Interview with Patricia O’Donnell on Revitalizing Cultural Landscapes

Patricia O’Donnell / Heritage Landscapes, LLC

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, Fellow, US/ICOMOS, is founder of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners, winner of the ASLA 2019 Firm Award. Her works and contributions sustain and revitalize our shared commons of public historic landscapes and advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2030 Agenda, and the New Urban Agenda.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

Over your career, you’ve worked on more than 500 cultural landscape projects. You have highlighted Pittsburgh’s $124 million investment in revitalizing its public spaces, such as the Mid-Century Modern Mellon Square, which you restored, as a model. What does Pittsburgh know that perhaps other cities need to learn?

In the 19th century, Pittsburgh had a vision of setting aside major green spaces in order to shape the city. Neighborhoods grew up around the green spaces. Since Pittsburgh is still today a neighborhood-based city, everyone cares deeply about their green assets. Pittsburgh has a history of understanding the value of parks.

Pittsburgh looked at their historic parks and said, “This has value for the city.” The revitalization effort was initiated by the very bright Meg Cheever, a lawyer by education and a publicist by application who founded the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. She knew she needed to grab attention so she built up the Conservancy as a real partner to the city. She was very savvy about not having an adversarial relationship with the city, instead creating a true partnership. We’ve worked in a number of conservancies, and that coin can flip both ways. The first thing is you need to be a partner; the second thing is you have got to recognize value.

When I started my firm in the late-80s, we did a project in Gilford, Connecticut. I told them there are four groups of tools for improving the public realm: community engagement, plans or advisory tools, law or regulation, and finance. As landscape architects, we’re good at community and planning, not necessarily so good at legislation or finance. If we recognize those are the four things we need, we can figure out who to partner with and what skill sets and mindsets are needed to move forward.

Pittsburgh started with its 19th century legacy. They had three big parks: one that was gifted to the city in the early 20th century by Henry Clay Frick; Mary Shenley’s property, which the city had bought and then added to Shenley Park; and Highland Park, which was around a reservoir and then grew into a park. So each park had a different vector. Then, they focused on the Mid-Century Modern pieces: The Point and Mellon Square, which were the two iconic public spaces built in the 50s and part of the first Pittsburgh Renaissance. Those spaces became elements of a national model for urban renewal. They knocked down 25 percent of the core of the city in a 10-year period and rebuilt it.

Restored Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, originally designed by John O. Simonds / Ed Massery
Restored Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, originally designed by John O. Simonds / Jeremy Marshall

Now there’s good and bad there. There was some environmental injustice and other problems, but they also renewed the core of the city and rebranded Pittsburgh. A number of other cities followed that path of renewal. (We called it urban renewal but often it was urban destruction). But the initiative worked for Pittsburgh. They were able to lift up what was a gritty steel city where industrial workers had to bring a minimum of two shirts to work because the air quality was so bad.

Your firm, Heritage Landscapes, partnered with HOK on the restoration of the National Mall in Washington D.C. What was involved in that process?

We were asked by the National Park Service (NPS) to track the history of Mall, which they framed as from L’Enfant’s 1792 plan to the present. The NPS asked us to framed it by the plans, but the plans did not reflect what the Mall actually was. We carried out this project as part of a NEPA compliance process.

Through a mapping effort, we overlaid all the soil disturbance over time — deep subsurface, shallow subsurface, surface — in CAD and made this very fun color map that showed probably a couple of teaspoons of the Mall were not altered over time. While we met NEPA compliance, we also now had the background, understood what the design was, and how the design of the Mall evolved to what we love today.

That evolution happened because of the strength of the personality and the stature of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.. He served on the McMillan Commission, the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), and what is now called the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (NCPC). He persuaded the NPS to do the plan for the Mall. The linear quality of the green panels was key.

We focused the HOK team on getting the grading right. The Mall had been slightly domed and tipped northward because the Tiber Creek and the Washington Canal — the drainage — were to the north. The Capitol, the White House and the Smithsonian were set on three hills, and so the Mall, the space in between, was kind of mushy. The new shape of the Mall needed to respond to that topography. The original lawn panels had a vertical curve to help drainage.

The NPS wanted the new panels accessible, under a five percent grade and, if possible, under two percent. We had to balance access, sustainability, and history. In addition, the soils were as hard as concrete. And as a result, the most common plant was a small knotweed. Soil experts, James Urban, FASLA, and others, and I thought that grading it under 2 percent wouldn’t work. The lawn panels would continue not drain well and tend toward compaction. We got the NPS to go with at least 1.8 percent, but at the edges we were up at about 4 percent and then 3 percent and then domed, but tipped northward.

To reduce compaction, soil must have open air pores. The team found the best soil for defending against compaction is sandy loam. Investigations addressed whether or not there should be additives in the soil; these little crunchy things that spring back and keep the soil open. The NPS didn’t want to go down that road, so they approved a very good sandy soil mix. The first phase they decided they had a little too much organic matter. They changed it up a little bit on the second phase. We achieved what L’Enfant and Frederick Olmsted, Jr. were after: the long green corridor.

Restored National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Adam Fagen, Flickr

You just completed a cultural landscape report for Woodstock and have begun design work to reinterpret the landscape, so its story becomes more accessible to future generations. What did you unearth through your research? Where has that led your planning and design work?

The Woodstock project is a lot of fun because it’s such recent history. We developed the Cultural Landscape Report by looking at the main field where the concerts happened. We found information digging into the archive at the Museum at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. They had been gathering material for years, including all these low-flown, oblique aerials from a plane and ground photography.

It turned out that just barely digging into the research we found the envelope is a lot bigger. There’s the main field, Filippini Pond, where everybody went skinny dipping, and Bindy Bazaar in the woods between the main field and the hog farm where food was made. The hog farm tells the story about the commune movement. They provided the food at Woodstock, so everyone saw how a commune worked.

