In Local Code, Nicholas de Monchaux pushes us to assign new value to forgotten pieces of our urban fabric – the dead-end alley, the vacant corner lot; infrastructure’s leftovers. While many cities deem vacant parcels as unusable remnants of development, Local Code makes the case for aggregating them to build urban resilience.
To visualize the opportunities, de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, uses data on vacant public land in four cities – San Francisco; Los Angeles; Venice, Italy; and New York City. He then translates the data into a series of diagrams and drawings that show the scale and types of these dormant landscapes.
In San Francisco, for example, what the city’s department of public works refers to as “unaccepted streets” – right-of-ways the city does not maintain — make up the equivalent surface area to Golden Gate Park (over 1,000 acres). New York and Los Angeles have “underutilized parcels.” Los Angeles also has space under billboards, while Venice has a “lagoon” of abandoned islands.
De Monchaux highlights what he calls the “institutional invisibility” of these spaces, showing how they coincide with higher levels of household poverty, urban heat islands, crime, and asthma. Then, de Monchaux shows how bioswales, drought-tolerant planting, and porous paving could help reduce these problem areas.
The result is a multitude of diagrams and drawings that demonstrate a scope of opportunities, rather than predetermined results. By addressing sites where these issues are most acute, de Monchaux argues that cities can build a spatial network to improve environmental circulation and function of urban ecosystems, which can even help cities spend more wisely on public works.
Proposals also focus on intertwined social issues. In New York City, where as de Monchaux notes, there have been many resiliency-related rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of which haven’t focused on improving quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. De Monchaux writes: “Combining stormwater and heat-island mediation with the creation of shared public space, the investment proposed here is one equally focused on the everyday resilience of communities as in episodic resilience to disaster.”
Scattered between the case studies are essays about the lives and professional contributions of three key figures – artist Gordon Matta-Clark, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and architect Howard Fisher. In recalling these stories, Local Code acknowledges the painstaking data collection efforts of visionaries in urban design before the instant gratification of geographic information systems (GIS), which makes possible the book’s 3,659 proposals.
These essays make up a substantial portion of the text and give Local Code a character-driven quality to an otherwise data-heavy book. De Monchaux acknowledges in the introduction that “an abundance of data is not knowledge.” To that end, the historical essays give context on how cities function and adapt in response to environmental and social change.
To fully grasp Monchaux’s planning and design proposals may require experience in design, or at least visual communication, but the historical essays speak to a broader audience interested in cities, as does the optimistic approach to vacant parcels. Ultimately, Local Code encourages us to read between the lines, or buildings, and see new opportunities in forgotten spaces.
Like so many national parks, the C&O Canal National Historic Park has been loved to death. Some 4.8 million people visited the park last year, more than the number of visitors to Yellowstone or Yosemite. Partnering with the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, the local business improvement district (BID), and D.C. department of planning, the National Park Service (NPS) has initiated a new comprehensive plan to revitalize the one-mile stretch of the canal running through Georgetown, which is just one segment of the 184-mile-long canal that goes all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. The year-long process will result in a final plan identifying the costs of improvements.
Canal ally Georgetown Heritage hired James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architects who designed the High Line, to find out what people who love and use the canal want and craft a new vision. For some, the canal is a place to stroll and relax or exercise, a restorative respite from the busy commercial corridors along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. For others, it’s a tourist destination and a place to eat a cupcake and chat with friends. Improving the experience for these different types of users and reconciling conflicting needs, all the while maintaining the canal’s historic character will be tricky.
Last week, nearly 200 community members met in small groups, debating how to update the canal while preserving its character. The canal is a significant piece of transportation history and an engineering marvel, explained Kevin Brandt, NPS superintendent. The 184-mile-long canal, which was was constructed from 1828 to 1850, was primarily used to bring coal from the Allegheny Mountains to waterfront mills found in Georgetown. The canal required building more than 70 locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major rivers and streams, and 240 culverts to traverse smaller streams. After the mills closed in the early 1900s, the canal fell into disuse. In Georgetown, a $6.5 million effort is already underway to restore just one historic lock as a tourist attraction.
James Corner, ASLA, offered insights from his team’s analysis of the one-mile stretch under consideration. He wants to “build on the canal’s innate personality, and concentrate the poetics of the found experiences.” The canal is now used for “strolling, romantic promenades after dinner, biking and jogging,” depending on the time of day. The canal also has a “broader constituency” than just the residents of Georgetown, including the millions of tourists who visit and residents from nearby states who walk or bike the trail.
