The Latest and Greatest from D.C.’s Landscape Architects

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7th Street Pier and Park / Michael Vergason Landscape Architects

The Potomac Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects brought together a panel of five landscape architects and designers whose projects won the chapter’s 2019 Professional Awards. The discussion was connected with a new exhibition of all the recent award winners at the District Architecture Center that runs through August 30, 2019.

7th Street Park and Recreation Pier at the Wharf: Michael Vergason, FASLA, founder of Michael Vergason Landscape Architects described how 7th Street Park and Pier is one piece of a larger redevelopment called the District Wharf in Southwest D.C. planned by Perkins Eastman and developed by PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette (see image above).

Vergason described his firm’s process: “we reach out beyond the boundaries of the site to think about how the design can grasp onto the site’s adjacencies to make a coherent place out of the larger setting.” For this park and pier, they were asked to ignore what the other five landscape designers in the broader development were designing. The pier is the only non-working pier at the District Wharf, which allowed them greater flexibility, so they added an undulating wood deck, swings, and a fire pit at the end looking out over the water.

Swampoodle Park: Adrienne McCray, ASLA, a landscape architect at Lee and Associates spoke about the challenge of meeting the needs of the different groups who shaped Swampoodle Park, which is named after a vanished 19th century neighborhood in Northeast D.C. Community outreach is an important aspect of the mission of the NoMa Parks Foundation, which financed the project, and McCray’s firm “didn’t want to bring any pre-concieved ideas of what the park should be,” instead asking the community what they wanted to see in their neighborhood.

On a 5,200-square foot (480 square meter) lot, plus a nearly-3,00 square feet (280 square meters) slice of public land, the community wanted a dog park, a place for kids to play, and a place to gather. McCray joked there was “not a lot of space for any of those activities.” The design team presented multiple options to the community to figure out which aspects the community liked. Through the engagement process, the firm was able to integrate all three programs into the small site.

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Swampoodle Park / Lee and Associates, Inc.

Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge: AECOM was selected as the design-build firm for a new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Anacostia River in Southwest D.C. The current bridge is 20 years older than its lifespan. Reid Fellenbaum, a landscape and urban designer at AECOM, said the complex project not only includes the bridge but also 82 acres of public land.

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Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge / AECOM

AECOM was given a preset budget for the entire project by the DC department of transportation, which could not be surpassed, meaning that any hiccup in the construction of the bridge has to be dealt with somewhere else in the process. Fellenbaum indicated cuts were likely to come from the landscape design because it was the last phase of the design to be constructed. To combat this, the firm kept careful notes of what had already been value-engineered during the design process to push back on further value-engineering of the landscape during construction.

Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics, and Nursing at Bowie State University: Perkins+Will was tasked with designing the landscape around a new building in the heart of Bowie State University’s campus, the oldest historically black college in Maryland. Stephanie Wolfgang, ASLA, detailed how the patterns found in the paving of the site came from a visioning process and discerning what is important to administrators, staff, and students.

Bowie State’s history, culture, and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum guided Perkins+Will’s decision to incorporate fractal patterns and the Fibonacci sequence (0,1,1,3,5…) throughout paving patterns, planting zones, and the structural spacing of custom benches.

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Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing at Bowie State University / Perkins+Will, Inc.

Capital City Bikeway, Jackson Street Reconstruction: Toole Design Group, which is based in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked with the city of St. Paul, Minnesota to expand their bike network into the downtown area. The Jackson Street Reconstruction was the first phase of Capital City Bikeway plan.

Ken Ray, ASLA, detailed how St. Paul removed a travel lane and the existing parking on one side of the street, providing space for a “nice linear space” that could connect with nearby bicycle lanes. Initially, the community was concerned about removing street parking. Pop-up meetings were organized to talk to as many residents and potential bicyclists as possible. Ray noted a key factor in the project’s success was convincing local business owners the new bicycle infrastructure would bring hundreds, if not thousands, of new people past their storefronts.

