Landscape Architects Take the Lead in Remaking Cities

Robert Campbell, architecture critic for The Boston Globe, argues that landscape architecture is no longer just about creating pretty gardens and preserving expanses of forests and rivers anymore, but about reclaiming abandoned urban spaces and transforming them into new public spaces. “Landscape architecture is changing fast. Landscape architects are invading the arenas once dominated by architects and city planners.”

More and more, landscape architects are asked to delve into the “wreckage of America’s industrial past,” which they are now treating as a new kind of landscape with its own set of opportunities. “They’re learning how to reclaim our abandoned waterfronts, collapsing mills, and polluted river systems, sites that are littered with detritus and usually sick with the toxic waste left behind by some failed industry.”

As an example, Campbell points to the 3.5-acre Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island, which has been transformed from an abandoned steel fabricating plant into a space for artists by Cambridge-based landscape architects Mark Klopfer, ASLA, and Kaki Martin, ASLA, partners in the firm Klopfer Martin Design Group. The site, which was owned by Providence Steel & Iron, was once used to create custom ornamental features for buildings. When the company went bust in 2001, the site was left to rot.

However, much like the High Line, the derelict site also had its own charms: “Many of the constructions were stained or rusting in ways that gave them a rich visual interest. Grass grew wild to knee height. Rabbits and birds were the inhabitants. The great gantry cranes that once traveled back and forth overhead, indoors and out, remained, but they were as motionless as monuments in a cemetery.”

When two investors purchased the lot for $1.2 million and hired Klopfer Martin Design Group to redesign the space, they wanted it to be kept as an “urban wild,” with its innate “grittiness” maintained. Klopfer and Martin told Campbell that the local community appreciated the site as it was but wanted it “put back to work.”

With a $600,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Klopfer and Martin started remediating the site, dealing with the toxic soils first. “The ground was polluted with lead from paint. The Klopfer team wanted to keep this toxic soil on the site rather than dump it in someone else’s backyard. Yet they also wanted to store rainfall on site, not let it run off uselessly into sewers. How do you safely store rain on a polluted site? The paradox was solved with an ingenious system of pervious paving, with earthen ‘moats’ to take up any overflow. Klopfer and Martin restored the gantry cranes, which now again roll overhead. They replanted some of the old grasses, leaving them uncut. Klopfer says he used grass to ‘re-colonize the site’’ after its period of being ignored.” Free pieces of steel sheets recycled from other construction sites were used as a “rough but elegant trim at the edges of the grass areas.”

The local community also came out in force to help create the new space. Some 192 volunteers came to help plant and they still provide maintenance services. “College kids arrive during vacations from as far away as Ohio and Kansas. They perform clean-up jobs, sometimes leaving college inscriptions as mementos on the window glass. If you hang out enough at the Steel Yard, you get to be called one of ‘the Yardies.’”

Artists now use the space to teach classes on steel and metal work, ceramics, jewelry making, blacksmithing, glasswork, and other areas. In fact, according to Campbell, any artist can rent space and equipment to work and teach there. There’s also a summer camp for kids. One program teaches teenagers how to weld and work with steel. There are public activities as well: “There’s been a wedding and a RISD alumni gathering. Due this summer are a techno music fest and a writer’s conference.” Now established as a non-profit corporation, the new Steel Yards earns funds from fees, rentals, and grants. 

Even with the redesign, the site is still on the National Register of Historic Places. However, Campbell notes that the site is not preserved in some ideal past, but is alive, working again. “The Steel Yard is a steelyard again.”

Read the article and a story on the project by Metropolis magazine, and see more photos.

Check out another project that reused an abandoned industrial site yet preserved its industrial character: Zhongshan Shipyard Park by Chinese landscape architect Yu Kongjian, International ASLA.

Also, see a few more stories about the increasingly important role of landscape architects in remaking cities. In Planetizen, Michael Mehaffy, an urban theorist, writes that landscape architects are now best positioned to lead in a number of areas crucial to creating successful, livable cities, which, in turn, are central to creating more sustainable forms of living. “After all, while architects have often been over-focused on object-buildings, it is landscape architects who have been the champions of the best figure-ground urbanism in the past – and they can be so again.” Gwen Webber in The Architect’s Newspaper covers similar territory: “Commissions that might have been won by architect-led teams just a few years ago are now going to landscape firms. And large-scale urban design competitions are going to landscape-led teams who demonstrate the capacity to design creatively with existing ecologies, such as the redevelopment of Seattle’s waterfront by Field Operations, or urban regeneration initiatives like Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which aims to reinvigorate Eero Saarinen’s iconic landmark through improved public areas by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).”

Image credit: The Steel Yard

2 thoughts on “Landscape Architects Take the Lead in Remaking Cities

  1. Mark Lerch 07/06/2011 / 1:27 pm

    The first paragraph claims that landscape architects are “invading arenas once dominated by architects and city planners.” I thought planning as a profession was born from forward thinking landscape architects such as John Nolen and Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. Landscape architects haven’t always been shrub pushers.

  2. Don Carter 07/07/2011 / 7:59 am

    We do not need a false debate about whether architects or landscape architects are remaking cities. The overall profession is urban design and it includes architects, landscape architects, city planners, and engineers. I would rewrite Bob Campbell’s headline to read: “Urban Designers Take the Lead in Remaking Cities.” They always have — from Alberti to Burnham to Unwin. It doesn’t matter if they label themselves Landscape Urbanists (Waldheim) or New Urbanists (Duany). They are all urban designers, plain and simple.

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