdisciplinary design is the way of the future. Each of Dlandstudio’s projects emphasizes the integration of ecology, infrastructure, and design at the urban network scale — using the United States’ largest city as a primary testing ground for new ideas in a way few firms have dared to try.

BQ Green: Reviving South Williamsburg / Dlandstudio

BQ Green: Reviving South Williamsburg / Dlandstudio

Focused on firms and individuals who have tested limits and pressed the design profession forward, rather than those who are solely focused on making names for themselves, 30 Years of Emerging Voices is a unique book in its genre, prioritizing innovation over recognition and setting the stage for design breakthroughs to come.

Read the book.

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Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

During the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City constructed a massive transportation system, layering elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines to create the complicated web we are familiar with today. While this network has undoubtedly contributed to NYC’s physical and economic growth, it has also provided an untapped public asset: 700 miles of unused space (nearly four times the size of Central Park) beneath the city’s elevated transportation infrastructure.

In a comprehensive new report resulting from a two-year-long study, the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) highlight sustainable ways to rethink these residual spaces. Addressing complex problems such as noise, safety, and lighting, the new study builds off of the success of the Design Trust’s 2002 study, Reclaiming the High Line (“the study that catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the decommissioned rail line”). The result is a comprehensive document intended to inspire public and private investment in some of the city’s most neglected public spaces.

In an introductory essay that discusses New York’s elevated railways (or “els”), Thomas Campanella, an associate professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, frames the importance of the study, stating: “The demesne of the elevated— I’ll call it “el-space” here— is neither tranquil nor serene, but it’s not without poetry. The root of its allure is the close juxtaposition of human life and heavy industrial infrastructure.”

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

In many ways, the elevated railroad is a relic of an age before zoning when people, especially the poor, were forced to live in hazardously close proximity to the factories where they worked. And while the els remains popular today — particularly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — Campanella claims that the fact that el-space “is almost universally described as dark and oppressive is an inaccurate cliché.” The quality of light beneath elevated tracks can be “exquisite” and the sense of enclosure created by the columns “yields an effect reminiscent of an avenue of mature trees … a kind of sturdy steampunk Elm Street.” Such sentiments are the first inklings of design inspiration the study provides.

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Focusing in on elevated train lines rather than elevated highways, which are more relevant in other U.S. cities, the Design Trust for Public Space first assessed the inventory of existing el-space to identity opportunities and constraints. Surprisingly, these opportunities and constraints have largely remained unchanged since the 1960s when Jane Jacobs called attention to them in her seminal book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. These physical structures divide low-incomes neighborhoods and produce noise, darkness, and dirt; on the other hand, the els have also brought people, commerce and cultural vibrancy to these areas. The call is the same now as it was then: Reconnect communities divided and affected by elevated infrastructure and turn these el-spaces into a positive resource.

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Map of Elevated Transit Infrastructure in New York City / The Design Trust for Public Space

So, in 2014, 146 year after the construction of the first el, is NYC any closer to reclaiming these spaces? The study explores the potential uses of el-spaces from site strategies to their associated policies, relying heavily on research and case studies from across the country to inspire designers, planners, and policymakers to action. The good news is that many of these spaces are already being reclaimed for a variety of public uses. Potential uses highlighted in the study include:

Environmental Sustainability

In Flushing, Queens, the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, invented by DLANDstudio, uses a low-cost, flexible, plant-based system to collect and filter stormwater from drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This system absorbs and filters pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, and grease out of the water that drain off of the elevated highways, leading to cleaner runoff entering the city’s waterways. The system’s ability to retain water during heavy rain events also helps reduce flooding.

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio

Parks

In 2002, the redesign of Queens Plaza was one of the first comprehensive el-space improvement projects in New York City. A group of designers and engineers was selected to transform Queens Plaza into Dutch Kills Green, a new park with well-lit green pathways in the heart of the Long Island City commercial district. In an article for Urban Omnibus, the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, ASLA, says that “rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in Dutch Kills Green, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.”