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Jackson Street Revitalization / Toole Design Group

The exhibition of all 15 2019 Professional Award winners will continue until August 30 at the District Center for Architecture. Learn more about all the winners.

Ecological Revitalization Planned for Baltimore’s Waterfront

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Hannover Street Bridge will be turned into park space / West 8

A team led by West 8 was announced as the winner of the Baltimore Middle Branch Waterfront Revitalization competition. The core team, which includes Baltimore-based landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc. and infrastructure engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol, will develop a climate-resilient, ecological plan to connect Baltimore’s southern waterfront neighborhoods through a series of new parks and trails while restoring wetlands in the Middle Branch Patapsco River. The West 8 team was ultimately selected by Mayor Bernard C. Jack Young after he received comments from the public and an esteemed jury of local stakeholders and nationally-recognized landscape architects.

The design re-imagines 11 miles of Baltimore’s Middle Patapsco River waterfront as an ecological cove populated with piers, boardwalks, and parks. The team will create new marshlands by “squeezing” the water channel under the Hannover Street Bridge and subsequently using the dredged material to build ecological habitats. Newly created marshland will help to buffer the cove from storm surges and clean the water.

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Dredge material placement strategy / West 8

A new island in the Patapsco River, named Riverbed Island, and peninsula on the south edge of the river, named Patapsco Park, will be constructed as the support points for a new bridge predominantly for vehicles that will replace the Hannover Street Bridge, which will be turned into a pedestrian-friendly linear park. The new island’s location was selected to maximize existing sedimentation flows in the river and will rely on naturally shallow areas to begin establishing wetlands off of the island.

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Site plan showing new island and bridge across the Patapsco River / West 8

The team proposes using geotube mud socks, a geotextile used to set dredge material, to help initiate the wetlands. Slurried dredge material will be pumped into the geotextiles, which retain the sediment but let water flow outward. In their competition presentation, the team describes the technique as “a simple, inexpensive way to protect and improve water quality through local plant communities while structurally stabilizing banks and shorelines to prevent erosion and slumping.”

Once established, slurried dredge will be used to fill in the rest of the wetland ecosystem back to the shoreline. The initial geotubes mark the boundaries of the wetland, allowing the team to shape the inlets and form of the wetlands.

Geotube mud sock after installation / West 8

While significant dredge and infrastructural work is necessary to develop the wetlands and reroute vehicle traffic, much of the work to redefine the “blue green heart of Baltimore,” as the team refers to it, is being done along the water’s edge.

The waterfront parks will span 11 miles of shorelines around the inlet of the Middle Branch Patapsco River. Pavilions, boathouses, a bandshell, a lookout over the marshland, and a repurposed swing bridge act as “cultural pearls” scattered along the waterfront. These design elements are a mix of revitalized structures and infrastructure and new amenities. For the design team, “the pearls celebrate and symbolize a time that once had and now again will represent optimism, innovation and progress.”

Among the new “cultural pearls” is the Lookout Loop, a circular ramp that brings visitors above the water’s surface, providing views of the Hannover Bridge in the distance. The Lookout Loop branches off from a boardwalk path that cuts through the newly created wetlands.

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Lookout Loop extending over Middle Branch Patapsco River

The Newland Band Shell will be an open air concert venue, located near the Hannover Street Bridge. A sloping hill will offer seating to see live music and performances.

Newland Band Shell / West 8

The Hannover Street Bridge, which connects the industrial area of South Baltimore to Cherry Hill neighborhood, will be converted from a 5-lane road into a park space, completing the loop of parks. Bays of trees, flower plantings, and vine trellises fill the top surface of the bridge, while a new boat dock and seating area will be created under the drawbridge. The dock gives people kayaking a place to stop and rest while out on the water.

