Soon We’ll Be Able to Swim in the Chicago River

Chicago River / Pinterest

Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.

The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.

The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.

And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.

But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and  completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.

Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.

Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki

Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.

New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”

Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.

Review: NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

The NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide should first be commended for the sheer amount of information it compresses into a succinct guide that touches upon nearly every consideration in the planning and design of green streets. I can only imagine the amount of coordination that took place to assemble the different national green street case studies, as well as the nearly impossible task of reigning in different perspectives on streetscape design from various planning and design disciplines.

While past NACTO guidebooks have successfully focused solely on street, bikeway, or transit design, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide delivers one of the most comprehensive guides on how to combine complete street design and green infrastructure stormwater management. Having a volume like this on one’s shelf is extremely helpful to anyone who is engaged in even general streetscape planning and design, as it points out the importance of having green infrastructure integrated into the right-of-way.

Design guidebooks are always a unique snapshot in time. They highlight our current understanding of design application and what, at the moment, can be implemented. This is an important consideration for the Urban Street Stormwater Guide — it reflects our design comprehension of green infrastructure at the current moment. This too will, and must, evolve over time.

Early sections of the guide provide a powerful argument for why “Streets are Ecosystems.” Stormwater runoff is no longer treated as a waste but as a valuable resource that should be managed in the right-of-way using a green infrastructure approach. The design community, I believe, comprehends and embraces this basic premise, but there is still a lack of understanding, which is reflected in this guidebook and reverberates in today’s built green street projects.

While stormwater runoff is now not considered a waste, it is still mistakenly labeled as a source of the problem of urban stormwater management. Runoff is not the source, but a symptom and result of the larger problem that urbanization has dramatically removed natural landscape systems and replaced them with impervious area.

We now focus on treating the symptom of “too much stormwater runoff” by designing small-footprint, deep-profile “landscapes” that force water back into the ground to prevent urban flooding, reduce the burden on grey stormwater infrastructure systems, or comply with state and federal regulations.

While reducing flooding and infrastructure capacity issues are important, these approaches create a water-centric approach very much reflected in this guidebook, which dilutes the focus and urgency to address the real problem of landscape loss. The only way to address this issue is to dramatically spread the footprint of vegetation and perviousness in our built environments. Only when we advocate and create a greater balance of green space and perviousness in our cities can we then accurately label our streets as “ecosystems.”

The Urban Street Stormwater Guide provides a series of “stormwater streets” as hypothetical scenarios of different urban conditions, such as a green transitway, ultra-urban green street, boulevard, neighborhood main street, and a host of other urban contexts. These are valuable glimpses of the possibilities of introducing vegetated swales, stormwater planters, pervious paving, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure and complete street elements into urban conditions.

Green Transitway from NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

However, the models shown have a definite tilt towards very urban conditions with the huge rights-of-way commonly found in larger American cities. The hypothetical boulevards, transit streets, and even the neighborhood main streets green street examples in the guidebook look nothing like those that I have worked on in smaller cities. Where are the examples outside of the big city? How about strip mall or big-box arterial streets, small-town main streets with tight sidewalks and packed with on-street parking, and the ultra-wide suburban residential streets that have covered mass landscapes in this country?

I raise this question, because these latter streets are just as impervious and incomplete. They produce massive amounts of stormwater runoff, just like our big city downtown streets, but are completely forgotten in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide vernacular.

From a stormwater management perspective, I define an urban street as any street that has a curb, gutter, and sidewalk that produces excessive stormwater runoff. It appears that the Urban Street Stormwater Guide defines an urban street similarly, but focuses largely in ultra-urban downtown conditions. Perhaps there is an opportunity to follow up this guide with a “less-urban” street stormwater companion guide.

I think that this omission is largely due, again, to the “snapshot in time” effect and focuses more on examples where green streets are currently being implemented: in big cities that are trying to comply with stormwater consent decrees and/or dealing with infrastructure capacity issues. The truth is that we need green streets in all urban contexts, and those should be better represented in this guide.

