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Archive for the ‘Public Spaces’ Category

aerial penn ave

Pennsylvania Avenue today / National Capital Planning Commission

Pennsylvania Avenue has one of the nation’s most famous addresses – The White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It forms a physical and symbolic connection between that address, which represents the president and the executive branch, and the people, represented by the U.S. Capitol building. But beyond this, what is the role of the avenue for both the District and nation in the 21st century? What does the avenue say to the rest of the nation and the world?

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) wanted participants to answer these questions at its first public workshop on the Pennsylvania Avenue Initiative. In partnership with the General Services Administration and the National Park Service, the initiative will “develop a vision for how the avenue can meet local and national needs in a 21st century capital city.”

The workshop began with opening remarks from Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, NCPC. Miller noted the avenue’s dual role as not only a national symbol but also a place where people visit, work, and live. Recognizing and celebrating this dual role is one of the challenges the initiative faces as it crafts a vision to guide the next thirty to forty years.

Sarah Moulton at NCPC then presented some history. In particular, she noted the accomplishments of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), which helped turn the avenue around, after its post-WWII decline. PADC was dissolved in 1996.

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1962 was the final year street cars ran up and down Pennsylvania Avenue / National Capital Planning Commission

Without a single voice advocating for the avenue, the street today is in a bit of a slump, showing wear and tear from increased use. It’s aging infrastructure. Its deterioration may have arisen out of the jurisdictional challenges stemming from the multiple agencies responsible for planning, designing, and maintaining various areas along the avenue.

Jurisdiction issues are one of the existing challenges for Pennsylvania Avenue

Jurisdiction issues are one of the existing challenges for Pennsylvania Avenue / National Capital Planning Commission

But change along the avenue is already underway, for good or bad. The old post office is being redeveloped as a Trump conference center and hotel; the FBI is looking into possible relocation; private redevelopment is in the works for E Street; and efforts are underway to redesign historic Pershing Park as a new national WWI memorial.

Following the presentation, participants were invited to visit stations around the room, which included a gallery of posters showing comparably prominent streets in capital cities around the world. Some stations sought participants’ feedback on their visions for the future.

For example, one poster asked, “What is the role of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2040?” Responses included:

  • “The city – one great public space; iconic, walkable, wayfinding (take that tourists!)”
  • “An iconic image of Main Street USA – people, interactivity, heritage”
  • “Should be the horizontal guidepost to the Washington Monument’s vertical”
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Ideas from the public workshop / National Capital Planning Commission

The initiative intends to address four central issues: operations and maintenance; governance; program and animation; and planning, design, and economic health. This last issue encompasses everything from security for federal buildings to sustainable design practices, from safe transportation routes to the needs of the residential community. At the heart of all of this is ensuring economic vitality, said Moulton.

NCPC is starting a robust public outreach effort, with this initial public workshop just the beginning. To submit your thoughts, e-mail NCPC at PennAve@ncpc.gov; visit their website; or  tweet with the hashtag #MyPennAve.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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What Makes a City Great? / Sasaki Associates

A new survey commissioned by planning and design firm Sasaki Associates asked 1,000 urbanites in San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. what they love most about their city. The findings, which cover diverse aspects of city life, offer truly fascinating insights for urban planners, landscape architects, and architects. One example: 60 percent of residents of these cities say they will still be in the city five years from now. Here are some other highlights.

What do urbanites love most about their cities? 

More than 40 percent cited the restaurants and food; while 32 percent said local attractions; 24 percent said historic places and landmarks; 21 percent said cultural offerings; 17 percent said parks and public spaces; and 16 percent said fairs and festivals. Some 15 percent said “the people,” while another 10 percent said they like the architecture the most, and 9 percent said the local sports scene.

And when asked, “what would get you out of your neighborhood?,” the findings are largely consistent with preferences listed above: 46 would venture out for a new restaurant; 25 percent would travel for a new store; 24 percent for a new cultural event; while just 18 percent would schlep to check out a new park or green space.

Where do urbanites’ favorite experiences happen?

While only 18 percent will travel across town for a new park, interestingly, a majority of people (65 percent) remember their favorite city experience taking place outdoors — either in a park or on a street. (A minority [just 22 percent] said their favorite experience happened in a building).

Of outdoor spaces, 47 percent say waterfronts are their favorite. Another 31 prefer large open parks, while 14 percent prefer small urban spaces, and 8 percent love their city’s trail system the most.

So where should cities make future investment in parks and open space? “41 percent support investment in making the waterfront more accessible and appealing; 40 percent would like to see more large parks that support both passive and adventurous activities; 37 percent wish their cities would make streets more pedestrian/bike friendly; 36 percent support adding outdoor music and entertainment venues; and 31 percent desire more small urban parks.”

