A New, Inclusive Civic Center for San Francisco

San Francisco Civic Center Plan  / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning

CMG Landscape Architecture has revealed their new plan for San Francisco’s Civic Center, the culmination of two years of public outreach, which proposes 11 acres of multi-use, homeless-friendly green space in the center of San Francisco — what the city calls its “civic heart.”

The district encompasses San Francisco City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Public Library, and UN Plaza, among other civic spaces. It also touches S0Ma and the Tenderloin, two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and most under-served in terms of public space.

CMG’s plan is the result of two years of community outreach, though it sits within a series of outreach efforts led by others that started in 2010. CMG arrived on the scene in 2017, conducting online and in-person surveys, installing mobile outreach stations, organizing focus groups, and reaching out to the diverse ethnic communities in the area. Vietnamese, Chinese, and Spanish-speaking communities, as well as youth, received particular attention as they are heavy and underserved users of the district. Because this area also includes the city’s highest concentration of single-room occupancy buildings in the city and their related services, CMG also reached out to organizers in those communities.

The plan pulls elements from three possible schemes that were unveiled in 2018. Lauren Hackney, ASLA, a landscape architect with CMG, explained the three plans were intended to “provoke conversation,” and allowed CMG to subsequently incorporate the most popular and consistently-desired aspects of the three proposals into the final plan.

San Francisco Civic Center public realm plan / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning

The final design strives to simultaneously meet the needs of a civic space and those of surrounding residents, while also calibrating the space’s historic design with contemporary needs.

Noteworthy for its Beaux-Arts plan implemented at the turn of the 20th century, Civic Center comprises a National Historic District, and it was necessary to respect that history. But “the crazy thing is that Beaux-Arts planning doesn’t align with contemporary ambitions around how you use space,” said Willet Moss, ASLA, a partner at CMG. Thus, CMG stripped the Beaux-Arts plan to its foundational principles of cohesion, axes, integrity, and unity. Doing so allowed the Beaux-Arts ideas to serve as “a starting point” from which the designers could accommodate contemporary needs.

That balancing act is one of the project’s biggest challenges: designing a single framework for  many desired needs and overlapping jurisdictions and for a client composed of eight city agencies. “One of the real sincere challenges is how you get such a diverse spectrum of stakeholders to talk about identity — and about this place that everybody in San Francisco has a relationship with,” Hackney said. From protests to City Hall marriages, from the library to the farmers’ market, the ways people experience the space are numerous and varied.

CMG addressed these disparate needs by emphasizing the central axis and enlivening the sides and edges of Civic Center. The space can function ceremonially while accommodating multiple uses around its fringe.

Civic Center’s public realm will “support large and small public gatherings, celebrations, and demonstrations.”  / CMG Landscape Architecture

Planting, paving, and lighting organize the district’s civic “spine.” CMG has given the plaza facing City Hall a room-like feel—reinforcement of the Beaux-Arts plan—by framing the space with planting. The frame provides structure while leaving space for large gatherings (Gay Pride, for instance, can see hundreds of thousands of people pass through the space).

Identical paving throughout the district provides cohesion, and marks its transformation from car-centric to pedestrian-oriented. This is also the first effort to comprehensively light the entire district, making it safer to navigate from BART to public spaces at night. These qualities all contribute to accessibility. After all, Hackney said: “The linchpin of democratic public space is access to it.”

To meet the needs of surrounding communities, CMG proposes incorporating green and other spaces for recreation. A shallow mirror pond that turns on and off can be playful, while nodding to the ceremonial. Gardens that surround existing playgrounds, lawns that transform into soccer fields, and a sculpture garden with ample seating exemplify smaller scale spaces activating the plaza.

The outreach process also made clear that the new plan needed to address basic needs of its constituents. At present, there are no benches, and a single bathroom. The common reaction in San Francisco is to do without seating, lest it become crowded with homeless people.

CMG’s response? “Let’s have so much seating that there will never not be a seat for anyone,” Moss says. And the same principle applies to bathrooms across the site, too. “Homeless people are an important constituent of the public space,” Hackney says. “You need to meet the needs of the people who are in the space long term.”

Linked to similar concerns, Lawrence Halprin’s fountain within UN Plaza has stirred strong feelings from both its proponents and its detractors. Ultimately, CMG decided to retain the fountain, harnessing it as part of a gateway to the Tenderloin and UC Hastings College of Law.