As I mentioned before, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide packs in an incredible amount of information in a finite number of pages. It feels almost too dense, where some graphics and photos are reduced to a miniscule scale, and text flows as if one is simply reading a series of bullet points (albeit good bullet points). In fact, some of the very important cross-sections of types of stormwater facilities are so cryptic, with minimal or no text call-outs or dimensions, that they remind me of the pictures illustrated when one is trying to follow an IKEA shelve assembly instructions manual. When dealing with urban stormwater, cross-sections illustrating very specific horizontal and vertical layout are critical.

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press
NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

Lastly, I worry that many of the cross-sections, and even the built project photo examples, suggest too much hardscape in the form of vertical walls to contain landscape and soil. Excessively-engineered green street facilities go against the very principles of green infrastructure to keep things simple, shallow, cost-effective, and beautiful.

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

One of the most successful elements in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is the numerous design, planning, and policy case study examples shown throughout the United States. Each case study describes the project’s goals, project overview, design details, keys to success, lessons learned, and qualitative and quantitative outcomes. There are excellent pictures of projects shown in action.

Some case projects are clearly more successful than others, but it is extremely valuable for everyone to understand what has been built and how the project is performing, regardless of its real or perceived level of success.

Another very successful piece of the guide is Section 5: Partnerships and Performance, which highlights successful green street programs and policies from around the United States, details the need for inter-agency and private-public partnerships, and outlines operation and maintenance roles and responsibilities. The discussion of operations and maintenance should take a more formative role earlier in the guide, as maintenance often defines what can be built, to what extent, and how it will perform in the long-term.

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

In conclusion, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is an valuable resource to those planning and designing green street projects. It makes a very strong argument that green streets and complete streets can live symbiotically and details different examples on how to combine these design strategies.

This guide is a wonderful snapshot in time of what has been built, but the guide also shows that we still have much to learn and that green infrastructure strategies are still evolving. I again really commend the amount of information provided in the guide and the level of coordination that was needed to complete it. I look forward to the next edition of the Urban Street Stormwater Guide.

This guest post is by Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA, principal of Urban Rain Design.

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

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La Chrysalide / Martin Bond

Lake Shore Drive Could Use a Redesign, but Filling in the Lake is a NonstarterThe Chicago Tribune, 7/17/17
“As a landscape architect, I was intrigued by the proposals outlined by the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Chicago Department of Transportation for the redesign of Lake Shore Drive.”

Proposed WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C. Moves Ahead, Despite Questions About Its DesignThe Architect’s Newspaper, 7/17/17
“The Nation’s Capital came a step closer to gaining a World War I Memorial this month when a key federal panel approved a conceptual design for the project—even though panel members and others expressed concerns about the latest plan and its potential impact on the selected site.”

Art in the Garden: Place Right Work in Right Spot The Daily Courier, 7/21/17
“For many landscape designers and homeowners, a garden isn’t complete without the right art.”

6 Architects and Designers Won a Competition to Design Low-Tech, Outdoor Play Areas. Here Are the Results… Archinect, 7/21/17
“In response to the all-too-familiar “nature-deficit disorder” that plagues much of society these days, participants in this year’s competition had to create inventive “Playsages” that would inspire, if not remind, today’s tech-savvy kids and adults to spend more time outdoors.”

Southbound Pedestrians to Have Second Access to Tijuana From San Ysidro The San Diego Union-Tribune, 7/24/17
“Mexico’s new border entrance south of PedWest is set to open next week, offering a second option for those crossing on foot from San Ysidro to Tijuana.”

The Art of the Park with Michael Van Valkenburgh

“I don’t see parks as an escape from the city; I see them as an escape in the city, and therefore an essential part of what a city is,” explained landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, at The New York Times’ Cities for Tomorrow conference in New York City.

In a Q&A, Van Valkenburgh touched on five parks his firm designed throughout the country and Canada, beginning with his redesign of the landscape of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the St. Louis riverfront, which is home to Eero Saarinen’s famous Gateway Arch.