He was taken with what he called the “beautiful mineral nature” of the canal, the stone walls and large rocks that line the towpaths, along with the water lines, the “visceral” expressions of water found in the rock.
He was also intrigued by the vegetation that has grown in over time — “the moss, lichens, and ferns that have moved in,” and the “trees, meadows, and habitat” that slowly greened the site over the past century.
The relatively-narrow towpaths present challenges — in some stretches there’s just one towpath — but there are open areas, such as the fish market, overlooks, and aqueduct that can be enhanced as public spaces. Corner organized spaces with unique spatial characteristics into zones, which together “form a rich sequence of experiences.” Throughout these zones, there are real accessibility issues — many of the bridges and paths only offer stairs, not ramps.
At the public planning session, groups explored what to preserve and enhance or what new uses could be incorporated. Our group wanted to preserve the canal’s rustic, chill vibe; re-introduce the local ecosystem and create gardens with native plants; clean the water; make the canal more accessible by adding ramps, seating, drinking fountains, and restrooms; enliven it with high-quality public art; create new educational opportunities with better signage and tours; and perhaps open up the canal to recreational boating and kayaking on weekends.
What was also heard from many groups: don’t turn the C&O Canal into High Line, which has become a tourist destination and is crowded at almost all hours. To allay those fears, Corner said the NYC park, built on an old rail line, “is not a useful comparison, because the context is very different.”
And as Alison Greenberg, head of Georgetown Heritage, explained, “our goal is not to overhaul the canal, but to enhance its essence.”
However, just improving access to the C&O and creating shiny new amenities like gardens or plazas will likely increase the number of visitors. How can people enjoy the restorative experience of the canal amid mobs of people? Let’s hope this special place maintains its low-key charm.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, want the city’s massive park system — which covers 30,000 acres, some 14 percent of the city’s land — to be fairer. For too long, some neighborhoods have had wonderful, high-quality public spaces, while others have had parks that don’t meet contemporary needs and have fallen into disrepair. As Silver said in an interview with The Dirt: “Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.” The park department’s Community Parks Initiative (CPI) — which rebuilds or significantly improves parks that have not seen any capital investment in 25 years — is one of the central efforts for achieving this goal. At the American Planning Association’s annual conference in New York City, Silver and others explained how the city’s already improving park equity — and setting a new model for other cities to follow.
Exploring all of NYC’s five boroughs, Silver has discovered people want the parks department to “break up all the pavement and add more green. They want more spray showers, dog runs, adult fitness equipment, and colorful places.” Communities also want “multi-generational social seating,” with benches for older residents and playgrounds for kids.
The CPI uses a “data-driven methodology” to identify the parks it will redesign or improve, explained Alyssa Konon, with the NYC parks department. They have identified 215 parks, plazas, and playgrounds in areas with high levels of poverty and inequality that especially need help. Some 56 comprehensive park redos have been started, and 11 more will start this fall. There have been targeted improvements in another 86. To date, some 55 neighborhoods, which are home to half a million NYers, now enjoy improved park space.
While about $1 billion in capital is needed for all 215 spaces, they also need “support, partnerships, programs, and maintenance.” Konon said NYC Parks is also ramping up programmatic support for these parks, partnering with other city departments and non-profits. NYC residents have already benefited from 130 outdoor exercise classes organized by the parks department. There are 15 staff members who just focus on partnerships, helping to coordinate the 33,000 volunteers who donate their time in hundreds of parks. There are now some 48 parks friends groups.
Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLandStudio, a landscape architect who is a consultant with the parks department, believes “every community can have an incredible park.” She is redesigning a few older parks and playgrounds in Staten Island, working with communities to explore the “ecology, history, culture” of these spaces and strike the right balance between “passive and active uses.” She said parks department-led public planning sessions are particularly “humane,” as they schedule them when single parents can attend and also offer good food, so those parents can bring their kids along. “It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.”
So that communities don’t get “park fatigue” waiting forever for changes to happen, Silver and his team have “transformed the capital development process,” Drake said. “Parks now happen a lot more quickly — in just two years,” instead of the typical four-to-five year cycle. “Whereas before we had five community design meetings, now we have two.” Silver said his goal has been to “streamline the process, because there are just too many regulations.”
