In Seattle, the Legacy of Design Innovation Lives on

During the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Layne Cubell, Seattle Center, City of Seattle; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Mia Lehrer + Associates; and Thaisa Way, ASLA, University of Washington, discussed Urban Intervention: the Howard S. Wright Design Ideas Competition for Seattle Center. Deborah Guenther, ASLA, LEED AP, Mithun, moderated the session, describing the competition as a challenge to rethink the role of public space in an era of technological change, do-it-yourself (DIY) interventions, social transformation, and privatization. Part of the Next 50 Years event, a six-month celebration of the legacy of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (the event that built the space needle as a vision of the city of the future), the design ideas competition aimed to rekindle the fair’s spirit of innovation.

Cubell discussed the mechanics of the design competition. The site chosen was a 9-acre space in Seattle Center, the 74-acre cultural campus that was the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. Early planning for the competition began in March of 2011, and it was formally announced in November of that year. Entries were received from across the world, responding to the question, “how must public space perform in the coming century?”

The jury for the competition consisted of three nationally recognized landscape architects, a designer, an artist, and a civic leader. Three semi-finalists were chosen, each with a distinct approach to the design problem. Semifinalist Koning Eizenberg Architecture + ARUP produced “Park,” a far-reaching design that attempted to unify Seattle Center’s disparate elements. Park’s design included a stadium and landscape hybrid structure, in addition to pathways, forest, and a multimodal transportation and recreation hub.

Less heavily programmed and more of a single bold gesture, semi-finalist PRAUD’s design, Seattle Jelly Bean, centered around a giant tethered balloon floating over the landscape below.

The winning submission, ABF’s “In-Closure,” was another bold gesture, envisioning the site as a forest preserve enclosed within a semi-porous wall, designed to organically change over time.

These imaginative submissions are just the next chapter in Seattle’s history of design innovation. Way discussed Seattle’s design competition culture, citing numerous examples of the city’s progressive attitude toward design. She described how Seattle community designers saved Pike Place Market between 1963 and 1971, demonstrating that designers should not just respond to demand, they should advocate for design.

Way stressed the capacity for designers to envision how cities might look and function differently in the future. For instance, Lawrence Halprin and Angela Danadjieva’s Freeway Park showed how public green space could be layered on top of existing automobile infrastructure.

Way cited Richard Haag’s Gasworks Park as another example of design innovation in Seattle. Built on the site of the Seattle Gas Light Company gasification plant, Haag’s design retained much of the gasification plant’s structure, converting the site to public space through bioremediation techniques. Gasworks Park illustrated how public space can be established on a seemingly incompatible site without erasing the site’s history.

As one of the jurors, Lehrer discussed her perspective on the design competition. In the end, the jurors voted for “In-Closure” because it proposed a replicable and organic system that can grow and evolve over time. The design idea did not equate innovation solely with technology, and it recognized that, at its heart, ecological resilience comes from the community itself. Interestingly, Way observed that parks designed by landscape architects tended to stay parks, while submissions designed by architects focused on buildings. Lehrer then raised the question, should the call for entries for a park project require a landscape architect to lead the team?

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credits: (1) Silver Script, (2) Koning Eizenberg Architecture + ARUP, (3) PRAUD, (4) ABF, (5) A. Lee Bennett, Jr. / ATPM, (6) Huge Ass City, (7) Santa Clara University, (8) ABF

Multi-use Infrastructure at Its Most Innovative


New York City is certainly willing to pay top dollar for excellent design. A new $3 billion water treatment plant is taking shape in Van Cortlandt park in the Bronx. The Croton water treatment by Grimshaw Architects and Ken Smith Landscape Architects includes some $250 million in new buildings, plazas, wetlands and meadows, and a public golf driving range, which, amazingly, sits right on top of the plant. In a session at the 2012 ASLA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Ken Smith, ASLA, Ken Smith Landscape Architects; David Burke, Grimshaw Architects; and Charles McKinney, Affiliate ASLA, City of New York, Department of Parks and Recreation, explained how the project is the result of NYC’s design, stormwater management, and parks policies. And while these numerous policies and design requirements were sometimes in conflict, said Smith, the design eventually succeeded because it cleverly integrated security and stormwater management features with public amenities.

McKinney explained that NYC’s government under Mayor Bloomberg has been consistently encouraging practices that create great design, but by necessity, not just out of big city ego. Mayor Bloomberg believes that design excellence yields better results, improves property values, and strengthens investor confidence. In reality, though, it’s about being able to pay the money required to achieve a range of goals, in the area of climate change, public parks, and stormwater management. Under Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, all of the city’s commissioners had to come up with new ways of doing things to accommodate the expected one million people that will move into the city over the next 20 years while also preparing for climate change. For the parks department, this meant holding themselves to the new goal of having every citizen within a 10 minute walk of a park and creating major new parks. An off-shoot of PlaNYC that also relates to the city’s parks is NYC’s bold green infrastructure plan, which helps the city achieve its new goals related to managing stormwater. The new multi-billion dollar green infrastructure plan is expected to decrease the amount of overflow rainwater that overcomes the city’s old combined sewer system by billions of gallons.

