Thomas Balsley, FASLA, and his eponymous firm have created over 100 public spaces in New York City alone, not to mention numerous award-winning plazas and parks around the U.S. and the world. Over 25 years of practice, Balsley has found opportunities where others may not have looked: in small scraps of land such as “bonus plazas,” otherwise known as privately-owned public spaces, and in “barren, failed places” along post-industrial waterfronts. There, Balsley turned lemons into lemonade for us all, creating humane, beautiful public spaces that show all kinds of landscapes can be made valuable through thoughtful design. His firm’s key projects are explored in the new book Thomas Balsley: Uncommon Ground, which covers everything from “small urban plazas and courtyards to medium-sized institutional and residential landscapes, large parks, campuses, and vast urban waterfronts and master plans.”
Balsley tells his own story well. He arrived in New York City in 1970 and, like Frank Sinatra, was determined to make it there. But back then, Manhattan wasn’t the safe pleasure bubble for the wealthy it is today. “Cities were burning, the Vietnam War was raging, and civil rights were a part of my daily dialogue. NYC was a few steps from bankruptcy, literally dangerous, and its public open spaces were filled with most of the city’s social ills.” He goes on to add that “‘plaza’ was a dirty word.” And it’s not as if the city government at the time helped either. “NYC licensed landscape architects could not even legally hold a contract with the City of New York. If we were lucky enough to work on a park, it had to be as a sub-consultant to an engineer or architect.” But he says “in spite of these bleak prospects for finding work, I felt I had to live the NYC experience.”
Years later, exhausted by all the “talk that led to nothing built” and the lack of public investment in public spaces, Balsley decided to explore what was possible with the then relatively new model — public/private partnerships, an approach used to finance Bryant Park. On a small scale, Balsley began designing “bonus plazas, a privately owned public open space built and maintained by tower developers in exchange for additional floor area. In NYC’s fiscal environment with no funding for new public spaces, these plazas were an extraordinary opportunity to create public space in the city, and engage the private residential and commercial development sector and the department of city planning in a design dialogue to find common ground with the public’s interest at heart.” In Manhattan alone, there are now 99 acres of these “small but important spaces.” Balsley has designed over 60 of them.
Soon Balsley began to take on larger scale projects. Developers reached out to him with their plans for “public/private partnerships involving rezoning and larger parks and then waterfronts.” One project was the “massive” Riverside South development along the Hudson River. Then, clients in other parts of the U.S. and Japan began to call.
In Japan, he was influenced by the “clean, crisp style that drew its essence from centuries-long traditions, yet looked forward.” A single napkin sketch ended up becoming the Osaka World Trade Center plaza.
And in 1994, Balsley was given another opportunity, one he had been waiting for for years — to create an urban, ecological waterfront park. At Queens West, right across the East River from the United Nations, Balsley and his team created the Gantry Plaza State Park. When it opened, The New York Times art and architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote: “The spell has been broken. The miracle of Gantry Park is that it takes risks in a city that has long been frightened of them. The pay-off is spectacular.”
Balsley writes that the success of Gantry Park gave the city the confidence it needed to “regenerate itself through contemporary language of public space design. And if for no other reason, the park is referred to as a seminal moment in NYC’s landscape architectural history.”
Balsley, who won the ASLA Design Medal last year, has only continued to push innovation in waterfront park design. His recently-opened Hunter’s Point South Park in Queens, which was created with architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi and won an ASLA professional design award, set a new standard for resilient landscape design. As Balsley explained in an interview, “with the rugged materials and detailing, we were way ahead of the game in terms of resilience. Because the East River is actually a tidal body with strong currents of saltwater, we avoided catchment areas that might catch surges and hold them. Long-term exposure to the saltwater can be pretty harmful, so the park drains itself, with water eventually finding its way back out over to the river as waters recede.”
But even with all the technical innovations, Balsley has maintained a focus on people — his ultimate clients and primary users of the spaces he designs. In the forward to the book, James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, writes that: “His design approach begins with the site and context but moves very quickly into artfully configuring spaces for people, effectively shaping novel settings for social interaction. This book contains myriad images of beautiful spaces filled with people — some strolling, jogging, promenading, bicycling, crossing; others sitting, lounging, looking, reading, meeting, eating, conversing, kissing, playing or otherwise enjoying themselves in the public realm. What is not so clear to the untrained eye is that these same places would likely be empty and unused if it were not for the choreography of design — the careful orchestration of geometry, configuration, and arrangement. Design here is less about appearance, look, style, or form, and much more about setting the stage for social performance. It’s a subtle and knowing art, based on years of observation and understanding, and Balsley is a master.”