New York City Council member Mark Levine explained how many of the city’s parks got into such dire straits in the first place. “In the 70s and 80s, the rough years in the city, the parks budget dropped and never recovered.” Now, parks only get 0.5 percent of the city budget, just $344 million out of $70 billion.
Levine thinks the CPI is a great initiative, but parks overall just need more money, particularly in neighborhoods like East Harlem and the South Bronx, which have been up-zoned and are becoming more dense, and, therefore, need more high-quality public spaces. “Parks need to be considered part of new infrastructure.”
With 843 Acres Buffed, Central Park Leader Will Step Down– The New York Times, 6/6/17
“It is easy to forget what Central Park looked like in the 1980s. But Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, can see past the lush meadows and fresh streams to a time when the 843-acre park was more beaten-down wasteland than urban Eden.”
Landscape Architect Tends Ideas for Major City Projects– The Chicago Tribune, 6/8/17
“One of the keys to better creative ideas is first knowing what problem your client needs to solve, says Terry Guen, principal, president and founder of Terry Guen Design Associates in Chicago. But that isn’t always clear or simple.”
Seoul is the latest cities to reclaim a piece of aging infrastructure for public use. Last month, South Korea’s capital city opened Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, an inner-city freeway transformed into a pedestrian artery and botanical garden.
The elevated public park was designed by Dutch architects and urban designers MVRDV as a series of gardens with 24,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers. Fifty plant families and 228 species and sub-species are organized according to the Korean alphabet along the pedestrian-only walkway.
Ben Kuipers, lead landscape architect on the project, said the unique arrangement highlights plant nuances. “The species are organized by genus and family. So people can experience the differences between species,” he wrote in an email. “There are small, themed gardens, like the maple garden and the pine tree garden, and a surprising contrast walking from family to family, in Korean alphabetical order.”
Over 600 concrete planters dot the approximately 3,000-foot linear park, which stretches across the city’s central train station and connects the Namdaemun market area to the east and neighborhoods to the west. Each pot has nameplate identifying the plants in both Latin and Korean. At night, the pots are illuminated in blue and white.
“The trees are the stars,” Kuipers said. “We turned the bridge into a ‘walk of fame’ with every tree in a pot like on a pedestal. And every season shows different features.”
With over one million visitors in the first 10 days, Kuipers said the high volume shows the concept resonates. “We wanted to create not just a pedestrian connection, but also a place to visit, be, and meet people. Therefore, we also added ‘activators,’ such as little shops and cafes.”
MVRDV won an international competition in 2015 held by the Seoul Metropolitan Government for the design of the park with their entry, The Seoul Arboretum.
The original freeway, known as the Seoul Station overpass, was built in 1970 at the heart of a city undergoing rapid economic and population growth. The structure was slated for demolition after a 2006 safety assessment determined it would soon be unsafe for vehicular use. Officials ultimately decided to recycle the freeway, incorporating the structure into its plan to make the city more walkable.
“This overpass has special meaning because it represents Seoul’s modernity,” Kim Joon Kee, deputy mayor of safety management for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told CNN in 2016, as construction was underway. “It was built to relieve traffic congestion and, after 30 years, it became worn down, so we saw an opportunity for the city’s development.”
The name, Seoullo 7017, pays homage to the transformation of the freeway over time. The word Seoullo means “Seoul road,” and the numbers 70 and 17 reference its original constructed and when it reopened to pedestrian traffic, according to The Korea Times.
Implementing such a diverse planting design on an aging freeway structure came with a unique set of challenges. Kupiers explained there was little space for soil for the roots, given the load-bearing limitations and the inclination of the bridge destabilizes the soil. Designers also considered the safety of pedestrians and vehicles, ensuring no branches or trees would fall on the road or railway tracks below.
Furthermore, in a region with hot summers, cold winters, and typhoons, Seoul’s varied climate also posed a challenge. “We decided to create the right conditions for trees, shrubs and plants [by] making huge tree pots. These pots are isolated to prevent freezing and have a drainage, irrigation, and aeration system,” Kuipers explained.
The arrangement of over 600 pots, in varying sizes and depths, adds a distinctive, constructed quality to the design, a departure from the more organic style seen in many landscape designs in Asia, Kuipers said.
MVRDV’s design envisions the skygarden as an “urban nursery.” Kuipers said they plan to use the bridge in combination with the city’s own tree nursery to grow new trees and species, eventually distributing the pots along pedestrian routes in additional neighborhoods.
