To mark Frederick Law Olmsted’s 199th birthday, Olmsted 200 is inviting everyone to participate in a special two-part event — a viewing of Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks, narrated by actress Kerry Washington, and a panel discussion with landscape architects and park directors from around the country.
Stream the film for free at your leisure from April 24 to 25 and then join Olmsted 200 via Zoom on April 26 at 5:30 pm EST for a discussion on Olmsted’s thinking about today’s social, environmental, economic, and health challenges. TIME Magazine’s senior correspondent for climate, Justin Worland, will moderate.
Dr. Thaisa Way, FASLA, Resident Program Director for Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks
Happy Haynes, Executive Director of Denver Parks and Recreation
Justin DiBerardinis, Director of FDR Park, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation
This event is hosted by the National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP), the managing partner of Olmsted 200. ASLA is one of ten founding partners of Olmsted 200, the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO).
April 26, 2022, marks the 200th birthday of FLO— author, journalist, public official, city planner, and father of American landscape architecture—and Olmsted 200 is teaming up with organizations across the country to celebrate him all year long.
Olmsted and his successor firms designed thousands of landscape projects across the country, transforming American life and culture. His vision of public parks for all people — and their ability to strengthen communities and promote public well-being — are now more important than ever.
Through events, education, and advocacy at the local and national levels, Olmsted 200 ensures that Olmsted’s legacy lives on by renewing public and policy commitments to the preservation and maintenance of our historic parks and places.
We hope you’ll use Olmsted 200 as a resource to find parks near you, share your stories, and celebrate with us.
Moving the Workplace Outdoors — 03/29/21, Metropolis
“‘There is an increased value of outdoor space as a result of the pandemic,’ said Zan Stewart, associate principal landscape architecture, Perkins&Will. ‘Central Park in New York and the grand boulevards of Paris both emerged from pandemics. Our teams can be happier, healthier and more productive with access to nature.'”
Rooted in St. Louis: The Creation of a Campus Forest — 03/29/21, Student Life: The Independent Newspaper of the Washington University in St. Louis “The diversity on campus speaks for itself––it is a testament to great landscape design that you do not notice all the work and planning that went into it. Yet the design behind the campus landscape, and its hidden mechanics, are as impressive as the results.”
WXY Reveals a Sustainable Master Plan for Downtown Davenport, Iowa — 03/16/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The Downtown Davenport Partnership (DDP) commissioned the New York-based WXY, Chicago real estate consultants SB Friedman Development Advisors, and New York City engineers Sam Schwartz Engineering to draw up a path toward downtown resiliency that would also spur economic development.”
19th century sanitation engineer George E. Waring, Jr. was a miasmaist. He believed in the miasma theory, which holds that toxic vapors emanated from damp soil, rotted vegetation, and pools of standing water. These toxic vapors were understood to be created by the Earth and interact with the atmosphere and cause disease in American cities.
According to Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, Waring was a “marginal figure,” but he had interesting ideas about how to “modify the climate to improve health.” In a virtual lecture hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Seavitt Nordenson said Waring was incorrect about the mechanisms for spreading disease — he didn’t understand the concept of vectors, like mosquitoes — but his drainage and sanitation solutions were “surprisingly successful.” A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth revisiting Waring’s ideas about the connections between the Earth, atmosphere, disease — and the maintenance of public spaces.
Waring wrote numerous books, created the drainage plan for Central Park, and later became an influential sanitation commissioner of New York City. Born in Pound Ridge, New York, in 1833, he studied agricultural chemistry. In his early 20s, he wrote a book on scientific farming that explored “atmospheric and molecular matter, the interchange of Earth and air,” Seavitt Nordenson explained. He called for “mechanical cultivation to reduce water in soil” through the use of “thorough under draining, deep disturbance of the soil, and trenches.”