Their plan attempts to restore people’s engagement with the fountain (right now it is fenced off), maintaining it in a way consistent with Halprin’s intention to “invite people to engage with their environment in a different way.” CMG has also leveraged it as a piece of their stormwater infrastructure so that it becomes a large detention basin when it rains. “I believe we could breathe new life into it,” Moss says.

“Adaptation of the existing fountain provides visibility, planting, accessible and usable space, and productive stormwater function, transforming a barrier into an amenity to the neighborhood and a welcoming gateway” / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning

Halprin’s fountain is only one component of the district’s complex green infrastructure strategy. At present, no stormwater treatment exists, and all the surrounding civic buildings pump out foundation water, which then flows into San Francisco’s combined sewer systems and causes downstream flooding. The new plan harvests that water; some is used for irrigation and toilet flushing, some is treated to become potable (72 hours of drinking water will be stored for use during emergencies). An underground infiltration “gallery” comprised of gravel media allows rainwater to infiltrate to the water table.

Beyond water concerns, CMG also incorporated tenants of San Francisco’s Green Connections and urban forest plans. In designing, attention was given to tree canopy and habitat, species diversity, optimal growing conditions, and understory planting.

The implementation timeline of the plan is unclear, and likely will be for some time. The plan will first undergo one to two years of environmental review, and its phasing and budget are still in development. A project of this scale necessitates many funding streams for different areas. Funding efforts are now directed towards an identified first phase, which aligns with the in-progress project Better Market Street and includes 6th to 8th Streets. As for an exact timeline, CMG is reluctant to say—it depends on decisions, reviews, and city processes.

Grove Street between Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Civic Center Plaza  / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning.

This vagueness garners skepticism. After having crafted a design based in extensive outreach, the question is now how to realize it financially and politically. “It’s less about what people want than people’s confidence in the city’s culture; and the city bureaucracy making change and sustaining this place in the long term,” Moss said. But CMG is hopeful: the city understood the fundamental need for long-term management and operation, and included that in discussion from the start.

But even with the worthy intentions of the landscape architects and city players, the plan calls into question the ability of a public space to address mounting social ills in San Francisco. Even if the space is designed for everyone, will the community at large support this mission? Can accessibility to public space truly provoke change in a city rife with inequity? An important first step would be to meet the urgency of these problems with a similar haste to build the proposed plan.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

'Patterns', in Wilmington, DE, designed by Dan Kiley.
Dan Kiley Exhibition / Roger Foley, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Exhibition on Landscape Architect Dan Kiley Opens for Palm Springs Modernism Week Metropolis, 2/19/19
“The traveling photography exhibit, The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley, showcases 45 photos of 27 projects by the renowned Modernist landscape architect.”

In Blow to Obama Presidential Center Backers, Judge Allows Lawsuit Challenging Chicago’s Jackson Park Location to Proceed The Chicago Tribune, 2/19/19
“In a setback to plans to build the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side lakefront, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit challenging its location can proceed.”

Renderings: South of Atlanta, Pinewood Forest’s Central Hub Aims to Impress Curbed Atlanta, 2/21/19
“Fifteen miles south of Atlanta’s airport, the Pinewood Forest mini-city concept aims to be nothing short of the country’s preeminent ‘live, create, and play community,’ where creative types can spend leisure time among 100 acres of planned green space.”

Schenectady-based Landscape Architect Creates Meaningful Outdoor Spaces The Daily Gazette, 2/28/19
“Schenectady’s Tribute Park is a simple park, created from three vacant parcels on Eastern Avenue. There are sidewalks and benches, there’s a large lawn to play on, and a splash pad where kids cool off on hot summer days.”

Are Dog Parks Exclusionary? CityLab, 2/28/19
“In Chicago and other cities, the demand for pet-friendly public space has boomed. But many communities see off-leash parks as heralds of gentrification.”

In Copenhagen, You Can Ski Down This Power Plant

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

Eight years ago Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came up with a fantastical idea — build a ski slope on top of a power plant. Well, now, it has actually happened — the $660 million Amager Bakke is preparing to welcome adventurous ski bunnies in Copenhagen. Known to locals as Copenhill, this cutting-edge renewable energy system converts waste into energy while giving sports lovers access to a 2,000-feet-long ski slope, a 295-feet-high climbing wall, and hiking and running paths. The project is the most visible demonstration yet of Copenhagen’s determination to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.