Seoul is hardly the first city to build an elevated urban walkway. Many have drawn connections between this project and New York City’s High Line. In fact, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was inspired by the famous James Corner Field Operations’ project, according to the The Korean Times. Still, the projects differ in their relationship to the surrounding urban fabric and the way they use plants.
“Although the High Line is a great example, Seoullo is different in many ways,” Kuipers said, noting the Seoullo Skygarden’s elevated views of the city and central location at Seoul Station in the heart of the city.
The Wall Street Journal reports that 79,000 people work in manufacturing in the New York City metro area, down from 190,000 in 1990. However, the long downward trend may be ending: manufacturing employment increased by 1,300 over last year.
There couldn’t be a more appealing locale for the rebirth of American urban manufacturing than the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was built before World War I to support the war effort. In some 4-million-square feet spread over two buildings — each the size of the Empire State building if it was laid flat on the ground — there are 110 businesses, employing 3,500 in manufacturing and distribution.
As seen from the tour, contemporary manufacturing looks much different from the big factories of the past. Small urban manufacturers are making everything from salad dressings and luxury clothes to 3D printed objects and advanced technological parts.
Out of the 3.1 million square feet now online, there is a 90-plus percent occupancy rate, explained Will Stein, an official with NYCEDC. He said an additional 500,000 square feet will soon be operational. “Every New York City Mayor has a project at the Terminal. Mayo de Blasio’s project is this expansion.”
In addition to using the traditional metrics, NYCEDC evaluates possible tenants based on “how many manufacturing jobs they offer, the quality of the jobs, benefits, and opportunities for growth.”
Coming in September is the DIY TechShop, which will feature 3D printers and CNC machines. “It will be like a gym membership. Members can use the machines and other services.”
The Terminal is incredibly accessible. For workers, the subway express stop is a 5-10 minute walk, and there’s a nearby ferry terminal. There are many options for freight transit as well. “We are close to the Gowanus Expressway, and the rail line is connected to the yard.”
Work is underway to make the 100-year-old building designed by architect Cass Gilbert even more sustainable. “We put in energy-efficient windows and solar panels on the roof. We are adding LED lighting throughout the building and motion sensors inside to reduce energy waste,” explained the Terminal’s Dave Aniero.
The building itself has a fascinating history. At the height of World War II, there were some 30,000 workers moving ammunition, supplies, and soldiers out to war. Trains used to come right through the building. A crane that slides along the top of the Terminal would take material out of the trains, drop them in slots that cantilever out, so they could be easily taken into the building, sorted, and then moved via elevator or crane back to the trains. And, during the Korean War, “Elvis was shipped out of here.”
Nearby, there are other manufacturing and distribution centers. The Bush Terminal, a campus of 11 buildings, has about 50 tenants. The 72-acre South Brooklyn Maritime Terminal, now in development, seeks to bring back marine industries. And there’s the 4-million-square-feet privately-owned Industry City, which will combine commercial office and industrial space.
Bush Terminal, which is also managed by NYCEDC, will soon undergo a $136 million upgrade. But already there are some nice amenities: bike lanes bring workers from the campus and residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood to the new Bush Terminal Piers Park, which was built by NYCEDC, designed by landscape architects at AECOM, and is now managed by the NYC parks department.
“It’s really a neighborhood park. We wanted to improve the public space and make it safer,” said Ryan White, also with NYCEDC.
What do these projects have to teach other cities seeking to revitalize their urban manufacturing? A lot. Cluster industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities into districts near existing transportation infrastructure. Reuse warehouses and facilities. Make them attractive, sustainable, and accessible to the public. Spend the extra money on bike lanes, sidewalks, and amenities like public parks. They are worth it.
Now NYC just needs to create more affordable housing for the blue-color workers it hopes to lure back to the city. That’s the missing piece in the city’s strategy.
Planned WWI Memorial in D.C. to Use Pool Concept, Restore Park – Curbed DC, 5/19/17
“This Thursday, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) evaluated the concept plan for the planned WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Pershing Park, a memorial plaza only blocks from the White House that for years has been neglected.”
