April 18, 2002

Lifting our sights beyond ‘our’ sites

  • A comprehensive approach to design takes landscape architects beyond their own discipline

    Blakely Village
    Courtesy of Mithun
    Blakely Village, a new University of Washington student housing community next to University Village, was designed by Mithun and developed by Lorig Associates.

    Two years into the 21st century, landscape architects are asserting new roles in shaping the world’s cities. Just a few outstanding examples: James Corner of Field Operations in Philadelphia has been selected to design FreshKills landfill in New York City; Mary Margaret Jones of Hargreaves Associates in San Francisco has provided Sydney, Australia, with a new urban center, featuring the largest urban wetland restoration; and Adriaan Gueze of West 8 in Rotterdam has guided the redevelopment of Amsterdam’s urban waterfront metamorphosis.

    In Seattle, landscape architects can use these as models for staking out an approach to the city, a comprehensive perspective that moves from “just my site” to “my site in our city.”

    Seattle’s landscape architects need to help clients lift their sights beyond individual urban spaces. The city is a place of many systems, and every site is part of patterns that include water, pedestrians, streets, trees, open spaces and green spaces. Even in traditional roles, landscape architects can take a comprehensive view.

    Yesler Terrace Community Center is a mixed-use project to redevelop a community center and housing, designed by Mithun for the Seattle Housing Authority and the Parks Department. The project’s hill top location means that erosion and water quality, issues addressed by decreasing runoff and increasing pervious surfaces, could be considered from the perspective of the surrounding neighborhood and the entire watershed. In projects like this, the ecological literacy of the landscape architect—combined with off-site clues—can be used to help create a comprehensive framework.

    Another example is Blakely Village, a new University of Washington student housing community next to University Village, designed by Mithun and developed by Lorig Associates. The team had a landscape architect as a primary member from the beginning, and determined there was a landscape element that could be used as the basis for organizing the urban housing. An existing pond on the site, which contributes to the Ravenna Creek Watershed, had become a patch of brambles surrounded by mown grass, unrecognizable as a major feature of the site.

    When the community opens in 2003, this pond will be linked to “mini-meadows” that move through the site. These rectangular meadows between the buildings and on top of the parking deck are clearly man-made forms. Strategically, they serve as visual tributaries identifying the presence of the pond. But they are also a part of a system that links the natural and man-made environments. There are other literal and functional connections. Roof drainage is piped directly to the pond. Crushed gravel paths, which have been stabilized with an organic binder, will allow water to permeate, restoring the groundwater and reducing the quantity of water piped to Portage Bay.

    Alliances between disciplines are key to the kind of multi-disciplinary approach that allows the big picture to emerge. Derek Booth, director of Urban Water Resource Management in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Washington, agrees. “The design community is absolutely critical to moving forward (with sustainable and comprehensive solutions).” And although multi-disciplinary approaches have usually come from outside the engineering discipline, he said, even that is now changing.

    In integrated site design strategies, there are new opportunities for landscape architects and civil engineers to work “hand in glove” as stewards and interpreters of the land.

    For the Urban Environmental Institute, Mithun is working with 2020 Engineering, engineers who specialize in holistic solutions, to develop a white paper that examines comprehensive solutions to sustainable urban development. The paper explores financial and design strategies as well as evaluating impacts of specific solutions.

    Some solutions include the potential to reduce heat island effect with additional street trees. These street trees are expected to grow to heights over 40 feet. Planting trees of this size goes along with investing in healthier environments for tree root systems and expanding alternatives for pervious surfaces that go beyond the traditional location between the back of the curb and the outside of the tree well.

    Some sustainable site and water strategies have lower up-front costs. With these and the long term savings in sustainable design, landscape architects and other disciplines can offer added value to developers. Producing better and more sustainable solutions can be a simple matter of making wise choices within existing budgets.

    A city-wide site

    The city of Seattle is taking steps toward a more comprehensive view of the urban landscape. Seattle’s steward of urban design, CityDesign, has launched the Center City Open Space Strategy and Implementation Plan.

    A consultant team led by Mithun was asked to build on several neighborhood plans and create a system for open space that spans them all. As the team of landscape architects, urban designers, architects and artists began to piece together the neighborhood plans, it was clear that there were “tears in the seams.” What one neighborhood plan deemed a primary street, the adjacent neighborhood plan ignored. The challenge was to develop a comprehensive view that works for everyone.

    Streets are the key to the Open Space Strategy. One of the primary steps to evolve from “freight streets to great streets” is to reevaluate the grid priorities in the hierarchy of streets that support the urban core. Currently, vehicular solutions dominate pedestrian solutions. The Open Space Strategy introduces possibilities for street design that include a mix of uses; vary their functions over the time of day, week or season; and provide a platform to integrate environmentally intelligent design into the right-of-way—one of our most valuable and underutilized assets.

    Another key element of the strategy is the “Blue Ring.” It serves as a unifying theme as well as a focal pattern for urban design improvements that may become a testing ground for water resource management practices by private and public ventures. It is an urban interpretation of Olmsted’s pastoral parks that ring the outer city. CityDesign is leading a course at the University of Washington that will use the Blue Ring for study in urban planning.

    One of the important aspects of the Blue Ring is that it crosses in and out of the three watersheds that make up the Center City: Lake Union, Middle Puget Sound and the Duwamish. Recognizing the watershed system at this level is a new commitment for the Center City. It is a fundamental measure to ensure that our urban environment honors ecological systems.

    Site-specific projects that develop along the Blue Ring will make new use of urban water. Seattle-based artist Lorna Jordan, who has been a part of the Open Space Strategy consultant team from the beginning, has long featured urban watersheds in her work. She seeks to integrate ideas that channel, celebrate and recapture storm water in the urban landscape. As part of her work with Mithun on the Center City project, she developed conceptual plans for the redevelopment of Westlake Avenue, the basin of Lake Union watershed.

    “Westlake Gardens considers the urban watershed as a stage set and player in the unfinished drama of a new urban ecology,” said Jordan. “The project sets in motion a flow of people, art, technology, information, nature and commerce that spills from the inner city down to Lake Union. Specifically, the project uses the infrastructure of water to define place by demonstrating both poetic and functional ways to capture, reveal, use and treat this versatile resource.”

    The call for ecological awareness continues to grow. The web created by a comprehensive perspective suggests new ways of designing urban places, places that might look different and challenge conventional wisdom.

    As stewards and translators of the urban environment, landscape architects have a powerful tool for communicating the message of comprehensiveness as well as sustainability. As David Orr suggests in his book “Earth in Mind,” “The surest signs of ecological design intelligence are collective achievements: healthy, durable, resilient, just and prosperous communities.”

    Deb Guenther is a registered landscape architect and senior associate at Mithun.

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