Hippies enjoying Filippini Pond / C. Alexander, 1969, Bethel Woods Archive

In opening up the land base envelope, we compared what we saw being used to what was actually leased to the concert organizers by the farmer Max Yasgur. The event was held on an alfalfa field, which was mown for the event. I happen to have an old alfalfa field and know what they look like. So when I saw the photos, I thought: “Oh, this is an old alfalfa field with people in Indian prints striding across it.”

There was a guy in one of the trailers who was drawing plans. He drew one plan of the Bindy Woods with the trails, so we used that to figure out that interesting area. Hippies had set up 20 something booths to sell tie dye, Indian prints, roach clips, or whatever. They put up hand-painted signs on the trees naming the paths — highway groovy path, etc.

Woodstock’s organizers planned very well for 100,000 people. They had medical officers and police; they were actually well-organized. But when the crowd hit 400,000 or 500,000, they didn’t have enough bathrooms or food.

The cultural landscape report investigation has informed where design interventions might be. The stage configuration was very interesting. The 60 by 70-foot stage was warped because of the plane of the slope of the hill. They made a turntable so they could swing the acts. When it rained, the platform wouldn’t turn anymore. They never finished the fencing but had this gorgeously shaped batwing fence.

Woodstock stage and batwing fences amid the crowds / Pinterest

We developed schematic designs of the footprint of the stage; the batwing fence; the performers’ bridge, which went over the road; and the posts at the height where the bridge occurred. We have a series of design options in front of the client that are very fun. We’ve already started to build the Bindy Bazaar paths and signs to interpret the vendors.

Bindy Bazaar paths and signs / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

What makes a successful cultural landscape report? How are these reports evolving?

When we started doing cultural landscape reports, they were called historic landscape reports. There weren’t rules. We sat on committees and helped frame cultural landscape preservation and management standards and guidelines for the National Park Service and Secretary of Interior. There are a set of steps: history, existing landscape condition, analysis of continuity and change, treatment exploration and recommendations. The goal is to find out if you are going to just preserve a landscape as-found, restore it to some earlier documented time; reconstruct missing pieces; or rehabilitate the landscape, adapting to current needs. These reports help us to suit contemporary and future needs while preserving what has been inherited.

We’re now up to over 110 cultural landscape reports or assessments. The New York Botanical Garden and Longwood Gardens really wanted the history because they sought to understand how their property had evolved. That was all they wanted. So sometimes it’s just a piece. When we worked at Dumbarton Oaks, they wanted analysis as well, so they could understand continuity and change, the evolution of the designed landscape of Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand.

Bloedel Reserve asked for a heritage landscape study. They came to us and said: “We understand Prentice Bloedel’s words, but what do they mean?” And we said, “You have the artifact. We can interpret the artifact to get at the meaning.” Cultural landscape reports are customized for each place. For the second phase of analysis at Bloedel, we told them: “Okay, now you actually need to dig deeper.” They have an amazing landscape that has four character areas and 26 component landscapes. The genius of this landscape is the differentiation between the individual components, but part of the practices they were employing in their daily management were blurring those unique aspects. We helped them really hone in on the character of the moss garden versus the Japanese garden versus the woodland paths so they can manage by area.

Bloedel Reserve / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

For our work at Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, we made sure we researched the African American contribution to shaping the landscape. This kind of analysis depends on the place and the client, but there is a heightened sense of social justice today. That framework led us to understand whose labor actually created a place. At the Academical Village, we found the way of life for enslaved peoples did not change after the Civil War. What changed their way of life was technology. When water and sewer systems were connected to every building and lighting came, the daily life within the core of the campus shifted. These changed the back breaking labor of daily life — hauling water, chopping wood, and gardening — by enslaved peoples, who were freed at that point, but whose life and daily activities had not substantially changed from the evidence we saw on the land.

University of Virginia / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

You have said that “culture and nature are entangled and inseparable.” How did you reach that conclusion?

While we have protected areas on the planet, there isn’t place on Earth that hasn’t been influenced by humanity. We’re in an era of human influence if you look at climate change and, hopefully, our greenhouse gas draw down vectors. If we envision ourselves as a part of nature, and we see humanity as one species of many, rather than the dominant species, and we see the planet as the place where we all live, it changes our perspectives on how to proceed. Nature and culture, place and people are completely interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent.

The big issue with climate change is finding ways to draw down greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. I was fascinated with Paul Hawkins’ book Drawdown, which ranked the top hundred ways to reduce emissions. Most people would think the answer would be more solar energy or carbon sequestration. But society needs to get up to speed with its needs. Actually, some of the most effective carbon reduction solutions are the empowerment of women, education for girls, and birth control for women, so we don’t overpopulate the world, and women can take a real role in the future.

You’ve been an advocate for cultural landscape preservation, equitable access to public spaces, and inclusive planning and design in international organizations such as UN-HABITAT, UNESCO, and ICOMOS. At the same time, you have also advocated for greater landscape architect participation in these organizations. How can we bridge the gap between policy bodies and the design world?

I have had rewarding engagements with peers and related professionals in working groups that build international doctrine. You gain a broadened sense of where your work can fit because the picture is expanding for you. In my opinion, all of us can benefit from global engagement — from meeting with peers face to face and engaging in committees to participating in the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), which has a very strong new policy that they passed in September on climate change, and ICOMOS, which is a curator of world heritage, the culture advisor to UNESCO World Heritage. I am constantly contributing to ICOMOS to strengthen our global heritage.

In these international bodies, I learn from others, share what I know, and the result is we all lift ourselves up together. We also bring forward emerging professionals. I’m currently the president of the ICOMOS-IFLA International Scientific Committee on cultural landscapes. We have about 212 members worldwide. We’re strengthening and coalescing our membership in Latin America to do a better job there with cultural landscapes. We’re adding a number of emerging professionals to begin to address the wealth of cultural heritage in Africa. We gain a lot by uplifting everyone, all boats rise together.

ASLA Annual Meeting Opens with Calls to Action

audience
ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting General Session, Saturday, October 20 / EPNAC

The ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting officially commenced Saturday morning in Philadelphia with outgoing ASLA president Greg Miller, FASLA, making the case for the importance of landscape architecture in a world facing many challenges.