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Hannover Street Bridge with new trees / West 8

The city has not released a timeline or budget for the project’s development. Explore the design and updates.

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

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C&O Canal in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. / AgnosticPreachersKid [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The C&O Canal in Georgetown Is Not in Danger of Being ‘High Lined’The Washington Post, 7/19/19
“If you have ever felt overwhelmed by overcrowding on the otherwise beautiful High Line, you might agree with Stephen A. Hansen’s June 30 Local Opinions essay, “Don’t ‘High Line’ Georgetown’s C&O Canal.” Unfortunately, the call to ‘rethink this proposal from scratch’ is based on mischaracterizations.”

America’s Greatest Gardening Partnership Produced This PlaceForbes, 7/21/19
“There is no better Art Deco garden anywhere in the United States than the Blue Steps at Naumkeag. A series of dark blue painted grottos climb up a steep hillside, connected by stairs and placed against a backdrop of white birch trees.”

A Brazilian Polymath’s Tropical Oasis at the New York Botanical GardenThe New Yorker, 7/22/19
“Roberto Burle Marx designed a swirling garden path at Copacabana Beach, and his American protégé has created a fragrant homage to the landscape architect in the Bronx.”

Sidewalk Detroit Wants You to Rethink the Purpose of Public Space Curbed, 7/23/19
“Sidewalk Festival is about creating spontaneous moments like this, but also reimagining what it means to be in public space.”

The Dull Blocks West of Navy Pier Get an Engaging Park: Will It Be Loved to Death?The Chicago Tribune, 7/31/19
“It’s no secret that the blocks between Navy Pier and North Michigan Avenue are dull with a capital ‘D.’ They’re filled with bland high-rises, underused public spaces, and the circular hole in the ground that was to form the foundation of the unbuilt Chicago Spire.”

Parks Don’t Spring From Nowhere. Someone Designed That

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas. OJB Landscape Architecture / Liane Rochelle

July is National Parks & Recreation Month. While you’re spending your time with your toes in the grass, watching the kids play on the swings, enjoying the scent of the flowers and plants around you, there’s something you should remember:

Someone designed that. People often think of the nature around them being… well, natural. Springing out of the ground unassisted and unpredictable, with no human hand directing it. That’s not always – and in the case of urban parks, not usually – the case. Landscape architects design, plan, and maintain the built and natural environment. Working in concert with local elected officials, city or state agencies, and the community as a whole, landscape architects design public open spaces that bring people together, encourage outdoor and active lifestyles, and protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Some of the most iconic parks in America were designed, and are currently maintained, by landscape architects. From coast to coast, you can find the world of landscape architects in some of the most iconic parks and public landscapes in America.

Jackson Park in Chicago was the site of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. After the fair’s six-month run, the land was turned back to parkland for public use. The nearly 600-acre park is located on over a mile of waterfront land on Lake Michigan. Today, the park’s green features include the Wooded Island (complete with ha Japanese-style garden), Bobolink Meadows, and a functioning vegetable and flower garden. Other features include a gymnasium, three harbors, basketball and tennis courts, multi-purpose fields, and more.

Jackson Park, Chicago / Michael Christensen, Creative Commons

The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Olmsted is considered by many to be the father of American landscape architecture, and his sons went on to found the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 1899. Jackson Park was recently restored by a team of experts which included Heritage Landscapes, a landscape architecture firm that was recently awarded the 2019 ASLA Firm Award, one of the highest honors for landscape architecture firms in the country.

Central Park in New York City. Balboa Park in San Diego. The grounds of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. All were designed by teams that included landscape architects.

And landscape architects don’t only focus on the iconic. Some work in municipal parks departments, on conservancy boards, at schools, or in small neighborhoods all across the country to plan the parks and public spaces that bring neighbors together every day.