Because of this book, he was later hired by former U.S. presidential candidate Horace Greeley to create a drainage system for his farm in Chappaqua, New York. At his estate, Waring created an elaborate herringbone-patterned drainage system that directed water to streams, with the goal of improving the marshy soil for farming, but he would soon also use for eradicating imagined wet soil-borne disease.
Later, in 1857, Waring apprenticed as a drainage engineer with Egbert L. Viele, who had previously created a comprehensive survey and study of Manhattan, examining the marsh, meadow, and constructed lands of the island. The study included the land that would make up the future Central Park, a land that had been home to the freed Black community of Seneca Village, which was later cleared by the city government to make way for the park. Waring’s early drainage studies of Manhattan informed the many entries submitted as part of a design competition for the new Central Park.
In 1858, Waring was promoted to drainage engineer by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who won the design competition for Central Park. Waring created an elaborate drainage system for the park landscape, which included low-lying wetlands. Waring had found favor with Olmsted. “Olmsted too was a miasmaist. Draining the park was framed as disease suppression.”
Considered the largest drainage project of his time, Waring designed a comprehensive system that directed water to constructed lakes and reservoirs. By 1859, the lower part of the park had been drained through a series of ceramic tubes buried deep into the soil that piped water directly to streams and ponds. “There was a mechanical movement to the low points,” where water would flow to.
With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Olmsted left his position at Central Park and became executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, where he was charged with reducing the death rate from disease for 8,000 sick and wounded soldiers. Olmsted created field hospitals in places he thought free of dangerous miasmas. Meanwhile, Waring resigned from Central Park work to become a major and lead cavalry in the Civil War.
After the Civil War and the publication of his book Drainage for Profit, Drainage for Health, Waring took up a post in Memphis, Tennessee, a city that had suffered severe epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, killing some 5,000 people in 1878 alone. While Waring didn’t understand the mosquito was a key disease vector, his plan for attacking standing water in building basements and streets had a positive effect on reducing disease. His comprehensive plan to separate the conveyance of stormwater and sewage, which was eventually implemented by the city, ended the health crisis.
Upon returning to New York City as sanitation commissioner, Waring applied his miasma theory to cleaning up the streets of the city. At the time, horses were leaving millions of pounds of manure and urine on the streets each day. Horse corpses were also left to rot. Garbage piles ran feet-deep and were cleared by ad hoc groups of unemployed.
Seavitt Nordenson thinks Waring elevated street cleaning and maintenance into a “performance,” targeting garbage as contributing to disease and declining morals. Taking a “militaristic approach,” he hired an army of sanitation workers that he dressed in all white. Nicknamed the “white wings,” they were given hand carts and brooms and also took on snow removal.
Waring would lead parades on horseback, with thousands of sanitation workers in army formation marching down the street. “It was a triumph of sanitation.”
After leaving the sanitation department of New York, Waring was dispatched to Havana, Cuba, by President McKinley to help solve their yellow fever epidemic. Until 1902, the U.S. had a colonial presence in Cuba, and American soldiers were dying of disease. While establishing Havana’s department of street cleaning, Waring contracted yellow fever from a mosquito. A day after his return to New York, he died, his remains quarantined on an island in New York Harbor.
Seavitt Nordenson said the legacy of miasmaists like Waring and Olmsted is the public health focus on the air — the intermixing of atmosphere and Earth. While Waring was a “brilliant failure” in terms of his scientific theories, a “great mind but incorrect,” Seavitt Nordenson also wondered: was he right?
During the pandemic, everyone has become a miasmaist to a degree, imagining the invisible droplets we know are floating in the air.
Seavitt Nordenson is currently completing a book on this topic with the University of Texas Press, with support from the Graham Foundation and the Foundation for Landscape Studies.
Hirshhorn Museum Is Close to Finalizing Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Garden Revamp — 03/12/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Sugimoto’s design will be only the second comprehensive update of the Washington, D.C. museum’s Gordon Bunshaft-designed campus, which debuted in 1974. Bunshaft’s garden, as well as its extensive 1981 renovation, was influenced by Japanese landscape architecture and garden design.”