What makes a city’s buildings iconic?

Some 36 percent said the historic nature of the building, while 30 percent said “great architecture,” and another 24 percent said a building’s “unique design.” A majority (57 percent) will stop and look at a historic building, while just 19 percent will do the same for a modern one.

What do urbanites like least about getting around in cities?

More than 40 percent said there’s “too much traffic,” while 23 percent cited the lack of parking. Some 14 percent said public transportation is not up to par, and 9 percent said biking is dangerous. Another 7 percent pointed to things being “too spread out,” while another 7 percent complained that sidewalks are too crowded.

These complaints reveal how Americans, even urbanites, get around: 58 percent use cars frequently, while 29 percent use public transportation. Another 10 percent try to walk everywhere and just 2 percent use bikes.

Surveys like Sasaki’s are important. We need to attract as many people as possible to cities, because urban life is central to a more sustainable future. In cities, per-capita carbon emissions and energy and water use are all much lower. But beyond the metrics, cities can just be great places if they are designed to be livable and beautiful, filled with outdoor spaces, historic buildings, and efficient transportation systems.

In keeping with Sasaki’s multidisciplinary approach, the team who put together the survey is comprised of a planner, landscape architect (Gina Ford, ASLA), and an architect, as it should be when dealing with all things related to our built environment.

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The Modernist design of Mellon Square is a product of the Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, beginning in the late 1940s. The plaza was a focal point in the re-imagining of what was a gritty city. Positioned above streets, storefronts, and a subterranean parking garage, the space ascended above the hustle and bustle, forming an oasis.

I gathered a wealth of documentation, observing use, studying context, and investigating details. All of this led to an analysis of the plaza’s original design and built character.

What emerged was a clear picture of the original design team’s masterful manipulation of the urban fabric to revitalize this area of the central business district. Although this was a Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds collaboration, documents pointed to John Simonds as the author of sketches that embodied the design concepts. These studies drew on diverse historical and contemporary sources, such as the grace of ancient Roman villa cascades, the exuberance of colorful Latin American estates, the geometries of modern French gardens, and the clarity of Japanese Zen compositions. This urban green space crystallized multiple ideas in a Modernist character. The companion elements were the new U.S. Steel and Alcoa towers flanking two corners of the plaza. This adjacency brought the views from above to the foreground of design considerations.

The intensive, compact Mellon Square design was layered, with three-dimensionally nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants. As Simonds espoused, it served as a platform, civic monument, and oasis — both within and separate from the surrounding city. The plaza invited access from the street, fostered leisure, and supported lively events. Mellon Square was an integral part of re-imagining Pittsburgh as a place of commerce and innovation and remains an ascendant urban space today.

However, by 2008, Mellon Square had lost the clarity and grace of its original layered composition. Missing were the graceful reflective central basin, the pastel brightness of the cascade, the continuous filigree of canopy foliage, the complete green perimeter edge, the crisp geometry of harlequin paving, and the overall evidence of polish and care. With the revelation of original design concepts in hand, the effort turned to finding ways to restore the masterwork while addressing contemporary issues.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s emphasis on balancing historic integrity, current uses and functions, and operations and maintenance provided an effective framework for addressing preservation interventions at Mellon Square. To reinstate the richness and intricacy of its multi-faceted, dense and compelling design, the integrity of the Modernist composition had to be re-established.

Approaching the work of a master requires both insight and humility. The original design intent and execution must remain the paramount guide, even as multiple factors are addressed. The conservancy and Heritage Landscapes team chose to restore 85 percent of the plaza, while re-imagining the large planter above Smithfield Street as a terrace and overlook with an adjacent green roof. The project brief — addressing authenticity, use, function, durability and ongoing management — led to designing anew this vestigial planter that had twice failed.

Mellon Square’s transcendent character is palpable once again. It has been our challenge and pleasure to collaborate with the conservancy to contribute to this third renaissance of Mellon Square in the great city of Pittsburgh.

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Mellon Square fountain / Heritage Landscapes

This guest post by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, is a complement to the coverage of the renewal of Mellon Square. O’Donnell is founder and principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architect & Planners

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, an icon of mid-century Modern design, has been finally restored after a six-year process. A precursor to today’s trendy green roof movement, the plaza was the first in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Today, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies.

Upon its initial completion in 1955, Mellon Square unified Pittsburgh’s central business district and “typified the spirit” of the city, post World War II. Locally-based architects Mitchell & Ritchey brought in landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds, Simonds & Simonds and author of the seminal textbook, Landscape Architecture, to collaborate on the public space. The square features a majestic central fountain comprised of nine cast-bronze basins; a distinctive triangle-patterned “Rustic Venetian Terrazzo” paving, inspired by Sarah Mellon Scaife’s travels to Europe; elegant evening lighting; lush plantings; and a second multi-leveled fountain cascading down to street-level. Simonds described the square as “an oasis in an asphalt desert.”