In Northampton, Massachusetts, the small 2.5-acre Pulaski Park was transformed by landscape architects at Stimson from a mostly-paved site to a largely green space that celebrates the city’s culture, heritage, and diversity. It was a small project with a tight budget, which resulted in a makeover that gives the community a place to connect – to each other and to the nature around them.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Stimson / Top photo by Stimson, bottom photo by Ngoc Doan
ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Stimson / Photo by Ngoc Doan

Prefer roller coasters and Ferris wheels to trees and swing sets? Major companies like Disney and Universal Studios employ landscape architects to design and maintain landscapes that energize and delight guests.

So as you celebrate National Parks and Recreation month in #GameOnJuly – whether it’s at one of our nation’s most iconic landscapes, or at your neighborhood park down the street – remember that where there is a park, chances are a landscape architect was behind it.

Learn more about landscape architecture.

Snøhetta’s Viewing Platforms Embrace the Panorama

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

High above Innsbruck, Austria, the experience of walking a two-mile-long trail has been greatly enriched, thanks to a set of 10 viewing platforms designed by Norwegian multidisciplinary firm Snøhetta. Made of simple materials — Corten steel and Larch wood — the platforms either cantilever out into the air, creating exhilarating moments, or more subtly slip into the landscape, providing a place to sit and take in the vast expanses. Called Perspektivenweg, or the Path of Perspectives, Snøhetta has enhanced the experience of the valley without marring the beauty of the natural landscape.

According to ArchDaily, the Path of Perspectives is found in the Nordkette, a mountain chain of the Karwendel, the largest mountain range of the Northern Limestone Alps, just north of Innsbruck. Two cable car lines bring visitors from the city center to the Seegrube cable car station, found some 1,905 meters above sea level, where they can embark on the path. The station, and three others along the Hungerburg funicular, were designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

With the exception of the cantilevered platform found at the end of the trail, Snøhetta mostly went for “small gestures” that appear to “grow out of the landscape,” explained Patrick Lüth, managing director of Snøhetta’s Innsbruck office, in Dezeen. These include simple timber-lined viewing platforms and benches.

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta
Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta
Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

The structures themselves are adapted out of methods used to create avalanche barriers, which are also made of Corten (and seen on the hillside in the image below).

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta
Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

But Snøhetta added another layer to this material, inscribing them with quotes of the writings of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The firm explains that “the words invite visitors to take a moment and reflect, both inwardly and out over the landscape.”

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

Fast Company reports that Snøhetta worked with Innsbruck-based Professor Allan Janik to identify quotes such as:

The concept of ‘seeing’ makes a tangled impression. Now that’s the way it is. I look into the landscape; my glance wanders, I see all sorts of clear and unclear movement; this leaves its mark on me clearly, that only fully blurred. What we see can seem to be completely torn to bits.

Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers said the goal with the project was to create a dialogue with the surrounding environment. “Some people mischaracterize our work as always trying to merge with the landscape or trying to set ourselves aside from the landscape. We’re just interested in having a dialogue.”

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

U.S. Embassy in London / OLIN, Dennis McGlade, via Metropolis

How the U.S. Embassy in London Uses Landscape as an AmbassadorMetropolis, 7/1/19
“The project, which includes design by KieranTimberlake and OLIN, features public spaces that plug into the surrounding neighborhood as well as plantings that evoke American landscapes.”

When You Couldn’t See the Arboretum for the Trees – The Houston Chronicle, 7/5/19
“The death of almost half the trees at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center might have saved the place.”

This Brazilian Artist and Landscape Architect Was Bound Only by the Limits of His Imagination – The Washington Post, 7/8/19
“The Brazilian modernist Roberto Burle Marx liked to tell the story of his arrival in Berlin in the late 1920s as a young man, in the German capital to steep himself in European culture. When he checked out the city’s botanical garden, the scales dropped from his eyes.”

The Nation’s Most Exciting Park Project Is Taking Shape in North Carolina – Curbed, 7/9/19
“If you’ve ever wondered how different cities’ signature parks, like New York’s Central Park or Chicago’s Lincoln Park, would look if they were designed in the 21st century, keep your eyes on Raleigh, North Carolina.”

