“What we are doing is using shade, humidity, wind, and water to lower the temperature in the heart of Paris,” explained Brussels-based landscape architect Bas Smets, who has won an international design competition to redesign the landscape around Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Founder of Bureau Bas Smets (BBS), Smets is leveraging nature-based solutions, including a significant expansion of green space and a scrim of water, to cool the cathedral and protect it from future climate impacts.
In 2019, the cathedral caught fire, causing the destruction of its 150-foot-tall spire and interiors. The reconstruction of the 760-year-old medieval Catholic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has started, but the organizers of the competition, which include the Paris city government; Diocese of Paris; and Public Establishment, the conservators of the cathedral, saw the need to further leverage the landscape to preserve the monument for future visitors and worshippers.
Smets is leading a team on the $50.3 million project that includes Paris-based firms GRAU, an architecture and urbanism firm, and Neufville-Gayet Architects, an architecture firm specializing in historic buildings. Together, they are re-imagining the visitor experience of the gothic cathedral while also adapting the site to rising temperatures. Their goals align with Paris’ Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce heat islands throughout the city.
Smet’s team will ring the cathedral in trees that will provide shade and cool the air, creating a micro-climate on Île de la Cité, the island in the midst of the Seine River where the cathedral is found, and its immediate surrounding area. The form of the existing rectangular square in front of the cathedral will be simplified, creating “a perfect rectangular form” to make it clearer and more usable, edged with a new canopy of trees, Smet’s firm states.
According to The New York Times, the Jean XXIII Square, a park behind the cathedral, will be connected with new green spaces that extend to the edge of Île de la Cité. This new park will link with gardens on the cathedral’s southern edge, creating a 1,300-foot-long green space planted with 131 new trees. The Architect’s Newspaper also notes that Île-de-France Square will also be integrated into the new plans. Throughout the expanded site, trees will increase by nearly 35 percent, in places layered behind existing trees, so as to not obstruct protected views.
Water will also be used to support that new micro-climate. Smets’ team plans for a 5-milimeter (one fifth of an inch) scrim of water in the forecourt of the cathedral in the summer. The water element will help cool the facade of Notre-Dame while bringing a shimmer to visitors’ photographs.
At the same time, Smets is rethinking the entire visitor experience and creating new pedestrian connections to the cathedral. A parking lot under the cathedral will be transformed into a welcome center and connect with an existing archeological museum that will now be accessible via a new passageway off the quay along the Seine. Currently visitors need to access the cathedral via stairs from the quay.
The New York Times reports that at a press conference, Father Drouin with the Diocese said: “I am very pleased that the tragedy of the fire will enable us to recreate physical and symbolic ties between the capital and its urban environment.”
While leading with climate, the landscape architecture address issues holistically. “The urban figures, such as forecourt, square, square, alignment and banks, are all present around the cathedral, but in a fragmented way. The project reveals the quality of each place and rethinks each of these figures from the double angle of the collective and the climate,” Smets told Paris.
And as he noted to Wallpaper magazine, “we wanted to make a nuanced composition. You’ll walk in, sit, stay, go underground, open towards the river, emerge close to the entrance…More than giving a form, we are giving an experience.”
The restoration of the cathedral is expected to be completed by 2024, when Paris hosts the summer Olympic games, while the landscape redesign is scheduled to be finished by 2027.
A Quiet Revolution: Southwest Cities Learn to Thrive Amid Drought — 04/26/2022, Yale Environment 360
“Facing a changing climate, southwestern U.S. cities such as San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas have embraced a host of innovative strategies for conserving and sourcing water, providing these metropolitan areas with ample water supplies to support their growing populations.”
Parched Southern California Takes Unprecedented Step of Restricting Outdoor Watering — 04/26/2022, The Guardian
“Metropolitan water district of southern California’s resolution will limit outdoor watering to just one day per week for district residents supplied by a stressed system of canals, pipelines, reservoirs and hydroelectric power plants called the State Water Project, which supplies water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.”
The day we’ve been waiting for — Olmsted’s 200th birthday on April 26 — is almost here, and we couldn’t be more excited to reflect on Olmsted’s living legacy and usher in the next 200 years of parks for all people.
As we prepare to #CelebrateOlmsted, the campaign needs help showing the depth and breadth of Olmsted’s fan base. The National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP) and the Olmsted 200 campaign are crowdsourcing birthday wishes for Frederick Law Olmsted’s special day.
In the form of short video submissions, we are asking ASLA chapters and chapter members to send birthday messages in honor of this monumental occasion. Record a message alone, film it with a friend, or get the entire chapter or office involved — the possibilities are endless! Videos will be collected and included in a special birthday project. The deadline to submit is April 21.