Other NYC initiatives help boost performance in different realms: the Active Design Guidelines combat obesity, the Street Design Guidelines encourage new forms of mobility, the High Performance Infrastructure Guidelines help create greener infrastructure systems, the High Performance Landscape Guidelines will help ensure the city’s parks are greener, and the Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence Program means projects will be selected on merit and quality instead of price. McKinney said through these programs “all city residents have benefited.” And in the case of the the Croton project, the design result is even “transcendent.”

NYC’s water conveyance system is as crucial to making the city what it is today as the elevator, said Smith, quoting Norval White’s book, New York: A Physical History. Together, the water system and elevators enabled NYC’s density. And while the grid was laid out in 1812, the water system from the 19th century really made the city work. Before, Smith said, there were “private water systems, primitive distribution systems.”

The Croton water treatment plant was built because of fears about the city’s water quality. The Croton watershed had been jeopardy due to naturally-occurring compounds, said Burke. After reviewing 14 possible sites, the city found that a spot in Van Cortlandt park would actually be the most cost-effective. After the city dithered on moving forward with the Bronx site, the federal government issued a mandate saying the facility had to be built. The federal government also said that while aspects of the park had to be uprooted during construction, all pieces had to be replaced after the plant went in. That meant eventually restoring the original golf course driving range found there.

The 9-acre-square plant is set below ground, up to 100 feet deep in some spots. Driving through sheer bedrock, the complex plant being created by infrastructure engineers will help the city purify the huge amount of water it uses daily, about 1.23 million gallons. Smith, the landscape architect designing all the landscape elements, said the roof of the plant was now in place, creating the largest green roof in the country.

Smith and Burke walked the crowd through the many challenges in knitting the design together while addressing all of NYC’s issues. One entrance to the facility needs to be highly secure, with space for car and truck X-ray machines, while other access points need to be easy, public. There had to be room for a chemical discharge station, which is used to funnel the chemicals needed to clean the water. All stormwater had to be captured on site, so there had to be a careful analysis of the terrain and existing riparian woodlots. The site also needed to channel or produce water for the golf range and native meadows and wetlands.


Smith outlined how an ingenious system of water conveyance was created that leveraged existing water flows. New bioswales and natural treatment systems were put in to help retain water and also channel it to a man-made lake. The NYC government said the project really had to be more of a landscape project than a building one so artistic integration of the buildings into the landscape was also a key issue. Burke, an architect, said “we had to blur the lines between landscape and building,” which for him was a learning experience.


Multiple schemes were batted around before everyone settled on a circular design that provides multiple benefits, said Smith. The round shape not only provides some coherence for the golf course but also obscured a reading of the invaluable plant underneath. Like the layers in a onion, the design provides 2-miles of gabioned, stone-clad, and core-ten steel walls in rings at different heights, each providing different functions. To block vehicular traffic, there are 3-feet high walls, while intruders on foot will be stopped by 10-feet sheer walls. Smith said the site design uses a moat, “a primitive military mechanism,” to solve contemporary challenges. The moat itself is filled with bioretention systems but really it’s there to enable dramatic grade shifts so the walls don’t seem too intrusive.

McKinney stepped in to add that the original design, well, wasn’t really a design at all, but an “engineering solution,” offering a big box in a park, which was “not a good thing.” Now, the design is a “landscape. This is the breakthrough.”

The public golf driving range also works with the moat. Golfers will send their ball out over the moat, while the roof itself will use a “Xmas tree” formation of targets to enable golfers at different skill levels to enjoy.



The green roof itself is inaccessible to the public. Smith said months of research went into making the sub-structures, which consist of many layers, work. Grades had to be carefully thought out, too, to ensure maintenance vehicles and ball collectors could get on the roof. Eventually, a bowl shaped was settled on for the course for aesthetic and technical reasons. Smith, who’s known for his deep appreciation of materials, described his examination of all the different foams, natural and artificial turfs, and soils he and the golf consultants tested at great length.

McKinney, Burke, and Smith all described lessons learned from the project. For Burke, the lead on the project, the learning curve working with such an interdisciplinary team was steep. Solving multiple challenges in a collaborative environment was new. “We worked with many consultant we don’t usually work with and had to learn their language.” Smith said working with some “retrograde engineers” who were part of the original team was a real problem, as they didn’t understand why a design team was coming in to design the stormwater management systems and green roof. He said infrastructural engineers are excellent at what they do, but “public space design is not in their skill set.”

One audience member seemed to wonder why this landscape architecture project was led by an architect, David Burke at Grimshaw, instead of the landscape architect, Ken Smith. Little known fact: under NYC’s design excellence program rules, projects like these can’t be led by a landscape architect. This is one of the only instances where this is the case among design excellence programs. Hopefully, as the central work of Smith on this project demonstrates, interdisciplinary projects can just as easily be led by a landscape architect as an architect. In fact, Burke seemed to say as much when he said it didn’t really matter who was the lead or sub-contractor in this effort, the effort was a deep collaboration between architect and landscape architect. Let’s hope the city starts to understand this, too.

