A New Look at the Trail Blazing David Williston

David A. Williston / TCLF
David A. Williston / TCLF


David August Williston
is a name little known today, even in the world of landscape architecture. But according to Dr. Douglas Williams, Student ASLA, Ph.D graduate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he is one of the trail blazers of the field. One of the first African American landscape architects, Williston designed some of the major campuses of historically African American colleges like Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In his lifetime, he never experienced full integration, having passed away in 1962 at the age of 94, but managed to accomplish a lasting legacy of built work.

In a talk at Howard University’s School of Architecture, Williams wondered why Williston is so little celebrated. In part, he blames the lack of diversity in core landscape architecture texts, like the Landscape of Man, published in 1970, and Landscape Design, in 2001. “Where are the black people in these texts?”

He also pointed to the paucity of published books on African American cultural landscapes. Celebrated African American landscape architect Walter Hood, ASLA, published a book of his own work, but that was back in 1997. (Apparently, he is at work on a second book on his “hybrid landscapes”). The 2004 book African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, an overview of some 100 designers, includes only 5-6 landscape architects. Williams bemoaned that mainstream attention to these designers only gets paid in a cursory fashion during Black History Month.

Williams highlighted a few examples of what he considers to be excellent African American scholarship on landscape: from J.B. Jackson’s The Necessity of Ruins and Other Topics, which states that “the garden landscapes of blacks are some of the least known and richest,” to We Shall Independent Be: African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States, a compendium edited by Angel David Nieves and Leslie M. Alexander, which explores the stories of African American communities displaced by Frederick Law Olmsted in the creation of Central Park.

Referring to Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that geniuses are less isolated phenomena than important nodes in deep and rich social networks, Williams argued that Williston also collaborated widely. He tried to imagine Williston’s African American contemporaries, many of whom remain unknown. He tried to imagine how Williston was able to create an entirely African American system to achieve his landscape designs in the segregated deep South. And he tried to imagine how Williston, without access to white-owned nurseries, could have sought out native plants in the woods and cultivated them on his own. (Williston was one of the first African Americans to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cornell University; there, his love of plants grew into a considerable expertise on plant propagation and cultivation.)

Williston taught horticulture to African American college students while also serving as a campus landscape architect for numerous historically black colleges. He spent 20 years at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he also worked with African American architect Robert R. Taylor to lay out the physical campus. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, he then settled in Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Great Depression, where he started his own firm. He designed the expansion of Howard University, and numerous other colleges, working well into his early 90s.

Williams’ hope is to completely digitize Williston’s archives and make them accessible online for future researchers, using them as a basis to create 3-D models of now-lost planting schemes, so more people can experience a Williston landscape.

A Universe of Interactive Art in Tokyo

In a leap for interactive art environments, Team Lab, a collaborative of Japanese artists, has put together a fascinating and bizarre collection of works in a 3,000-square-meter space in Tokyo. The pieces are truly responsive: visitors impact and shape the ever-changing works in real-time.

In the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity, visitors wade up to their calves through a shallow pool surrounded by mirrors, which creates the effect of being in an infinite space. As visitors walk through the water, underwater lights that mimic koi fish dart by.

The Dance of Koi - Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab

According to the artists, the “trajectory of the koi is determined by the presence of people, and these trajectories trace lines on the surface of the water.” The even-more amazing part: “When the koi collide with people, they turn into flowers and scatter.”

The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab

This art work is derived by an algorithm in real time; it’s not a “pre-recorded animation nor on a loop.” It’s a work of continuous interaction and constant change.

In Wander Through the Crystal Universe, visitors interact with a giant pointillist sculpture in which “the particles of light are digitally controlled, and change based on the viewer’s interactivity with the work.” As visitors move, light shifts; as more visitors enter, light accumulates. Visitors can also use their smart phones to chose colors and shapes that will be included in the evolving piece.

In Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers, visitors enable seasonal change. As visitors walk through, “flowers are born, they grow, bud, bloom, and, in time, the petals fall, and the flowers wither and die. The cycle of birth and death continues for perpetuity.” The piece also enables visitors to select butterflies with their smart phones and send them off into the surrounding “flower universe.”