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

Some more thoughts on the original design: Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes LLC, lead for the park’s restoration, notes the original design team’s “masterful manipulation of urban fabric . . . layered with three-dimensionally-nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants.” In The Post-Gazette, Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, calls Mellon Square “a fine example of mid-century Modern design, but not in the sense of so many results of that time, when urban renewal was really a harsh New Brutalism. Here you had a real attempt to still use decoration and refined design in a clean-lined modernistic statement.” And, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) tells us that, as viewed from the buildings, “the harlequin patterned terrazzo of the sizeable plaza played against the tiles and jets of the fountain and with the diamond patterned façade of the Alcoa headquarters building by architects Harrison & Abramovitz.”

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Original artist’s sketch from early 1950s / Simonds & Simonds and Mitchell & Riley from the Heinz collections

Despite a restoration project in the 1980s, years of little maintenance resulted in cracked paving, drainage issues, broken fountains, and dying trees and shrubs. But even with these issues, the park was named one of the 2008 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association (APA), who noted the “striking example of Modernism with its triangular-patterned paving and asymmetrical order of planters, bronze fountains, and granite benches.”

In 2009, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and a team headed by Heritage Landscapes developed a comprehensive restoration plan. In addition to the two year, $10 million restoration process, the funders established a $4 million fund for ongoing maintenance to ensure the park would not fall into disrepair again.

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Proposed design restoration rendering / Heritage Landscapes LLC

Post-restoration, the park’s bronze basins have been re-patinated. The paving has been restored. The cascade fountain was recreated and is flowing again; the water choreography was re-established. O’Donnell tells us: “the cascade and main fountains were both completely reconstructed using modern best practices and technologies.”

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Bronze fountains restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

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Cascade fountain restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Other contemporary updates include an elevated terrace overlooking Smithfield Street (inspired by early design sketches discovered in the Heinz collections), energy-efficient lighting, and a new plant palette of hardy trees, flowers, grasses and shrubs which will “provide a year-round display of textures, forms, and colors,” writes Susan Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in a recent article for Docomomo US.

Now that the plaza has been restored, attention will turn to its perimeter. Along retail shops on Smithfield Street, a permanent display will highlight Mellon Square’s “history and national significance, its relationship to the Mellon family and its important role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance,” writes Rademacher. “Garage entrances will be upgraded in keeping with the modernist aesthetic, while new site furnishings, banners, and planters will bring the four street edges into harmony with Mellon Square.” Already, the park’s reemergence has contributed to the revitalization of the surrounding business district as millions of dollars fund new restoration and development projects.

Check out a detailed history and description of the restoration process in this upbeat video from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy:

The 2009 Mellon Square Preservation, Interpretation & Management Plan Team was led by Heritage Landscapes LLC: Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, with contributions by Environmental Planning & Design,MTR Landscape Architects, LaQuatra Bonci Associates, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The 2011 Restoration Project Team included Heritage Landscapes with Pfaffmann + Associates Architects.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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Untitlted XXXI Arizona / Christoph Gielen

“There are repeatable formulas that make up many spaces in the world,” said architect and writer Keller Easterling at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, showing images of nameless, identical cul-de-sac suburbs, residential towers, and shipping yards. “These forms are telling an elaborate story, but really the same one, whether they are in Milwaukee or Mongolia. The story is cities are mobile, monetized technology. Their economic and technical logic is coming into view.” In a mind-expanding talk, Easterling outlined her perception of this strange new phenomenon: the city as a place-less product, resulting from a kind of “spatial software.”

These odd yet common places — replicated, cookie-cutter communities and special economic zones (SEZs) — are all over the world. They often feature the “drumbeat of generic skyscrapers.” Their new order is written in an “architectural matrix space that is outside and additional to the state. It’s an infrastructural space that has another kind of power. It’s like there is an operating system shaping the space. It’s an updating platform unfolding in real time.” Easterling said this software makes “some spaces possible and others impossible. There are active forms, protocols, routines it manifests.”

This operating system has been created by developed economies, the World Bank, “quality assurance specialists,” and “28-year old McKinsey consultants.” For them, “space is just a byproduct.” This bad software results in some inhuman places. But Easterling wonders if designers can’t somehow hack this system, “shifting how we make places.”