While the problems of climate change, inequality, strained resources, and aging infrastructure are daunting, they also create opportunities for the field to expand its influence and scope of activity. “These are exciting times for landscape architects,” who are “solving complex issues with simple solutions that meaningfully impact peoples’ lives.”

“Seeing what is being accomplished across the spectrum of landscape architecture, I’ve realized that we’re defined by our wisdom, and that is what has put us in a position to take the profession to new heights.”

Miller said this wisdom is composed of “knowledge (the easy part), experience, perspective, foresight, and judgement. When these come together, the results of our wisdom are beautiful and special. Through our actions, we can make people’s lives better, protect our lands, and craft a better world.”

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg then took the stage for a wide-ranging conversation on Olin’s influences and current work.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and Susan Stamberg in conversation / EPNAC

Olin initially studied architecture but found himself shifting to landscape after traveling in Europe and being “absolutely blown away” by the landscapes.

At the same time, Olin was beginning to bristle at architecture’s limitations. “I realized architecture really didn’t satisfy some of my concerns. The 60’s were a turbulent time. Buildings were objects and didn’t seem to involve society, the public realm, and other factors I thought were really important.”

Olin said that his travel in Europe ignited his love for and interest in cities and urban design. “I had gone off to Europe to look at one thing, and then I discovered cities, and fell in love with them. I realized there was a structure to cities, and they could be organized around public spaces. I learned that people were actually designing the streets and linking public spaces before the buildings came. I thought that’s really important.”

Olin also observed these same influences were critical for Frederick Law Olmsted, who “channeled all this energy and these ideas about health and public spaces and fresh air and parks” into his work in the United States.

In Europe, Olin discovered “you had to go see it for yourself. Part of learning is being out there and actually seeing things. The books don’t do it; the slides don’t do it. The problem with landscape is it’s diverse, big, and in lots of places. You have to travel, and it takes a while to see it. Finding the good stuff is like raisins in the pudding – it’s not everywhere.”

His work as a designer has been shaped by these early insights and grew out of the same humane impulses that animated Olmsted’s work.

In his redesign of New York City’s Bryant Park, Olin sought to highlight the park’s characteristically-French elements but also make a space for people.

“I realized looking at it that it was a very French park,” he said. “It was basically a bunch of quotes from the Jardin du Luxembourg.” So, “if it’s going to be this French park, we should have movable furniture,” a simple move that “radically changed the place.”

ASLA 2010 Landmark Award. Bryant Park, New York City. OLIN / Peter Mauss, ESTO

At Battery Park City, also in New York City, Olin worked with Alex Cooper to create a master plan to draw people to the edge of the Hudson River. “It seemed so clear that what we had to do was get people out of the city onto the edge of the river and give the entire perimeter over to the public.”

In the wake of 9/11, Olin won a competition to redesign the base of the Washington Monument to deter a terrorist attack. However, the site needed much more than just security upgrades.

“People forget, it was a kind of nasty place in some ways. It was a complete ruin of the public realm in a place that was supposed to be the most generous and welcoming.”

Olin’s goal was “to make it as if it had always been a beautiful place,” he explained. “Why don’t we make it the way people think it always was?”

To achieve this effect, Olin’s design referred to the low retaining walls used on the opposite end of the mall by none other than Olmsted and Vaux. These walls encircle the monument, directing visitors and preventing a vehicle from getting too close. “The answer was right there, except at the other end of the mall!”

Washington Monument, Washington, D,C. OLIN / OLIN

Stamberg brought the conversation to a close by asking Olin to reflect on the future of the profession.

“The future is always going to be a distorted view of the present,” he said. “We don’t know how the pieces will play out.”

He identified climate change as a uniquely-pressing issue both for landscape architects and the world at large. Olin urged landscape architects to assert themselves in important conversations on the world’s most difficult challenges.

“As a profession, we can help society find out where it wants to go. We should not wait for the phone to ring. We should be leading.”

“We have to become political in a thoughtful, non-strident, but effective way.”

“How to make the world safe for children in the next generation is your job,” he said to the audience. “It’s our job.”

National Park Service Looks Ahead to the Next 100 Years

National Park Service Logo / WikiCommons
National Park Service Logo / WikiCommons

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” — Wallace Stegner, 1983

The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial this year and is ready to move into its next 100 years by restoring its crown jewels and also embracing new parks and a diverse range of visitors. At the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, NPS and the National Register of Historic Places: Landscape Initiative said, the service must “maintain natural, community, historic, and cultural elements” while upholding standards of excellence far into the future. The NPS now boasts of 412 units, including vast tracts of wilderness, important cultural institutions, monuments, and historic landscapes.

Susan Olmsted, ASLA, with Mithun explained efforts to restore one of the system’s jewels: the Mariposa Groves of giant sequoias in Yosemite. Her efforts are about “building resilience for this cherished place.” In the midst of one of the rarest ecologies in the world, there was a parking lot and a tram to accommodate all visitors. People were about to “love these trees to death.” Over a hundred years of fire suppression (natural fires were re-introduced in 1971) had also been a setback for the species. The health and well-being of the trees was put at the center of the restoration plan.

Mariposa Grove / Yosemite Conservancy Ted Soqui
Mariposa Grove / Yosemite Conservancy

Places like these, which feed into the national imagination and “elevate the human spirit,” are some of the most important elements of the NPS experience. The Mariposa Grove is now on its way back to a healthy and long future and will re-open next summer.

The National Mall, as tapis vert, is in many ways the opposite of the Mariposa Groves at Yosemite, but is no less important to the national imagination as the soaring heights of the giant Sequoia. We gather there for inaugurations and to hear the rallying cry of leaders calling for civil rights. It is, in a sense, the front lawn for all Americans. But with 30 million visitors a year and over 3,000 officially-permitted uses, it was in need of rehabilitation.