A First-Rate Waterfront Park Is Transforming a Historic Greek City – CityLab, 7/12/19
“Thessaloniki’s New Waterfront is the centerpiece in an effort to transform the local economy, and other cities are taking notice.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16 – 30)

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Copacabana beach promenade designed by Roberto Burle Marx / Wikipedia

At The Gardner, ‘Big Plans’ Looks At How Big-Thinkers Reformed Our Cities 90.9 WBUR, 6/18/19
“They were four intellectuals famous in the world of culture and art. Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist and social critic turned landscape architect. Lewis Wickes Hine was a sociologist-photographer. Charles Eliot was a landscape architect and city planner, and Isabella Stewart Gardner was an art collector and philanthropist.”

Serpentine Pavilion Designed to Be “Part of Surrounding Landscape” Says Junya Ishigami Dezeen, 6/19/19
“In this exclusive Dezeen video, Japanese architect Junya Ishigami explains how his design for this year’s Serpentine Pavilion was built to resemble a ‘stone hill.'”

A Brazilian Vision Blooms Anew in the BronxCityLab, 6/21/19
“The New York Botanical Garden pulls out all the stops for its new exhibit on Modernist garden designer Roberto Burle Marx.”

Designing Women Sacramento Magazine, 6/21/19
“What makes a city great? Landscape architect Kimberly Garza believes public spaces—our parks, waterfronts, plazas, gardens and other gathering spots—are the foundation of a vibrant city.”

How a Landscape Architect’s Vision for a Roadless Area Led to the Boundary Waters The Star Tribune, 6/28/19
“A young landscape architect’s vision of a roadless wilderness laid the groundwork for the Boundary Waters.”

A First Peek at Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Bennett Park, Coming Soon to Streeterville Curbed Chicago, 6/28/19
“As Streeterville’s recently completed One Bennett Park skyscraper welcomes residents, the adjacent green space that gives the building its name is coming together ahead of an anticipated grand opening later this summer.”

In 19th Century Argentina, Nature Served Eugenic Agenda

9 de Julio Avenue, Buenos Aires / Wikipedia

From the 1860s to the 1930s, Argentina welcomed some 3.5 million European immigrants as workers in its growing meat production industry. Argentinian policymakers sought to improve the hygiene of the cattle slaughtered but also the “social hygiene” of the incoming workers. These technocrats were influenced by the eugenics movement that had spread across Europe and was later adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany. In this instance, the idea was to perfect humans through the selection of desirable traits and exposure to nature.

According to Fabiola López-Durán, an associate professor at Rice University, hygienics and eugenics in Argentina were, “in fact, connected, revealing a bio-political coupling of the city and countryside; human and animal bodies; and land and resources.”

Beliefs about the “cleansing” benefits of exposure to nature guided the creation of new parks, playgrounds, open-air schools, and sports facilities. Technocrats, physicians, industrialists, and landscape architects were driven to use “health, hygiene, fresh air, cleanliness, sunlight, productivity, and ‘whiteness'” in service of this broad national goal to create a more perfect, rational society.

At the Dumbarton Oaks’ symposium on landscape, sport, and the environment, López-Durán revealed the findings of her investigation into this disturbing chapter in modern Latin American history.

In a push to modernize Argentina in the mid 1800s, the country’s leaders sought to “rationalize production and reproduction,” re-organizing human life. Upon arrival in Argentina, immigrants were categorized, with those demonstrating more desirable “white” traits sent to the cities to power the new industries, and those with less desirable “middle eastern” traits sent to the countryside to work in farms. Native populations were the target of mass killings.

In the midst of this brutal reconfiguration of society, nature played a strange role, too. Intensive exposure to nature was selectively used to strengthen those with “weak characters.” And natural spaces were also strategically inserted into the urban realm in order to improve the moral health of cities.