MVRDV’s Elevated Skygarden Opens on Former Highway in Seoul– Designboom, 5/22/17
“Weaving its way through the urban landscape of Seoul, South Korea, a new sky garden realized by MVRDV has been built on a former inner city highway. Named ‘Seoullo’, the public 983-meter-long park has been planted with 50 families of greenery, including trees, shrubs and flowers displayed in 645 tree pots, collecting around 228 species and sub-species.”
West 8’s Proposal for NYC’s Largest Private Garden at One Manhattan Square– 6sqft, 5/23/17
“The proposal, designed by urban planning and landscape architecture firm West 8, includes more than an acre of garden space for residents to both work and socialize, boasting indoor and outdoor grilling spaces, ping-pong tables, a putting green, children’s playground, adult tree house, tea pavilion, and an observatory made for stargazing.”
Mud Makes a Comeback in Suburbia– The Houston Chronicle, 5/30/17
“Generations ago, vast swaths of wetlands were tilled for space to grow rice, and a few generations later those rice fields were turned into posh sprawling suburbs, like Riverstone in Sugar Land.”
Take a Look at the Renderings for First and Broadway Park in Los Angeles – Archinect, 5/30/17
“Back in June of 2016, Mia Lehrer + Associates won the competition, beating out Eric Owen Moss Architects, Brooks + Scarpa, and AECOM, to design the two-acre park at First Street and Broadway. After winning the competition, the firm has taken suggestions from the Downtown community, altering their plans for the design.”
In 1960s New York City, gay men and lesbians were routinely harassed by the police vice squad. The few bars in Greenwich Village that would serve them were frequently raided. Gay men would also be assaulted by the police walking down the street. An estimated 100 gay men were arrested each week for gross indecency or public lewdness. On June 28, 1969, a typical police raid at the Mafia-run Stonewall Inn ended up very differently though: it led to a rebellion that launched a global civil rights movement. Patrons refused to leave the bar, telling the police that they can either let them dance in the bar, or they will dance out in the streets, but the harassment must end, explained Richard Landman, a land use lawyer who was actually there. He led us on a walking tour of LGBTQ history in the West Village at the American Planning Association annual meeting in New York City.
Landman, who himself was brutally gay-bashed four times, explained that the Stonewall Inn doesn’t look like it once did. The bar was bare-bones, with little seating. It was one of the few places were gay men and lesbians could dance. It has gone through a number of lives over the decades. It was gutted and became Bagel Nosh for a while, then renovated to look like a collegiate bar, as it does today. Part of it has since become a nail salon. But, with its designation as a historic landmark in 2000 by New York City, the facade was protected. And when President Obama created the Stonewall National Monument in 2016, the bar facade, nearby Christopher Street Park, and the surrounding sidewalks became protected in perpetuity.
The park and surrounding streets were critical to the rebellion, explained Michael Levine, an urban planner who was also at Stonewall Inn the night the movement began. As “Puerto Rican drag queens faced off against Irish cops, shouting ‘we’re not leaving,'” the open space in the triangle just south of Christopher Street Park became important — it allowed the crowd to expand and the protest to grow in strength. “Open space in the public realm invites things to happen.” (That space was covered in trees and plants in 2001).
Levine said the rebellion was about making a statement. “If you don’t let us dance inside, then we’re going to dance outside in the streets. It wasn’t a riot; it was a rebellion.” Levine said it was a simple message, but so significant. “We wanted to stand up for our rights. We’re coming out and standing up.”
After the first night of rebellion on a Friday, protestors came back five or six consecutive nights. “On Saturday night, we danced again in the streets. That really embarrassed City Hall, so they sent reinforcements, and there was a nasty confrontation. Sunday night was really frightening, because the Mayor had had enough. Tactical police arrived and blocked 6th and 7th avenues. By Monday, the national press had broken the story.” Levine emphasized that drag queens, who started the rebellion against the police, “gave us gay liberation. We can never forget that.”
The vice squad police who raided the bar weren’t from the local precinct, so they didn’t know the tangle of streets down in the Village well. “Protestors would run down side streets and circle back, eluding the police. The lack of the grid then also enabled the rebellion,” Levine explained.
“It couldn’t have happened without the irregular streets and open space.” He added, laughing: “the police were really embarrassed — gay bar patrons had them running in circles.”
Continuing the tour over drinks at the Stonewall Inn, where they are crafting a new cocktail called “The Park Ranger,” Joshua Laird, commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, which is responsible for the national parks that surround New York City, said the National Park Service (NPS) realized it wasn’t telling the story of civil rights well. “Our new focus is to cover the stories of Latino immigration, LGBTQ civil rights, and Japanese internment.” LGBTQ heritage in the U.S. has become one of the park service’s thematic areas, but it took a number of years to finally happen.
