Employing a multi-layered approach to deal with sea-level rise. by Petra Geiger

Carson Beach, South Boston | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

Carson Beach, South Boston | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

In Boston, sea level rise is a big deal with even bigger consequences. In fact, a 2018 study suggests, “that some 90,000 homes valued at $63 billion could face chronic flooding by the end of the century — and that’s just in Massachusetts”. With projected sea-level rise of 21 inches by 2050 and increasingly severe storms, Boston has made climate change planning a priority.

In working with the City of Boston on many of their Climate Ready Boston initiatives, such as Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Moakley Park and Downtown Boston, our team has been knee-deep (literally) in this complex issue. And we’ve learned, there are no easy solutions.

In approaching climate change, we advocate for a multi-layered approach, involving numerous strategies and facets that in combination are effective and actionable, creating spaces that protect, energize, educate, and set up thoroughly new experiences. Applying diverse types of protection methods in combination to achieve success—including green infrastructure, gray infrastructure and, ‘living with water’, our team begins with the foundational belief that infrastructure should do as much as possible, that investments in flood protection should provide multiple benefits including social, environmental and economic.

GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE

Green infrastructure as a tool to combat climate change can no longer be overlooked, it must be scaled up and considered as fundamental to the planning and design process. In this vein, streets, open spaces, even buildings and infrastructures can be designed to act as a resilient landscape, directing, collecting and absorbing water. In some cases, the sustainability measures we design are explicit, as with the lowland marsh that collects stormwater and creates new space for river flooding in Erie Street Plaza; here sustainability is made visible and produces a beautiful space or element that might not be otherwise possible.

Often, though, we try to create special experiences, to bring resilient solutions to life for people. Our quadrangle, Gerstacker Grove, at the University of Michigan, is designed with lush, shady stormwater gardens with interactive lighting features that flicker in response to stormwater entering the garden—amplifying and creating a unique experience.

GREY INFRASTRUCTURE

When we incorporate grey infrastructure, we recognize that, where structural systems are necessary for resilience strategies to be effective, they need to be integrated with aesthetic character and broader landscape improvements, or be tucked away out of sight during non-flooding conditions. Designing “hidden” flood protection structures, including passively or actively deployed flood walls, piers and coastal structures, underground stormwater and sewer infrastructure, and other systems that are part and parcel of the urban environment. In the case of City Deck in Green Bay, WI, storm water protection measures are built into the structure, the seating elements act as flooding barriers as well as discrete collection spots for drainage.

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LIVING WITH WATER

Protection against coastal intrusion is not always the first goal of a climate-ready strategy. Being resilient means being able to bounce back, withstanding impacts while being changed by them and adapting accordingly. For example, an approach which allows for flooding in certain areas while consolidating protection in others may be an effective strategy that can help to mitigate the challenges of threading flood protection infrastructure through a dense urban environment. In addition, in key places the landscape can be designed to withstand and even benefit from coastal inundation such as in our L Street Power Plant project.

EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES 

Lastly, wherever possible we look for ways that resilience strategies can become educational opportunities. How can we bring resilience to life in ways that people feel closer connections to the waterfront, the urban environment, and their neighbors? How can we tune and amplify environmental cycles, through technology and even art, in ways that are meaningful to the daily lives of people and to the life of the city? How can we educate people (especially children) on climate change and resiliency measures? To these ends, we think creatively and inventively about social interactions and resilience. This may include ‘living with water’ strategies that bring people closer to the water as well as other means by which the creation of flood protection becomes part of a community building.

Flat no more. Generating a bench that props us up or lets us slouch. by Chris Reed

Harvard University Plaza custom designed benches.

Harvard University Plaza custom designed benches.

Landscape practice is often centered on ecological and environmental concerns that explore the dynamic, operational, and even physical aspects of ecological systems as a starting point for generating design. But new software technologies have brought exciting generative modeling tools into design practice that allow for a new generation of techniques and fabrication technologies that can play a significant role in shaping design in exciting new ways.

The responsiveness, flexibility, and adaptability inherent in complex systems ecology can be mimicked through generative modeling tools—allowing for dynamic multiplicity and differentiation.

These new modeling techniques, which can be utilized for design inquiry as well as to ultimately generate physical form, allow for an increasing complexity of inputs to the modeling process, producing a multiplication of possibilities that each respond to a slightly different set of priorities or agendas. What does that mean for design? In the case of the benches at Harvard Plaza, it meant the ability to customize seating that is better adapted to different body sizes and body types—or simply offers choice to suit one’s mood.