Here, Van Valkenburgh explains, his team at MVVA incorporated elements of Modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley’s original intention for the site while “creating a series of bridges – physical and metaphorical” to better stitch the previously-isolated 91-acre historic Arch ground with St. Louis.

Van Valkenburgh then discussed Maggie Daley Park in Chicago; A Gathering Place for Tulsa, a new park in Oklahoma; and Corktown Commons in Toronto.

And, finally, Van Valkenburgh, a Brooklyn resident, finished his talk on the now-famous Brooklyn Bridge Park, a set of piers once used for maritime industries now turned into a beloved 85-acre park, a project realized after 18 years of planning and design.

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

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Lake Kittamaqundi is one of five manmade lakes originally planned for Columbia. / Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun

Oklahoma City Landscape Architect’s Passion Rooted in Early Art, Drafting Classes The Oklahoman, 6/4/17
“When landscape architect Scott Howard and his partner built their northwest Oklahoma City offices in 2004, they paid stipends to six firms to compete for the job to design the building.”

With 843 Acres Buffed, Central Park Leader Will Step Down The New York Times, 6/6/17
“It is easy to forget what Central Park looked like in the 1980s. But Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, can see past the lush meadows and fresh streams to a time when the 843-acre park was more beaten-down wasteland than urban Eden.”

Planned Cities Have Gone Out of Style, but Columbia Still Influences Urban Design The Baltimore Sun, 6/8/17
“It was the mid-1960s, and suburban sprawl was engulfing the country. Some predictions held that the U.S. population would double by the year 2000, and a plan like Rouse’s promised an orderly, predictable antidote to a rush of development.”

Landscape Architect Tends Ideas for Major City Projects The Chicago Tribune, 6/8/17
“One of the keys to better creative ideas is first knowing what problem your client needs to solve, says Terry Guen, principal, president and founder of Terry Guen Design Associates in Chicago. But that isn’t always clear or simple.”

Urban Beaches, ‘Visionary’ Architects, Ice Skating Paths Among Winners of 2017 Knight Cities Challenge The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/12/17
“A forest on an abandoned freeway, a bike path turned winter skate track, and participatory governing at the bus stops are slated for reality thanks to the benevolence of the Knight Foundation, which today announced more than three dozen winners of its city-focused grants.”

Hammersmith Statue Commemorates Great British Landscape Architect Capability BrownGet West London, 6/12/17
“Capability Brown was one of the best known and most influential landscape designers, responsible for creating some of the most impressive and inspiring grounds in the UK, including those at Syon House, in nearby Brentford.”

Seoul Turns Aging Overpass into Botanical Promenade

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Seoul is the latest cities to reclaim a piece of aging infrastructure for public use. Last month, South Korea’s capital city opened Seoullo 7017 Skygarden, an inner-city freeway transformed into a pedestrian artery and botanical garden.

The elevated public park was designed by Dutch architects and urban designers MVRDV as a series of gardens with 24,000 trees, shrubs, and flowers. Fifty plant families and 228 species and sub-species are organized according to the Korean alphabet along the pedestrian-only walkway.

Ben Kuipers, lead landscape architect on the project, said the unique arrangement highlights plant nuances. “The species are organized by genus and family. So people can experience the differences between species,” he wrote in an email. “There are small, themed gardens, like the maple garden and the pine tree garden, and a surprising contrast walking from family to family, in Korean alphabetical order.”

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Over 600 concrete planters dot the approximately 3,000-foot linear park, which stretches across the city’s central train station and connects the Namdaemun market area to the east and neighborhoods to the west. Each pot has nameplate identifying the plants in both Latin and Korean. At night, the pots are illuminated in blue and white.

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden at night / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

“The trees are the stars,” Kuipers said. “We turned the bridge into a ‘walk of fame’ with every tree in a pot like on a pedestal. And every season shows different features.”

With over one million visitors in the first 10 days, Kuipers said the high volume shows the concept resonates. “We wanted to create not just a pedestrian connection, but also a place to visit, be, and meet people. Therefore, we also added ‘activators,’ such as little shops and cafes.”