The NPS carefully examined Stonewall before proposing its designation as a National Monument. “We looked at a number of other sites, but Stonewall was really the turning point. Organizations around the world put Stonewall in their names.”
Christopher Street Park is the “legal heart” of the monument, but it extends to the surrounding sidewalks and the Stonewall Inn building facade, all spaces important to the rebellion, as Levine explained.
Next, the NPS will undertake a planning process in which they will reach out to scholars, the LGBTQ community, and general public to figure out how we can “best tell the story.” The NPS hopes to go beyond Stonewall. “This is the beginning, not the end of the story,” Laird explained.
Indeed, Stonewall, which is still a functioning gay bar, and Christopher Street Park, an active neighborhood park, are “living history,” so the NPS needs to create a new model. “We can’t just plant a park ranger there with some brochures,” Levine said. “But we also don’t want it to turn into a circus.”
As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.
First, we better answer: what are Modernist landscapes? For Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, they are characterized by their use of “spatial free plans, which have intentionally volumetric spaces that are not bound.” These landscapes came out of the functionalism movement, other Modernist arts and design fields, and asymmetrical aesthetics. These parks, plazas, and streets were designed and constructed after World War II and into the 80s. They often feature a juxtaposition of forms, textures, and colors, creating duality between “soft and hard, permanent and ephemeral.”
Modernist landscapes can’t be separated from the economic, political, and social environment that generated them. Many Modernist urban parks and plazas are deeply political, loaded sites. Many are intrinsically linked with the mistakes of urban renewal, in which communities were uprooted, due to racism, and replaced with new “monumental” buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
But they also came out stated good intentions, or at least some would argue. The goal behind those moves was to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” Meyer said. President Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, which was greatly influenced by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, argued that “everyone had the right to live in decent surroundings.” The American inner city, with its blight and poverty, then became a target for revitalization. The idea was to replace the dysfunction of the old with a modern urban world.
And these landscapes were the result of innovation. Modernist landscape architecture created new forms of public spaces, “hybrid spaces” that mixed plazas, parks, and playgrounds in new combinations, and built public spaces where none existed before. For example, in Seattle, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned an industrial site into a park and capped a freeway with another park (see image at top).
Beyond the racist history associated with some of these places, Meyer seemed to argue that Modernism doesn’t really work well at the grand scale of the most ambitious renewal-era projects. “The qualities of these spaces don’t operate when construed just as openness.” Despite the intentions of the designers, the reality is many of these places make visitors feel small and isolated. For example, the expansive plaza around Boston City Hall creates a “sense of exposure and unease, not sensuousness. It’s a difficult place to love.”
As noted urban designer Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, remarked on Brasilia, the Modernist capital of Brazil, which was created by architect Oscar Niemeyer and planner Lucio Costa: “From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level.” These Modernist places are designed as forms first, he argues, then as spaces for humans to occupy second. As such, they aren’t really designed with the needs of people in mind.
So why preserve these places, some of which don’t work well for people who don’t have helicopters? Meyer seemed to argue that it’s important to keep some Modernist landscapes, because they are a record of an “era of modernization and urbanization.” Neighborhoods where poor African Americans and immigrants lived were bulldozed to make way “large new landscapes.” But also equally as important were the “small spaces” that were inserted into the existing urban fabric and meant to improve quality of life. “They were part of urban renewal efforts, too.”
Modernist landscapes were also the result of design and material innovations, as the field of landscape architecture grew dramatically in the post-war era. Given these spaces can be defined by experimentation, “it’s not surprising that some have failed. Some can’t survive.” But some can and should. As an example, Meyer pointed to the landscape created by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as a masterpiece.
And she argued that instead of letting these places decline due to lack of maintenance, they should be adapted, especially for climate change. Many of these “experiments for living” can benefit from strategic interventions to make them acceptable and relevant again while preserving their unique spatial designs.
Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, a co-founder of Reed Hilderbrand, showed his firm’s efforts at respectfully update Modernist landscapes in Boston — the Boston City Hall Plaza, a “whopper,” and the Christian Science Plaza. For Hilderbrand, it’s important to “understand the original design intention and then how to interpret it” for our current era.
