Shaping the City with Horticulture: The Street

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The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just organized a conference on Civic Horticulture in Philadelphia. Three panels of leading landscape architects discussed the organizational, aesthetic, and productive potential of horticulture. They explained how it is shaping contemporary civic spaces. They presented on three major topics: The Street, Productive Gardens, and Parks and Plazas. Through their own projects, these design leaders showed how these types of places are evolving to meet the needs of cities today.

The Street

For decades, decentralized development resulted in automobile-centric streets, but today, cities are re-purposing their streetscapes in a variety of ways, converting them into multi-functional civic spaces. Panelists discussed how these underused or marginal areas can become integral parts of urban infrastructure, providing pedestrian mobility, valuable habitat, and other amenities. Horticulture is an important element in defining the spatial and programmatic quality of streetscapes. Planting mitigates scale, provides continuity and structure, and creates the aesthetic experience.

1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

Landscape architect Raymond Jungles, FASLA, founding principal of Raymond Jungles, Inc., demonstrated how pedestrian malls can use horticulture to reintegrate nature into the built environment. Jungles helped reclaim one of America’s first pedestrian malls, historic Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach (see image above). He partnered with developer Robert Wennett and architects Herzog & de Meuron to convert a four-lane road back into a pedestrian space and “bring nature into the human environment.”

The main idea for Lincoln Road was to bring the Everglades back into the city. The design achieves this with an abundance of local fauna and a water system that provides both aesthetic and practical functions. Horticulture is the centerpiece of the project. The planting palette displays a variety of shade tree species including native Live Oak, Bald Cypress, and Pond Apple. Placid biofiltration pools reflect light and shadow, creating a pleasant atmosphere while performing  maintenance functions with minimal energy. The planting lends a wild and casual appearance to the mall while supporting a space for retail and both planned and unplanned programs. It also provides habitat for birds and turtles. Locals have nicknamed it the “Urban Glade.”

A Street is a Landscape is a Park is a Trail

Lincoln Road may owe some of its success to contemporary attitudes toward urban space. As another landscape architect, Matthew Urbanski, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), pointed out, pedestrian malls were not as popular a few decades ago. When Lawrence Halprin designed Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall in the mid 1970s, retail was at that time moving out of the city centers and into the surrounding suburbs. Decentralized development did not emphasize pairing pedestrian mobility with attractive amenities. Today, as more people move back into cities and with space at a premium, developers understand the importance of grouping multiple amenities together in one place. Changing attitudes are allowing for experimentation, with hybrid streetscapes combining pedestrian paths and parks into a variety of public spaces. Horticulture is playing a significant role in defining the quality and program of these spaces.

Cities increasingly lack access to the land or economic resources to create public space in the model of Central Park. Green space is more commonly developing out of the imaginative reuse of abandoned land in former industrial areas and along major roadways and waterfronts. Streets, often solely used for vehicular traffic, have become an underutilized resource. Re-imagined to provide economic and ecological services, these “marginal spaces become critical parts of the city’s civic infrastructure or connective tissue,” argued Urbanski. They present an opportunity to develop “synergistic relationships between streetscapes, trails, plazas, and linear parks.”

In addition to providing better mobility for pedestrians and bikers, hybrid streetscapes can accommodate multiple programs, such as the farmer’s market and children’s play areas. An example is the shared space in MVVA’s design for Union Square Park in New York City. These spaces can become virtual oases and perform vital ecological functions. Plantings provide structure and continuity while lending character and interest. MVVA’s Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh successfully transformed a highway “hellscape” into a two-tiered waterfront park. An abundance of native species fill the lower tier closest to the water. The upper tier is a transitional space planted with orderly rows of trees along paths for pedestrians and bikers. It serves as a linear plaza that bridges the city and the waterfront.

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MVVA is currently developing Hudson Park and Boulevard in New York, a mid-block boulevard that is both significantly wider than the average sidewalk but narrower than a traditional park. Plantings define various programmatic spaces fragmented into islands and scattered throughout the length of the park. Connected via the continuous linear path system spanning the block, they provide shady, flexible green spaces. The park will be an important spine of pedestrian mobility and connectivity downtown. It is expected to serve as both a public amenity and a catalyst for economic development.

The Biophilic Street

Henry White, FASLA, a landscape architect and principal at HM White Site Architecture, also believes horticulture is critical to constructing civic spaces. White subscribes to the biophilia hypothesis: humans have a biological need for nature and that they are attracted to certain habitats and settings in the natural world. The structure and order of natural communities evident in, for instance, the monocultures of northeast woodlands, have an appealing and comforting visual clarity. These elements provide important clues for structuring built spaces like streetscapes.

For White, streets are the primary influence in establishing a sense of place in cities. Successful streetscapes are memorable because they provide the right combination of public amenities within a spatial framework that people can comfortably navigate. Significant streets and boulevards such as the Champs-Elysees in Paris and Las Rambles in Barcelona are notable because they successfully manage the monumentality of their expanse and create desirable civic spaces. Colonnades of trees and other organizational planting strategies emphasize the linear nature of these streets and create transitional spaces between buildings, pedestrian paths, parking, and vehicular traffic. These allees support the gridded condition of cities and are the “park of the parkway.”

White’s practice focuses on extending this design sensibility to streetscapes and other civic spaces. Trees, the “lungs of the city,” and other plantings are primary elements in these designs. When systematically laid out, trees structure spaces and calm the inherent urban visual chaos of their surroundings. Plantings provide ecological and functional services. For HM White’s design of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, double, triple, and quadruple rows of trees organize space and direct circulation. The variety of species provide shade and interest for visitors. For the upgrade of the Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, planted bio-filtration areas function like sponges in the unused parts of the road’s shoulder. They perform a critical maintenance function while providing habitat for various species.

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This is part one in a three part series on the Civic Horticulture conference. Read part two: Productive Gardens.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: (1) Lincoln Road / Raymond Jungles, Inc, (2) Allegheny Riverfront Park / MVVA, (3) Mosholu Parkway / HM White Site Architecture

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