We also hope that you’ll join us in-person! Next week, Olmsted 200 will be in New York to #CelebrateOlmsted with our founders, partners, and friends. If you happen to be in the city, please join us for park tours and other programming happening in Manhattan and throughout the other boroughs.
The website also includes a lively blog, Shared Spaces, which features many new and exciting updates. Olmsted 200 will continue throughout 2022 and is interested in sourcing blog posts from ASLA members willing to share information about local projects, personal reflections, site histories, and more. To submit blog posts, contact Olmsted 200.
New Research Highlights the Role of Green Spaces in Conflict — 04/14/22, University of British Columbia
“Green spaces can promote well-being, but they may not always be benign. Sometimes, they can be a tool for control. That’s the finding of a new paper that analyzed declassified U.S. military documents to explore how U.S. forces used landscapes to fight insurgency during the war in Afghanistan.”
James Corner Field Operations’ Tunnel-topping San Francisco Park Is Set for July Debut — 04/13/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Visitors to Presidio Tunnel Tops will find winding cliffside trails, picnic areas, extensive gardens and meadows filled with native vegetation, a 2-acre natural play area for children dubbed the Outpost, and several elevated overlooks offering sweeping city and bridge views. The new swath of parkland will fuse back together the waterfront and Crissy Field, a former air field that now serves as a popular recreation hotspot, with the Presidio’s bustling historic Main Post.”
Why JW Marriott Is Planting Edible Gardens in Every One of Its Hotels — 04/13/22, Fast Company Design
“The terrarium was designed by Lily Kwong, whose eponymous landscape design studio has previously worked with H&M, St-Germain, and the French fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra (who is also her cousin). The terrarium is part of a broader initiative called the JW Garden, for which the hotel chain plants fruits, vegetables, and herbs to use in its kitchen and spas.”
Green Transportation Projects Face Costly, Time-consuming Environmental Reviews — 04/13/22, The San Francisco Examiner
“Transit agencies across California are ready to move forward with more than three dozen green transportation projects, ranging from bus rapid transit lines to bike lanes. But unless the Legislature takes action, these projects could be mired in years of costly, time-consuming analysis and lawsuits on the basis that they are bad for the environment.”
Special Report: U.S. Solar Expansion Stalled by Rural Land-use Protests — 04/07/22, Reuters
“Solar currently makes up 3% of U.S. electricity supply and could reach 45% by 2050 to meet the Biden administration’s goals to eliminate or offset emissions by 2050, according to the Department of Energy. To get there, the U.S. solar industry needs a land area twice the size of Massachusetts, according to DOE. And not any land will do, either. It needs to be flat, dry, sunny, and near transmission infrastructure that will transport its power to market.”
There are many explanations as to how the idea of National Parks originated. One theory is it spontaneously arose around a campfire in Yosemite National Park. Another is that conservationist John Muir or President Teddy Roosevelt came up with it. But in a new book, Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea, Ethan Carr, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Rolf Diamant, a professor at the University of Vermont, argue that the work and writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, inspired the creation of parks to benefit the public.
In an online discussion organized as part of Olmsted 200 and moderated by Sara Zewde, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, they argued that instead of considering National Parks distinct from urban parks, they should both be understood as part of the same broad movement towards public spaces. And Olmsted was a key figure in advancing this movement.
In 1864, when Olmsted was invited by the state of California to chair a commission on the Yosemite land grant, he was already an “important public intellectual,” Carr said. He was well-known for his opposition to slavery and the cotton plantation economy of the South. In California, they knew of his work with Calvert Vaux on Central Park in New York City and his prior work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
Olmsted came to Yosemite with the idea that parks were a way to “renew the Republic” after the destruction and division wrought by the Civil War. And while Central Park in New York City and Yosemite National Park are wildly different parks, they shared a common purpose for Olmsted — to expose the general public to landscape beauty. He believed this form of natural beauty wasn’t just aesthetic, but “necessary for public health,” Carr said.
Prior to public parks, landscape beauty was accessible to the very few who had grand estates. But while the first public parks benefited more of the U.S. population, they also had negative impacts. To make way for Central Park, the New York City government displaced Seneca Village, a Black community. At Yosemite, indigenous communities who had cared for the landscape for thousands of years were also eventually pushed out. These actions were justified as part of a “doctrine of public interest.” These landscapes were viewed as part of “public health infrastructure,” like water and sewage projects.
For the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, public parks had a purpose — to help “reforge a national identity out of war.” Carr argued that in the climate of the time, calling for great public parks was a “radical political act.” Cities at the time were urban, diverse, and industrial. They were widely criticized by the South.