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space

Markets

In 2011, the New York City Economic Development Council (NYCEDC) and the City Council combined forces to modernize underutilized market space, add new retail space, and construct a kitchen incubator underneath the Park Avenue elevated train station between 115th and 116th Streets in El Barrio. Despite significant public investment in the area, “the new La Marqueta has struggled to attract visitors and retain retailers.” Yet just a block north of La Marqueta at 116th Street, salsa dancers have congregated under the tracks every Saturday evening in the summer months for years. In an attempt to revive the informal spirit the market once had, City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito launched La Marqueta Reto (La Marqueta Reblooms) in 2014, an initiative to bring street vendors, a farmers market, and other community events back into the space.

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times

Transportation

Before New Lots Triangle Plaza in East New York, Brooklyn, was completed in 2011, subway riders exited from the train onto a narrow sidewalk with minimal protection from oncoming traffic. NYC Department of Transportation worked with the New Lots Avenue Triangle Merchants Association to join an 800-foot traffic triangle with nearby sidewalks and the exit of the three elevated train lines to create a 3,800-square-foot public space that is protected from traffic by decorative planters. According to the NYC DOT, the plaza has made the area safer for pedestrians and created “an immediate impact on business by encouraging pedestrians to linger longer in the area and visit businesses, boosting the local economy.”

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New Lots Triangle Park / Streetsblog NYC

In a dense city like New York, residual spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought — and these spaces in NYC are only a small piece of the more than 7,000 miles available for reclamation in cities across the country. The Design Trust for Public Space report further emphasizes the need for adaptive reuse of these spaces, looking at the infrastructure that gets us from point a to point b and creating a much-needed public space as point c.

Purchase the report.

Several years ago ASLA created an animation to introduce people to the concept of reusing transportation infrastructure as public spaces, including underpass parks. The video, which is a part of Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), can be viewed below:

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ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. HtO Park by Claud Cormier and Associates, Janet Rosenberg and Studio and Hariri Pontarini Architects / Niel Fox

With the cultural and ecological context of Toronto established in part one, the second half of The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s (TCLF) Leading with Landscape symposium asked landscape architects to offer perspectives on their efforts to create a more resilient city. Conference co-organizer Jane Amidon, ASLA, professor, Northeastern University, pointed to the ingredients that could be used to make Toronto a model for the rest of the continent: the city’s ravine network, the vibrant waterfront, the breadth of public space, the high-profile place-making, and the committed design community that believes investing in landscape architecture can transform Toronto for the better.

A number of landscape architects working in Toronto described landscape architecture projects shaping the city:

Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal, Claude Cormier + Associes Inc., presented the HtO waterfront, which his firm produced in partnership with Janet Rosenberg and Studio (see image above). The designs draw inspiration from Toronto’s industrial past, but also refer to the work of painter Georges Seurat as they incorporate contemporary ideas of form and use. The undeniable pop sensibility of Cormier’s designs creates iconic landscape moments. The development that followed these waterfront parks has been tremendous and is a testament to the power of landscape architecture.

Marc Ryan, principal of Toronto-based Public Work, presented the evolution of development from the Lake Ontario waterfront to the Don River and, now, the active port lands to the west. Ryan’s analysis showed how a collaborative spirit can be created through an extensive public process. The resulting exercise produced new landscapes that allow for the city and port to connect.

Elizabeth Silver, a landscape architect with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), spoke of the firm’s recent work at Corktown Common, a park in the West Dons Land neighborhood, that shows how landscape architecture can boost resilience and attract people at the same time: the Common provides 16 acres of flood absorption at the mouth of the Don while the recreational portion of the site offers adventure playgrounds amid a constructed stormwater-fed wetland. The park is in part a response to the city hosting the upcoming Pan Am Games; but as the area around the park develops, it will become a community anchor in itself.

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Corktown Common / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Bruce Kuwabara, a leading Canadian architect and partner at KPMB Architects, noted how the past decade has led to many high-quality public spaces. He provoked the audience to imagine what “leading with landscapes” actually means and think about Toronto as an evolving city that can serve as a model of this landscape-forward development.

Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, principal, West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture, provided a deeply personal presentation outlining his process of distilling a Canadian or Torontonian culture into the physical design. Geuze spoke of the urban renaissance currently underway in Toronto and noted that it’s primarily landscape architecture that is improving livability and spurring investment. He emphasized that the profession should not divorce itself from the social needs and responsibilities of city-building.

Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen Brick Works, a community environmental center, showed examples of landscape-forward projects and spoke of the often difficult process of letting landscape architects lead projects. Most importantly, Cape focused on the unique opportunities the ravine system offers, connecting with the 1.8 million-acre greenbelt surrounding the greater Toronto area and expressing Toronto’s evolving identity. Cape challenged attendees to construct sophisticated partnerships that can bring ideas to fruition and look at governance and partnerships through a creative lens.

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Evergreen Brick Works / Tom Arban Photography

As the last panelist of the day, Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), reinforced the conference’s overarching goals by presenting examples of funding models and public-private partnerships drawn from two projects by NBW and two precedent-setting ones by other landscape architects and organizations. Throughout his presentation, Woltz highlighted the vitality and richness that emerges when engaging in a process that considers landscape and the city within larger contexts – ecological, historical, cultural, and agricultural. And he challenged the profession to “get smarter about speaking about numbers and convincing a city council that they will, in the long-term, see the benefits of these systems.”

In closing, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and president of TCLF, reinforced the idea that urban park design and construction should aspire to offer a holistic urban design and management solution, create new cultural narratives, and embed positive values within the fabric of cities. Referring to the current debate on the future of the Gardiner Expressway, Birnbaum urged landscape architects to engage, speak out, aspire to make a difference, and act as leaders at this critical moment in the renaissance of the city.

Leading with Landscape brought together a community around the common mission of improving Toronto through landscape. And, more broadly, it brought landscape architecture to the forefront of the conversation in city building. The appearance of Mayor Tory and chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat elevated the importance of a strategic, systems-based design approach to the city.

This guest post is by Tim Popa, Communications Director, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture.

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Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

miller's court

Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

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Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.

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Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

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Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.

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Central Park Conservancy sign in Central Park Park, NYC / Sallanscorner.wordpress.com

In an age of ample private wealth and an increasingly constrained public sector, a number of American cities have become dependent on privately funded conservancies to maintain and refurbish their public parks. A new report by Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, and Abby Martin from The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence explores the rise of such city park conservancies — private organizations that use donations to rebuild, renovate, and, in some cases, maintain some of the most iconic parks in the country. Interspersed with examples from 41 conservancy organizations that have a collective experience record of nearly 750 years, the study serves as a how-to guide for building successful relationships between city governments and urban park conservancies.

While many park-support organizations exist throughout the country, including friends-of-parks groups and business improvement districts, the study defines a conservancy as a “private, nonprofit park-benefit organization that raises money independent of the city and spends it under a plan of action mutually agreed upon by the government.” Throughout the study, Harnik and Martin maintain that the key to this relationship is that the land remains the city’s and the city retains ultimate authority over everything that happens there.

New York’s Central Park Conservancy, which was founded in 1980, is generally considered the catalyst for the conservancy movement. Following a nationwide recession in the 1970s which severely damaged NYC’s already declining parks department, NYC Mayor Ed Koch and parks commissioner Gordon Davis appointed Betsy Barlow Rogers as Central Park Administrator. Rogers created a revolutionary public-private partnership that would bring private money and expertise together with the City of New York to restore Central Park. The study contends that to this day, New York has used conservancies more so than any other city and continues to provide lessons for other public-private partnerships.

Since the formation of the Central Park Conservancy, urban park conservancies have become a favored tool for revitalizing many parks across the country (about 50 percent of major cities have at least one). However, the strength of the study is that is does not gloss over the inevitable conflicts that arise when trying to build a successful public-private relationship, nor does it consider conservancy support as the panacea for urban park management. As was the case with the Central Park Conservancy, most conservancies are founded to restore dilapidated historic parks and address shortcomings in governmental funding. Yet, this can often create an ideological conflict.