The dominant spatial software for creating these global no-wheres is the 3-D tour, the interactive fly-through that stuns viewers into submission. The fly-throughs result in interchangeable special economic zones (SEZs), “perfect islands of corporate control.” Every city now wants an SEZ because “they are a clean-slate entry into a foreign country. Everyone one wants one because they are the nexus of global technology.” This program has swallowed real city-building whole. In fact, Easterling said SEZs aren’t real cities at all. “Dubai is called a city, but it’s really just a collection of zones. It’s a city in a box based on Paris, New York City, or Venice.” The reality is the places programmed by these software are “relatively dumb enclaves, not optimal. The software is kind of like MS-DOS.”

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Dubai maritime zone / Dubai Maritime

She added that Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is “the capital as a zone.” Astana is a sign that what is popular in one zone soon spreads through all of them. She made fun of “colored lights and fountains,” which have become contagious. “There are also fantasy resorts, palaces, and golf courses.” These places sell an image of “openness and relaxation,” but really “their closed circumstances have a special stupidity.”

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Astana panoramic / Bestfon.info

Heading back to Easterling’s original question: can we hack this thing? She said mass-produced suburbs are hard to beat. “We can’t just create one home to fight this. We need a multiplier, a contagion.” Basically, there may be better, more human, more custom-designed software out there to use. Easterling pointed to Savannah, Georgia, with its “simple spatial software, a set of instructions for relationships as wards grew.” Learn more about the city’s network of squares.

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The squares of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia

“The SEZ is a contagious platform. We have to embed something in to this as a carrier. The zone has ambitions to become a city. Perhaps it contains its own antidote.” She showed images of how she would interfere with the protocols, “exchanging, absorbing, reusing, replacing, recasting, and subtracting.”

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The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces that a contract has been signed with landscape architecture firm Design Workshop to serve as lead consultant for a project greening the streets surrounding ASLA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. The firm has a long history of designing landscapes that combine environmental sensitivity, economic benefits, artistic vision, and community input.

The Chinatown Green Street demonstration project involves the design and installation of an interconnected series of vegetated systems and innovative technologies to manage stormwater runoff and beautify the public right-of-way in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. ASLA intends this project to be a world-class model and education tool for developers, designers, city officials, and the public.

Design Workshop will oversee the project through all phases from design and installation to long-term maintenance planning and educational outreach. It will collaborate with the ASLA Site Sustainability Task Force throughout all phases of the project.

“This project is an investment in our city’s future. We want to show that landscape architecture can heal the environment as well as provide a safer street design that will benefit everyone,” said Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. “By implementing a more natural way to manage stormwater, it will help the District of Columbia in its goal of becoming one of the greenest cities in the United States while also providing a model for cities around the world. It will also make our neighborhood more walkable and accessible for residents and visitors.”

“Design Workshop is deeply honored to be working with ASLA on such a profound and substantial effort,” said Steven Spears, ASLA, principal and partner with Design Workshop. “In one’s career, there is truly only a handful of opportunities to make a transformative impact toward holistic sustainability. The Chinatown Green Street Demonstration project, located between the White House and the Capitol Building, will become the opportunity to showcase that street rights of way can be enjoyed and used by all forms of mobility while offering significant environmental, economic, community and artistic impacts.”

Learn more at the Chinatown Green Street demonstration project web site.

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U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced six projects will receive $920 million through HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition. HUD will give the funds to New York, New Jersey, and New York City to further develop these projects, which are designed to make the Hurricane Sandy-affected region more resilient.

The competition was created out of President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy rebuilding taskforce as a way to dramatically improve the “physical, ecological, and economic resilience of coastal areas.” According to HUD, the design competition “created coalitions with local and regional stakeholders to develop locally-responsive proposals.”

The funds will finance additional planning, the design of innovative flood protection systems made of berms and wetlands, as well as a built reef.

The winning projects are led by multidisciplinary teams comprised of landscape architects, architects, engineers, ecologists, artists, and others. The projects are diverse, spread throughout the region. Funding looks evenly split between New York and New Jersey:

  • The BIG U (East River Park), Manhattan — The BIG Team ($335 million)
  • Living with the Bay (Slow Streams), Nassau County, Long Island — The Interboro Team ($125 million)
  • New Meadowlands, Little Ferry, Moonachie, Carlstadt, Teterboro — MIT CAU+ZUS+URBANISTEN ($150 million)
  • Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge, Hoboken, Weehawken, Jersey City — OMA ($230 million)
  • Lifelines, Hunts Point, South Bronx — PennDesign/OLIN ($20 million)
  • Living Breakwaters, Tottenville, Staten Island — SCAPE/Landscape Architecture ($60 million)

HUD writes: “The winning proposals come from teams representing some of the best planning, design, and engineering talent in the world. These inventive proposals are a blueprint for how communities can maximize resilience as they rebuild and recover from major disasters. These ideas will serve as a model for how we can mitigate the effects of climate change and natural disasters in communities throughout the Sandy region, the United States, and the world.”

