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

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2 thoughts on “Land Matters: Time to Forget Everything You Know?

  1. Kathy Yandell 09/05/2009 / 3:59 pm

    This comes at a very handy time. The final project for Design 4 is due this Tuesday. Forget all the creative effort I was putting into my design. With this design concept, I can consider it done.

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