For every person that is skeptical of government, there is another who is skeptical of increasing private control over public space. While many city governments often lose the capacity to maintain a park’s programs and amenities without private support, putting too much responsibility in the hands of a conservancy can lead community members to suspect a park is becoming completely privatized. For example, civil right attorney Larry Krasner, who defended a group of Occupy Wall Street protestors, states, “I think there is a trend of analogizing public space to shopping malls. I think a lot of people view that as a sad state of affairs. It seems to indicate that government is insufficiently funded or not able to provide services we used to take for granted.” The study is upfront and honest about the challenges these conflicting mentalities can create for restoring, maintaining, and improving urban parks.

Among these challenges, there are two that conservancy-supported parks appear to face time and again: Maintenance and safety. According to the study, finding the money to cover basic maintenance costs can be a challenge – often the challenge – for conservancies and city governments alike. While big capital projects are more flashy and attract private donations, maintenance is less sexy. For this, Harnik and Martin offer one thoughtful solution inspired by the Central Park Conservancy: Have conservancies build in “a long-term maintenance fee to the initial budget of each capital project – an upfront gift that becomes a permanent trust fund.” Such a solution ensures that the maintenance of donor-attracting capital projects does not fall solely on the city government’s shoulders.

The issue of maintaining public safety is slightly more complicated. The study provides several examples, including Piedmont Park in Atlanta and Civic Center Park in Denver, where public-private arrangements have gone awry in the wake of public safety concerns that discourage donors and visitors. While the Civic Center Conservancy stepped up programming and the Mayor of Denver allocated more money for policing and security after a 2013 shooting, specific suggestions for dealing with urban crime and public safety generally fall outside the scope of the study.

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Civic Center Park, Denver, CO / John Hill/World-Architects

Though the conservancy-based approach to urban park management is still emerging, the study could have benefited from more examples of conservancies that were formed hand-in-hand with brand new green spaces. Of course, private organizations that are formed in response to governmental shortcomings will face unique challenges and conflicts, but what if these relationships were established at a park’s inception? The study cites this approach as a growing trend but gives few examples to support or deny its success.

Ultimately, the report serves as a comprehensive guide for philanthropists and mayors, as well as bureaucrats and board members, who wish to create and maintain successful partnerships that benefit our urban green spaces. For the rest of us, the study provides a reminder that the free parks we often take for granted are hardly free.

Read the full report and also check out Trust for Public Land’s new City Park Facts 2015, which has tons of data on the top 100 park systems in the country.

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Adults and children with autism experience the world much differently than we do, so why don’t we design homes, parks, and neighborhoods with them in mind? To do this, designers need to take into account the diverse range of experiences for people with autism spectrum disorder, who now account for more than 1 percent of the population. It truly is a spectrum of disorders. As Sherry Ahrentzen, professor of housing studies at the University of Florida and co-author of the upcoming book, At Home with Autism: Designing for the Spectrum, explained at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles, “if you know one person with autism, you really know just one person with autism.”

Autism spectrum disorder is a “psychological, cognitive disorder that creates intellectual and mood disabilities.” People with autism have a “blend of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.” In general, they have the capacity for “detailed thinking, expansive long-term thinking, and examining complex patterns.” But they have problems with “understanding social nuances, filtering stimuli, and planning daily living.”

However, Ahrentzen argues that “autism isn’t just a medical condition, it’s also a cultural one.” To help people with autism, “we must first acknowledge the diversity of human conditions.” To do this, we must understand that “disability is really a social construction. We create environments that enable or disable people.”

Kim Steele, director of urban and health initiatives at the elemental group, co-author of At Home with Autism, has a daughter with autism. In her effort to create a more empathetic environment for her, Steele seems to have truly learned what it means to have autism. Steele and Ahrentzen also interviewed many people with autism to better understand how they experience the environment and to create design guidelines that will improve their quality of life:

“People with autism focus on details, not global perspective. A fleck of white on a shirt, a flickering light, a noise command attention. Their default is too many details.” While this focus may work well for some types of work that are repetitive and require attention to detail, “it can be a huge problem, as too much input is stressful.” For example, Steele’s daughter will flap and rock to help refocus attention into something more manageable. “Outside, in the neighborhood, she will fall on the ground and collapse when the details are too much.”