At the scale of the human body, recent technology allows for the translation of modeling principles and methods into fabrication and construction processes for furnishings and elements, allowing for the generation of non-standardized and non-repetitive units that better serve diverse body types and shapes and differing agendas for how to use public space.

Up until recently, the simple bench had been standardized, in part due to advances in industrial manufacturing processes that found efficiencies in the production of repetitive parts and assemblies. The result was that the act of sitting, hanging out, slouching, etc. had all been simplified and standardized into a typical, mass-produced bench whose formal profile was consistent and was geared toward an average human body. While the body is exceptionally versatile and adaptive—and can make a seat out of a wide range of objects (tree stumps, walls, barrels, logs, etc.)—generative and associative modeling software offer opportunities to customize seating that is better adapted to different body sizes and body types—or preferred ways of seating—while maintaining production efficiencies through evolutions in digital design, fabrication, and production techniques.

In the case of Stoss’ Harvard University Plaza benches, the key was to develop prototypes of different sitting profiles—tuned specifically to different body types and different sitting or lounging positions—and script the software to loft or transition between two different profiles. In this way, a bench could begin with 3-5 different profile positions, as did the benches at the Harvard Plaza, but result in an easily reproducible bench, created from CNC machines at the fabricator’s shop, that accommodate over a dozen different sitting positions or scales.

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When this technique was utilized with different starting profiles for 5 unique custom benches, the result is a plethora of choices for how one wishes to sit in public: alone or in groups, cross legged or straight upright, lounging or lying down completely, or with a friend on one’s lap. At Harvard, the overall form is assembled from a series of Alaskan Yellow Cedar “ribs,” mounted to a steel frame; if one rib is damaged during snow removal or the like, the rib number can be retrieved from the digital file and an identical replacement piece fabricated for re-installation. This is still a process that allows for replicability and efficient production, but is better tuned to the body and choice.


This article was adapted from an article entry by Chris Reed in Computation in Landscape Architecture, edited by Bradley Cantrell and Adam Mekies.

Engaging everyone. How design can help build an equitable 21st century community park. by Petra Geiger

DISCOVER Moakley! builds equity and engagement into the design process | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

DISCOVER Moakley! builds equity and engagement into the design process | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

For South Boston’s new Moakley Park Vision Plan, civic engagement was crucial.

If parks are the ultimate in public open space, then by nature they absolutely must be equitable, accessible, inclusive and sustainable. Conceptually—and oftentimes in the real world—parks serve as great equalizers, melting pots, places where people of all cultures, races, socio-economic backgrounds can gather, mix, play and learn. Unfortunately though, poor planning, legal statutes, disinvestment, and blatant racism have instilled cultural bias in significant populations. Many people have grown up not going to parks because parents determined they were unsafe, unwelcoming or just plain derelict. On the flip side, people have extreme passions around parks often determined by the sports they play or their cultural practices—like hosting multi-generational family barbecues. Managing the diversity of constituents and opinions is challenging, but nevertheless engaging a broad mix of the community when designing public space is crucial—especially if your goal is to build a park that will delight, engage, inform and inspire everyone—and most importantly make them feel a sense of belonging.

Reimagining the Civic Commons, an initiative focused on, “transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities,” is making this a priority in places like Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. The organization lists ‘socioeconomic mixing’ as one of their pillar goals stating, “we fundamentally believe shared civic assets should be places where everyone belongs and where different people can share experiences. We believe that by boldly welcoming people of all incomes and backgrounds into public places that encourage human interaction with others, we can rebuild trust within communities — and maybe even rebuild our democracy.”

So, the question becomes, how do you attain civic engagement goals, ensure that a broad constituency is involved, and based upon what you learn, design a park that is inclusive, equitable and sustainable? Toni L. Griffin, Professor in Practice of Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Founder of The Just City Lab, asks a similar question, “how do people who have been marginalized in urban neighborhoods and cities gain equitable, inclusive access and the opportunity to live productive lives in safe, beautiful, and flexible environments?”

Our recent work in South Boston can serve as a case-in-point. Moakley Park, Boston’s largest waterfront park, is a 90 acre park that is situated between the waterfront and two low income housing projects. For the Boston Parks and Recreation Department (our client), protecting the residential communities inland of Moakley from future flood events and climate change impacts was critical. Yet, the goals for this vision plan were broader. Climate work would in fact be the catalyst to provide an exceptional 21century park for the residents of this community. Retaining and enhancing Moakley as a key active recreational amenity for South Boston through elevated ball fields, a revamped stadium, destination sport courts and play areas with improved stormwater management, along with expanded ecological value, new programming, and places where community members feel safe and comfortable simply ‘doing nothing’ in a shady, green space, were explicit goals. As well as creating equitable access to the harbor, one of Boston’s greatest natural resources.