The New Trend in Home Gardens—Landscaping to Calm Anxiety — 03/12/21, The Wall Street Journal
“Loud hues don’t cultivate serenity. ‘Reds, oranges and yellow are hot colors that stir passion,’ said New York landscape architect Edmund Hollander, who recommends mining the other end of the spectrum for tranquility. ‘The gradation of blues into greens is almost the colors of a stream, with whites and creams representing movement, if you will.'”
The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign: Paving Paradise — 03/11/21, The Wall Street Journal
“The Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden in Washington is nearly perfect; of course, it must be destroyed. This is the paradox of landscape architecture: The more sensitive and subtle the garden, the more invisible it is—even to its custodians. At a certain point they can mistake it for an opportunity to exploit rather than a sacred trust to protect.”
The Bike Boom Is Real, Says New Mode Share Data — 03/05/21, Greater Greater Washington
“Since 2007, the share of people in the Washington region who ride bikes has gone up, while driving and riding transit have dropped, according to a gigantic once-per-decade report.”
What About Jane? – 03/03/21, Urban Omnibus
“Jacobs’ legacy is divided. On the one hand she should be seen as an analyst of gentrification, not simply a harbinger of its ill effects. But she also treats with kid gloves the social phenomenon that has made gentrification such an urgent topic today: race.”
ASLA’s Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Online Exhibition demonstrates how landscape architects are designing smart solutions to climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. 10 new projects added to the exhibition exemplify best practice approaches to landscape architecture in the era of climate change.
The projects include a mix of landscape-based and often nature-based solutions across the U.S., which range in scale from residential and school landscapes to master plans for entire cities and counties. There is also a focus on projects that address climate injustices and meet the needs of historically-marginalized and underserved communities.
“The projects clearly show how landscape architects can help all kinds of communities reduce their risk to increasingly severe climate impacts. Landscape architects design with nature, which leads to more resilient solutions that also improve community health, safety, and well-being over the long-term,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO
With the new projects, which were selected with ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, there are now a total of 30 projects featured in the online exhibition. Each project was selected to illustrate policy recommendations outlined in the 2017 report produced by ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience.
Being solely dependent on cars increases communities’ risks to climate impacts. Through the 815-mile Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan created by landscape architects and planners at SmithGroup, some 59 communities will have healthier and more resilient transportation connections to downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, and each other.
Too few schools offer educational green spaces that can spark children’s appreciation for nature, which is critical to helping them become future Earth stewards. Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, with nature+play designs partnered with school leaders, students, and volunteers to design native plant gardens, meadows, and tree groves that create environmental education opportunities; support pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and birds; and also manage stormwater.
By 2012, more than 50 percent of the tree canopy of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center had been lost due to drought and hurricanes made more severe by climate change. By removing trees and restoring the original prairie, savannah, and woodland ecosystems found at the Arboretum, landscape architects with Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand designed a landscape naturally resilient to future climate shocks.
Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those found in the South Side of Chicago, are disproportionally affected by climate impacts such as flooding. Through the Space to Grow program, a flooded asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school on the South Side, was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater.
Through their research capabilities and campus infrastructure, universities and schools can also help solve the climate crisis. For the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, landscape architects with Andropogon integrated an innovative water management system that captures and reuses 100 percent of stormwater runoff from the building and also cleanses and reuses building greywater in the ecological landscape.
Orange County, California | Jodie Cook Design, Inc.
Climate change has severely reduced the availability of fresh water in arid Western states. Turf lawns require vast amounts of water to maintain and also provide no habitat for native plant and animal species. Through NatureScape, an innovative program in Orange County, California, Jodie Cook, ASLA, helped homeowners transform their turf front yards into water-saving native plant gardens that can sustain a range of native bird, bee, and butterfly species.