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

MVRDV won an international competition in 2015 held by the Seoul Metropolitan Government for the design of the park with their entry, The Seoul Arboretum.

The original freeway, known as the Seoul Station overpass, was built in 1970 at the heart of a city undergoing rapid economic and population growth. The structure was slated for demolition after a 2006 safety assessment determined it would soon be unsafe for vehicular use. Officials ultimately decided to recycle the freeway, incorporating the structure into its plan to make the city more walkable.

“This overpass has special meaning because it represents Seoul’s modernity,” Kim Joon Kee, deputy mayor of safety management for the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told CNN in 2016, as construction was underway. “It was built to relieve traffic congestion and, after 30 years, it  became worn down, so we saw an opportunity for the city’s development.”

The name, Seoullo 7017, pays homage to the transformation of the freeway over time. The word Seoullo means “Seoul road,” and the numbers 70 and 17 reference its original constructed and when it reopened to pedestrian traffic, according to The Korea Times.

Implementing such a diverse planting design on an aging freeway structure came with a unique set of challenges. Kupiers explained there was little space for soil for the roots, given the load-bearing limitations and the inclination of the bridge destabilizes the soil. Designers also considered the safety of pedestrians and vehicles, ensuring no branches or trees would fall on the road or railway tracks below. 

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

Furthermore, in a region with hot summers, cold winters, and typhoons, Seoul’s varied climate also posed a challenge. “We decided to create the right conditions for trees, shrubs and plants [by] making huge tree pots. These pots are isolated to prevent freezing and have a drainage, irrigation, and aeration system,” Kuipers explained.

The arrangement of over 600 pots, in varying sizes and depths, adds a distinctive, constructed quality to the design, a departure from the more organic style seen in many landscape designs in Asia, Kuipers said.

Seoullo 7017 Skygarden / Ossip van Duivenbode via DesignBoom

MVRDV’s design envisions the skygarden as an “urban nursery.” Kuipers said they plan to use the bridge in combination with the city’s own tree nursery to grow new trees and species, eventually distributing the pots along pedestrian routes in additional neighborhoods.

Seoul is hardly the first city to build an elevated urban walkway. Many have drawn connections between this project and New York City’s High Line. In fact, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was inspired by the famous James Corner Field Operations’ project, according to the The Korean Times. Still, the projects differ in their relationship to the surrounding urban fabric and the way they use plants.

“Although the High Line is a great example, Seoullo is different in many ways,” Kuipers said, noting the Seoullo Skygarden’s elevated views of the city and central location at Seoul Station in the heart of the city.

South Brooklyn Waterfront: A Model for Urban Manufacturing

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

The Wall Street Journal reports that 79,000 people work in manufacturing in the New York City metro area, down from 190,000 in 1990. However, the long downward trend may be ending: manufacturing employment increased by 1,300 over last year.

Perhaps some of that uptick is the result of the city government’s efforts. Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city and state leaders have focused on revitalizing the city’s manufacturing economy, preserving what’s left of it in places like the Garment District and building up existing clusters of industrial production. In a tour of the Sunset Park neighborhood in the South Brooklyn waterfront, as part of the American Planning Association’s annual conference, we learned about the efforts of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which manages industrial properties owned by the city.

There couldn’t be a more appealing locale for the rebirth of American urban manufacturing than the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was built before World War I to support the war effort. In some 4-million-square feet spread over two buildings — each the size of the Empire State building if it was laid flat on the ground — there are 110 businesses, employing 3,500 in manufacturing and distribution.

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Crain’s Business

As seen from the tour, contemporary manufacturing looks much different from the big factories of the past. Small urban manufacturers are making everything from salad dressings and luxury clothes to 3D printed objects and advanced technological parts.

Out of the 3.1 million square feet now online, there is a 90-plus percent occupancy rate, explained Will Stein, an official with NYCEDC. He said an additional 500,000 square feet will soon be operational. “Every New York City Mayor has a project at the Terminal. Mayo de Blasio’s project is this expansion.”