Cities “had to work as a concept,” or the entire vision of Northern cities as superior to the South would be untenable. Central Park, which was initiated in 1857, was a proof point that Northern cities weren’t foul, polluted places, but could instead create landscape beauty. One newspaper called it the “big artwork of the Republic.”
While the late 19th century conception of landscape beauty can now seem “dated and elitist,” Carr argued the ideas behind the term still ring true. What Olmsted and others were talking about was the biophilic connection humans have to nature and the human health benefits that arise from being in nature. Today, we discuss children suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder, but in the late 1800s, the issue was presented as a lack of common access to landscape beauty.
The 1865 report commissioned by the state of California about how to shape Yosemite National Park didn’t form the basis of National Parks, but it included Olmsted’s core argument for public parks in general — the “justification to act” by governments at all levels.
Rolf Diamant provided additional context about the era in which Yosemite was preserved.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, an effort was underway to create a new national identity that could bridge the divisions between North and South. In 1862 and 1863, a system of national banks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were formed. The Homesteading Act also passed in 1862, accelerating the settlement of western territories, giving each family 160 acres of land.
And a decade later, this same desire to legislate a new shared America led to the Yosemite National Park Act, the land grant preserving the Yosemite Valley “in trust for the whole nation.” The legislation enshrined the idea that U.S. citizens are “entitled to enjoy spectacular landscapes,” Diamant explained.
To gloss over the divisions between North and South, a new narrative was formed based in the “untrammeled nature” of Yosemite and other seemingly pristine Western landscapes. Of course, this narrative, which was also forged by John Muir and President Teddy Roosevelt, required “forcing out Native Americans” and ignoring their claims to ancestral lands.
Diamant argued that Olmsted’s role in creating the argument for preserving Yosemite and other Western landscapes was later brushed over in prevailing narratives because he was too closely associated with anti-slavery causes and the very urban Central Park of New York City. He was simply too divisive a figure for the new narrative.
Amid a new rising narrative in the South — the revisionist “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, the rest of the country was focused on reconciliation — “it became a national obsession.” As a result it’s possible that “history and the legacy of Olmsted became decoupled.”
In the Q&A, Zewde wondered whether Central Park was as central to public park history as many landscape architects believe.
“Central Park represented an investment in the creation of a new park at a scale previously unseen before. While the park displaced Seneca Village, it was the beginning of something,” Carr said. Immediately after its creation, cities across the country took up their own significant park building projects.
Together, Central Park and Yosemite are “public parks that captured American imagination.” They also led to the forming of new institutions — the National Park Service and hundreds of state and city park systems. While the origin of these places are not without “faults or flaws,” they succeeded in helping to reframe American identity.
The flip side of this pervasive new narrative rooted in a falsely pristine West was the dispossession of Native Americans from their land. In his analysis of Yosemite, Olmsted made almost no mention of the Native Americans who had called Yosemite home for generations. “They were outside his view of the world; it’s his blind spot.” That blind spot would also help to create a legacy of displacement through public land and park acquisition.
Also, ironically, the meadows of Yosemite Olmsted and others so enjoyed and which reminded them of England, were actually the result of “deliberate burning by the Native Americans who lived there,” Carr said. What Olmsted and others thought was untouched was actually a “cultural landscape managed for thousands of years.”
There had been complaints that the Native American lit fire to the landscape and didn’t know how to manage it. But when Americans took over the ownership of Yosemite, they found trees kept intruding on the meadows and had to be cut down to preserve the views. This is something that would have been accomplished with periodic burning. And ecologists now understand the wisdom of Native American landscape management practices.
The concept of pure National Parks became a “white middle class vision” and part of the mythology of the country. The vision led to “problematic marketing” of the West and its formation, Carr argued. “This is a narrative that we can’t continue. We can’t cling to early 20th century stories.”
The story of National Parks is really a story about federalism. Olmsted came down on the side of increased public investment in infrastructure, which he believed included parks. Debate over the past few decades about raising fees to access National Parks and private fundraising to maintain them are an evolution of earlier debates about what should be for the public benefit and how those benefits should be financed. For Carr, another form of the debate is the continuing battle over voting rights for all.
Frederick Law Olmsted, social reformer and founder of American landscape architecture, was born on April 26, 1822, so this year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. To explore and celebrate his life, work, and legacy, the National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP), ASLA, and other founding partners launched Olmsted 200.
As part of the celebration, the U.S. House of Representatives recently acknowledged Olmsted’s important contributions to American society. On March 29, Representatives French Hill (AR) and Debbie Dingell (MI) introduced a bipartisan proclamation honoring Olmsted’s legacy, which included a reference to ASLA being co-founded by his son.