To alleviate the stress from all this stimuli, planners, landscape architects, and architects need to make the built environment “more predictable and familiar,” perhaps simpler. For example, for most of us, the “kitchen is a place to prepare food, socialize, and eat.” For those with autism, “it must be a place to prepare food only, you eat and socialize somewhere else.” In another example, Steele explained how hallways can only be seen as conduits. They are not places to stop and talk. “Multi-functional spaces are not acceptable. The meaning is environments is very specific.” To help those with autism, designers must create places that “create transparency through spatial sequences and smooth transitions between uses.”

Those with autism have various levels of receptivity to the environment, so creating quiet, safe spaces with high-quality lighting is important, too. “Some display hyper-receptivity. This means they may have a problem with noise.” For one person with autism they spoke to, “the noise was so disorientating, she couldn’t find her body in space.” However, in contrast, some people with autism experience “hypo-receptivity, meaning they are under responsive to stimuli.” Steele’s daughter has this issue. “She can touch a hot stove burner and not realize she is burning herself. She can scald herself in the shower and not know it.”

Outside the home, smaller spaces with fewer details may be better. For example, those with autism avoid big box stores. “The acoustics and lighting are bad.” According to one person with autism they interviewed, they only go to small shops, which are more manageable.

For landscape architects, those with autism will want residential landscapes and public gardens and parks that are “controlled environments they view as safe.” They will also want “things you can lift, engage with.” They like swings and “almost universally love to swim.” In fact, those with autism will be “drawn to water in all forms,” which can also be dangerous. “Designers will need to create safe swimming pools.” But Steele also cautioned that hyper-receptive people will be overwhelmed with “gardens with too many different plants.”

Eve Edelstein, New School of Architecture & Design, said that “moving through any environment involves the same plastic part of our brains.” Edelstein, a leader in the emerging field of “neuro-architecture,” argues that design guidelines for indoors then relate to outdoors, too. “What we learn works for hospitals will also work in gardens. It’s about brain function in space.” She added that what will be good for those with autism will also work for those with a range of other disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Edelstein believes the journey from theory and design guidelines to actual practice in the world at large will be a “tough one.” An interdisciplinary design approach is a must for any project that will be more soothing to those dealing with the constant onslaught of too many details.

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Fractals / Mikyoung Kim Design

“This is the image that sits above my computer screen. It’s a fractal form, which explains how we work. Within fractals, there are similar forms but at different scales. The molecular scale and broad scale work together as a whole. Fractals are a system. You can’t draw an outline of a fractal and fill it in, or create a bottom-up modular system and put one together. Fractals are about the overarching structure,” said Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, head of her namesake landscape architecture firm, in a lecture at the National Building Museum.

Fractals relate to her creative process. Just as at the broad scale — or the aerial view — you can see human behavior patterns, at the molecular scale, she is thinking of “one person, and their multi-sensory experience within that place.” However, having said all of that, Kim also believes that landscape architects “can’t predict how a public space will be used and allow for flexibility.”

Kim described a few projects that show her attention to both the broad and human scales, and how they fit together into a system:

ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden

She won an international design competition to create the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park, with its Sunken Stone Garden in Seoul, South Korea. For Kim, it was a great experience working there, as she is a Korean American born in Hartford, Connecticut. She discovered that Seoul has 22 million people, which is about half the population of South Korea as a whole. It’s 8 times denser than NYC, with 16,000 people per square mile.

The 7-mile-long ChonGae Canal was once a river that collected water from surrounding mountains. The river was one of the reasons Seoul became the capital of Korea in the late 1300s. Over the decades, it became a conduit for wastewater and raw sewage. “By the early 1960s, it had become a symbol of poverty, and so dangerous that you couldn’t even touch the water.” It was eventually covered over with an elevated highway, dividing the city.

The Seoul government took down the highway and decided to open up the river again. They brought day light back to the corridor and improved the water quality to class 2 level, which was really difficult. The new river corridor park had to handle monsoons and 100-year storms. “But, really, it was about bringing back national pride.”

Kim worked with the international team restoring the river, but focused on one piece: a stone garden at the source point. With this project, Kim realized landscape architecture can have significant political impact. This landscape has caused the city to rethink its relationship with the water, and changed perceptions about what’s possible with public space.

