Urban interventions: Landscape architects take back the streets

Urban interventions: Landscape architects take back the streets

At our upcoming VERGE conference, we’ll be talking a lot about cities as the laboratories of the future. You’ll hear how big data, smart grid technologies, connected vehicles, next-gen buildings and many more trends are shaping the urban environment.

But how these all come together depends upon who’s at the table. At the recent American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) conference in Phoenix, leading landscape architects got together to discuss their role in shaping this future.

As award-winning landscape architect Thomas Balsley observed, “We have to look at the design of cities more holistically. As more and more people move into cities, our quality of life will be defined by our public spaces.”

Proof of that migration comes in recent U.S. Census data, as many of the nation's largest cities recorded spikes in population growth last year as Americans flocked to urban centers. New York City added nearly 70,000 residents and by 2030 it will add the equivalent of the population of San Francisco. Strategies for transitioning to denser city cores that are livable, and maybe even enjoyable, was a major topic of discussion at the ASLA meeting.

Photo of city park provided by GeorgeM Photography via Shutterstock

Studies by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) show that parks can encourage physical activity, reduce crime, revitalize local economies and help bring neighborhoods together. TPL rates cities with its ParkScore rating system that evaluates park acreage, access and other factors. While New York and San Francisco are rated highly, streets still make up 25 percent of the land area in New York City, and San Francisco faces a similar challenge of unevenly distributed open space.

Both of these cities are turning pavement into parks through a process that San Francisco Planning Department’s David Alumbaugh refers to as “urban acupuncture.” Alumbaugh is part of a new wave of city employee who believes that suggestions from the public don’t always need to end with “no.” He has overseen the creation of 40 parklets throughout the city and will be accepting applications for new ones soon. According to a recently published guidebook, parklets emerge from the low-cost conversion of small and underutilized residual spaces originally devoted to cars into spaces for the passive or active recreation of people.

The key features of parklets are that they are experimental, low-cost, quick demonstrations of what can be done with an underutilized space. The role of the city is to approve proposals, but parklets are paid for, designed, built and maintained by the public. Castro Street, Mint Plaza and the Devil’s Teeth Bakery are all examples cited by Alumbaugh.

New York City’s Plaza Program Director Vaidila Satvika takes an even more minimalist approach. His philosophy is to take over a space first and then let the community figure out how to integrate it into the neighborhood. In other words, “Paint the street, put down some epoxy asphalt, add some moveable chairs and tables, and see what happens.” That’s what they’ve done at Bogardus Plaza and there are several other examples of pop-up projects around the city. Satvika stresses that “space needs to be open and flexible so the community can develop it and will later own the stewardship of the space.”

By the way, my favorite example from Satvika’s presentation -- trash bin basketball -- shows just how much you can do with a little paint and imagination.

There were a number of other sustainability themes at the event. During one of the sessions and later in an interview, Deb Guenther of Mithun described her firm’s approach to capturing the specifics of a city to understand it at a deeper level. Many of the firm’s projects seek to emulate the natural functions within a city with a focus on ecosystem services and storm water management.

Guenther also touched on the topic of the triple bottom line and specifically the social impact of landscapes and the need to create street environments that are inclusive. This requires engaging a community in the design process to create flexible spaces that can evolve with the neighborhood.

However, during a panel of architecture critics, the San Francisco Chronicle’s John King told the audience that in any city there are competing powers that must be appeased. The Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Hawthorne observed that retailers and other groups have anxiety about open space as they want to be located in public spaces without attracting homeless. Landscape architects, on the other hand, push to design for the entire community. In these clashes, it’s tough to always hold down the triple bottom line.

Hawthorne also reported a resurgence of mass transit in Los Angeles where, “Millennials see cars as a burden, not freedom. Riding on buses provides productive time for them to be on their smart phones.”

And when it comes to productive time, Balsley has created some of the most ingenious ways for redefining public space in a city. In Dallas, the Main Street Garden Park includes what he envisions as fresh-air cubicles for untethered workers and students. As cities become more populated and technology frees people from daily commutes, cities will need to create more open space. City administrators may be slow to see the importance of having landscape architects at the planning table, but as Balsley shared with me, “All they need to do is Google property value and NYC parks.”