Land Matters: Time to Forget Everything You Know?

lamsep08landmatts_dirt1Does the general public care whether their urban spaces have the elements landscape architects are taught to provide—seating and shade, for example, or plants?

What I saw yesterday evening in Silver Spring, Maryland, an older “edge city” bordering Washington, D.C., made me have my doubts. Silver Spring hires landscape architects to design some of its outdoor spaces, and I’d heard that they offer interesting contrasts. I went to see for myself.

My first stop was the strangest urban space I have ever seen. To cover up an empty lot in the middle of downtown, the city had plopped down 35,000 square feet of artificial turf three years ago. Local young people have since adopted “the Turf” as a favorite gathering place.

Forget everything you ever learned about the elements that are supposed to make places appeal to people—the Turf doesn’t have any of them. Yet last evening, the people were out in force. A young family was enjoying a picnic while a couple tossed a Frisbee, a few boys practiced their soccer moves, and another kid wheeled around on his shiny new bicycle. One couple lay clasped in a warm embrace. Most, however, were just sitting around on the Turf in small groups, talking up a storm.

What’s the attraction of a flat expanse of fuzzy green plastic? Part of it may be that it’s totally unprogrammed: It’s a “blank slate” that users can adapt to their own whims. Importantly, fast food is available just across the street. But if someone can just plop down some artificial turf and attract the public in droves, who needs the skills of a landscape architect?

Just a short walk away, a midblock plaza offered a sharp contrast (see “Beauty and the Turf,” page 78). Designed by local landscape architects, it had everything—chairs and walls to sit on, colorful tile mosaics, shade trees, and a spritzing fountain. Last evening, the place was packed with people, all of whom appeared to be enjoying themselves, with kids cavorting in the fountain seeming to have the most fun of all. Granted, tonight was no ordinary night at the plaza: The city had set up a stage and programmed a hot Latin band that made quite a few of us want to get up and dance. Most of Silver Spring had apparently turned out for it, and the plaza was absolutely seething with urban exuberance.

Here’s the surprise: Most nights, our LAM reporter found that the well-designed plaza was no better attended than the Turf. How do you explain that?

A little farther on was another contrast: the corporate headquarters of the Discovery Channel. Its outdoor spaces, designed by a large landscape architecture firm, were in the high-end corporate garden mold, tastefully designed with plenty of seating and lush plantings. Yet last evening they were almost deserted.

“Let the people decide what makes a good urban space,” I’ve always said. But, if the public is choosing the scruffy Turf over the elegant Discovery Channel gardens, what does that tell landscape architects about what people really want from their urban spaces? If you have contributed to the design of urban spaces, what has been your biggest surprise regarding what makes them work for people, and what is the most important thing landscape architects can do to help them better design such spaces?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA

Editor /

Can Landscape Architecture Really Help Manage Traffic?

I have just begun Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
by Tom Vanderbilt and I’m already hooked. He thus far has tagged just about every bad driving habit I’ve ever adopted and puts the act of driving to work into frightening and fascinating perspective. Which leads me to think about the role landscape architects can play in minimizing bad behaviors through the use of natural design. Is it possible, in the face of the conflicts inherent in human nature, for streetscapes and transportation corridors to use design and nature to eliminate or at least alleviate traffic woes? If so, what does it look like? I think of the Taconic Parkway in New York State. A seriously beautiful road that drivers nonetheless want to treat like I-95. I should know. It’s the site of my one and only speeding ticket.  

National Park(ing) Day Announced

Break out the deck chairs, benches, and potted plants, because the Trust for Public Land (TPL) has announced National Park(ing) Day for Friday, September 21. National Park(ing) Day aims to turn metered public parking spots nationwide into temporary public parks.

The goals, organizers say, are to celebrate parks and promote the need for more parks in America’s cities. Participating cities include New York City, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others. Organizers are also inviting local groups to participate, expanding the opportunity from one park to a system of park(ing) parks.

Click here for pictures from the 2006 Park(ing) Day, and here for a video.