April marks the peak of the Olmsted 200 celebration. Throughout the week of April 25, Olmsted 200 will be sharing content live from New York City, where NAOP, ASLA, and other founding partners will be celebrating. Olmsted’s New York City parks will be hosting Olmsted 200 partners and friends during multiple events.
Although the Olmsted Birthday Gala has sold out, there are several other events — many free — happening in NYC, for those who are local to the area or visiting for this monumental occasion.
The Olmsted 200 website also features an ever-changing national calendar full of in-person and virtual programs and events.
Upcoming events include:
Central and Prospect Park in New York City share many similarities, while also reflecting Olmsted’s evolution as a park designer. On April 12 at 12.30pm, the Central Park Conservancy and Turnstile Tour guides will simultaneously livestream from each park as they highlight, compare, and contrast Central Park’s arches, meadows, and natural features to parallel features found in Prospect Park. Learn about Olmsted’s lasting influence on landscape design and public space and see examples of how these designs have been adapted to better fit with modern-day recreational uses and ecological practices overtime. This is a virtual program over zoom; suggested donation $10.
“The Genius of the Place”: Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architecture, and Arkansas on April 14 at 6.30 pm CT. Kimball Erdman, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Arkansas, will speak about Olmsted and the history of landscape architecture. Tom Hill of Hot Springs National Park will discuss Olmsted’s brief encounter with Arkansas. And Chris East of StudioMain will address landscape architecture possibilities next to the Main Library in Little Rock.
Franklin Park: Past, Present, Future on April 30 from 2-4 pm ET. The Boston Society of Landscape Architects is organizing a free walking tour with John Kett, ASLA, principal, and Lydia Gikas Cook, ASLA, senior Associate, with Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture. The firm is leading an interdisciplinary team with Agency Landscape + Planning and MASS Design Group to re-imagine Olmsted’s Franklin Park, part of the original Emerald Necklace.
The National Association for Olmsted Parks’ Chicago Bicentennial Gala will be in-person on June 17 and include several tours.
Olmsted 200’s website also includes a blog, Shared Spaces, which features diverse voices exploring Olmsted’s living legacy. Olmsted 200 will continue throughout the year and is interested in posts from those willing to share information about local projects, personal reflections, site histories, and more. To submit blog posts, contact Olmsted 200.
Meet the Unsung Heroine of the Nation’s Most Celebrated Gardens — 03/29/22, Fast Company Design
“During a five-decade career based in deep horticultural knowledge and a style-agnostic approach guided by detailed interaction with her clients, Beatrix Farrand came to be one of the most famous landscape designers in the world. It’s an unlikely tale told in the biography Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect, by Judith B. Tankard, out today from Monacelli Press. If some consider Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted the father of American landscape architecture, Farrand could easily be called the mother.”
Turning Cities Into Sponges to Save Lives and Property — 03/29/22, The New York Times
“Around the world officials are moving away from the traditional, hard infrastructure of flood barriers, concrete walls, culverts and sewer systems, and toward solutions that mimic nature. They are building green roofs and parks; restoring wetlands, swales and rivers; digging storage ponds; and more. Such projects — called by various names, including sponge cities, porous cities or blue-green infrastructure — also improve city dwellers’ quality of life.”
A Rogue Leader’s Plan for the Heart of Budapest — 03/26/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“The project is a way for Orban to put his mark on Hungary’s imposing capital, a city that since the end of communist rule in 1989 has grown into a confident, more cosmopolitan mix of foreign students, cuisine from around the world and yet with strong Hungarian identity rooted in its 19th century architecture. But, as ever with such urban revamps, there’s controversy, and in Hungary it’s political as well as historical and financial.”
Report: Over Half of U.S. Waters Are Too Polluted to Swim or Fish — 03/24/22, High Country News
“Back in 1972, U.S. legislators passed the Clean Water Act with a 10-year goal: Make it safe for people to fish and swim in the nation’s waters. Fifty years later, around half of all lakes and rivers across the country that have been studied fail to meet that standard, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C. watchdog and advocacy nonprofit.”
Gary Hilderbrand Is the New Chair of Harvard GSD’s Department of Landscape Architecture — 03/23/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘Gary’s sensibilities as a teacher and as a practitioner are one and the same—his unyielding efforts to reconcile imminent, often intractable forces of urbanization with ecological sustainability, cultural history, vegetative regimes, and thoughtful kindness are central to his pedagogy and practice both,’ said Sarah M. Whiting, dean of the Harvard GSD.”
Father Figure: Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Celebrated as Originator of U.S. Public Parks System — 03/19/22, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“April 26 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and Olmsted 200 is a movement celebrating his vision — a vision that included public parks for all people. He believed that parks are an important part of any community. Not only do they provide a gathering place for family and friends, but they improve air and water quality, protect the groundwater and provide a home for birds and animals.”