Climate change is making communities’ struggles with aging combined sewer systems, which carry both sewage from buildings and stormwater from streets, even worse. With more frequent extreme weather events, these systems now more often overflow, causing untreated sewage to enter water bodies. Rain Check 2.0, an innovative program in Buffalo, New York, led by landscape architect Kevin Meindl, ASLA, offers grants to private landowners to capture stormwater through trees, rain gardens, green roofs and streets.
Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those in the South Bronx in New York City, experience higher than average heat risks because they typically have fewer parks and recreational spaces. The lack of safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to nearby green spaces exacerbates the problem. Working with two community groups and the New York City government, landscape architects with MNLA designed the Randall’s Island Connector, a ¼-mile-long multi-modal path underneath an Amtrak freight line.
Sapwi Trails Community Park
Thousand Oaks, California | Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group (consulting landscape architects)
In drought-stricken Western states, climate change has added stress to increasingly fragile ecosystems. Instead of moving forward with an earlier plan that could have damaged the Lang Creek ecosystem, planners and landscape architects at the Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group designed the Sapwi Trails Community Park to be a model for how to preserve ecological systems while improving access and dramatically reducing water use.
Climate change and environmentally-insensitive development in the Pacific Northwest are exacerbating negative impacts on salmon. Grassroots environmental organizations sought to daylight the piped Thornton Creek. A new water quality channel was designed by landscape architects at MIG to clean stormwater runoff from 680 surrounding acres before the water flows into the South Fork of the salmon-bearing Thornton Creek.
New projects were submitted by ASLA members through an open call ASLA released in 2019. In partnership with the ASLA Climate Action Committee, projects were selected to represent a range of U.S. regions, scales (from residential to county-wide master plans), and firm types.
In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience, which resulted in a report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate and a series of lectures and educational sessions at built environment conferences. In 2019, an exhibition outlining 20 cases that exemplify the policy goals outlined in the report opened at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C., and a companion website was launched.
The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Highways and elevated train and subway lines that cut through cities can be seen as barriers. But through innovative landscape design, the spaces beneath these transportation systems are becoming new linear parks that help bring communities back together. Offering built-in shelter for rain and snow and shade during warmer months, elevated infrastructure provides communities and landscape architects an opportunity to create new forms of public space.
After more than six years of planning, design, and construction, the first half-mile-long segment of The Underline, Miami’s 10-mile-long linear park, has opened below the city’s Metrorail system. Designed by a multidisciplinary team led by James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), a landscape architecture and urban design firm, The Underline is a model for how to separate pedestrian and bicycle networks and incorporate exercise facilities and outdoor spaces — all while leveraging existing infrastructure.
When The Friends of the Underline, a non-profit organization, and JCFO complete the project, the new park will span from the Miami River in Brickell to the Dadeland South Metrorail station and create more than 120 acres of multi-use public space. Restored natural habitats will mix with public spaces of all kinds along with pedestrian and bicycle paths that link directly to the Metrorail’s stations.
The first segment is already a far cry from what was once there. Isabel Castilla, ASLA, design principal-in-charge for The Underline at JCFO, said: “I still remember one of our first site visits when we had to strategically run between oncoming traffic to cross the street because there was no safe way to cross the SW 7th or SW 8th Street intersections!”
Through outreach sessions, Castilla’s team discovered that improving pedestrian and bicycle access below the Metrorail lines was a priority for the community. “We learned there was a strong desire to create separate paths as some cyclists wanted to travel fast while using The Underline for commuting while others desired a space for strolling,” she said.
To reduce conflicts between pedestrians and bicyclists, JCFO implemented a few strategies: “First and foremost, we added traffic lights, pedestrian signals, and crosswalks. Second, the path geometry is always straight and perpendicular to intersection crossings in order to ensure cyclists have proper visibility.”