In addition to using the traditional metrics, NYCEDC evaluates possible tenants based on “how many manufacturing jobs they offer, the quality of the jobs, benefits, and opportunities for growth.”

Coming in September is the DIY TechShop, which will feature 3D printers and CNC machines. “It will be like a gym membership. Members can use the machines and other services.”

The Terminal is incredibly accessible. For workers, the subway express stop is a 5-10 minute walk, and there’s a nearby ferry terminal. There are many options for freight transit as well. “We are close to the Gowanus Expressway, and the rail line is connected to the yard.”

Work is underway to make the 100-year-old building designed by architect Cass Gilbert even more sustainable. “We put in energy-efficient windows and solar panels on the roof. We are adding LED lighting throughout the building and motion sensors inside to reduce energy waste,” explained the Terminal’s Dave Aniero.

The building itself has a fascinating history. At the height of World War II, there were some 30,000 workers moving ammunition, supplies, and soldiers out to war. Trains used to come right through the building. A crane that slides along the top of the Terminal would take material out of the trains, drop them in slots that cantilever out, so they could be easily taken into the building, sorted, and then moved via elevator or crane back to the trains. And, during the Korean War, “Elvis was shipped out of here.”

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

Nearby, there are other manufacturing and distribution centers. The Bush Terminal, a campus of 11 buildings, has about 50 tenants. The 72-acre South Brooklyn Maritime Terminal, now in development, seeks to bring back marine industries. And there’s the 4-million-square-feet privately-owned Industry City, which will combine commercial office and industrial space.

Bush Terminal, which is also managed by NYCEDC, will soon undergo a $136 million upgrade. But already there are some nice amenities: bike lanes bring workers from the campus and residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood to the new Bush Terminal Piers Park, which was built by NYCEDC, designed by landscape architects at AECOM, and is now managed by the NYC parks department.

Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green

“It’s really a neighborhood park. We wanted to improve the public space and make it safer,” said Ryan White, also with NYCEDC.

Bush Terminal Piers Park / Jared Green

What do these projects have to teach other cities seeking to revitalize their urban manufacturing? A lot. Cluster industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities into districts near existing transportation infrastructure. Reuse warehouses and facilities. Make them attractive, sustainable, and accessible to the public. Spend the extra money on bike lanes, sidewalks, and amenities like public parks. They are worth it.

Now NYC just needs to create more affordable housing for the blue-color workers it hopes to lure back to the city. That’s the missing piece in the city’s strategy.

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

MVRDV’s elevated sky garden in Seoul / ossip van duivenbode


Architects Aren’t Happy with Plans to Remodel This Manhattan Park
The Architect’s Newspaper, 5/16/17
“Despite new developments reshaping the city from ground to sky, the Statue of Liberty endures as one of New York’s most iconic sights.”

Planned WWI Memorial in D.C. to Use Pool Concept, Restore ParkCurbed DC, 5/19/17
“This Thursday, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) evaluated the concept plan for the planned WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.’s Pershing Park, a memorial plaza only blocks from the White House that for years has been neglected.”

MVRDV’s Elevated Skygarden Opens on Former Highway in Seoul Designboom, 5/22/17
“Weaving its way through the urban landscape of Seoul, South Korea, a new sky garden realized by MVRDV has been built on a former inner city highway. Named ‘Seoullo’, the public 983-meter-long park has been planted with 50 families of greenery, including trees, shrubs and flowers displayed in 645 tree pots, collecting around 228 species and sub-species.”

Battle of Diller Island Goes Another Round, with a Pier 55 AppealThe New York Times, 5/22/17
“Pier 55, the long-planned $200 million performing arts center on a new pier in the Hudson River, is not dead yet.”

West 8’s Proposal for NYC’s Largest Private Garden at One Manhattan Square 6sqft, 5/23/17
“The proposal, designed by urban planning and landscape architecture firm West 8, includes more than an acre of garden space for residents to both work and socialize, boasting indoor and outdoor grilling spaces, ping-pong tables, a putting green, children’s playground, adult tree house, tea pavilion, and an observatory made for stargazing.”