According to Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, the engineers of the power plant, Copenhill will convert 400,000 tons of waste each year into heat for 250,000 homes and energy for another 62,500 while producing zero toxic air pollution. Some 100,000 pounds of ash collected from the waste incineration process will be reused to build roads; and some 90 percent of the metals in the waste stream will be salvaged.

Two ski lifts take visitors up to the slope, which allows for all types of skiing — alpine and racing — along with snowblading and snowboarding. On the Copenhill website, one can already reserve a time to snow plow or slalom down the slopes for about $20 an hour. Visitors can also rent equipment, take a ski class, or join SKI365, the building’s ski club. The big plus: because the slope is built using specialized artificial turf, people will be able to ski up there year round.

Translating their website from Danish, it’s clear they’ve tried to design the space for everyone: “If you a beginner, a shark on skis, free-styler, fun skier, man, woman, boy, girl, thick, thin, tall or short, then you are part of the community. We have something for everyone. There are both red / black, blue, and green courses. In addition, there is also a slalom course, free-style park, and, of course, an area for the smallest.”

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

For those who avoid skiing, there are freely-accessible paths sloping up a 5-35 percent grade where one can walk up or take a heart-pounding run. Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG and landscape architects with SLA planted more than 30 trees in landscaped areas. There, Copenhill invites you to “take a picnic in the shrubbery or just enjoy the view on one of the reclining benches.” There’s also a club for these path enthusiasts — RUN365, with crossfit training options for members.

Copenhill landscape rendering / SLA

The facility replaces an older power plant, and the cost of building Copenhill is shared among the five municipalities who will sell Copenhill’s heat and power. But according to Bloomberg, the city government thinks it’s perhaps the tourism money — rather than the heat or power — that will end up offsetting a larger share of the cost of the new plant. Situated just 13 minutes from the airport, it will be hard for first-time visitors — particularly those with kids — to avoid making a stop.

In an interview, BIG told Inhabitat that the building is expected to blow steam rings at some point. The technology apparently works — they are now fine-tuning.

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Bjarke Ingels Group

See more images at DesignBoom and check out an interview we did with Ingels in 2011, where he discussed his bold ideas about merging buildings and landscapes.

Lawsuit Opposing the Obama Presidential Center Moves Forward

Proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, Chicago / Obama Foundation, DBOX

A federal judge ruled that a lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks to stop the Obama Foundation from building a new presidential center in Jackson Park, a 543-acre waterfront public park on the South Side of Chicago, can move forward. The ruling creates significant new challenges for the proposed $500 million project, which has been designed by Todd Williams Bill Tsien Architects and landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The center was expected to open in 2021, but hasn’t broken ground due to outstanding legal issues and federal environment and historic site impact reviews.

U.S. Judge John Robert Blakey didn’t make a ruling on the legal merits of the lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks and other parties, only stating there are grounds to proceed.

At dispute is whether protected public park land can be used to build a privately-run presidential center; the Obamas have chosen not to create an official, National Archives-managed presidential library.

The Obama Foundation stated it chose the proposed 19-acre site in Jackson Park so it would be near the Museum of Science and Industry and connect to the existing museum hub in the park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and other Olmsted Brothers firms.

Chicago’s city government, led by Obama’s former chief of staff and current Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been highly supportive of the project, viewing it as a way to boost economic development; create 5,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent, local jobs; and attract 760,000 tourists annually to the under-served South Side. In addition to the exhibition spaces, the Obama Center would create new top-notch public playgrounds and athletic facilities, a sledding hill, a community vegetable garden, and incorporate a public library, using just 3 percent of the existing park.

City officials and the Obama Foundation see creating a major cultural destination like the Center far outside the downtown loop as an important step towards a more equitable Chicago.

According to the Associated Press, many legislative actions have been taken by the city and state to move the project forward. State legislators amended the Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to “include presidential libraries as an exception to the no-development rules if there’s a compelling public interest.” And the Chicago City Council approved building the presidential center in Jackson Park, 47-to-1 (and provided construction permits).

As part of the deal, the Chicago Park District sold the 19.3 acres of Jackson Park requested for the presidential center to the city for $1. The Obama Foundation then paid the city $10 to use the land in Jackson Park for 99 years, but also agreed to raise the $500 million needed for the presidential center and pay for all costs associated with operating the center for 99 years. After the opening of the physical center, the foundation would transfer ownership of the building back to the city.