And, lastly, Soft Black Hole, creates a dark space that plays with “the borders of floors, walls, and ceilings,” creating perhaps a startling version of a space you may find in a contemporary Korean spa. As visitors get into the space, their body weight shifts the environment, and so visitors impact the space of other visitors. “Your body changes the space, and the space changes the bodies of others.”

Soft Black Hole / Team Lab
Soft Black Hole / Team Lab

If in Tokyo, visit DMM.Planets before August 31.

Building the Next Generation of National Park Advocates

grand-teton
Grand Teton National Park / Image Credit: Flowvella.com

The National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate its centennial on August 25. One hundred years after its creation, the U.S. national park system stands as the “best national park system in the world,” according to National Park Service (NPS) director Jonathan Jarvis, who spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. But he insisted that future success should not be taken for granted.

“Our centennial goal has been to create the next generation of visitors, supporters, and advocates for our national parks and our public lands,” Jarvis said. Failure to do so will result in losing the parks to “selfish interests,” or private development for short-term gain.

One way that Jarvis and the NPS have tried to create this next generation of park enthusiasts is by advertising the parks as part of America’s story.

“When I became director in 2009, we recognized that there were gaps in the American narrative as told by the national parks.” During Jarvis’ tenure, the NPS has taken into its stewardship 22 new sites, including several that speak to the contributions of minorities to America and America’s history of slavery and oppression. The latest place to be designated a national monument is The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, considered the birthplace of the gay liberation movement.

With a backlog of $12 billion needed for park services and repairs, Jarvis was asked how the NPS considered taking on even more sites into its stewardship.

“In almost every case, we have minimized the actual amount of land or resources we need to take care of, and we have brought in philanthropic partners to assist with that. It does add to our overall responsibility, but I think we’ve been very judicious in ensuring it does not add significantly.”

No one can suggest that the park system has not been successful under Jarvis’ leadership. 2015 saw 312 million people visiting the park system. That is more than the visitors to Disney, the NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS, and NASCAR combined, according to Jarvis.

Still, support for the NPS has been steadily declining in congress. According to the Center for American Progress, members of Congress filed at least 44 bills or amendments that attempted to slash protections for parks and public lands in the last 36 months.

Jarvis said that he and his team are doing their best to partner with corporations and philanthropic bodies to offset certain costs. “The basic operation of a national park is the responsibility of appropriators. Philanthropy gives us that margin of excellence on top of that.”

Jarvis smiled as he waved off suggestions that sponsorship of parks on the part of private partners might lead to signage reading, “The Grand Canyon, brought to you by Exxon.”

“We have always had relations with corporate America. It was the railroads that built most of the major lodges. We are protecting these assets from branding and labeling.”

Asked where he sees the future of the NPS heading, Jarvis reiterated the importance of inspiring a new generation of conservationists and preservationists to “bring the concept of conservation back into their own communities. Many of the initiatives that we have launched, like the studies around the contributions of Latinos and women and Asian American Pacific Islanders, and LGBT community, will be carrying on into the next administration. I don’t see this ending.”

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

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Photograph by Simon Norfolk / Institute for the New Yorker

Are Seawalls the Best Answer to Rising Sea Levels – or is Retreat a Better Option? The Guardian, 7/18/16
“The extraordinary pictures of subsumed gardens and a swimming pool wrenched from the ground by the giant waves that battered Sydney’s northern beaches last month have revived debate about seawalls and the impact of human attempts to keep the rising ocean from our doors.”

Cleveland’s Great New Public Spaces Helped Make RNC 2016 a Success The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7/22/16
“The Republican National Convention, where Trump gave his acceptance speech Thursday night, was a great, crashing success for its host city – and especially for the revitalized public spaces that framed the event and made it possible.”

The Secret Behind the Floral Mural of Fiddler’s Green’s Living Walls The Denver Post, 7/22/16
“Live music isn’t the only animate attraction at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Greenwood Village. The concert venue, owned and operated by the Museum of Outdoor Arts (MOA), also boasts North America’s largest living walls. Picture vast, lush gardens with a total of 25,000 plants tipped on their sides, an aerial Eden.”