Secretary Donovan, said Rebuild by Design could have a powerful ripple effect: “It’s my hope that Rebuild by Design will inspire other public-private partnerships to spur innovation and resilience.”

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, New York, said, “Are there going to be other storms like Sandy? Yes. Will we be better prepared for them because of Rebuild by Design? Absolutely.”

And Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, who helped finance the design competition and has been a major force behind the new push for resilience, said the competition harnesses “creative minds of every stripe to break the models and construct innovative and creative ways to build for our future.” Indeed, HUD is spending $60 million for the first large-scale experiments with creating reefs that can act as tide-surge mitigators.

More details on the winning proposals:

The BIG U (East River Park), Manhattan — The BIG Team

The BIG team, which includes landscape architecture firm Starr Whitehouse, aims to protect ten continuous miles of low-lying Manhattan, “an incredibly dense, vibrant, and vulnerable urban area.” Funds will be used to used to create a “bridging berm” at the East River Park along the Lower East Side. “The bridging berm provides robust vertical protection for the Lower East Side from future storm surge and rising sea levels. The berm also offers pleasant, accessible routes into the park, with many unprogrammed spots for resting, socializing, and enjoying views of the park and river. Both the berms and bridges will be wide and planted with a diverse selection of salt tolerant trees, shrubs, and perennials to create a resilient urban habitat.”

Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge, Hoboken, Weehawken, Jersey City — OMA

The OMA team, which includes landscape architecture firm Balmori Associates, will protect all of the Hoboken waterfront and parts of Weehawken and Jersey City. The project “deploys programmed hard infrastructure and soft landscape for coastal defense (resist); policy recommendations, guidelines, and urban infrastructure to slow rainwater runoff (delay); a circuit of interconnected green infrastructure to store and direct excess rainwater (store); and water pumps and alternative routes to support drainage (discharge). The objectives are to manage water for both severe storms and long-term growth; enable reasonable flood insurance premiums through the potential redrawing of the FEMA flood zone following completion; and deliver co-benefits that enhance the cities and the region.”

Living with the Bay (Slow Streams), Nassau County, Long Island — The Interboro Team

The Interboro team, which includes H+N+S Landscape Architects, will develop a comprehensive resiliency plan for Nassau County’s South Shore. “The areas around Southern Nassau’s north-south tributaries are threatened both by surge water flooding and storm water inundation. The proposal will address these threats through a set of interconnected interventions, transforming the Mill River into a green-blue corridor that stores and filters water, provides public space, and creates room for new urban development. These river corridor improvements will also address other challenges such water quality, ecological recovery, and aquifer recharge.”

New Meadowlands, Little Ferry, Moonachie, Carlstadt, Teterboro — MIT CAU+ZUS+URBANISTEN

The first phase of the New Meadowlands proposal will focus on Little Ferry, Moonachie, Carlstadt, and Teterboro. “By integrating transportation, ecology, and development, the project transforms the Meadowlands basin to address a wide spectrum of risks, while providing civic amenities, and creating opportunities for new redevelopment. The project includes the creation of additional wetlands and a multi-purpose berm that will provide flood protection to the many residents of the community damaged by Sandy flooding.”

Living Breakwaters, Tottenville, Staten Island — SCAPE/Landscape Architecture

The SCAPE team aims to “reduce risk, revive ecologies, and connect educators and local students to the shoreline, inspiring a new generation of harbor stewards and a more resilient region over time.” One fascinating component of the project: an “in-water solution will reduce wave action and erosion, lowering risk from heavy storms by designing ‘reef street’ micropockets of habitat complexity to host finfish, shellfish, and lobsters.”

Lifelines, Hunts Point, South Bronx — PennDesign/OLIN

PennDesign/OLIN is taking a multi-faceted approach to protecting Hunts Point, the hub of the region’s food supply chain and one of the poorest communities in the country. “The PennDesign/OLIN proposal sets out four strategies: integrated and adaptable flood protection systems to safeguard the whole neighborhood and create public amenities along the Hunts Point waterfront; leadership efforts to build capacity for social resilience; a marine emergency supply chain to enhance the waterways as critical infrastructure; and cleanways to improve air quality.”