Argentina’s leaders were inspired by France, which had undertaken a “social hygiene” campaign in an effort to strengthen the health and character of the French people after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815. “There was widespread fear of degradation and decay.” French doctors and technocrats called for integrating nature into the built environment in order to build a stronger population.

As Sun-Young Park at George Mason University argued in an earlier talk, urban gymnasiums, which integrated nature play, were built in French cities to enhance the physical and moral education of the population. “They became social theaters to display fit bodies, a secular basilica, that would remove the germs of degeneration,” Park said.

Buenos Aires is itself inspired by Paris, which was viewed as the most civilized city. Carlos Thays, a French-Argentine pupil of famed French landscape architect Édouard André, designed the tree-lined boulevards and public gardens that make Buenos Aires feel so Parisian. López-Durán said the goal was to use “green space to revitalize the blood of the cities, to oxygenate them.”

In Argentina, there was the added fear of “pestilence and disease” coming from the dirty work of meat production. The industry was modernized with the latest hygienic standards. Workers were placed in campuses designed for maximum sunlight and clean air, but often next to slaughterhouses. In these complexes, industrialists built parks in which workers participated in mass physical exercises. These places helped “transform human being into productive citizens.”

One example is the Parque Patricios, which was built for workers and their families next to a slaughtering facility. López-Durán said its playgrounds, which were away from the street, was designed “to save children from bad influences.”

Parque Patricios / Wikipedia

Urban children deemed particularly weak or at risk from bad influences were sent to open-air schools outside the city. This approach was guided by the ideas of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which are now described as Lamarckism (or Lamarckian inheritance). His idea was that negative environmental impacts on a body, or misuse of a body, can create acquired characteristics that are inheritable. Healthy environments can then prevent or undo the acquisition of undesirable characteristics that can impact later generations.

López-Durán said children exposed to malnutrition or who had syphilitic or alcoholic parents could be regenerated through exposure to natural spaces, what she called “clinical landscapes.” Children studied under shady trees, farmed garden patches, undertook physical education, sun bathed, and studied in hygienic facilities overseen by doctors and teachers.

Every day, the children would be evaluated by the doctor and measured on their intelligence, body metrics, and cognition. “Any children perceived to be defective would stay; if they were deemed ‘normal,’ they were returned to the city to regular schools.” The idea was that children could be made perfect through a system of surveillance and control. All this was part of an effort to “improve the bio-capital of the nation.”

Back in cities, social engineering continued throughout a worker’s lifespan. The state built sports facilities to “improve meat workers’ bodies.” Outdoor physical education facilities incorporated soccer fields, volley ball courts, and exercise areas to improve labor performance in the slaughterhouses. “Teamwork values drove organizational behavior.” Women were also controlled by the state through the healthcare they were given. The idea was to make the industrial complex into a kind of utopia of productivity.

In her disturbing conclusion, López-Durán asserted that “eugenics is alive and well today,” despite widespread condemnation about its long-time association with racism, sexism, discrimination, the genocidal horrors of Nazi Germany, and mass sterilizations around the world.

“Everyday in the news, we can read about the rise of epigenetics,” the chemical modification of our genes through environmental exposure and our own actions. The study of epigenetics is focused on determining “how the environment changes the body.” These studies are leading to new evaluations of the impact of nature exposure on our genetic health, and new planning and design approaches that play out in the therapeutic landscape and equitable “parks for all” movements.

One on side is the idea that all of society should reap the many health and cognitive benefits of regular exposure to nearby nature. We need to democratize access to green space. But with a look towards the strange history of these ideas, it may be interesting to ask: is a new, subtler, “therapeutic” form of social hygiene effort now underway?