New Book on Megaregions Provides a Framework for Large-Scale Public Investment — 03/17/22, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
“Written by planning scholars Robert D. Yaro, Ming Zhang, and Frederick R. Steiner, Megaregions and America’s Future explains the concept of megaregions, provides updated economic, demographic, and environmental data, draws lessons from Europe and Asia, and shows how megaregions are an essential framework for governing the world’s largest economy.”
Landslide 2022 Brings Under-threat Olmsted Landscapes into Focus — 02/15/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Today, more than 200 Olmsted-designed landscapes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and many are designated as National Historic Landmarks. And although the Olmsted name brings with it a high level of prestige and recognition it does not, as noted by TCLF president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum, guarantee any sort of invincibility.”
Olmsted’s Legacy, Bringing People Together Through Landscape Architecture — 02/11/22, The Pilot
“‘Olmsted saw the capability of landscape design to have beneficial impacts, whether it is physical health or mental health. He viewed landscape design as a way to bring people together,’ said Dede Petri, president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.”
The Untold Story of Super Bowl LVI Stadium in Los Angeles— 02/07/22, Architectural Digest
“The landscape design will allow residents year-round access to the areas outside the stadium itself, introducing new shared spaces in a city that lacks equitable access to public space. ‘This is a destination for the community,’ says [Mia] Lehrer, [founder of Studio-MLA]. ‘It’s not just a place to see a football game or to go shopping; it’s an environment for people to come and be with community.'”
NYC’s Park Avenue Medians Are Getting a Face-Lift— 02/07/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“New York City’s Department of Transportation plans to hire a landscape architect to reinvent the malls that divide Park Avenue along the 11 blocks from Grand Central to East 57th Street. Councilmember Keith Powers, who represents the area, says he expects the request for proposals to be sent out in the coming months. The renovations will proceed in stages and likely won’t be completed for at least 20 years.”
Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, is President and CEO of HargreavesJones and leads the firm’s offices in New York City, San Francisco, and Cambridge. HargreavesJones has been recognized with the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and the Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize.
Interview conducted at the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.
Across Tennessee, HargreavesJones has transformed inaccessible, polluted industrial riverfronts into rich, multifaceted parks. What has investment in the revitalization of Tennessee’s riverfronts meant to you? What trends are you seeing in Tennessee with public space more broadly?
It’s not just Nashville and Tennessee. We have found mid-tier cities are not just thinking about their post-industrial riverfronts, but also their place in the market and their ability to draw businesses and people. They’re more open to transformation, so that’s how we ended up doing major riverfront projects in cities such as Louisville, Kentucky; Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee; and Davenport, Iowa.
The steel industry left the riverfront in Nashville in a post-industrial state. The community embraced the idea of truly making something completely different out of their riverfront because they had nothing. It’s harder to come into cities like Los Angeles, New York City, or San Francisco with such sweeping transformations. In Nashville, Chattanooga, and Louisville, landscape architects can design signature waterfront experiences, address the dynamics of rivers, and restore ecosystems that can be a healthy part of a river system.
In Nashville, your firm designed the 6.5-acre Cumberland Park as part of a broader riverfront revitalization plan. The park is a model of sustainability and resilience, reuses a bridge structure, sources geothermal, preserves the flood plain, captures and reuses a million gallons of stormwater, remediates toxic soils, and improves biodiversity. How did you make all these pieces fit together?
It was so evident; the opportunities were there. Just focusing on stormwater for a minute: there were walls beneath the gantry structure, so the first thing we said was, “don’t take this gantry structure down, it’s beautiful. Not only will we build a bridge to it and let it become an overlook, we’ll also leave the heavy-duty concrete retaining walls below it. Let’s use the space to create an outlet for stormwater from the site and from the two bridges into a cistern.” We created a cistern that has an open air top so it’s actually quite beautiful to look down on, like a reflecting pool. You kind of want to jump in. Then there’s the river, so in flood times, it spills over to the river.
Bio-remediation is just dealing with the soil, which is the case on almost every project we do. We have to either bake or bury and cap soils, depending on the toxic substances and conditions. Geothermal became part of the building, an existing piece of infrastructure from the steel industry, which was then retrofitted by architects on our team to become the stair tower, concessions booth, and park office building. Even the toilets are mindfully designed for low water usage. With science, there are all these opportunities.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, your firm also designed a 23.5-acre Renaissance Park, which transformed a former industrial site into a wetland park, and the 21st Century Waterfront Park, which reconnects the city to its riverfront and has led to $1 billion in new residential and retail development. How do you design for multiple needs at once — social life, economic development, equitable access, and environmental restoration? How do you prioritize?