Michael Stachowicz is the only turf management specialist on NPS’ staff, and recognizes the importance of keeping the Mall green and healthy. The rehabilitated lawn was “designed for modern use while keeping its historic character.” Millions of feet over many years had caused serious soil compaction, terrible drainage, and patchy green. His rehabilitation efforts included thoughtful grading, specially-grown sod from seed, drainage systems, stormwater cisterns, and engineered soils. His maintenance policy has moved from “damage repair to damage prevention.” He acknowledged sometimes the best thing you can do is ask people to “keep off the lawn.”

The National Mall / Landscape Architecture Magazine
The National Mall / Landscape Architecture Magazine

Phil Hendricks, ASLA, Robert Peccia & Associates, offered his experience in the creation of one of the newest units in the system: the Waco Mammoth National Monument, in Waco, Texas, as well as his restoration work at the Flamingo Visitor Center and Campground in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Both parks refer back to well documented NPS styles guidelines. The original “park rustic” design was applied to Waco Mammoth, and the Flamingo Resort was restored to mid-century “Mission 66” style, even down to a new coat of flamingo-pink paint.

Interior of Mammoth Dig Shelter / Waco Parks and Recreation Department
Interior of Mammoth Dig Shelter / Waco Parks and Recreation Department

The NPS seeks to embrace a broader constituency of visitors across its ever expanding urban and natural landscapes, cultural heritage sites, and monuments. With its increasing embrace of public-private partnerships, it’s also finding the funding to continue into its next century. This land is your land, go out and see it.

In D.C., New Eco-District Plans Unveiled


After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.


Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.


The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.


Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.


There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC

National Mall Design Competition Winners Speak Out


The winners of the National Mall design competition took center stage at the National Building Museum last night. Beating out an amazing set of competitors, these landscape architects and architects presented their visions for Constitution GardensThe Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre, and Union Square, all key sites on the Mall. In a win for us all, these design professionals almost entirely avoided “design speak,” instead using eloquent, even poetic language to describe their approach to the many design, bureaucratic, and financial challenges facing them. Only a few times did we hear off-putting words like “horizontality” or “materiality.” Expertly moderated by John Beardsley, director of the garden and landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, each design team explained their solutions and answered questions:

Constitution Gardens

Adam Greenspan, ASLA, Peter Walker and Partners, and Robert Rogers, Rogers Marvel Architects, said Constitution Gardens is unlike any other place on the Mall, offering a break from the “formality” of the monumental structures and spaces. Unfortunately, though, the gardens, which were created by architecture firm SOM and landscape architect Dan Kiley in the 1960s, are “dying,” said Greenspan. Hundreds of trees have collapsed over the years and been replaced. The soils have “slumped” and the edge of Kiley’s concrete-lined pond has fallen apart.

The original design was inspired by Roberto Burle Marx’s “biomorphic modernism.” Honoring the past design intent, Greenspan said he liked “that it’s an alternate reality, or that it should be.” To enhance this sense of separation from the Mall, the design team raised the outer edge near the street, bringing the grade up by 8 feet in order to create that “ensconced feeling” and block out traffic noises. Paths will cut through the raised grades, creating more defined access points. “There will now be clear entries into the garden,” said Rogers.

The entire space will be dug out and rebuilt to be a “regenerative landscape.” The soils will be reconstructed to provide a more solid foundation for a range of new plants. The majority of spaces will be meadows and lawns, with some woodlands, and new wetland plants ringing the outer edge of a new pond. Plant and animal life will be self-contained within the new gardens. Trees that can survive will be reused. Specimen trees will be moved to new spots. The lake water itself will now funnel in through the Lincoln reflecting pool and will be designed so it can be periodically flushed out with fresh water from the Tidal Basin. It won’t just be an ecological wonderland though; it will also be beautiful. “At the edge of the pond, there will be an aesthetic ecology,” with “clear sweeps of color.”


Within the man-made pond, a new reflecting pool, a circle, will act as a separate basin. There, a ring around the circle will enable kids to launch toy boats. In winter, that part can be turned into a skating rink. This won’t be a tiny spot for a single loop though. Greenspan said the skating rink is “hockey rink-sized.”

Rogers said a new pavilion will be built on the site of the original SOM proposal, but be brought closer to the lake to create a “dynamic engagement with the water.” A clear frame of a building — a “simple thing you move through for circulation” — will provide a “threshhold moment” for visitors. There, large sets of stairs will help the National Park Service better handle the crowds. The upper level, which will include a restaurant for both tourists and locals alike, will offer a “respite, a view out onto the gardens.”


The goal of the design is to “maintain the clean, clear geometry of the lake,” said Greenspan, while “maintaining the optimism of Modernism on the Mall.” As seasons change, paths will also emerge through the trees to the nearby Vietnam War memorial. Still, this is a new place. “With the change in vertical grade, planting systems, we will change the vibe.”


Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre

The National Mall is the nation’s “center stage,” a vital place for “communion,” said Marion Weiss, Weiss/Manfredi, the architecture firm on the project. Originally intended to be the place where the dynamism of Shakespeare Theatre was brought to the Mall, the Sylvan Theatre has a “great history.” While the team will respect that history, Skip Graffam, ASLA, OLIN, said the team will also “charter a future course for the site.”


The Sylvan Theatre is at the edge of “very popular spaces” on the Mall so it needs to be flexible and resilient to foot traffic and concert use. It’s also a challenged site because that’s where all the tour buses park, spilling out many of the 24 million tourists who visit the Mall each year. Focusing on the site as an edge, Graffam said one of the key design goals was to better connect the site to the Tidal Basin, while also enabling different sized crowds. Their vision laid out how the space could expand to hold 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 concert goers through a bowl shape, peeled-up to hide the buses and facilities behind. The new bowl-shaped amphitheatre will “open its arms to the Washington Monument.”


A Sylvan Grove will help extend the tree canopy and connect the trees of the Mall and Tidal Basin. The team is also taking advantage of opportunities to “reconnect the southern monument grounds to the waterfront” so more people can access the water and nature. Elm trees, set in boscs and allees, will serve as a foundation for a new habitat designed for both people and nature. “There’s also a conservation element. We’re removing 60 percent of the turf,” said Graffam.