If city councilors truly represent the will of their districts, this indicates widespread support for the project and its financing scheme among Chicagoans.

But there are a number of detractors as well — Protect Our Parks, a parks advocacy group, was joined by three individuals, and other organizations offered support. The Chicago Tribune reports their lawsuit isn’t directed at the Obama Foundation itself but is instead lobbed at the city government and Chicago Parks District. The suit argues that “the presidential center is not the same as a presidential library and should not be granted access to public land.” The lawsuit states: “defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way … to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.”

Furthermore, critics contend the state will need to spend $175 million of taxpayer money to re-route roads around the presidential center, which constitutes a partisan use of public funds, an argument the judge rejected. And the center would damage the environment and create an obstacle for migratory birds and butterflies.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Protect the Parks’ lawsuit. In a statement, Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, President & CEO writes: “The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland. The Obama Foundation could make this issue go away by using vacant and/or city-owned land on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center (which is planned to be a private facility rather than a presidential library administered by the National Archives), or, better still, land owned by the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid to host the Center.”

TCLF and other park advocacy groups have long called for the presidential center to be moved out of Jackson Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. As the lawsuit moves to trial in federal court, it remains to be seen whether the Obama Foundation will attempt to persuade the judge of the merits of their proposal or pick up and move to another location on the South Side.

The worst fear of the project’s supporters is the lawsuit will cause the Obama Foundation to totally rethink their plans, just as another suit caused George Lucas to move his proposed $400 million Museum of Narrative Arts — which he sought to locate on the Chicago waterfront — to downtown Los Angeles. Lucas didn’t even wait for the judge’s ruling. In the case of the Obama Center though, there has been a far greater commitment to stay in the South Side.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 1 – 15)

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Tianfu New District masterplan, Chengdu, China. / Adrian Smith, Gordon Gill Architecture

Inside Chengdu: Can China’s Megacity Version of the Garden City Work? The Guardian, 2/4/19
“It may be China’s most liveable burgeoning megacity, but Chengdu’s park city plans bear a price tag of forced evictions and relocations”

Hermann Park and Discovery Green Getting Major Makeovers The Houston Chronicle, 2/7/19
“The latest developments of Houston’s ongoing green renaissance will transform two of the city’s busiest parks in ways that make them more attractive than ever to families with children.”

How to Design Playgrounds for the World’s Most Vulnerable Kids CityLab, 2/7/19
“New UNICEF reports explore the ultimate design challenge: How to provide spaces to play and prosper for children living in urban poverty.”

Hong Kong Yet to Make the Most of its Iconic Harbourfront The South China Morning Post, 2/10/19
“If one runs a Google image search for Hong Kong, the top 50 pictures are of Victoria Harbour and the city’s iconic skyline. Visitors’ impressions of Hong Kong are often defined by that postcard-perfect vista of gleaming skyscrapers rising from the shining waters up the island’s lush green hills.”

Courtyard to Be Named for Historic Landscape Architect Beatrix FarrandThe Daily Princetonian, 2/12/19
“The courtyard between Henry, Foulke, and 1901-Laughlin halls will be named the Beatrix Farrand Courtyard after famed landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who worked at the University from 1912-1943 as its first consulting landscape architect.”

ASLA Statement on the Green New Deal

Green New Deal launch on Capitol Hill / WIkipedia

Significant Overlap Seen Between ASLA’s Report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, and Many Provisions of the Green New Deal Resolution

A wide-ranging proposal for a Green New Deal (GND) was introduced on February 7 in the House of Representatives in the form of a resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), with a companion resolution introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Markey (Mass.).

Although the current GND resolution is largely aspirational and includes few specific policies, it contains a commitment to core principles of urgent transformational change that are fully compatible with ASLA’s positions, and mirror the recommendations the Society already put forward in our Blue Ribbon Panel report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate.

Like our report, the GND resolution calls for widespread, immediate action that will ensure clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; access to nature; and a sustainable environment. We also strongly back calls for a national commitment to environmental justice for all Americans, especially for those from underserved, vulnerable, and neglected groups that have historically borne the brunt of the ill-effects of environmental calamities. ASLA supports the underlying principles of the GND resolution that relate specifically to climate change and resilience, and we are pleased that it has served to stimulate public debate about the accelerating climate crisis.