The Case for Quality Public Spaces for All

Palaces for the People / Random house

“Try to imagine how many relationships have developed because two sets of parents or caretakers pushed their kids on the same swing set on the same afternoon. They might try and stay immersed in their phone, but inevitably they’ll end up acknowledging the humanity of the other person and at some point one will spark a conversation.”

Over time, a mutual trust or friendship develops, and maybe even a life-saving connection. A public space like this playground, where interactions are sparked, differences are spanned, and, as a result, communities are strengthened is what sociologist Eric Klinenberg would call a piece of “social infrastructure.” In a recent Oculus book talk at the Center for Architecture in New York City, Klinenberg discussed his recent book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.

Good social infrastructure does not spring up by chance — it exists because of decades of hard work by activists who believed in the public good and have fought to make spaces like libraries, parks, plazas, playgrounds and childcare centers accessible and democratically available.

Highbridge Park Pool in Washington Heights / NYC Parks and Recreation
Washington Square Park, NYC / Wikipedia

Unfortunately, Klinenberg said, “we’ve neglected our social infrastructure just when we need it most. We are living in it the way a prodigal child lives on their inheritance.” Investment in our social infrastructure means designing, building, programming and maintaining it well. Without committing to these four important steps, we will feel the personal and societal effects of its absence, which could actually have life-threatening effects.

Klinenberg’s doctoral research studied the Chicago heat wave of 1995, in which survival rate in two demographically identical, impoverished neighborhoods was determined by proximity to social infrastructure. The one that fared worse was blighted, with residents living isolated lives, while the one that fared better even than wealthier Chicago neighborhoods had spaces for informal community interaction, making it easier for neighbors to check in on the community’s most vulnerable residents during the heat wave.

Klinenberg’s research on the life-saving benefits of public space lead to a role as research director for Rebuild by Design, the design competition initiated by HUD after Hurricane Sandy. His role was to advise the winning design teams on how to address environmental inequality and incorporate social infrastructure into their designs.

In the wake of the storm, Klinenberg was troubled by the many voices publicly calling for a massive seawall to be built around Manhattan. “364 days a year you don’t need a storm barrier. If you just design for the storm you’re probably going to make the city uglier, less efficient and less pleasant,” he said.

Thanks to Klinenberg’s input and influence, winning projects such as the Big U demonstrated that climate infrastructure can double as social infrastructure. The original design included what was called “a bridging berm,” which featured protective walls that serve as a public park with amenities like athletic fields, space for open air markets, bike and walking paths. “If you completely blow up the concept of climate resilience infrastructure by adding social infrastructure, something really special happens,” said Klinenberg. (Plans for those berms were recently replaced with one that will lift waterfront parks up by 10 feet and create a sea wall).

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Making and maintaining a well-designed space is not a silver bullet when it comes to successful social infrastructure. True democratic accessibility is a critical component.

Klinenberg worries about the implications of the increase in philanthropist-funded public parks, many of which are well designed, built, programmed and maintained, but remain less accessible to those who would benefit from them the most. “If you are lucky enough to live in a place that gets that philanthropic support your public space gets supercharged,” says Klinenberg, while other spaces must rely on tax dollars, creating a profound difference in the quality of these public spaces.

To ensure all public spaces in a city receives the same investment, Klinenberg argues that we would get a better outcome from taxing billionaires rather than depending on their benevolent whims to create and maintain our social infrastructure.

Speaking to an audience of mostly planners and designers, Klinenberg inevitably got asked a question about the mechanics of social infrastructure — how can we make this happen in our own designs?

Klinenberg urged designers to carefully consider access, what it means to make a space  welcoming to all, and to de-prioritize efficiency. If mingling and chance encounters between people of all different backgrounds are the substance of social infrastructure, then landscape architects and designers should focus on creating the spatial conditions for these to occur.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.