As landscape architects, that’s our job. That is the beauty of landscape architecture. We are not just doing the science; it’s not just a matrix of solving problems. We also create places people will love. The result of that will be economic investment and stewardship. If we don’t make places people love, they won’t be taken care of.
We create social and economic change around these projects, but at the same time we’re providing something to the neighborhood around these projects. We’re revitalizing these neighborhoods.
We don’t think we can just restore nature. We can’t just make form, design, and feel good about that. We have to do both those things and think about what is fiscally responsible because that’s what is ultimately going to give a project its long life.
Another significant new riverfront park in the South HargreavesJones designed is Crescent Park along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. By reusing surplus wharfs and derelict railroad sites a new public space was formed that celebrates the city’s infrastructural legacy instead of wiping it. What is the best way to tell landscape stories using the past? What are the other benefits of adapting and reusing legacy infrastructure?
Sometimes adaptive reuse — reinventing and reinterpreting remnants — makes your budget spread farther. An early groundbreaking project in this regard was Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park in Seattle. He left the old structures as is and created a green space around them.
But we’re taking it further now. There are remnants, but we interpret them in new ways. We aren’t just saving the rail tracks, we’re making gardens that follow the path of those rail tracks. We’re not strictly preserving, we’re amplifying through reinterpretation and twisting things that makes you see the infrastructure in a new way.
The transformation of Oklahoma City has been accelerated by the 70-acre Scissortail Park, the grand new central park that will connect the city to its waterfront and realize its core to shore plan. How did your firm’s design for the park advance the plan?
We were really interested in the transition from urban to river and making that legible in the park design. Rather than thinking of the park as one piece, we thought of it as a gradation of landscape types, so it progresses quite a lot as you move toward the river in terms of its design, landscape, and materials. Of course, there are some consistencies. The promenade and the lighting of the promenade go all the way from core to shore, but the landscapes and the planting around it evolve quite a bit, as do some of the uses.
We wanted to accentuate that experience of moving toward the river, so that as a visitor, you become aware you’re entering a landscape that gets wilder and wetter. There’s an upper park and lower park, and they’re linked by the fabulous Skydance Bridge designed by Hans Butzer, who was part of our team. Before, visitors couldn’t see the river because of the levy along the river, so we created a high point at the southern terminus of the project, closest to the river.
We also designed the park to respond to climate change. That area of the city floods, so the design of the park accommodates floodwater with a big lake. The lake is also a holding basin for irrigation.
During construction, we had 60 straight days of rain, and the whole lake filled, unfortunately, before it was fully shaped, so that really delayed construction. Then, we were forced to plant trees in August, because the Mayor had promised the citizens a concert on opening day. So we planted trees at 4 a.m., because it was too hot any later in the day. We did everything to keep the trees alive. Once the project was built, they had a freak ice storm in early fall when all the leaves were still on all the trees. The city lost hundreds and hundreds of trees, which is very tragic. And do you remember that cold spell that hit that part of the country later that winter, when it was below 10 degrees for 10 straight days? All the plants got hit. So climate change is impacting us. That’s where large parks are important because they can have a built-in resilience and robustness. They’re large enough to recover their systems.
A few years ago, HargreavesJones with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro designed a new “National Park” for Russia, the 35-acre Zaryadye Park in Moscow, next to St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, and the Kremlin. The largest new public space in the city in 50 years, the park is based on the principle of wild urbanism, which is meant to complement Moscow’s historically symmetrical public spaces. You have stated the park “samples Russia’s distinct regional landscapes, tundra, steppe, forest, and wetland forest.” What is wild urbanism and how did you realize it through regional inspirations?
Our proposal was part of an international competition, and we were the only American team. We didn’t think we would win, especially since our scheme was based on openness and being welcoming, a very democratic idea of porosity and inclusion. We wanted to contrast the traditional parks of Moscow that are very rigid — their pathways have edges and there’s 500 tulips all the same color, and then the next row, a different color. Very, very formal. We wanted to create an informality.
In Moscow, the landscapes were formal and rigid in the city, but outside the city was nature. The Russians love their forests. Forests are a part of their fairy tales, music, ballets, their lore. We thought why not bring the forest into the city and make a place of the city but not of the city where you could move through it and at times completely lose the city and then come out of it to the steppe landscape, which is a big meadow on a big hill. And then suddenly, you’re in the heart of these UNESCO World Heritage sites. All the new architecture in the park is tucked into the folds of the new topography. The site slopes considerably from high to low toward the river, so we were able to then interpret topographically from tundra to lowland.