Furthermore, “all intersections feature designated crosswalks for pedestrians and cyclists in order to give room to everyone and minimize conflicts. Lastly, we implemented bold pavement graphics — not only at intersections to make drivers aware of those crossing on bike or by foot, but also along the bike path to alert cyclists of an upcoming intersection so they can reduce speeds,” Castilla explained.
For Alejandro Vazquez, ASLA, design project manager for The Underline at JCFO, the project’s transportation safety benefits are personal: “My grandparents lived in Little Havana and their street didn’t even have a sidewalk to walk on. I remember my grandfather being one of the few people riding a bike in Miami in the 80’s and 90’s, and we were always worried that he would get hit by a car. In a county that has the highest number of pedestrian and bicycle crashes in the state of Florida, the simple act of creating connections through Miami with The Underline’s safe bike trail and pedestrian paths is quite revolutionary. The Underline and its connections to the Metrorail, Metromover, bus transport system, and projected trails—including the future Ludlam trail and the Miami Riverwalk extension—will contribute to a robust network of sustainable mobility corridors.”
The Underline has also become part of the greater East Coast Greenway, which runs 2,900 miles from Maine to Florida. Phase one of The Underline links with the Miami River Greenway, and the completed linear park will connect to six major trails in Miami-Dade county.
Beyond the street-level transportation network, JCFO incorporated a range of public spaces, all designed with a bold green brand identity and way-finding system designed by Hamish Smyth of Order Design. Brickell Backyard, the first phase of The Underline, found at the northernmost portion, is organized into a “procession of rooms” — the River Room, Gym, Promenade, and Oolite Room. Many of these spaces will also eventually be populated by public art, selected in collaboration with Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places.
The River Room offers views of the Miami River, native and South Florida-friendly plants, and space for residents and their dogs.
The Gym is designed for fitness, with a flexible court for basketball and soccer surrounded by exercise spaces that have strength training equipment, stretch and balance areas, and a running track.
The Promenade area, which includes the multi-modal Brickell Metrorail station, features wide sidewalks for bus and trolley commuters, a pedestrian path, and a separate bike path between the Metrorail columns that increases safety, JCFO notes.
Social spaces in the Promenade include a Station Grove, which offers moveable tables and chairs and bicycle parking for commuters; a game area with tables for chess and dominoes; a 50-foot-long communal dining table; and a plaza and stage that hosts activities organized by the Friends of the Underline.
The Oolite Room, named after the Oolite sedimentary limestone of Miami that naturally compresses into ooid forms, frames native plant gardens designed to attract butterflies.
Castilla explained that The Underline is found in the monarch butterfly migration corridor. “The park has already seen a resurgence of butterflies that include the Atala butterfly, an endangered endemic South Florida species that thrives with plants such as Coontie and Lantana involucrate,” she said.
As Miami faces climate impacts such as extreme heat, sea level rise, and increased ground-up flooding through its limestone landscape, the entire project was also designed to be climate resilient.
To reduce heat gain, Castilla tells us “the project is carefully designed around existing mature trees to preserve them while also carving out sizable new planting areas, minimizing hard surfaces, and, in turn, minimizing heat gain. All hardscapes use light-colored materials. In particular, the bike path asphalt paving was coated with a light-colored finish.”
The landscape architects also made sure the project did its part to reduce flooding from stormwater. “The Underline corridor sits on the Miami Rock Ridge, benefiting from some of the highest elevations in Miami. As such, it is not as prone to flooding or sea level rise as other parts of Miami. That said, we have carefully graded the site to direct all surface water to planting beds in order to minimize direct runoff to the city’s sewers.”
Studio Zewde Designs for Cultural and Climate Resilience
02/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“With several major projects on the docket—including a five-acre park in Pittsburgh’s historically Black Homewood neighborhood—Zewde persists in combating the shibboleths of her field. Landscape has adopted the rubric of resilience as an overarching frame, but its manifestation in individual projects can often feel like an add-on or PR spin.”
