By Grace Mitchell Tada
Static. According to Barbara Wilks, FASLA, landscapes are too often designed with that operating assumption.
Even though humans have been around for the past 200,000 years, we still have a proclivity to design landscapes to remain the same for 20 to 50 years.
Wilks argues this is a problem that needs to change. Given the projected growth of cities and the challenges of a rapidly shifting climate, she asserts that dynamic landscapes are required for resilient, healthy urban communities.
She strives to create these landscapes at her firm, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. Her ideas about landscapes emerge from decades of professional experience. In a new book, Dynamic Geographies, Wilks demonstrates how she centers natural processes through her designs. As most of her projects unfold in cities, this necessarily includes altering how humans perceive the landscapes around them.
Wilks defines dynamic geographies as complex systems that use non-anthropogenic forces for adaptation. For landscape architects to integrate these systems into projects, they must consider other species, the interconnectivity of various forms of life, and time as a landscape element. Landscape architects must design to larger and multiple time scales. They must gauge “what could be as opposed to what we want changed now.”
A key aspect to designing at various time scales involves transforming how we manage landscapes—and that includes the management of W’s projects. At present, they require humans to maintain. A truly sustainable landscape, Wilks asserts, can exist without humans, allowing “different flows and rates of change for different species.” As a result, W designs landscapes that welcome these processes: it’s these forms of maintenance that in the long run can yield diverse and sustaining landscapes.
The book divides W’s projects into three categories: “(In)visible Geographies,” “Layered Geographies,” and “Unleashing Geographies.” Each section builds on the other, and projects across these sections seek to illuminate landscapes’ dynamism and situate geographies within extended time scales. While Wilks doesn’t claim success in all her projects—“this book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W”—one can glean effective strategies to instill dynamism throughout projects.
In the first section, projects attempt to reveal aspects of sites often hidden, “making them manifest, so that urban dwellers have the opportunity to situate themselves in larger systems that transcend their immediate realities,” writes Alison Hirsch in the book’s introduction. Wilks is not nostalgic for us to return to previous time or to lost landscapes. “We can’t return to the past,” she writes, but “we can construct new relationships that bind us into the fabric of a place’s ongoing evolution.”
Through these new relationships, Wilks hopes communities can understand they are embedded in and not separate from nature. W’s projects facilitate this understanding in various ways. In Baltimore, a waterfront soap factory simultaneously reflects its location in the greater Chesapeake Bay region and in an industrial harbor. In Brooklyn, the off-kilter angles of the piers at the Edge project echo the turbulence of the East River into which they extend.
At West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattan, newly designed piers adopt the patterns of the Hudson River instead of the city grid. The site’s forms resemble sand dunes and the benches recall driftwood. The project, though, didn’t emerge solely of the designer’s ideas. In fact, the community spurned W’s initial conception of the project involving a “missing pier”—a field of piles in the Hudson—as too evocative of a ruin. In its place, New York City’s first reef ball structure was developed, which today serves as habitat to a diversity of aquatic life.
The book’s second section, “Layered Geographies,” doubles down on integrating the social and ecological systems comprising urban spaces. The projects here demonstrate the relationships between communities and the place in which they’re embedded. Several projects were designed for communities in places destroyed by urban renewal or disregarded by infrastructure projects, including in St. Louis and Detroit.
One such project is Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter in Tampa, Florida. The park was previously an African American neighborhood, which was demolished with the construction of a highway. A park was established in its place, from which the displaced community understandably felt estranged. W was brought in to work with them to develop a park that reflected what they wanted. Not only does the new park embody the community’s desires, but it weaves into the surrounding urban social fabric and allows the river ecology to flourish. Like many of W’s projects, this landscape necessitated considerations of many time scales — from the daily to the generational to the geological.
The final section, “Unleashing Geographies,” further elevates nonhuman systems and their agency in shaping landscapes, especially over extended time scales. Wilks is interested in how their landscapes will evolve and how they can support all varieties of biophysical systems through this evolution. They are about humans letting go.
This objective is exemplified by W’s design at St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta. W accentuated the shifting nature of the island, removing static water-protective barriers around the edge and welcoming water flows through the island. The design fosters the emergence of streams and wetlands, which will move over time while designating certain “fixed” areas for human activity. According to Wilks, perhaps expressing her ideal of a designed landscape, “it is a living landscape with smaller human-managed areas set within it.”
Through their deference to natural systems, projects like St. Patrick’s Island achieve lasting change. These projects, Wilks insists, must enable new growth and development of adaptable systems—not just preservation of existing ones. As she points out, even small projects in this vein show how they can succeed on other sites, encouraging more such efforts to proliferate. Here, especially, the book may prove useful to other landscape architects and designers, who can glean inspiration from W’s projects.
As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.