The back-side of the peeled-up amphitheatre will serve as a “gateway,” with a pavilion shrouded in landscape. Rain garden-covered roofs will help keep the “topography low.” Within the facilities, there’s a new cafe that mimics the grove, with roof structures that create the effect of light pouring through a forest. 


Weiss thinks the new space can be a “high-performance landscape,” providing both a space for performances and many types of biophilic experiences. “The site can be magical.”


Union Square


“This is a site with identity problems,” said Peter Cook, Davis Brody Bond, the architect working with landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) on Union Square. “Where is it? No one knows.” In fact, it’s the 27-acre space that holds the 6-acre reflecting pool right in front of the Capitol building. Over 200 years, the site has evolved. French architect and urban planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the city with African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker, saw the spot as a public space, a plaza for the masses. Later plans covered the site in trees. Only with the McMillan plan was the Mall — and all that public space — created and the fountain and plaza brought back. At that point, the “site became an extension of the Mall,” though, losing its identity.

At its best, the space is a “grand gesture,” which gives visual form to the Capitol, said Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, the landscape architect who runs GGN’s east coast projects. But, mostly, it’s a “underwhelming, underutilized site” that hasn’t lived up to its potential for “very powerful experiences.” The site is part of the critical line running through the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial so this project is crucial.

GGN and Davis Brody Bond’s design “takes the full square and breaks it into parts.” To keep the monumentality of the Mall, there’s a new reflecting pool, much narrower than the current one. Two national gardens on either side better knit the site into existing pathways to Union Station, the Mall, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s undulating Capitol Hill grounds. Breaking the site up introduces “multiple scales” and provides “greater definition to an amorphous space.” Now, there’s a “space that draws you in.”

Zooming into the terraces (above) that now line the central reflecting pool, you can see the 3-foot grades that lead down to the water, which sub-divide the spaces and offer increased security. The water itself will now be changeable. There are cascading pools running perpindicular to the east end of the grand water-scape. Jets can be turned on on weekends and used for special events. Walkways enable visitors to now walk through the pools, instead of hoofing it all the way around the edges. One or more areas of the water can be turned off, expanding the space for public events or protests. “Flexible spaces enable a diversity of expression,” something the current design fails to do.



Reducing the depth of the water to 2-inches means far less water will need to be collected from nearby buildings and underground. The team argues this makes the new feature far more sustainable (and beautiful). Indeed, right now, the reflecting pool is a great place to see dead birds and trash floating. The goal is to create a “high-performing space” that can be used 24/7.


After the presentations, Beardsley asked pointed questions, wondering whether the new designs truly are more sustainable, considering the designers almost all introduce more complex planting and stormwater management systems. Given the National Park Service barely has the funds and capacity to handle what’s there now, can the new systems work? The design teams argued that turf is actually harder to manage than more ecological systems. Also, the introduction of dedicated hardscapes — paths for people — mean “the plantings can be given a chance to survive.” These days, so much of the vegetation looks trampled, under siege from the hordes of tourists.

Can the designs accomodate future unexpected uses?, Beardsley wondered. Rogers said “creating focused, controlled entry points” will help limit those unexpected uses. Beardsley also asked whether the new buildings proposed in all sites will alter the careful balance struck on the Mall, which tilts in favor of the landscape. Weiss says her buildings, at least, “submit to the larger landscape. We respect the broader landscape, putting the Monument at center stage.” Rogers thinks his new pavilion in Constitution Gardens is “just enough building,” and given it’s set within the tree canopy, “doesn’t engage with the rest of the Mall.” There were more questions about lighting, the economics of these spaces, and security, which will all need to be answered once the money is raised and designs move towards implementation.

Image credits: (1-5) Constitution Gardens / Peter Walker and Partners and Rogers Marvel Architects, (6-10) The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre / Weiss/Manfredi and OLIN, (11-15) Union Square / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Davis Brody Bond

The National Mall Wins with These Designs


The Trust for the National Mall announced the winners of the national design competition for three distinct sites on the National Mall today. While the competition was stiff, the jury went with Rogers Marvel Architects & landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners for Constitution Gardens, landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and architecture firm Davis Brody Bond for Union Square, and landscape architecture firm OLIN and architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi for the Sylvan Theatre at the Washington Monument Grounds. Each team is a collaboration between a landscape architecture and architecture firm, a joint 50-50 effort.

A number of winners have already done beautiful work in D.C. OLIN redesigned the Washington Monument grounds, a project defined by its subtle and elegant approach to security, and the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, one of D.C.’s most beloved spaces. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, which won the National Design Award for landscape design last year, recently broke ground on the new landscape design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, expected to open on the Mall in 2015. They also created one of the most unique public spaces in the city: the Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery.

Former First Lady Laura Bush, Honor Chair of the Campaign for the National Mall (and lead fundraiser for the new landscapes and buildings, which are expected to cost hundreds of millions), said: “The design competition produced beautiful, thoughtful solutions to improve this iconic space.” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Hon. ASLA, added: “The National Mall Design Competition concepts are grand, respectful, sustainable, and beautiful; in short, they are worthy to be a part of this important and iconic space.” Caroline Cunningham, President of the Trust for the National Mall, sees these projects as not only best practices in urban park design but also “models of sustainability.”


Indeed, the mall needs some models of sustainability. It has taken a long time for sustainable landscape design to come to the nation’s capital, but Susan Spain, ASLA, project executive for the National Mall at the National Park Service, has publicly committed to using Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines to revitalize the landscapes in the federal zone. In fact, right now, much of the National Mall is being dug up and restructured with highly sustainable soils, grasses, and water management systems that will not only better cope with the 25 million visitors and thousands of events that occur there each year, but also provide the foundation for a more ecological system. We hope the three winning design teams will also use SITES best practices in these high-profile projects.


