A Hidden Waterway Is Found Through Podcast Tours

Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth
Headphones and maps set up for a Water Walk event in Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth

How can you get people to appreciate the invisible features of their hometown? A team led by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and MTWTF is currently conducting a unique multi-media design experiment that aims to find out by focusing on an often-forgotten but significant culvert in Lexington, Kentucky. The Town Branch Water Walk, created for the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is a podcast-guided one-hour walking tour of downtown Lexington’s Town Branch Creek, a long-buried hidden waterway. To further enlighten users of the podcast tours, SCAPE created a set of topographical tables that show what they will explore.

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE
Water walk tour, Lexington, Kentucky / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

The water walk, which can be completed in under an hour, is intended to transform the way Lexingtonians interpret their everyday landscape by revealing what exists underground: karst geology and hydrology. For those who may not know, karst is formed from the “dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum” and takes shape as underground drainage systems, with caves and sinkholes.

Lexington was founded on the Town Branch –  a karst stream — but over time this landscape has been covered over and “put out of sight, out of mind.” The tour follows the creek downstream from its headwaters on a busy highway to where it daylights in a parking lot behind the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

“The Water Walk creates links between the urban areas Lexingtonians inhabit and the rural Bluegrass region that shapes the identity of the city and region. Karst is Lexington’s hidden secret – the water that flows through this limestone bedrock is rumored to make the bluegrass grow taller, the horses’ bones grow stronger, and the bourbon taste better,” said Gena Wirth, ASLA, a principal at SCAPE.

The set of 3-minute long podcasts are modeled off of Safari 7, a self-guided tour of urban wildlife on New York City’s 7 subway. The podcasts include interviews with local experts on topics ranging from “Lexington’s green infrastructure projects to the complicated nature of Kentucky’s karst-defined hydrology.”

The free podcast and walking tour model was chosen because it can reach multiple audiences who might not typically seek out information on water quality or stormwater management. The team is also working with local schools to integrate the podcasts into the middle school science and social studies curricula.

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger
Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch with Gena Wirth / Lexington-Herald Ledger

The new tour also helps set the stage for the work SCAPE is doing in the city. The firm recently won an international design competition to design Town Branch Commons, a broader, long-term initiative advanced by the mayor and the Lexington DDA that will create a new linear public space downtown along the path of the karst water system of Town Branch. A number of other projects, including the construction of the Town Branch Trail, the Legacy Trail Development, and a remedial action plan as a result of an E.P.A. action on water pollution, are in the works.

SCAPE's winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE / landscape architecture
SCAPE’s winning design for Town Branch Commons / SCAPE

SCAPE thinks more landscape architects should go multi-media when trying to communicate with the public. “We firmly believe in the power of systemic vision, but we also believe that visions need to be accompanied by face-to-face communication and design (or podcast-to-ear!).”

Wirth thinks these approaches can create new connections with the environment: “On the ground experience is invaluable – getting out into a new environment, occupying a familiar space in an unfamiliar space, or hearing a podcast describe the trickling stream below your feet transforms the way you experience a place and understand its potential. Landscape architects work to reveal and enhance environmental systems within urban areas, and the podcast walking tour is another way to combat inertia and catalyze appreciation and change. As designers, we need to expand our toolkit and explore more diverse techniques for speaking directly to people about the quality and potential of their built environment.”

Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE
Water walk tour / Gena Wirth, SCAPE

So far, the Lexington DDA has hosted one of three Water Walk events. Vine Street was open to pedestrian and bike traffic to allow people to take the walk. A new Water Walk website was recently launched, and listening stations are becoming available for public use at destinations downtown.

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