Changing Skyline: New Dilworth Park is Busy with Everything but Protests Philly.com, 7/22/16
“You only have to spend a few minutes in Dilworth Park to see what a people magnet it has become since the Center City District completed a dramatic, $55 million makeover two years ago. Besides regular attractions, like the cafe and sparkling fountain, there is something special going on 186 days a year – that’s every other day – ranging from concerts and farmers’ markets to bocce tournaments and Lupus Awareness booths.”

What It Takes to Clean the GangesThe New Yorker, 7/25/16
“The Ganges River begins in the Himalayas, roughly three hundred miles north of Delhi and five miles south of India’s border with Tibet, where it emerges from an ice cave called Gaumukh (the Cow’s Mouth) and is known as the Bhagirathi.”

Obama Chooses Historic Jackson Park as Library Site Chicago Tribune, 7/27/16
“Rejecting a rough-edged urban site for what could be a showcase near the lakefront, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have selected Chicago’s historic Jackson Park as the site of his presidential library, sources said Wednesday.”

The Obama Library Is Going in Jackson Park – What That Means – The Huffington Post, 7/28/16
“The last major remaining question about the Obama Presidential Library—which Frederick Law Olmsted-Calvert Vaux-designed park would become the building site for the facility—was answered yesterday when news leaked out that the First Couple had decided on Jackson over Washington Park. This is a good-news/bad-news result.”

Parks Can Also Be Green Infrastructure

Historic 4th Ward Park / Beltlandia.com
Historic 4th Ward Park / Beltlandia.com


City Parks, Clean Water: Making Great Places Using Green Infrastructure
, a new report from The Trust for Public Land (TPL), makes a strong case for leveraging public parks to manage stormwater. The report offers several useful case studies that explain the challenges and opportunities involved in designing parks to act as systems for storing or absorbing excess stormwater. 

The problem of stormwater, as many readers know, originates with the vast amount of asphalt and concrete used in urban areas. Where once stormwater would have filtrated into the ground, asphalt and concrete shed it toward sewer systems. That water, toting pollutants and grime from streets, gets conveyed to rivers, lakes, and other water sources that people use. It is never cleansed by soils and plants, never replenishes groundwater, and often overburdens sewer systems and local waterways, causing flooding.

A potential solution to this problem, according to report, is to use parks to do the work of traditional grates, pipes, and sewage and stormwater treatment facilities. Parks are ideal for providing this service because they already exist in most cities and can be designed from the beginning, or even retrofitted, to serve both recreational and ecological functions.

The report offers five case studies of cities that deployed parks as green infrastructure and were rewarded with working landscapes that beautify their neighborhoods and allow for recreation:

The award-winning Historic Fourth Ward Park, which is part of Atlanta’s Beltline, sits in a lowland, industrial area that was heavily prone to flooding. One of its major features, a 5-acre storage pond, serves the function of what was intended to be a $40 million underground tunnel, according to HDR Inc., the landscape architecture and engineering firm that designed the park. The pond can handle a 500-year flood.

Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect for the Atlanta Beltline, said the stormwater storage function of the park is working well: “We’re in the position where the city has allowed two additional developers to tie their runoff to the pond.”

The park does not infiltrate or clean stormwater, its only job is to store it. The report strikes on this point repeatedly, that stowing and slowing water outflow with green infrastructure goes a long way to preventing flooding and lifting the burden off treatment plants.

The report also highlights Railroad Park in Birmingham, Alabama, designed by Tom Leader Studio, as another economic success. The park has incentivized $185 million in development in the area and receives 500,000 visitors annually. Many of these visitors come expressly to see the birds and wildlife that flock to its water-managing wetlands, according to Railroad Park Foundation director Camille Spratling.

“When the lake was built, it was the first time we saw the Birmingham skyline reflected in the water,” Spratling wrote. “That was a real point of pride.”

Railroad Park / City Parks Blog
Railroad Park / City Parks Blog

The report acknowledges it’s important to think out all the options, asking decision makers to consider the following about gray vs. green infrastructure: “Do both approaches work equally as well? Is one less expensive? Can they be combined? Are residents willing to put up with years of tunneling under then neighborhoods? Conversely, does the city have enough unbuilt land to capture water on the surface?”

Other questions to answer before turning to green infrastructure: should the park also absorb stormwater? If so, what is the cost to amend the soils of existing parks so they can better infiltrate stormwater?