For the Boston City Hall, the intention was to create a “sense of monumentality.” Furthermore, the entire government center master plan by I.M. Pei aimed to create a sense of openness and connection between the city and state government offices. “Boston had been a corrupt place for 50 years. They were pitching a new Boston and using the landscape as a recuperative device.”
Clearing city block after block, which had been red-lined for disinvestment, the city government built a new center in the late 1960s.
Hilderbrand said the “problem was the new buildings were too large and the spaces too vast.” While the plaza was envisioned as a civic event space, and has been used as such in the past, it’s now wind swept and barren.
After Mayor Marty Walsh launched an ideas competition that Reed Hilderbrand won, design work has begun to move public functions in City Hall down to the ground level; punch holes for more windows in the looming Brutalist building, which was designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; create ramps up to the building; and add 100 trees to the courtyard. “We will increase shade cover from 3 percent to 9-10 percent, treat stormwater, and get people to the door accessibly. This is actually a return to some of the original intentions.”
And Reed Hilderbrand helped persuade the Christian Science Church not to cut a pathway through the 700-foot-long reflecting pool in their 14-acre Christian Science Plaza, designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei & Associates and landscape architects at Sasaski Associates. Hilderbrand’s firm created a healthier environment for the 200 original Linden trees arranged in allees and created new sustainable gardens amid the seating along the pool. He said there’s a “compulsion to move around the pool.” It’s another vast space without much shade.
The debate over whether Modernism is good for cities will no likely continue, but some argue that remnants of this singular era in American urban planning and design shouldn’t be destroyed but renewed. Organizations like The Cultural Landscape Foundation advocate for the preservation and adaptation of Modernist landscapes. As McKee noted, “just ‘pickling’ a project,” meaning preserving a project exactly like it was when it was created, “doesn’t work anymore.” Meanwhile, residents of cities decide with their feet where they want to be, and, at public meetings, use their voice to make clear what they want in public spaces.
John Beardsley, director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, opened the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium in Washington, D.C. with a promise that the invited speakers would explore “the origins and future trajectories of urban landscapes” — shedding light, through case studies spanning millennia, on the complex evolutions and experiences of urban settlements over time.
Two days later, after 13 scholars of archaeology, art, and anthropology had presented their work, Beardsley, asked: “When we look back at these pre-industrial cities, are we seeing what we want to see? I’ve heard a lot about flexibility, resilience, multiplicity, diversity, ecological socialism, self-organization — these are all very contemporary values and things that we want to see in our cities now.” Beardsley posed: “Are we projecting these values back in a mistaken way, or are we excavating earlier adaptations that provide useful lessons for us?”
Tim Murtha, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offered a response: “I think the answer is both. And that’s the hardest thing for an archaeologist to say, but I’m okay saying it because I teach in a landscape architecture department.”
Murtha continued: “What if that’s not a problem? What if that allows us to start thinking about present cities and future cities and exposing those values as part of our archaeological imagination?”
Murtha’s work in the ancient Mayan lowlands has challenged the archaeological imagination of his predecessors, who largely focused on the structural and engineering feats of population centers and treated regional landscapes as peripheral and less significant. Murtha has used LiDAR, a remote sensing technology, and climate and hydrologic modeling to explore regional landscapes from eastern Veracruz to the northern tip of Yucatan (see image above).
He found evidence of intricate and highly-varied patterns of terraces, reservoirs, and field boundaries, seemingly formed in response to their geological surroundings and without reference or connection to the nearest city.
“Households dominated these landscapes in a regionally-expressive mosaic,” Murtha said, suggesting that archaeologists and planners “need to concentrate less on the potential exceptionalism of our places and density-dependent analysis, and pay more attention to the regional narratives of landscapes and households as expressions of coupled human and natural systems.”
Archaeologists are also using LiDAR in Cambodia to enrich our understanding of an ancient landscape that today is dominated by temple architecture. J. B. Chevance, with the Archaeology and Development Foundation’s Phnom Kulen Program in Cambodia, and Christophe Pottier, Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Paris, said remote sensing technology coupled with field work has allowed archaeologists to situate the spectacular historic temples of Angkor within a similarly spectacular historic landscape, which over hundreds of years saw deforestation, diversion of rivers, and the construction of hydraulic channels and agricultural fields to serve shifting human settlements.