Berms Aren’t Enough: NYC Shifts Course on “Big U” Resilience Plan

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

To protect against future super storms and long-term sea level rise, New York City proposed creating a set of landscaped berms around the southern tip of Manhattan, a plan deemed the “Big U.” The city secured some $330 million from the U.S. department of housing and urban development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 to kick start the project. After four years of intensive community engagement, the city suddenly switched gears last fall, throwing out those plans in favor of raising the first proposed segment of the Big U — the waterfront park between 25th street and Montgomery Street on the east side — by 10 feet. Instead of berms, the existing 60-acre East River Park will be buried under landfill and its new higher edge will become a wall holding back the East River, which is expected to rise with the Altantic Ocean by 2.5 feet by 2050.

In conjunction with retractable flood gates set within neighborhoods, the park will provide flood protections up to 16 feet above current sea level, protecting 100,000 residents along the east side and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive.

At a Dumbarton Oaks symposium on landscape, sport, and environment, landscape architect Simon David, ASLA, a founder of OSD|Outside and former director of the project for Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), explained the facets of the $1.5 billion project, which he said provides both “recreation and resilience in the era of climate change.”

The East River Park revamp is a central component of the East Side Coastal Resilience Project (ESCR), just one piece of what will be wall, gate, and park infrastructure that run down the east side, around the financial district, and up the west side of Manhattan. The east side design team includes Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), AKRF, One Architecture, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA).

The area near this first segment has an interesting history. Famous (and infamous) city builder Robert Moses cleared the area of “slums” in order to create the FDR Drive (then the East River Drive) highway and to its west, affordable housing complexes. To the east of the drive, the shoreline was built up over landfill into the East River, creating new park space and sports fields for the complexes’ residents, who now cross a less-than-ideal caged bridge over FDR Drive to get there.

David called the park itself a “gallery of fences,” separating the various sports areas, with few pleasant green spaces. Salt water intrusion has killed off a number of the trees. And the ones that remain are “reaching the end of their lives.”

East River Park / Wikipedia

The new vision released by the city last fall has been controversial. According to The New York Times, elements of the community feel like they weren’t consulted on the new sea wall approach approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

To raise the entire park up, what’s there now will be covered in landfill, which upsets some long time residents, particularly because the city just spent $3 million to renovate it. There are also concerns about the increased project costs. The original plan with the berms would have cost $765 million, while the new raised park will cost nearly $1.5 billion. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village, told The New York Times: “The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary.”

NYC parks and recreation commissioner Mitchell J. Silver told The Times that raising the park up is the only way to save it from sea level rise. City representatives have also said they are moving forward on an accelerated planning and design schedule in order to begin construction next year. They have to or will forfeit the $330 million from HUD.

Flood protections are expected to be in place by 2022. But in a compromise with the community, the city will stagger construction so as to reduce impact on the community that depends on the park and all the vehicle drivers who rely on FDR Drive.

The challenge for the design team has been to integrate the sea wall, retractable inland gates, pedestrian bridges, sports facilities, and social spaces bisected by a highway into one cohesive design.

In the latest and nearly final designs, the team widened the important Delancey Street Bridge and created a continuous, accessible pathway across FDR Drive to the park.

Delancey Street Bridge / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC government

The city and design team kept soccer and football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, but also added an amphitheater, open lawns, and a playground near the north end. “We created more green space in between the fields, creating parks for non-sports people,” said David. Those green spaces will include more than 50 species of trees, much more than the three species there now, including water-friendly black tupelos and cypresses.

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
Nature playground / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Green infrastructure will be incorporated throughout to manage stormwater coming in from the city and FDR Drive. To accommodate major storm events, the park will also include a cistern with a 40-million gallon capacity. “This is for the super storm that happens once every 50 years.”

Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, a landscape historian and author, now based at the University of Maryland, asked David: “what will happen when the sea levels rise and don’t come back down? What will happen after 2050?”

David said the “park will be effective for a period of time, and many lives will be improved.” But the city and team have really only planned for 2050. “Things are changing rapidly. This buys us more time. There is no great solution.”