We note that in addition to climate-related policies, the resolution also contains several recommendations about social and economic issues that are beyond the scope of the Society’s mandate and existing policies, matters about which we can take no formal position.

ASLA members can be assured that when the GND is translated into formal legislative proposals to reduce carbon emissions, make transformational changes to infrastructure, and create a robust 21st-century clean-energy economy, ASLA will be at the forefront of the fight to enact them into law. We firmly believe that landscape architects must take a leadership role in planning and designing sustainable, resilient communities and ASLA, without question, will do its part to bring the climate principles of the Green New Deal to fruition.

ASLA is pleased that the Green New Deal resolution has significantly expanded the scope and intensity of the dialogue about climate change and we are extremely gratified that the Society’s report mirrors its major climate and infrastructure goals and we look forward to the legislative proposals that will stem from it.

Shadow-Casted Artwork Tells the Story of Time on an Indian Street

We can feel the passage of time as we watch the sun chart its course across the sky. But we have also become accustomed to the daily arc of our closest star. To bring the movement of the sun — and the progression of time — into the foreground, Indian street artist Daku leveraged the sun’s shadow-casting power to create a temporary installation — Theories of Time — for the St+art India art festival along a commercial street in Panjim, Goa.

Theories of Time / Daku

A street-long awning holds up stenciled adages that project shadows forming a tapestry of words on the ground: “Things take time; time is a great teacher; time heals all wounds; lost time is never found again.”

Theories of Time / Daku
Theories of Time / Daku

Light, shadow, and words figure in earlier works as well. In 2016, Daku created Time Changes Everything, installing words on the side of a white-faced building, letting the movement of the sun form and then slowly disintegrate words like ability, hour, definition.

The artist seems to enjoy incorporating surprising words and sentiments into the built environment — in particular humorous messages aimed at motorists.

Street sign / Daku
Ad space artwork / Daku

Daku’s shadow-casting artwork adds an interesting layer to the streetscape and offers an approach filled with possibilities for other public spaces.

Robots Produce World’s Longest 3D-Printed Concrete Bridge

3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

During the Sui dynasty, it took a decade for master craftsman Li Chun to build the Anji stone bridge in southern Hebei province. Some 1,400 years later, Tsinghua University robotics professor Xu Weiguo copied the structure in just 19 days, with the assistance of robots 3D printing in concrete. The resulting engineering marvel — an 86-feet-long, 12-feet-wide bridge in the Boashan district of Shanghai — uses a single load-bearing arch, just like Anji.

3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

Robotic arms swung back and forth for some 450 hours, fulfilling the demands of their algorithms. The robots were programmed to follow separate models of the arch structure, fence, and deck, yielding some 176 uniquely-shaped pieces, which were then slotted into place.

Robots burning midnight oil 3D printing / JCDA

The hyper-real, curvilinear, machine asthetic of many 3D modeled objects is also found in this bridge. On the deck, a brain coral pattern filled with fine stones add some warmth, bringing the feel of traditional Chinese garden path.

3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

According to Tsinghua University, the 3D printed bridge costs just two-thirds the price of a bridge produced the conventional way.

Robots at work on the 3D printed concrete bridge / JCDA

Professor Xu and his team at the Tsinghua University School of Architecture’s Zoina Land Joint Research Center for Digital Architecture (JCDA) tested the bridge design using a 1:4 scale model to ensure it would bear the weight of pedestrians. And for extra safety, they built in a real-time monitoring system. Wires and sensors embedded throughout the structure send a constant stream of data on the performance of the bridge.

ArchDaily notes the world’s first 3D printed steel bridge just debuted in The Netherlands, and Columbia Unversity has been experimenting with 3D printing timber lookalikes. Like other sectors, construction may soon become more automated.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 16 – 31)

Site of new park crossing the Ohio River in Southern Indiana / OLIN

The Controversial Renovation of Montreal’s Beloved Public Park CityLab, 1/22/19
“Parc-Jean Drapeau’s redesign attempts to balance priceless serenity and outdoor art with profitable festivals. Many Montrealers are skeptical.”

Pier 4 ‘Sea Steps’ in Seaport District Opening This Summer Curbed Boston, 1/22/19
“The five so-called Sea Steps next to the future Pier 4 luxury condo complex and the Institute of Contemporary Art area in the Seaport District are expected to open this summer, according to developer Tishman Speyer.”