Obama’s Presidential Center Through the Landscape Architecture Lens Archinect, 5/24/17
“The most important question related to the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side doesn’t have that much to do with its architecture.”

Mud Makes a Comeback in Suburbia The Houston Chronicle, 5/30/17
“Generations ago, vast swaths of wetlands were tilled for space to grow rice, and a few generations later those rice fields were turned into posh sprawling suburbs, like Riverstone in Sugar Land.”

Take a Look at the Renderings for First and Broadway Park in Los AngelesArchinect, 5/30/17
“Back in June of 2016, Mia Lehrer + Associates won the competition, beating out Eric Owen Moss Architects, Brooks + Scarpa, and AECOM, to design the two-acre park at First Street and Broadway. After winning the competition, the firm has taken suggestions from the Downtown community, altering their plans for the design.”

Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?

Freeway Park, Seattle by Lawrence Halprin / The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Charles Birnbaum

As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.

First, we better answer: what are Modernist landscapes? For Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, they are characterized by their use of “spatial free plans, which have intentionally volumetric spaces that are not bound.” These landscapes came out of the functionalism movement, other Modernist arts and design fields, and asymmetrical aesthetics. These parks, plazas, and streets were designed and constructed after World War II and into the 80s. They often feature a juxtaposition of forms, textures, and colors, creating duality between “soft and hard, permanent and ephemeral.”

Modernist landscapes can’t be separated from the economic, political, and social environment that generated them. Many Modernist urban parks and plazas are deeply political, loaded sites. Many are intrinsically linked with the mistakes of urban renewal, in which communities were uprooted, due to racism, and replaced with new “monumental” buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.

But they also came out stated good intentions, or at least some would argue. The goal behind those moves was to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” Meyer said. President Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, which was greatly influenced by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, argued that “everyone had the right to live in decent surroundings.” The American inner city, with its blight and poverty, then became a target for revitalization. The idea was to replace the dysfunction of the old with a modern urban world.

And these landscapes were the result of innovation. Modernist landscape architecture created new forms of public spaces, “hybrid spaces” that mixed plazas, parks, and playgrounds in new combinations, and built public spaces where none existed before. For example, in Seattle, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned an industrial site into a park and capped a freeway with another park (see image at top).

Beyond the racist history associated with some of these places, Meyer seemed to argue that Modernism doesn’t really work well at the grand scale of the most ambitious renewal-era projects. “The qualities of these spaces don’t operate when construed just as openness.” Despite the intentions of the designers, the reality is many of these places make visitors feel small and isolated. For example, the expansive plaza around Boston City Hall creates a “sense of exposure and unease, not sensuousness. It’s a difficult place to love.”

Boston City Hall and plaza / The Boston Globe

As noted urban designer Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, remarked on Brasilia, the Modernist capital of Brazil, which was created by architect Oscar Niemeyer and planner Lucio Costa: “From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level.” These Modernist places are designed as forms first, he argues, then as spaces for humans to occupy second. As such, they aren’t really designed with the needs of people in mind.

Brasilia from the air / Image © Joana França, via ArchDaily

So why preserve these places, some of which don’t work well for people who don’t have helicopters? Meyer seemed to argue that it’s important to keep some Modernist landscapes, because they are a record of an “era of modernization and urbanization.” Neighborhoods where poor African Americans and immigrants lived were bulldozed to make way “large new landscapes.” But also equally as important were the “small spaces” that were inserted into the existing urban fabric and meant to improve quality of life. “They were part of urban renewal efforts, too.”

Paley Park / Pinterest

Modernist landscapes were also the result of design and material innovations, as the field of landscape architecture grew dramatically in the post-war era. Given these spaces can be defined by experimentation, “it’s not surprising that some have failed. Some can’t survive.” But some can and should. As an example, Meyer pointed to the landscape created by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as a masterpiece.

National Gallery of Art East Wing Plaza by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley / Pinterest

And she argued that instead of letting these places decline due to lack of maintenance, they should be adapted, especially for climate change. Many of these “experiments for living” can benefit from strategic interventions to make them acceptable and relevant again while preserving their unique spatial designs.