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ASLA 2009 Professional Awards General Design Award. ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Taeoh Kim

Also, the landscape itself is politically charged. In the era of the optimistic “Sunshine Policy” just a few years ago, when South Korean leaders thought reunification with North Korea was imminent, the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park was to be the site of the reunification ceremony.

There are ceremonial aspects of the landscape: Kim set 9 stones to represent the 9 provinces of Korea as a whole. The stones represent the “collective effort of this urban park, adding a layer of cultural significance.” Beyond the cultural aspect, Kim says the park, which has been visited by 20 million people since its opening, has led to $600 million in private sector development along the river corridor.

Through the Sunken Stone Garden, Kim came to the conclusion that the “most successful projects are ones where we don’t have to hire a photographer. If we can find lots of photos through Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, we’ve been successful. Successful public spaces are canvases with a design language and character, but can embrace different kind of activity and discovery.”

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ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Mikyoung Kim Design

Farrar Pond Residence

Kim said she does very little residential work, but she created a 3-acre landscape in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which links to Walden Pond. The clients had but one requirement: no lawn, but an outdoor space were the kids and dogs can run. They ended up deciding there would be no imperious surfaces on the property.

“The big star of show is this CorTen fence structure that contains the dogs. Our client was really two German Shephards.” The fence is designed to just keep these particular dogs in. Kim’s team measured the dogs from shoulder to shoulder to determine what the width of the fence openings should be. A dachshund that visited was able to slip right through. The fence was welded on site, so it fits the regraded landscape “like a glove.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

On the ground are lilac bluestone pavers and granite stepping stones. As her client said, “it looks like the void of fences have fallen out to create this pattern.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

140 West Plaza: Exhale

“We like smaller cities where we can make an even bigger impact.” In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a “charming, historic university town, ” Kim worked with local developers to create a master plan for a new downtown park. Kim and her team concurrently looked at circulation, including bicycle infrastructure, plazas, and stormwater. They found that the mixed use developments were creating lots of surface stormwater run-off.

So Kim created a brilliant solution called Exhale. Instead of storing the run-off in gardens, she convinced them to exhale the cleansed runoff through an artful misting system. “If there is no extraneous water from the site, there is no mist.” Kim choreographed the experience, creating a score of sorts, with light and mist, which grows and dies back. “It’s like the sculpture is breathing.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

At night, Exhale is a magnet, particularly in the hotter months when the mist is on, as it reduces temperatures by 10 degrees. “Kids are willing to get soaking wet. They run and around and engage it.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

“I’ve always really been into healthcare. And now, healthcare is interested in us. Every facility wants a garden, which is much different from 20 years ago.” Still, at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Kim felt pressure to deliver. “We were taking 8,000 square feet out of a vertical hospital to build a garden instead of a new MRI center. How does that equal out?” While she said her husband, who is a doctor, would take issue with the statement that “gardens heal people,” gardens do “transform our bodies in ways that can’t hurt. Within 3-5 minutes, it has been proven that gardens normalize blood pressure, heart activity, muscle tension, and brain electrical activity.”

In this healing garden on the 11th floor, there were enormous constraints. Given so many young patients there have weak immune systems or just had surgery, they couldn’t be exposed to organic materials like soil or plants. There have been cases of people catching Legionnaire’s Disease from fountains, so water features were out, too.

Kim and her colleagues finally convinced the hospital to allow bamboo in raised planters that patients wouldn’t be able to access. The soil that holds them is 98 percent inorganic. “Basically, the only thing that will grow in soil like that are weeds, and bamboo is a lovely weed.” The hospital staff have committed to putting a tarp on the bamboo and spraying them three times a year to keep them clean.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / George Heinrich Photography

To get around the fact that no open water could be allowed, Kim created water features that bubble up through marble. And a fallen tree, which Frederick Law Olmsted planted in a park in Chicago more than 100 years ago, was reclaimed and turned into wonderfully tactile benches and interactive art pieces. Sealed together with resin and lit from within, the tree sculptures also feature kids’ hand prints, which when touched, activate sounds of water.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / Mikyoung Kim Design

Learn more about Mikyoung Kim’s new projects, like 888 Boylston in Boston, at her web site.

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