Explore the project in depth.

Image credits: Grimshaw Architects and Ken Smith Workshop

Design Critics: Landscape Architects Can Take the Lead in Designing Cities


For the Sunday morning general session at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Bradford McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, organized a panel of some of the most prominent architecture and urban design critics from around the U.S. and Canada. The panel consisted of Inga Saffron, architecture critic, The Philadelphia Inquirer; John King, Hon. ASLA, urban design critic, The San Francisco Chronicle; Steven Litt, architecture and urban design critic, The Plain Dealer; Chistopher Hume, urban design columnist, The Toronto Star; and Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic, The Los Angeles Times. Throughout the discussion, the panelists stressed the need for landscape architects to take a leadership role in the planning and design of our cities.

For the first question, McKee asked the panel, “What is the story for landscape architecture in your cities?” Litt framed Cleveland as a typical Midwestern city – losing population, but seeing a downtown resurgence. With the middle class starting to return to downtown, “a lot of energy is being refocused in the center” despite its shrinking population. Still, Litt expressed frustration that landscape architects do not often capture large projects that have the capacity to make the city more sustainable on an urban scale. As an example he said when landscape architects are involved in large-scale projects, the results have been positive: Cleveland’s new Bus Rapid Transit Corridor, which included design work from landscape architecture firm Sasaki Associates, has been hugely successful, achieving “a phenomenal return on investment.”

Hume also stressed that the potential of landscape architecture is “not about the prettification of the city, it is about creating value.” He described how landscape architects have been driving the transformation of the Toronto waterfront, 2,000 acres of “what was industrial wasteland, the kind of area that people avoided like the plague.” Through a series of small projects, landscape architects have led people to understand that this part of the city could be a great place to live. Drawing applause, Hume stated that landscape architectures should strive to change “the way people perceive the city in which they live.”

King described the tension between large and small projects in San Francisco. Because “things move so slowly, and there are so many political constraints,” small-scale urban interventions are starting to make a big impact. Hawthorne also expressed the difficulty of achieving large-scale landscape architecture projects, though he did say that Los Angeles is “in the mist of reengaging the public sphere,” and that this transformation “holds exciting opportunities for landscape architects.” On the other end of the spectrum, Saffron described how Philadelphia is aiming for large-scale green infrastructure, planning for the addition of 500 acres of stormwater-capturing parkland, easing city expenses and providing spaces for people.

The relationship between landscape architecture and the public sector was a recurring theme throughout the session. When faced with the question of how wise public agencies are at producing excellent landscapes, Litt lamented, “all the state transportation agencies are hugely powerful, and they are run by engineers.” To change this, landscape architects “have to mobilize and fight it out at the state level.” King and Hume also felt that landscape architects are not playing enough of a role in the public sphere. Despite the widespread revitalization of urban centers, Hume said “landscape architects have been timid to recognize this opportunity.” Instead of simply filling in the spaces around buildings, landscape architects should be making spaces first and siting buildings after. By doing so, Hume felt we can design “cities that have actual public realms.”

Another interesting theme in the session was the changing perception of the value of public space. Responding to the question of whether the public connects to landscape architecture the way we want them to, Saffron stated, “I think people really care about their parks, especially their neighborhood parks.” She felt that we’re in a “post-job” period, where people have work but no jobs. Because people are not “chained to their desks,” they have time to use public space in a more intense way than before. Hawthorne also spoke to the growing demand for a civic realm. He said that people in Los Angeles, despite their reputation, have a desire for public space, but they don’t have the opportunity for it. He felt that part of this desire for public space was driven by a technological shift: people’s obsession with their phones has led to them viewing car ownership as a burden, not freedom. After all, “driving is the one time that they can’t use their phones.”

This question of the public’s relationship to landscape architecture also prompted a discussion about the profession’s visibility. King stated, “I think people appreciate landscapes, but I don’t know how many people really associate landscape architects with public landscapes.” Elaborating on this point, Hume said, “The great conundrum for the landscape architect is that when the project is successful, they think it is natural and has always been there.” Therefore, landscape architects need to make people aware that these spaces “did not spring out of nature, that every aspect was designed.” Still, landscape architects must remember that people use public spaces and take ownership of them. When landscape architects do whatever they want, the public sees it as an intrusion. Hume felt that many in the public do not see landscape architects as their allies, perhaps because “the word architect implies ego.”

Throughout the session, landscape architecture was painted as a critical, but often missing, element of urban design. As cities grapple with climate change and the legacy of suburban sprawl, landscape architects need to assert themselves not only as designers of parks and gardens, but as designers of all public infrastructure.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credit: Sam Brown Photography / ASLA