Substantial buildings were created as part of this park, but they’re all below your feet, folded into these topographic waves that cascade from high to low. The paving is pixelated across the site so there are no edges. The landscape morphs from all paving to a blend of paving and landscape to all landscape in ways that allow you to move through the site fairly freely without very prescribed routes. The landscape eats into the paved surfaces and then selection of plants added to the informality.
We had to work really hard with the locals to understand we did not mean annuals. We did not mean 500 tulips. We really did mean perennials that are less controlled, still quite beautiful, and pollinator heaven. We created a kind of wildness that people love.
I think the project is extremely important because it is so public and open and gives people a sense of freedom, to some of the authorities, maybe a little too much. They discovered early on that people were making out in the forest — and we kind of love that, but there are so many security cameras that it’s not a real issue.
People love in it and love it because they feel it’s unique. The idea was to create a new perspective on a place you think you’re familiar with, that you think you know, and kind of rattle you out of that. Of course, there are the features that are fantastic, like the flyover bridge that takes you out over the river and boomerangs you back. At first, they said, “why would anybody want to go out there? You can’t cross the river; you just go out and come back.” People now line up to go out and come back. There are yoga studios at the end of it. You’re out there and suddenly you’re looking back at the city. You have a perspective of the river and the city you don’t have any other way.
This year is the 20th anniversary of your firm’s design of a now iconic park: Crissy Field in San Francisco. In the past two decades, the park has welcomed millions of visitors and become beloved by both locals and tourists. What is the primary legacy of this project? What has it meant for the field of landscape architecture?
When I go back to San Francisco, I almost always go to Crissy Field, not just as a designer observing one’s own work but just because I love to be there. It was a groundbreaking project for the National Park Service. They had never done a project that was so sustainable. All the material was kept on site — there was stuff below grade we dealt with it on site instead of carting it off.
The project was also unique for the National Park Service, because we were working with both their natural resource and cultural resource staff, and they had very different, in some ways opposing goals. They could have found themselves in a position of doing nothing because they couldn’t see how to fully realize the restoration of both cultural resources and natural resources. We convinced them that Crissy Field could do both, become a palimpsest and layer together.
There is a stormwater wetland and a tidal marsh. It may not have the highest habitat value you could possibly have, but that can be accomplished 20 miles away. Here in the city, create a marsh with a bridge across it. There was a big battle about the bridge.
The tidal marsh is not as big as they might have liked it, but that’s because there is a grassy airfield that is a historic landmark and needed to be restored. So the marsh creeps around that grassy airfield, and the airfield becomes a kind of plinth, or almost a pier into the marsh. We blended them, overlaid them in a way.
We moved a hundred thousand cubic yards of dirt but it was not high budget. When we started, many people told us: “Don’t mess it up. What’s out there has a kind of awesome rawness we love.” Well, it was mostly asphalt and chain-link fence but still it had a quality that people loved.
As you’re walking down the promenade and come upon the airfield, the airfield is quite a bit above your head, because we made the airfield almost a flat plane. As you walk west along the gently sloping promenade adjacent to the grassy airfield, you get to the tip of it — and it’s at your feet, so you’ve made eight feet of grade change in that walk along this planar landscape. So there are big moves, and that’s what makes it last.
There’s nothing fussy at Crissy Field, because that would not last. As you stated, millions of people visit it to run, bike, picnic, play with their kids and dogs. It’s one of the top windsurfing spots in the world. And the mouth of the marsh continues to move. It’s a dynamic landscape.
Decades of redlining and urban renewal, rooted in racist planning and design policies, created the conditions for gentrification to occur in American cities. But the primary concern with gentrification today is displacement, which primarily impacts marginalized communities shaped by a history of being denied access to mortgages. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, Matthew Williams, ASLA, with the City of Detroit’s planning department, said in his city there are concerns that new green spaces will increase the market value of homes and “price out marginalized communities.” But investment in green space doesn’t necessarily need to lead to displacement. If these projects are led by marginalized communties, they can be embraced.
For example, efforts to enhance the Dequindre Cut in Detroit by transforming it into a 2-mile-long greenway were rooted in community needs and therefore have been supported. While the planning and design work by SmithGroup on the greenway corridor has led to positive economic impact, including growing nearby entrepreneurship and visitor engagement, it also expanded open space, expanded community development, and lifted up local graffiti artists. “We allowed the graffiti to stay and created canvases for more to come. It’s an avant-garde form of historic preservation, and a way to activate a latent, forgotten place.”
Another project is Ella Fitzgerald Park, in the Fitzgerald community, one of 10 key neighborhoods where the planning department has focused housing, park, and economic development investment. Given the neighborhood is experiencing high levels of bankruptcies and foreclosures, many remaining homeowners in the neighborhood can’t sell their homes. Instead of seeing a new community park and greenway designed by landscape architecture firm Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels and built by the city as a gentrifying force, it was welcomed as a safe place for children to play. “It was a needed change,” Williams said.