The next step: raise the money. Half of the $700 million will need to come from the private sector. For this big job, the Trust for the National Mall will continue to host fundraisers, which all philanthropists interested in the built environment and the shape of the capital should attend. The Trust will then starting working with the designers and the National Park Service to implement the designs for Constitution Gardens and the Sylvan Theatre at the Washington Monument Grounds. We can only assume that the Architect of the Capitol is also moving forward with the Union Square redesign as there have been no public announcements taking that piece out of contention.  

Explore the winning designs by OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond, and Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture

Other news for landscape architects: Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, ASLA, won the National Design Award in landscape design this year. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum said: “Stoss has distinguished itself for a hybridized approach rooted in infrastructure, functionality, and ecology.” Stoss’ projects include the CityDeck in Green Bay, WI; Erie Street Plaza in Milwaukee, WI; The Plaza at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA; and Bass River Park on Cape Cod. Also worth noting: Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, won the “design mind” award.  

Image credits: (1) OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi, (2) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Davis Brody Bond, (3) Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners

National Mall Design Competition Will Be Fierce


Many of the world’s top landscape architects and architects presented their designs for three grand projects on the National Mall: Constitution Gardens, Union Square, and the Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre. The competition is fierce because all the design proposals offer elegant, exciting, innovative ideas for solving sticky ecological, security, and public space design challenges. Each proposal may reflect a $100,000 or more of conceptual and design work. But all that work may actually be worth it: the pay-off could be big for these top designers. Some $700 million in public and private funds are expected to be raised to make these projects a reality. Also, in the U.S. at least, few sites would get more visitors than a major new site in the city of monuments.

One worrying wrinkle: Congress recently decided to transfer control of Union Square, the 11-acre reflecting pool area in front of the Capitol, to the Architect of the Capitol, a group that may take that piece out of contention. We hope that the Architect of the Capitol will move forward with the process and work together with the Trust for the National Mall to revitalize this critical public space. ASLA’s blue-ribbon panel of landscape architects recommended a re-design in a review of the National Park Service’s plan a few years ago.

A brief overview of design proposals for each are listed below, alphabetically. Each team is a true collaboration, a 50-50 effort between a landscape architecture and architecture firm.

Constitution Gardens

All design proposals seem to focus on ecologically restoring Constitution Gardens and improving access to the lake and nature. All offer new multi-functional structures, some of which are designed to almost seamlessly integrate with the landscape.

Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson: For this design team featuring Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Andropogon, the new Constitution garden could be a place of “respite, regeneration and romance.” The team offers a “biophilic design” that “harnesses nature to transform Constitution Gardens into a picture of healthy water, soil, foilage, habitat, and people.” In the lake, a new waterfall bridge would encourage fun interactions with nature.

Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects: This design team, which includes landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, offers another biophilic approach, with what looks like a proposal for a major ecological restoration. Reconstructed wetlands will be accessible via boardwalks that jut out into the water, while a performance space somewhat concealed in the landscape offers views of the lake and gardens.  

OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi: OLIN, a landscape architecture firm that has done lots of work on the National Mall, works with Weiss / Manfredi to offer “Living Waters: A Museum without Walls, a model for integrating social activity and green infrastructure into our national cultural landscape.” The design team proposes a “layered approach” that “brings the health of the water and surrounding landscape into balance and introduces a new collection of indoor and outdoor ecologically vibrant destinations.”

Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture: Rogers Marvel Architects, which just won the national competition to redesign the Ellipse, presents a proposal with PWP Landscape Architecture that honors the “clear and optimistic legacy of Constitution Gardens through amplified morphology, aesthetic ecology, and pastoral recreation. A vibrant haven on the National Mall.” A pavilion restaurant would look out on the lake and gardens. In the winter, a skating rink would appear.

Union Square

All designs seem to bring Union Square more in line with the existing streets and avenues, while offering an ecologically-sound, secure, and flexible space for free speech.  


Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design: This design team, which includes Walter Hood, FASLA, recent National Design Award winner, says their proposal integrates “the rich architectural legacies, natural ecologies, civic vitality, and political centrality of Washington D.C. into a new synthesis.” Their proposal would catch water in a basin, and then feed it through a new set of wetlands ringing Union Square. The water cleansed by the wetlands would then feed into a new reflecting pool, which would serve as a platform for speech. A microphone would turn visitors’ voices into waves on the pool.  

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond: This team with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, a landscape architecture firm that has done a number of projects in Washington, D.C. (including the new CityCenter), would create a highly flexible space that can reconfigure itself for different uses. A design with multiple layers and different “rooms,” there are plans for new site hydrologic systems, soils, plants, and sustainable materials. A more limited reflecting pool is found between steps set in lush botanical gardens.

Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners: Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners offers a highly flexible, oval reflecting pool ringed by a “fountain necklace.” Diagonals across the pool serve as dividing lines and show how the pool can disappear in segments if hardscapes are needed for protests. Thick stone benches would provide a place to contemplate the Capitol, while a rich planting scheme would be set within bronze-plated walls, included for security reasons.

Snohetta + AECOM: Architecture firm Snohetta, which is now redesigning the Times Square pedestrian mall, and AECOM, which recently purchased landscape architecture firm EDAW, presents a new “circular and sloping theatre-like platform” that would rise seven feet above nearby streets, perhaps for security reasons. “Vernal gardens” with “integrated benches and new natural landscape forms” will provide a “discreet” security barrier, while also reintroducing the indigineous landscape. On either side of the sloping theatre, a set of “undulating” trellises would mimic the movement of eagles’ wings.

The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre

All designs create multiple performance spaces and integrate restaurants, restrooms, and bicycle and bus access into the new setting. All the designs would transform a dull, underused part of the mall into one of the most exciting draws, while linking the theatre area with the ecological systems of the Tidal Basin.

Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company: Landscape and urban design firm Balmori Associates, which has done the master plan and parks for the new waterfront Bilbao, and Work Architecture Company seek to create multiple outdoor performance spaces, including a Sylvan Theatre with its Sylan “bowl,” a recessed natural seating area; Courtyard Stage; Cherry Grove Stage; Oak Grove Stage; along with other outdoor spaces, including a playground, bike rental stand, and restaurant. One key goal is to “impart the feeling that the new landscape belongs there, that it fits within the range of diverse forms and programs of the Mall.”