“The mere presence of a grassy park does not guarantee water infiltration,” the report states. Water runoff rates of urban soil, which is often heavily compacted, can approximate that of asphalt. Factors such as budget, precipitation patterns, native soil porosity, and depth to water table must be considered when amending the soil of parks, the report suggests. Maintenance of parks and their water management features can add to the cost of green infrastructure.

But, according to Burke, the investment was well worth it: Historic Fourth Ward Park has spurred hundreds of millions of dollars in development in the neighborhood.

Summer Book Recommendations from Landscape Architects

The Book of Night Women
The Book of Night Women / Riverhead Books

It’s almost August, but there’s still plenty of time left to dive into some quality summer reading. We asked a few landscape architects to share books they’ve been enjoying. Check out their suggestions:

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal at DesignJones, LLC

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
“I have just finished reading The Book of Night Women this past 4th of July. This book is written by Marlon James, who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. The Book of Night Women is a beautiful and lyrically-painful narrative about the lives and landscape of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation. If you are passionate about Faulkner and Morrison, then you will relish this book.”

Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, firmwide CEO at SWA Group

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

Ghettoside
Ghettoside / Spiegel & Grau

“A book that grew out of Los Angeles Times’ Jill Leovy’s reports on homicide and working the police beat from 2001 to 2012, Ghettoside takes the reader deep into the communities of south Los Angeles to understand why homicide rates are some of the highest in the country. Weaving together Los Angeles and U.S. history, perspectives from veteran LAPD detectives, scholars, and most importantly those living in Compton, Watts, and adjacent neighborhoods, Ghettoside provides a compelling piece that couldn’t be more timely and fiercely urgent as this country continues to face issues of race and violence, and the consequences of ignoring them.”

California by Kevin Starr
“Everything you wanted to know about California from a great historian. Starr gathers together everything that is most important, most fascinating, and most revealing about America’s 31st State.”

The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
“A playful and perplexing book that centers on a young Parisian researcher who lives inside his bathroom. As he sits in his tub meditating on existence, the people around him further enable his peculiar lifestyle, supporting his eccentric quest for immobility. But then a not-to-be missed opportunity arises and his stable world turns upside down.”

Shannon Nichol, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham

a state of change
A State of Change / Heyday Books

“For the last twenty years, Laura Cunningham has been melding her scientific training – rigorously cataloguing species from her field work in California’s cities and roadsides – with her obvious artistic talent and intuition, painting fluent watercolors of the vanished places that she can now, naturally, picture in her mind. This book feels like her explorer-journal, each hard-earned page built up as she explores and documents a new landscape or vista found in a shockingly familiar, urbanized place that we thought we already knew.

This book is a modern-day reassurance that the age of exploration – and the age of the artist-naturalist – is not over. Perhaps, instead, our era, in which we separate science and art, facts and intuition, may be giving way to a more nuanced one that picks up where the explorer-naturalists left off.”

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, partner at Martha Schwartz Partners

The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

collapse
The Collapse of Western Civilization / Columbia University Press

“The Collapse of Western Civilization is essential reading for anyone truly interested in sustainability and the global environment.”

Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and planning, MIT

Toward an Urban Ecology by Kate Orff, ASLA

The Time of the Force Majeure by Helen and Newton Harrison

orff
Towards an Urban Ecology / The Monacelli Press

“Two brilliant new books are a call to action on urban ecology and climate change, with landscape as the principal medium. Kate Orff’s Toward an Urban Ecology is a presentation of ground-breaking projects by Scape, and the principles and strategies that underlie their success. In The Time of the Force Majeure, artists Newton and Helen Harrison describe their work on climate change, ecological design, and community engagement over the past five decades. The Harrisons design virtually every aspect of every project to ‘bring forth a new state of mind’ in themselves and their audience, and they employ ingenious strategies to accomplish this transformation. Human societies cannot successfully mitigate and adapt to the stresses of climate change without a new state of mind, and landscape architects and artists have an essential role to play. The Harrisons have been demonstrating this fact for more than forty years, Kate Orff and Scape more recently. Both books are required reading for landscape architects.”