The Joe Louis Greenway, named after the famous athlete, spans 27.5-miles from downtown Detroit to Dearborn, once a segregated Black city. A “vision of inclusive design, the project is a form of green reparation,” Williams argued. The city has overlaid where redlining had the most destructive impact in Detroit and surrounding communities and has used green amenities to undo part of the damage. “We can focus on those red areas on the redlining maps, transforming them into productive, innovative, and ecological areas.” Planning and design efforts with SmithGroup included significant community engagement. Strategic green spaces, rooted in community desires, are one of “our best tools to address the mistakes of the past.”
Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and current fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, received a 2020 research prize from the SOM Foundation for her work, Reclaiming Black Settlements: A Design Playbook for Historic Communities in the Shadow of Sprawl. Her research has involved mapping Black Freedmen’s communities across Texas and included seven research projects in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area. Along the Trinity River, Allen has been immersing herself in “the bottom lands, the industrial lands” where many Black communities made their home. Despite the long-term environmental justice issues, these communities are still facing displacement pressures. “Riverfronts are hot right now, the place to be,” she said.
The existing community isn’t reacting negatively to Harold Simmons Park, a park planned on the Trinity River by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates because it would create “healthy social spaces along the river.” To ensure housing prices in Black communities near the park don’t go up, a development corporation linked with a local church is “getting ahead of the curve and stabilizing and renovating homes.”
Another community down river, the Garden of Eden, founded by a Black family in 1881, has been impacted by concrete companies that dug industrial gravel pits along the river. Once leases on the land ended, the companies were supposed to fill in those gravel pits but never did. So the community is “reclaiming those pits through green infrastructure, creating recreational spaces.”
And at the last of the seven sites studied along the river, Joppa, a historic Freedmen’s town, there is the Joppee Lakes project, the site of a railroad and concrete plant which is being re-imagined as a stormwater solution for downtown Dallas. The Army Corps of Engineers turned the site over to the City of Dallas, which is in turn working with Black community there to revamp the Honey Springs Branch Park surrounding the lake as a community hub with green infrastructure that can handle both sewage treatment and provide recreation.
To avoid green gentrification, Allen said it’s key to “understand the history of each place. Design has to be grounded, and history is really powerful.” Black Freedmen’s communities along the Trinity River have created a community roundtable and are “envisioning the future together.” They are sharing “funding and grant sources, and talking about the issues.” Freedmen’s town groups are also “linking green spaces, creating a trail that will connect them all.” They are “very smart about the politics and policy and the air quality issues around transportation and cement plants.” Landscape architects can work with communities like these to help them “articulate the issues” and “promote and enhance connections with each other.”
Boston has invested $5 million to re-imagine Frederick Law Olmsted’s Franklin Park in Boston’s Dorchester, Jamaica Plains, and Roxbury neighborhoods. A team led by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand is spearheading the action plan effort and includes MASS Design Group, which is focusing on the “city edge’s and neighborhood connections,” and Agency Landscape + Planning, which is focusing on public engagement, planning, and programming. According to Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, a landscape architect and senior principal with MASS Design Group, her organization is seeking to answer questions like: “Can we connect present and future generations to the park? Can the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the procurement process for a redesigned park?”
Bainbridge argued that park’s ill-conceived boundaries are keeping many people out. The edges, which are “prohibiting access,” include 3-4 lane streets with no lighting for crosswalks. There are also no local businesses along the park, so if food trucks aren’t there, visitors need to bring in their own food and drink. “There is a huge opportunity to increase connections between the park and local community, particularly through large events.”
While planning and zoning changes need to happen to grow local business presence around the park, Bainbridge said procurement is also a powerful tool for increasing community engagement with the revamped Olmsted park. Looking to MASS Design Group’s work in Rwanda as a model, she said training and hiring local artists, masons, and workers was key to creating a sense of ownership around the organization’s community healthcare projects. “The question for many was ‘who is this project for?; we showed them that it is for them.” As a result, community members who worked on the project began to trust in the mission and started going to the care center and hospitals.
In the same vein, Franklin Park can create opportunities for local artists and workers. There is some flexibility in Boston’s procurement procedures if the amounts are under $10,000. “There is potentially a way to also phase larger projects in smaller amounts” to give more local businesses and artists chances to bid. As part of the project, the team is also training small minority- and women-owned businesses to take advantage of these opportunities. “Training costs less than 10 percent of the project, but the impact is multiplied throughout the community. Training is embedded in the plan.”