West Aurora Schools Seek Donors to Help Build ‘Inclusive’ Playgrounds The Chicago Tribune, 1/24/19
“Hope D. Wall and Smith elementary schools in Aurora are calling upon the community for donations to help build new playgrounds at the schools.”

OLIN Designing a 400-acre Waterfront Park for Southern Indiana The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/28/19
“OLIN has been tapped to design a 400-acre park along the northern shore of the Ohio River in southern Indiana. Set within a swath of waterfront long-occupied by landfill and industrial facilities, the future park will give local residents a much-needed connection with the river and its history, while boosting the area’s link to Louisville, Kentucky.”

Joshua Tree National Park Could Take 300 Years to Recover From Government Shutdown Damage USA Today, 1/29/19
“The federal government shutdown may be over, but fans of Joshua Tree National Park are still angry and upset about the furlough that kept park rangers off the job.”

Home Buyers Want Outdoor Spaces — and They’re Willing to Pay for Them The Tennessean, 1/29/19
“Outdoor features of all kinds, from pools to fireplaces to complete living rooms with furniture designed to stand up to the elements, are being installed in backyards everywhere, said Joe Raboine, a manager for Belgard. The company provides materials and design services.”

Landscape Architecture Coalition: We Need More Walkable Streets – Associations Now, 1/30/19
“Smart Growth America, which focuses on improving infrastructure around the country, recently released a study highlighting the scope of dangers that pedestrians face due to metropolitan areas not being built for walking. The study was produced in tandem with its subsidiary, the National Complete Streets Coalition.”

Landscape Architects Take the Lead on New Cultural District in Detroit

DIA Plaza and Midtown Connections design competition presentation at Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections

In Detroit, twelve arts, cultural, and educational institutions are clustered together geographically, but have failed to form a unified district, a true destination. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and the Midtown Detroit Inc, hope that a new central public space around the DIA and a broader urban design to boost connectivity and accessibility can change that. In an attempt to create a coherent, inclusive, accessible, and sustainable district that can attract both residents and tourists, DIA and Midtown launched an international design competition last year, which has since yielded three finalists that presented to some 200 local residents at the DIA last week.

More than 40 submissions from 10 countries were narrowed down to eight finalists. And now it’s down to three interdisciplinary teams led by landscape architecture firms: Agence Ter from Paris, France; Mikyoung Kim Design from Boston, Massachusetts; and TEN x TEN, which is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

According to the DIA and Midtown Detroit, Inc, who worked with the twelve educational and cultural institutions, the finalists’ proposals are the result of a year of input from committees and residents, which participated through 40 public engagement sessions.

Public engagement session / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections
Public engagement session / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections

Finalists presented to the competition jury at the DIA, which includes Salvador Salort-Pons, president of the DIA; Maurice Cox, Detroit’s planning director; and landscape architect Julie Bargmann, ASLA, founder of D.I.R.T. Studio.

All the teams seek to shrink down the width of boulevards; remove parking; add event spaces, cafes, and public art installations; and vastly expand public green space. The new designs could be the National Mall of Detroit or a lush, interactive university campus. The design teams seek to bring people in from around the Detroit and the suburbs and keep them there, engaged, enlightened, and entertained year-round.

The Agence Ter team offered meandering paths through forested and planted areas, with experimental event spaces for local artists and public art installations that speak to Detroit’s unique history.

Agence Ter proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition
Agence Ter proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition

The Mikyoung Kim Design team envisioned a verdant space, with a central lawn that can host events, as well as an outdoor movie screen, cafe, playground, and maze garden that converts into an ice rink in winter.

Mikyoung Kim Design proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition
Agence Ter proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition

And the TEN x TEN team proposed a more angular, contemporary design, with green space but also “fog gardens,” an “exploratorium,” and interactive light graffiti wall.

Ten x Ten proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition
Ten x Ten proposal / DIA Plaza Midtown Cultural Connections competition

An exhibition of the proposals is on view at the DIA until April 1. The winning proposal will be announced by the end of April.

This incredible investment in raising Detroit’s profile as a cultural mecca can only help this city get back on its feet after years of disinvestment and near bankruptcy. Only a few years ago, the city seriously considered selling off the amazing art at the DIA to pay down debt. The message of this project is inclusive cultural and ecological revitalization is the new way to do urban revitalization.