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Yorkville Park / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Landscape architects are increasingly focused on the social side of sustainability, said Ken Smith, ASLA, principal of Ken Smith Workshop, in a lecture at the University of Oregon’s campus in Portland. Smith said: “in the 70s, Ian McHarg taught us to focus on the regional and large-scale in landscape architecture, not what the quality of what we were building. In the 80s, landscape architects began to focus on what we were designing, the physicality. For the past 15 years, there has been a new focus on sustainability, with the ecological side getting the most attention. Now, the social agenda has risen to the front. The social realm is the new focus of landscape architecture.”

Smith said much of William H. Whyte’s research on urban social spaces, which began in the 70s, is still valid, but the way people inhabitat spaces has changed. “Social spaces are now a little different.” And landscape architects need to up their game if they are going to continue to know how to design spaces for today’s urban populations. “Google and Facebook probably know more predictably how people use social spaces than landscape architects. We need to be as smart as the companies profiting off data. We need to tap the data to design.”

But for now, Smith’s approach to creating social spaces that matter for today’s mobile phone-obsessed urbanites is to weave in both ecology and craft. Smith mentioned the growing importance of craftsmanship in today’s culture, saying he’s spending lots of time thinking about “how we make things.”

One example is Yorkville Park in Toronto, where Smith, Martha Schwartz, and David Meyer brought in a 700-ton bedrock mountain, creating an active social world around it. Taking the best of biophilic landscape design principles — that people enjoy a prospect view as well as an intimate refuge — the designers carved the boulder so it was easy to climb on, and then set out moveable chairs and tables around it. “People hang out on the rock and can configure their own social space.”

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Yorkville Park / Steve Evans

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For TFANA Arts Plaza, the setting of the Theatre for a New Audience, part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cultural Arts District in New York City, Smith brought his inspiration — nightclub banquettes, a form of highly social seating — to the outdoors. “The cocoons envelope. There’s a loucheness to these banquettes that I like.” Working with outdoor furniture manufacturer Landscape Forms, Smith tinkered with the look and feel until it was right. Getting it right meant making the perforated patterns in the steel imperfect in some spots, creating a needed “fuzziness or noise.” The plaza is made up of permeable pavements, which he thinks is a first for New York City, and a silva-cell system for hydrating the trees.

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TFANA Arts Plaza at BAM / © Francis Dzikowski/Esto

Smith saved his discussion of perhaps his most ambitious remake of the social realm for nearly last. The East River Waterfront Esplanade in New York City, which will line two miles of the lower Manhattan waterfront, is being completed in phases. The first phase, which was a pilot used to test aspects of the site in real-time, was opened in 2010. Results from the site’s post-occupancy surveys informed phase 2, which opened in 2012. Two more phases are in the works.

The esplanade is part of former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to make the city more livable for one million new residents, which he argued the city will need to attract in order to retain its competitive edge as a global city on par with London and Shanghai. The plan includes creating whole stretches of new waterfront parks, the massive Hudson Yards development, a new 2nd avenue subway line, and lots of new public spaces. The esplanade is also central to the city’s goal of creating a central park for residents of lower Manhattan and other communities that connect via the rivers. “Cross connections will be a critical issue as the city figures out how to get people to the waterfront.”

On the esplanade design, Smith said, “I didn’t want a formal, perfectly spaced and organized esplanade like OLIN’s Battery Park City; I wanted to purposefully slow people down so they have to look up from their devices to see where they are going.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

The esplanade runs parallel to the FDR Memorial Drive and, in some cases, underneath it. New coastal structures were built to provide support for the soil mass needed to support enough vegetation. “The site is a series of successive walls that provide the structure for the dunes,” which Smith calls the waves of raised landscapes. Those pieces of nature were central to the design. “The ecological basis is conflated with the social purpose. We integrated the social infrastructure into the sea walls.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

There’s all sorts of fun places to sit along the esplanade. “The seating is a kit of parts.” There are benches set close together, which are designed to foster conversation. “You can also put your feet up and use the other bench as an ottoman.” There are wood chaise lounges for a bit of a get-away.

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Rail-side bar stools are great for eating lunch and gazing out at the water. “Those stools are very popular.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Smith was thrilled with how the lighting turned out. He said the usual New York City light pole is “horribly wrong scale, historicist, and clunky.” He ended up commissioning a new lighting system, with soft lighting reflected against FDR girders now painted lavender, and calf-level LED lighting, which will eventually wrap through the entire two-mile-long park. Smith defended the low-light approach, arguing that it’s actually safer, as “over lighting a space causes your pupils to dilate.”

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

Throughout the esplanade, there are several pavilions coming — and it seems like most of them are beer gardens. Smith laughed and said, “beer gardens are really positive activators of public space.” Each pavilion is part commercial and community space.

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

And then there’s the pop-art dog park. “Dog runs are social spaces, too. Dog runs are like playgrounds. They are supervised just like kids. There’s a social life among both the dogs and parents.” And more ominously, “there are lots of politics in dog parks.”