WEISS/MANFREDI and Reed Hilderbrand Reveal an Expansive Reimagining at Longwood Gardens
02/18/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“WEISS/MANFREDI and Reed Hilderbrand’s ‘sweeping yet deeply sensitive’ transformation will ‘expand the public spaces of the renowned central grounds and connect them from east to west, offering a newly unified but continually varied journey from lush formal gardens to views over the open meadows of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley.'”
Boston’s Dogs Just Wanna Run Free
02/16/21, The Boston Globe
“So, if the national ‘pandemic puppy’ trend holds up in Boston, soon-to-be mature dogs will be matriculating in public spaces and will insist that their voices are heard. And the dog-owning bloc in Boston naturally keeps sniffing for opportunity and will not take rejection lightly. How does a dog park in every Boston neighborhood sound? That’s the city’s goal, Boston officials confirmed.”
Why One City in Car-obsessed Florida Is Prioritizing Pedestrians — 02/12/21, Fast Company
“The plan also involved breaking apart the superblocks that had formed in the area since the 1950s. Elkus Manfredi, along with the landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, reconfigured the grid to be more easily accessible on foot, with smaller blocks and generous space for pedestrians.”
A Fight to Save a Corporate Campus Intertwined with Nature — 02/12/21, The New York Times
“The campus, designed by the architect Edward Charles Bassett and the landscape architect Peter Walker, featured a low-slung building in a meadow between wooded hillsides. Ivy-covered terraces on the front of the building cascaded down to a lake, and walking paths wound through trees.”
Public Displays of Affection for Urban Life — 02/10/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“U.S. cities ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic are embracing a broader definition of love this year through Valentine’s Day art installations.”
For most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American cities prospered as their region’s center of commerce. Central business districts thrived as shopping destinations by having densely populated cores, mass transportation, large employment centers, on-street parking, and numerous governmental and civic institutions. During the 1960s, America’s larger cities began installing street trees and designer furnishings in an effort to revitalize downtowns in the wake of losing signiﬁcant market share to suburban shopping centers.
Even though they are a relatively recent phenomenon in many city centers, street trees enhance a downtown’s uniqueness and authenticity. A well-planned, tree-lined urban street contributes to shoppers’ perception that downtown stores offer quality goods and services not commonly found in shopping malls.
Studies dating back to the 1970s, including those by Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist at the University of Washington, have documented the effects of trees and other plant life on the “restorative experience,” a concept advanced through two interpretations: Stress Reduction Theory and Attention Restoration Theory. The former theory contends that environments containing natural elements reduce levels of “physiological arousal” (stress) in the brain; the latter contends that the presence of vegetation in an environment is “uniquely capable” of effortlessly capturing attention, which allows those elements of the brain used for direct concentration to recuperate. This mitigates what is known as “directed attention fatigue” (DAF), or simply the depletion of the ability to focus on a directed task.
These ﬁndings have implications for urban retail areas. It has been proven that shopping, as a goal-oriented activity constrained by many external factors, can induce a stressed state in the consumer. Research has also documented a positive correlation between a shopper’s “mood state” and his or her willingness to buy. Further, the mood state of retail employees correlates with job performance. The vast array of merchandising techniques retailers employ when aggregated across the urban or mall setting can result in DAF, a form of “information overload” that affects the consumer. It has likewise been proven that DAF results in decreased consumer conﬁdence because of poor or rushed purchasing decisions, which may translate into dissatisfaction with a speciﬁc store or the overall retail area.
However, street trees alone cannot solve the problems and challenges that commercial urban areas face. Frequently, too much emphasis has been placed on planting street trees and installing decorative streetscape enhancements in an effort to improve retail sales in historic downtowns.
Retailers, shopping center developers, and urban designers have differing opinions regarding the layout and use of trees. Some shopping center developers even design by the “24-inch rule”: any tree is acceptable in any location as long as it is less than 24 inches tall (a metaphor for no street trees of any type).