Diller, Scofidio and Renfro + Hood Design: One of the few design teams offering proposals for two sites, this design team proposes a landscape that is “figuratively ‘peeled up’ to create a new structure that serves as both outdoor theater and building program, blurring the lines between nature and artifice.” Their design uses the curves in the “peeled-up” areas to create seating for multiple stages, while the underneath of the curves present ecological experiences for visitors and spaces for restaurants. 

Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio: This team, which includes landscape architecture firm Tom Leader Studio, seeks to renew the site’s “connection to the Tidal Basin, drawing the elms, lindens, and oaks to the Monument. Creating a partnership with, rather than a dominion over, nature, biology, and water keeps with the agrarian philosophies of our Nation’s founders.” The design is defined by a “sweeping, centripetal” design with a multi-purpose facility that has an Oculus at its center. A stage can fold out into a huge pavilion.

OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi: Another team offering proposals in two areas, OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi, would create a new set of amphitheatres, including the Sylvan Grove, defined by a “new wooded canopy and terraced lawn,” and a Sylvan Pavilion for “impromptu performances” that would offer an “all-weather café and multi-use destination.” The design team envisions a highly sustainable “performance” landscape, connecting the Mall to the Tidal Basin.

Explore all proposals in more detail and submit your feedback before April 15 if you want your comments to reach the competition jury.

Image credit: (1) National Mall / Ftsblog.net, (2) Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, (3) Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects, (4) OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi, (5) Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture, (6) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (7) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond, (8) Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, (9) Snohetta + AECOM, (10) Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company, (11) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (12) Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio, (13) OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi

The Future of Public Space: Evolution and Revolution



The Washington, D.C. National Mall competition is heating up, with finalist teams selected for each site. In a session organized for the finalists by the National Endownment for the Arts (NEA), City Parks Alliance, National Capital Planning Commission, and Trust for the National Mall at the National Archives, Jason Shupbach, NEA Director of Design, said there are many new exciting models that can guide the future of public space, including “evolutionary parks,” which are older spaces that have creatively adapted to new uses, and “revolutionary parks” like parklets, which dramatically diverge from what’s been created before.

What Is the Future of Public Space?

For Tupper Thomas, former administrator of Prospect Park, the future of public space is programs. “Parks are not just a piece of open space where you recreate. Programs create appreciation and help parks become a part of a community.” In the case of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which is considered by many to be Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece, it was about using programs to “get people to go in. Before, people were afraid.” Now, happily, the issue may the opposite: so many people visit each year that the park can’t hold up under the strain and more maintenance funds are needed.

New forms of public space can also come from reusing old buildings and even reconceiving the concept of a monument. Theaster Gates, an artist and cultural planner, has taken a two-story abandoned building in Chicago and turned it into a new form of cultural center in a place where there is a total absence of any community public space. Gates added that the history of monuments is usually linked to a specific history, a special story from a certain time. The new idea of a monument is “not born with purposefullness, they can be a carrier, a monument of the moment, and can accumulate stories.” These old buildings can be monuments, too.

Temporary spaces present a relatively new model. John Bela, ASLA, a landscape architect who started the now global Park(ing) Day movement and founded design firm Rebar, argued that the “idea of temporary has evolved very quickly.” His Park(ing) Day movement, which involves transforming parking spaces into small parks, led to the concept of more designed parklets (see earlier post), and now he’s working on expanding out the parklet model to the street scale with a new “Living Street” project in San Francisco, which will take derelict street and turn into a “living market space.” Bela thinks these types of temporary street park projects are extremely valuable given that 25 percent of San Francisco’s land is streets, far more than the percentage that make up parkland. In addition, temporary spaces like parklets and revamped street parks are examples of “iterative placemaking” that enable city planners and designers to “respond more quickly to the social dynamism of cities.” Instead of going through a lengthy planning process that may not even work, a physical demonstration project can quickly be put up to “test which programs are going to work.” Gates added that the short-term uses of old buildings and sites can co-exist with long-term planning for these locations.

How Can Public Spaces Fullfill the Needs of Their Audience?

Thomas believes the quality of design has a huge impact. Prospect Park may have been designed 150 years ago, but “Olmsted was ahead of his time. He had it right.” Olmsted designed the spaces to be flexible so now areas of the park are used for cricket while other host art exhibitions. It’s also about letting different communities access the park in different ways. A drummer’s grove, for example, reaches a certain audience. Education is very important. One of her goals as head of Prospect Park was to work with schools and libraries to get children to the park, where they can then “go home and tell their parents about the park” while creating connections to the spaces. 

While the Southside of Chicago may seem like a dangerous place from the outside, inside, there are just a “bunch of cool people who think this is home,” said Gates. Some people there need the city’s services, but many others need public spaces. Gates said his goal was to make his new community center forged out of abandoned buldings “seductive.” Once the building was cleaned out, he made sure he brought in the best jazz in the city. A backyard lot became a spot for the “best movies in the city.” Given the “expectations are so low,” the movie nights were a huge hit, even bringing in visitors from outside Southside.

The young generation, a key audience for parks, spends lots of time online, so leveraging social media tools is increasingly important. Bela said the Web and social media tools were central to the success of Park(ing) Day, which was designed to be open source, with free image use. An Ikea-like guide, a “Park(ing) Day how-to manual,” was also created so people could see models but also create their own. “The project then went viral and spread around the globe. The extent of the creativity was amazing. There were lots of diverse approaches.” Some better than others. Bela said you can see good from bad design based on how accessible the spaces felt, how inviting.

Do Public Spaces Need to Accomodate Protest?

“Every public space needs to accomodate protest. Every protest in the U.S. took place in parks,” said Thomas. While parks can be designed to provide spaces for protest, there’s also the issue of “the management of public spaces.” The Occupy Wall Street movement largely took root in privately-owned parks (POPs) because New York City regulations mean protesters can’t stay out or sleep in a park overnight.