Dotted along the esplanade are new pier parks, some of which are still in development. One new pier park has two levels, with the upper deck made up of gardens and lawn.

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East River Watefront Esplanade / © Peter Mauss/Esto

And Pier 35, now in the works, will be an eco-park with mussel colony. “We call it mussel beach.”

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VPUU Khayelitsha / CST South Africa

One legacy of South Africa’s fragmented, racially-segregated society has been incredible violence. To change that story, the city of Cape Town and the German Development Bank are harnessing the power of design. Through an inventive program, Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), these players and many local non-profits are transforming Khayelitsha, one of the most dangerous townships in South Africa, into a safer, more livable place. At the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, the team behind the VPUU program said since the development of this 5-year, $11 million, community-driven project, murders are down 33 percent in Harare, one section of the township, and 22 percent in Khayelitsha overall. Furthermore, almost 90 percent of the area’s 250,000 residents say living conditions have improved.

The city assembled a team of local planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and architects to create four “safe nodes,” each serving about 50,000 residents. Leading from Harare Square all the way to the Khayelitsha railway station, these nodes provide new infrastructure, such as a well-lit pedestrian mall, which enables “safe walking,” said Michael Krause, team leader for the program.

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Khayelitsha VPUU / Skyscraper City

Along the route, there are also new public facilities, including the Peace Park community building, Ncomu road community building and urban park, and Kwamfundo school sports complex. The idea is to provide “opportunities for everyday life and spontaneous activity.” Community buildings offer spaces for meetings. These facilities are also rented out, earning income for maintaining the public spaces. There’s a new supermarket and retail area, too.

VPUU team landscape architect Tarna Klitzner designed some of the public spaces to be “learning platforms,” given only 600 of the area’s 4,000 children under 6 are in school. There’s a new interactive playground. “These educational interventions also help to create safe public spaces that foster a sense of community,” said Krause.

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Khayelitsha / Wired Communications

A sense of community seems to be forming. “People are now looking after the public spaces. Graffiti hasn’t been a problem.” If there are maintenance issues, they are fixed by an on-site crew within 24 hours or less. Also, some neighbors have been given special responsibility for maintaining the new public spaces. They are recognized with brooms.

From the photos, the landscape of Khayelitsha appears quite barren. Kathryn Ewing, and urban designer and architect with Sustainable Urban Neighborhood Development, said “planting trees is difficult given the strong winds. The native
plants are low-growing vegetation.” The few trees planted are protected with frames, but these often get stolen.

Ewing told me that Khayelitsha’s relationship with water and nature is slowly changing. Water taps are being upgraded, given they are already community gathering spots.

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Water tap redevelopment before, during “social activation,” and after / Kathryn Ewing

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The community came together around the trees planted at the water taps. The trees are supposed to be tended by the children of the area. “This is a social experiment in itself. There’s great meaning to having trees in this environment, with its harsh conditions.”

Setting up a coordinated system for dealing with excess stormwater has also proven tricky. “There are knock-off effects with stormwater, such as drainage. Where does it go? It’s going to impact someone,” said Ewing. The design team has experimented with using sand to deal with stormwater management, given applying a comprehensive system of vegetation to deal with runoff is still a ways off.

This program has become a model for other townships in Cape Town. Alistair Graham with the Cape Town city government said 10 more VPUU sites are in the works. Graham believes the first VPUU succeeded because “the development is human-scale. We also clearly defined the hierarchy of spaces, what was public, private, and semi-private.”

While these infrastructural improvements have enhanced quality of life, Graham said “we have unfortunately only scratched the surface on our gang issues.” Hopefully, this program can help show us what mix of design and social action really works to reduce violence over the long-term.

Read more about Khayelitsha in this earlier post by Cape Town-based landscape architect Tamsin Faragher.

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Dallas Museum of Art by Dan Kiley / Alan Ward, TCLF

In a lecture at the National Building Museum on the legacy of Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, one of the founders of landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, said of Kiley, “we share a love of order, a disdain of ornament, a love of common things — the field, the hedgerow, the tree canopy. Like him, I want to return these all to glory.” Introduced by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who connected Hilderbrand to the rich Modern traditions of Kiley, the focus of a new exhibition organized by TCLF at NBM, Hilderbrand talked about both Kiley’s projects and his own, illuminating some parellels between their work in interesting ways.