Through Many Lenses: The Works of Capability Brown

Chatsworth / Gary Rogers, cropped.
Chatsworth (Cropped) / copyright Gary Rogers

This year is the 300th anniversary of famed English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s birth. To celebrate, the Landscape Foundation and Building Center in London have put together Lens on a Landscape Genius, an exhibition of 100 photographs, depicting some of the 150 landscapes of Brown’s that still exist, out of the 250 he planned or designed in the 18th century.

Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr
Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr

Brown is viewed as the quintessential English landscape architect, “as deeply embedded in the English character as the paintings of Turner and the poetry of Wordsworth.” He is known for projects of an immense scale: vast estates, including the Hampton Court Palace Gardens, Blenheim Palace, and the landscape of Highclere Castle, known today on television as Downtown Abbey. At many of these grand estates, he removed formal gardens and replaced them with undulating grasslands and constructed hills and serpentine rivers.

Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris
Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris

Brown created elegant, seemingly-simple landscapes that hid deeper complexity. On the website of the foundation that promotes the preservation of his work, they write: “His designs appear seamless owing to his use of the sunk fence or ‘ha-ha’ to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland, though managed and stocked quite differently, were one. His expansive lakes, at different levels and apparently unconnected, formed a single body of water as if a river through the landscape, that like the parkland itself, ran on indefinitely. This effortless coherence is taken for granted today.”

Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright James Bruce
Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright Matthew Bruce

While he was highly sought after in his life time, becoming the master gardener for Hampton Court, his reputation declined immediately after his death. His Picturesque style, which would influence Frederick Law Olmsted and others, fell out of favor in the face of Romanticism and later Modernism. His work was viewed as the anti-thesis of the geometric, formal works of French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, but both were long seen as out of style. His style, now known as the English Picturesque, has seen a resurgence though. This year, The Telegraph calls him “the world’s most famous landscape gardener.”

Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek Saint Romaine
Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek St. Romaine

The exhibition includes noteworthy UK-based landscape photographers such as: Andrew Lawson, Joe Cornish, Andrea Jones, Allan Pollok-Morris, Gary Rogers, Derek St. Romaine, Matthew Bruce,  Gareth Davies, James Kerr, Archie Miles, Gavin Kingcome, Simon Warner, Jacqui Hurst, Stephen Studd, James Smith, and, lastly, Steffie Shields, who has also just published a book of her photographs of his landscapes: Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape.

If in London, go see the exhibition before it closes on October 27.

Design Competition: A More Resilient West Palm Beach

Shore to Core / Van Alen Institute and West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Authority
Shore to Core / Van Alen Institute and West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency

West Palm Beach, a city of nearly 100,000 some 70 miles north of Miami, is grappling with how to protect itself from sea level rise. Much of this long, thin 50-square-mile city fronts the Atlantic Ocean. While in the past this form of development maximized its appeal as a waterfront city, now that exposure elevates their risk.

To create a sustainable and resilient future, the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency has partnered with the Van Alen Institute to create Shore to Core: Vision for a Waterfront City, an  urban design competition, to rethink its future trajectory. The design competition though calls for interdisciplinary teams of designers (landscape architects, urban designers, architects) along with experts in resilience, economic development, place-making, psychology, and other fields.

The competition brief asks: “How can we recreate an urban core so its design is intelligent, flexible, and responsive to the needs of residents and visitors?” A new urban core is needed to better address the future needs of the community, strengthen the city’s ability to handle storms and flooding, improve the economy, and improve “individuals’ well-being through the city’s design.”

West Palm Beach / Van Alen Institute
West Palm Beach / Van Alen Institute

This last point is essential to this competition: there will also be a separate research competition that aims to bring a team of environmental psychologists, neuroscientists, and other social scientists to “look at the relationship between the relationship between the built environment and the well-being of individuals and communities.” Results from this study will likely inform future plans and designs for a resilient urban core that can also boost public health.

Two multidisciplinary teams selected as finalists will be given $45,000 stipends while a research team will be given $40,000.

According to the competition organizers, West Palm Beach has become a magnet for young people, and some 50 percent of the population is African American or Latino. To continue to draw a young, diverse community and grow far into the future, the city must continue to adapt to its increasingly precarious environment.