In some cities, planners have installed short shrub-like trees that block motorists’ and pedestrians’ views of storefronts and signage but fail to provide useful canopies. In some newer and renovated urban centers, trees have either been organized around an abstract grid or randomly scattered according to some new design theory. In each case, trees have been sited without regard for the visibility of signage, storefronts, and civic buildings.
To enhance the sustainability of an urban commercial center, street trees should be carefully located to provide protection from extreme heat, reduce the scale of the street, mitigate the height of tall buildings, and improve the overall aesthetics of the shopping area. Asymmetrically sized sidewalks can respond to local climate conditions: wide sidewalks accommodate more shade in hot climates or the warming sun in colder regions.
Trees are often planted in a 25-30-foot on-center grid, frequently evenly spaced between predetermined street lighting fixtures or curbside parking spaces. While this modular approach contributes to a balanced and organized urban aesthetic, trees frequently cause havoc with retailers and civic buildings. Rather than installing trees at regular intervals in a row, which may inadvertently align with and thus block the view of building entrances, each building’s significant architectural features or signage should be analyzed during the initial site analysis process. Where worthy building features are present, or proposed with new development, a Civic-Commercial C-shaped Zone should be included in site plans.
Proposed street trees, light fixtures, site furnishings, and landscaping should be planted outside of the C-Zone, near or on common property lines, clustered where they can hide blank walls, or spaced to avoid blocking the view of retail entrances, storefront windows, signage, important commercial architectural features, and civic buildings.
As an idealistic young landscape architect early in my career, I designed a textbook perfect streetscape for a small Wisconsin town. Large Linden trees were spaced exactly 25 feet apart, to align with the center of each adjacent parallel parking space and for a continues tree canopy at maturity in 25 years. Street furnishings and flower beds were precisely spaced in a “landscape zone” along the outer edge of the walkway. I was convinced that my design would almost immediately revitalize the then declining business district by creating a human-scaled, beautiful destination for eager shoppers and diners. Adjacent building features, storefronts of commercial signage were not even considered in my design. Symmetry and scale were all that mattered for my brilliant placemaking and hopefully award-winning design.
However, during the tree installation, a hardware store owner taught me a lifelong lesson. One of the new trees directly blocked all views of this historic neon sign from both passing vehicles and pedestrians. The owner explained how he would lose vital business to a competing larger chain store located in a nearby shopping center. Although I did my best to enlighten the businessman that my design would create a “sense of place” to attract many more people to the downtown, and that views of his storefront or sign were not important, or that the trees would eventually grow tall enough to expose his sign after 20 years, he wasn’t buying it and let me know his concerns in no uncertain terms. He was angry, and I knew he was right. I had mistakenly misplaced trees relative to the adjacent facades and commercial signage. One tree even blocked the portico of a historic landmark church. I had made a blunder that provided a lifelong lesson for future urban designs. This approach was later reinforced during my tenure as the director of planning for a major shopping center developer.
It’s almost unbelievable, but many landscape architects and designers still routinely align trees and furnishing in an abstract grid without consideration of the surrounding architecture.
Since the humbling lessons learned during my Wisconsin streetscape design, I have frequently lectured about my C-Zone theory at universities. When possible, I include photographs of local misplaced street trees, often resulting in rapid tree relocations or removal by the city. Below, see 2009 “before” and 2011 “after” photographs of a street tree blocking a luxury store along Worth Avenue, Palm Beach, Florida. The ill-located tree was moved within month of my Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce address on urban retail best practices.
Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.
Terraced Pocket Park Takes Shape in Chinatown — 01/28/21, Urbanize
“Landscape architecture firm AHBE | MIG designed the project and uses staircases and multiple terrace levels to account for its hillside location. The stepped levels, which provide three entrance points along Ord Street and Hill Place, will include landscaping, seating areas, viewing platforms, and exercise equipment.”