Chevance’s work focuses on Phnom Kulen, the birthplace and early capital of the Khmer empire, located close to the Angkor World Heritage Site but largely unexplored. Chevance said that for years the archaeological approach to the Khmer empire considered only the remains of monumental architecture, sculpture, and inscriptions. “Studies were therefore mostly oriented toward the elites, religious architecture and religion, whereas the common life and the territorial approach were not relayed.”
Pottier said the emergence of LiDAR technology in the mid-1990s allowed archaeologists to see beyond the narrative of Angkor urbanism as “a story of boxes and squares,” a narrative that he said was developed largely by architects taken by the geometries of Angkor’s monumental remains.
Pottier instead traced the more recent LiDAR-enabled discoveries of regional networks of roads, canals, rice fields, and small-scale ponds and temples that defined the forms of dispersed population centers, which themselves shifted over hundreds of years, often rebuilding in a way that incorporated sites that had been abandoned but were formerly significant. He contrasted this new understanding of a complex human landscape with the popular vision of Angkor as a city of temples amid a green jungle.
“These are two completely different versions of urbanism and territorial development,” Pottier said. “The vision of Angkor itself is only a matter of how you map it.”
Georges Farhat, a symposium organizer from the University of Toronto, also addressed the role of representation, along with the potential pitfalls of examining ancient cities through a modern Western lens.
“We heard over the course of these two days issues of representation suggesting that what we see defines what we think, and what we are able to visualize will determine what we will be able to understand,” Farhat said. “We also heard about the importance of excavating patterns the way you excavate fossils — it determines what you conclude or draw from the field.”
Timothy Pauketat, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that in his work to understand Cahokia, a pre-historic Native American city in present-day Illinois, he attempts to align his “scientific Western approach” with a sensory one, imagining how the experience of the swampy site along the Mississippi River might have inspired the people who built the waterways, residential neighborhoods, and monumental precincts that defined Cahokian urbanism.
Early archaeologists at Cahokia assumed the site was never inhabited by humans, Pauketat said, because of their own inability to imagine that people might select to live among what Charles Dickens described, when he passed through Cahokia’s eroding earthen monuments on an American tour, as “a swamp, the bush, the perpetual chorus of frogs, the rank unseemly growth and the unwholesome steaming earth.”
Pauketat offered: “But what if the auditory affects of the frogs that bedeviled Dickens were positive, entangled with the experiential aspects of a place of fertile soil, life-giving rains, and sweet flavors of an exotic and water-sensitive plant? That it’s quite possibly the pre-urban landscape of this region, with embodied spiritual energies of water and weather and fertility, that might attract people?”
Michael Heckenberger, a professor at University of Florida who studies the experiential aspects of past and present Amazonian building and planning practices, has worked with the indigenous Kuikuro community in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil to uncover pre-Columbian roads that connected a dense network of towns and villages nestled within the Amazon. Heckenberger said that from the scale of the house to the scale of the region, the design of places was in relation and proportion to the human form and physical context, in what he called “a corporeal and relational calculus.”
In describing his ongoing partnership with the Kuikuro, Heckenberger advocated more broadly for dialogue with peoples and places that can offer lessons about the design of settlements that serve human and ecological health.
Priyaleen Singh, at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, advocated the same in her case studies on the disparate development trajectories of Old and New Bhubaneswar in India. Old Bhubaneswar was built from the sixth to ninth centuries C.E. as a pilgrimage center, with distinctive temple architecture, a network of pools, or tanks, and a wealth of open spaces integrated into the urban fabric in the form of courtyards and shade-giving groves. New Bhubaneswar, planned by Otto Koenigsberger in the 1950s, adhered to Western planning practices of the time, separating districts by use and, Singh argues, eschewing the human scale.
“Natural ecology and cultural ecology were overtly interwoven and expressed in design forms and other cultural expressions of the open spaces in Old Bhubaneswar,” Singh said. “Temple tanks and groves — besides constituting the genius of the place and giving meaning to the landscape — also ensured that nature was both respected and integrated with the everyday life and experience of the people. Traditional design vocabularies encouraged a participatory relationship with nature, encouraging an experiential aesthetics as opposed to a purely visual one.”
Singh pointed in contrast to mono-functional green spaces, slick nature-themed marketing, and the growing dominance of non-native plant species within New Bhubaneswar development. “In New Bhubaneswar, nature and its elements have been reduced to a mere beautification exercise, and image-making has overshadowed the more real ecological demands.”