Gates went further, arguing that “people around the world are losing their right to convene.” In the Southside of Chicago, where there are few conventional public spaces, “people stroll or convene on the corner.” They are then arrested for loitering and “locked up” as a result. Parks are increasingly off limits, either by design or through regulations. In effect, the fight for “spatial movement and political rights” are intertwined, meaning “our rights are infringed upon when a space isn’t available for protest.” The good news: “There’s not enough design we can do to stop people so that’s great.”

For Bela, “public spaces are a practice place.” The public defines how a public space is used and what it means. “The biggest protests we’ve had in years happened in POPs. It’s amazing that they didn’t happen in public spaces.” Furthermore, Bela thinks communities that create “niches for resistance – ‘Protest Here'” are missing what it means to protest. He pointed to landscape architecture students at the University of California Berkeley, who, once told the Occupation Wall Street movement could no longer have their tents on the campus, decided to fill tents with balloons, exploring the concept: Where is protest even possible?

“We need to be sensitive to the whole emotional range of people,” said Gates. While some city officials and park managers may seem some types of emotions as OK and not others, they need to be open to communities expressing anger, frustration, and other negative emotions, but also respecting the public space. Thomas said parks can be set up for electricity and water so there’s inherent flexibility.

What Public Should Landscape Architects Design For? 

Landscape architects “fall into a trap by designing for the public. There’s no one public. It doesn’t exist,” argued Bela. Instead, landscape architects should “design for how people actually use a space, not how they would like them to use it.” Following this idea, it’s not possible to replicate a huge success like the High Line park around the country because that park was driven by “vocal, committed community activists” from Chelsea. The process of creating public spaces then needs to be inclusive, diverse, robust so those other unique High Line opportunities, whatever they may be, can bubble up from their own communities.

Bela thinks this approach is increasingly important given the public planning process is largely broken. “I see more consultants in these meetings than members of the public, or there will be a few professional protesters who represent their own interests while saying they speak for the community.” Bela thinks landscape architects and planners can “get around bad planning meetings by testing new things physically,” projects like Gates’ movies in backyard lots.

The High Line means every community now wants to be recognized, argued Gates. “Cities tend to react to what other cities are doing. Models are important.” Mayor, who always want to one-up each other, are “great for us.” And in this day, it’s no longer the product of starchitects that city officials are most interested in, it’s places, added Bela. “Places like Millennium Park now enable cities to compete for talent.” Thomas agreed, adding that Mayor Daley most likely thought, “we can out-do you, we have Millennium Park.” While that park is “not a New York City park,” it works for Chicago. However, Thomas thought many of these big park initiatives are often driven by economic development concerns, not community development.

How Can Public Spaces Become More Sustainable?

In San Francisco’s open space planning process, Bela has been pushing the concept of productive landscapes. “While edible landscapes aren’t a new idea,” so many landscapes in the city are now “deadzones.” Bela hopes to tie the idea of productivity to ecology and create functional landscapes that provide many services. He added that “current landscape management programs are part of the problem.” If local residents were more involved in the stewardship of urban landscapes, you’d see maintenance costs go down.

For Thomas, Prospect Park is already a sustainable landscape. “Olmsted was way ahead and totally off the grid” when he was coming up with these ideas. Cisterns under the park move stormwater in the park through to a man-made lake. She said larger old parks like hers can even handle runoff from the communities around them. There has been some exploration of expanding Prospect Park’s cisterns to accomodate the community’s stormwater. She said with these programs it’s important to educate communities what parks can actually do in terms of environmental benefits.

“Sustainability seems like a low-hanging fruit,” said Gates, but some communities are still not taking advantage of the opportunities. “Detroit could be turning abandoned spaces into urban farms and sell soybeans to China.” However, he did add that “only certain types are interested in urban farming and often they aren’t locals.” With any big idea, it’s important to examine the social components of sustainability. “We need to reconsider the people who live next to re-activated spaces” and have been watching the changes over time. How do they feel?  

How Can Public Spaces Be Better Maintained?

“The National Mall has been loved to death,” said Thomas. Big parks like the Mall and Prospect Park may need to move from capital borrowing or bonding towards making maintenance an annual expense. Also, designers need to be aware in the beginning what the maintenance issues will be and the cost of those. “Park managers need the design understanding of maintenance.”

Bela said temporary spaces can never replace long-term investments in public spaces. Still, around the world, there are different levels of long-term investment available. In Paris, the bike lanes have granite bollards topped with brass. In NYC, in contrast, there are strips of paint. Working with the private sector and foundations may also be a way to finance public space operations and maintenance.  

For Gates, there needs to be a shift away from the “Friends of..” approach. In Chicago, “we have the friends of everything. We are a very friendly city.” Instead, there needs to be a “deep understanding of the fiscal implications of what we do.” Public spaces should be endowed like university chairs.

Is a Strong Sense of Design Important?

Gates thinks the new National Mall projects should have a “strong artistic vision” that “creates tension with users. We need big ideas for these spaces.” A design process like this can’t be about “micro-processes.” To huge laughs, Gates argued that “there are lots of big egos in this room, designers who don’t want their designs thwarted by ignorant community members who don’t know shit about design.” Thomas, laughing, agreed, adding that major public spaces “need a strong design sentiment.” Designers need to “design what we didn’t know we wanted.” However, she added in the case of the National Mall it will be important to “get buy-in from lots of different communities” who interact with the site: the institutions, locals, and tourists.

To sum up, Gates said “ambitious” National Mall designs need not create harmony and “monuments don’t have to be a thing.” Thomas said that any new National Mall designs need to leverage what already works so well. “The National Mall is already a great place that people love. Continue the tradition of the Mall.” Bela told designers to “embrace uncertainty and mystery and tap into inspiration” to locate that powerful, perhaps revolutionary design.

Image credits: (1) Prospect Park / Agaveweb, (2) Parklet / The Bay Citizen