West Palm Beach / copyright Christopher Faycom via Van Alen Institute
West Palm Beach / copyright Christopher Faycom via Van Alen Institute

Teams are encouraged to pre-register by July 27 (but are not required to), and submissions are due August 21.

Interview with Toody Maher on Co-Designing Parks with the Community

Toody Maher / SF Gate
Toody Maher / SF Gate


Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.

In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?

Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.

If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.

The community were co-designers of Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Park. How did this work?

To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.

Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.

What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.

EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.

Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.

Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille
Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille

It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.

Elm Playlot / Pogo Park
Elm Playlot / Pogo Park

How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?

The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.

I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.

Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?

We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.

We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.

Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.

It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.

Play element construction / Pogo Park
Play element construction / Pogo Park

The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.

Park construction / Pogo Park
Park construction / Pogo Park

About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.

About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.

How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?

We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.

Some 7,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?

If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.

Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park
Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park

The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.

How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?

Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.

You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.

Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?

Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park

We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.

We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.

Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road totem pole and roundabout / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org

Christo’s Floating Piers

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The piers emanate from Sulzano and Monte Isola, looping around the lsland of San Paolo / Christo and Jeanne-Claude

For 16 days last month, visitors to Italy’s Lake Iseo were greeted by The Floating Piers, an installation designed by the Bulgarian-American artist Christo. The work, a system of floating, saffron-draped floating piers, allowed visitors to tour the lake on foot. An estimated 40,000 people walked the 4.5 kilometer-route each day, which ran through the town and onto the lake, from Sulzano to Monte Isola, and looping around the lsland of San Paolo.

Christo, who claims his work deals with the themes of temporality and nomadism, argued the piers were only one aspect of the project. The other aspects were the lake, the surrounding terrain, and “the sun, the rain, the wind.”

First conceived of by Christo and his now-deceased partner Jeanne-Claude in 1970, the project got legs in 2014 when Christo identified the lake 100 kilometers east of Milan as a suitably inspiring site. Other sites Christo considered were Tokyo Bay and the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires.

It took a team of engineers, construction workers, and deep-sea divers 22 months to configure and install the project at Lake Iseo. Much of that time was spent engineering the cloth. According to Christo’s web site, Clandestine tests took place in Germany to address the project’s more nebulous questions: “What color should the fabric take on when wet? When dry? When sunlit? And how many extra meters of cloth would produce just the right amount of ruffles?”

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The piers at night / Christo and Jeanne-Claude

All told, 100,000 square meters of the gold fabric was fitted to 4.5 kilometers of walkway. The floating docks were 53-feet wide and composed of over 200,000 high-density polyethylene cubes. The fabric was water-proof, stain resistant, and underlain with felt, giving shoeless visitors an extra thrill. Critics of the project have derided Christo for his flagrant use of materials. But he insists the materials were conscientiously disposed of — they were recycled at the conclusion of the piece.

The Floating Pier / Wolfgang volz © christo
The Floating Pier / Wolfgang volz © christo

The installation likely fulfilled, or came close to fulfilling, the dream of its visitors to walk on water, experiencing the lake as they never had. Visitors have likened it to traipsing on a water bed. Without having walked it, the photos of crisp gold lines drawn on the lake are breathtaking in their own right. Not evident in many of the pictures: the boat hands, life guards, and monitors who were present to help avert any problems.

The Floating Pier / Wolfgang Volz © christo
The Floating Pier / Wolfgang Volz © christo

The Floating Piers bears the hallmarks of the best Christo and Jeanne-Claude installations: Fabric seemingly absconded from a fine linen closet and set in an unexpected location; amid rolling hills for instance, or draped over a cliff face.

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An early drawing by Christo / Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Perhaps Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most recognizable project to date is The Gates, which was installed in Central Park in 2005. Like The Floating Piers, The Gates also used vibrant, gold-colored fabric to guide visitors along a path.

“I know these projects are totally irrational, totally useless,” Christo told The New York Times. “The world can live without them, nobody needs them, only me and Jeanne-Claude. She always made the point that they exist because we like to have them, and if others like them, it’s only a bonus.”

Sale of Christo’s original artwork is expected to cover the $16.8 million project costs.

See more images at DesignBoom and Christo’s web site.