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, a co-founder of Reed Hilderbrand, showed his firm’s efforts at respectfully update Modernist landscapes in Boston — the Boston City Hall Plaza, a “whopper,” and the Christian Science Plaza. For Hilderbrand, it’s important to “understand the original design intention and then how to interpret it” for our current era.

For the Boston City Hall, the intention was to create a “sense of monumentality.” Furthermore, the entire government center master plan by I.M. Pei aimed to create a sense of openness and connection between the city and state government offices. “Boston had been a corrupt place for 50 years. They were pitching a new Boston and using the landscape as a recuperative device.”

Boston City Hall by Steve Rosenthal / Friends of Boston City Hall

Clearing city block after block, which had been red-lined for disinvestment, the city government built a new center in the late 1960s.

Hilderbrand said the “problem was the new buildings were too large and the spaces too vast.” While the plaza was envisioned as a civic event space, and has been used as such in the past, it’s now wind swept and barren.

After Mayor Marty Walsh launched an ideas competition that Reed Hilderbrand won, design work has begun to move public functions in City Hall down to the ground level; punch holes for more windows in the looming Brutalist building, which was designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; create ramps up to the building; and add 100 trees to the courtyard. “We will increase shade cover from 3 percent to 9-10 percent, treat stormwater, and get people to the door accessibly. This is actually a return to some of the original intentions.”

Proposal for Boston City Hall Plaza by Reed Hilderbrand / The Architect’s Newspaper

And Reed Hilderbrand helped persuade the Christian Science Church not to cut a pathway through the 700-foot-long reflecting pool in their 14-acre Christian Science Plaza, designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei & Associates and landscape architects at Sasaski Associates. Hilderbrand’s firm created a healthier environment for the 200 original Linden trees arranged in allees and created new sustainable gardens amid the seating along the pool. He said there’s a “compulsion to move around the pool.” It’s another vast space without much shade.

Christian Science Plaza / Boston Planning and Development Agency

The debate over whether Modernism is good for cities will no likely continue, but some argue that remnants of this singular era in American urban planning and design shouldn’t be destroyed but renewed. Organizations like The Cultural Landscape Foundation advocate for the preservation and adaptation of Modernist landscapes. As McKee noted, “just ‘pickling’ a project,” meaning preserving a project exactly like it was when it was created, “doesn’t work anymore.” Meanwhile, residents of cities decide with their feet where they want to be, and, at public meetings, use their voice to make clear what they want in public spaces.

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

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“Houston Bridges,” designed by SWA Group / Godofredo A. Vasquez, Houston Chronicle

The Next Trend in Luxury Apartments Is Having Personal Rooftop Farms for Residents Business Insider, 5/3/17
“The farm-to-table movement is taking hold at a luxury New York City condo complex.”

How the Obama Presidential Center Could Reshape Jackson Park Curbed Chicago, 5/3/17
“The Obama Foundation has finally taken the wraps off of the preliminary design for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center for Chicago’s Woodlawn community.”

The High Line Conundrum Slate, 5/9/17
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A city in the throes of rapid demographic change, where rents are going through the roof, wants to convert an overgrown freight railway into a selfie-ready linear park.”

Making Houston Freeways a Little Less Ugly The Houston Chronicle, 5/9/17
“Billboards notwithstanding, nothing installed along the freeway can be too distracting, the Texas Department of Transportation mandates. It’s a safety issue.”

NYC’s Awards for Excellence in Design Winners Emphasize Resilience Post-Hurricane Sandy Curbed New York, 5/11/17
“The projects this year were lauded for their sustainable designs, for the attention they paid to enhancing the community, and their detail to preserving historic elements (where it mattered).”

Landscape Architecture Gets Its Rightful Due in Exhibit, Book The Chicago Tribune, 5/12/17
“Landscape architecture is all too often viewed as a stepchild of architecture — a mere adornment rather than an integral part of the environment that shapes how we live.