For Hilderbrand, Kiley was part of the movement that steered landscape architecture away from its traditional focus on the garden. Kiley, and his fellow students Garrett Eckbo and James Rose, displaced the garden, suggesting that teaching gardens to graduate students was “disagreeably aristocratic and irrelevant.” They all felt a “greater urgency for public landscapes, the infrastructure for urbanization.” Whether their aim was explicit or not, “they caused the garden to vanish for a long time.” (Except, as Hilderbrand noted later, perhaps Kiley never fully vanquished the garden, returning to it with many small gardens and his famous Miller Garden, which created a “singular sense of modern living.”)

A Modernist, Kiley wanted to distill landscapes into their core elements, removing any excess. “He loved ordinary things like the field and the forest canopy, and he made them extraordinary.” As an example, Hilderbrand showed Kiley’s Dallas Museum of Art, with its stark rows of trees (see image above). “For Kiley, it was totally natural to plant trees in rows; it wasn’t contrived. How can that be? It’s because it’s natural for humans to plant trees in rows, like orchards, so the trees can be more easily grown, watered, pruned, and harvested. Planting in a grid is then the most natural thing.”

Kiley used Modern techniques to create a paired-down yet also heightened sense of nature. Another site, Fountain Place in Dallas is “like being in a cypress forest; it smells and feels like a forest. It’s truly remarkable.”

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Fountain Place, Dallas / Alan Ward, TCLF

The influence of Kiley can be seen in Reed Hilderbrand’s own thoughtful, minimalist projects, with their focus on the essential. Hilderbrand gave the crowd of more than 200 a tour of four sites:

The Central Park Wharf in Boston is about taking infrastructure and creating an “inhabitable landscape, a work of living architecture.” For Reed Hilderbrand, the challenge was, “how do we make the surface of this park feel alive?”

To create that feeling that the Wharf park is alive, they had to build “below ground-infrastructure.” Hilderbrand used an apt metaphor here: “You can’t create a great meal without a great staff in the kitchen.” A structure was put in place to hold up the ground and seating areas. A medium of soil, with drains that form a trellis-like system, maintain precise amounts of moisture for the 25 oak trees planted. “Sensors let us know if the trees are getting enough water.”

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Reed Hilderbrand

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This complex system made simple really worked: the trees, which were planted large, experienced a phenomenal 10 feet of growth since they were put in the ground.

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Reed Hilderbrand

Central Park Wharf is now “instantly recognizable for its cover canopy, with lights wired through the trees.”

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ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Central Wharf Park / Charles Mayer Photography

A second project, restoring the landscape around Philip Johnson’s Beck House in Texas, and then re-connecting it to the home, was challenging because the “landscape was highly degraded, a jungle, really.” But then, Reed Hilderbrand can see the “opportunity in anything.” The Beck House is a grand building in the vein of Johnson’s Lincoln Center. What was difficult was finding a way to make this fantastic home part of its surrounding landscape.

Hilderbrand said they ended up being critical of Johnson’s approach to the landscape, which was to cut it off and make it a source of panoramic views only. Their team brought trees into Johnson’s blank arcade, reduced the height of retaining walls, and built a flight of low, grassy stairs to pull the entrance outside of the building. The overall effect is to better root the building in its surrounding landscape, making it feel more like a piece of the place than disengaged from its environment.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Beyond Pictorial: Revising Philip Johnson’s Monumental Beck House / Alan Ward

They then restored the creek and bridge, editing out invasive plants and trees, and set a series of long white planks that brought a further sense of order to the estate’s grounds.

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ASLA 2011 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Beyond Pictorial: Revising Philip Johnson’s Monumental Beck House / Reed Hilderbrand

Hilderbrand then took us to Marshcourt, a historic manor by Sir Edwin Luytens in England, where his firm is reintegrating the surrounding chalk landscape back into the place. The buildings’ walls are made of chalk and flint. The nearby chalk quarry proved to be an inspiration for what Reed Hilderbrand did: create the sense that once is driving through a “cut of chalk,” then going through a “door,” upon which you open up into the copse. “The contractors thought we were out of our minds compacting chalk into steep slopes.” But the effect is worth it: the meadows planted on top of the slopes are beautiful.

Lastly, Old Quarry, a project on the Long Island Sound in southern Connecticut, tells the story of finding order in an old stone quarry. Paths are like jetties. Footpaths were created across paths of rocks. Reed Hilderbrand used a simple, coastal plant palette. Hilderbrand said this project took four years, and was like being a “kid in a sandbox.” Stone masons actually spent two years on site, forming the stone into patterns. “This was definitely a luxury.”

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ASLA 2012 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Reordering Old Quarry / Charles Mayer Photography

According to Hilderbrand, all these examples prove that “a landscape architect never begins from scratch. We always begin with a story, maybe centuries of stories.” And those stories may not necessarily need to be understood by those seeing them. “Whether the experience is rational or emotional, we don’t have to understand everything behind a landscape.”

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