Moakley Park is a gateway to the Harbor for the communities south of Downtown; South Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester and the South End. In addition, communities further afield have easy access to the park and harbor via nearby subway stops, a 5-10 minute walk from Moakley. Yet, despite its proximity to train stations, Moakley Park is left isolated from its immediate communities through busy roads that span 4-6 lanes of fast traffic. Rotaries at either end exacerbate safety issues and are difficult to navigate. Therefore, an additional goal was to increase the linkages between these communities, park access points, the harbor, and the islands beyond.

Clearly a deep and meaningful community engagement process was critical, something that is deeply embedded in our process at Stoss. Reimagining the Civic Commons sums up our perspective. “We don’t just want to hear people’s opinion about public places, we want them to participate as stewards and advocates in shaping their community’s future. This kind of civic engagement should be central to how communities reinvent and manage civic assets as public places that serve everyone — because that’s the way you build deep and long-lasting support for these places in the first place.”

In designing our public engagement approach, the team considered a broad mix of outreach, both formal and informal, in-person and online. It included open houses and one-on-one interviews (held at or directly adjacent to the neighboring residences), a community advisory group, a bike tour, and on-site activation. Our strategy has always been to take a human-centered approach, engaging individuals, families, stewards and leaders in ways that are enjoyable and fun for them, that let them relax, feel included and empowered to contribute. In-person events had to be accessible and planned at various times/days and publicized through different kinds of media to attract all generations; we were both interested in hearing from those who use the park on a regular basis and from those who, for one reason or another, do not. And, it must be acknowledged that civic engagement is an ongoing and continuous process, garnering detailed and actionable data as the vision plan becomes a reality.

One event of note, a daylong extravaganza named DISCOVER Moakley!, was dedicated to bringing fun and energy to Moakley Park. Numerous public and nonprofit agencies teamed up to demonstrate how simple activation of the park can connect people to the space for a diverse range of activities. The event spanned beyond Moakley’s perimeter and included a beach-themed inflatable installation, live music, acrobatics on the beach, exercise classes in the park, local food and beer, skateboarding, and parkour. Visitors were also asked for input and to participate in activities that exhibited green infrastructure and coastal resilience strategies. This fun event showed participants how the park could evolve into a multi-functional urban waterfront park that combines athletics with resiliency efforts and new program to better suit and connect its diverse community and beyond.

Throughout the planning phase we listened. And learned. The most common improvements requested included flood mitigation to increase field use, improved safety through lighting and road improvements, public bathrooms, and spaces for non-sport exercising. The most common additions included new diversity in play spaces for all ages, new areas for passive recreation like sitting in the shade or community gardening, and winter and nighttime programming.

What we heard significantly influenced the design. A berm and raised landscapes, central to our resiliency strategy, does much more than simply protect the community. They provide significant new social and recreational opportunities as well as physical and visual access to the waterfront. Access to this resource is of great importance for populations with limited resources and for whom the park and waterfront serve as their backyard. While more amenities and diverse programming are key, the design team also carefully considered ways to break up spaces, ensuring that users are encouraged to circulate through the park, to meet, mingle and connect, creating shared experience among people of all incomes and backgrounds. Vehicle free zones, like a pedestrian-friendly promenade to encourage walking and cycling, further enhance connectivity, support social interaction and cohesion, as well as promote cultural diversity.

Zones were established that create environmentally friendly places with increased access to nature and access to all points in the park were carefully considered. The envisioned circulation through Moakley Park is designed to connect with major neighborhood streets to maximize access for the community. Paths extend into the park from major entrances and thread through to allow both easy access to key areas and yet allow people to meander and stumble upon new spaces they might not have otherwise encountered—encouraging the interaction of people using the park.

Moakley Park’s new vision plan takes ardent strides in listening to the community and designing a place where all can feel welcome, included and involved. However, this is just the beginning of the journey. Discovering new economic opportunities for the surrounding community, uncovering ways to sustainably support such a rich and varied park, and ensuring that current residents are not displaced as the community changes are all critical issues to be grappled with, not only by designers but by city planners and the community itself. Legal, policy and regulatory frameworks must be reconsidered and work to guarantee equity, enhance participation and serve to support, maintain and create a diverse and varied community.

NRPA defines inclusion as, “removing barriers, both physical and theoretical, so that all people have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of parks and recreation...reaching the most vulnerable individuals and families—those who suffer from higher rates of health disparities and a diminished quality of life.” We couldn’t agree more.


Flexible open space hard wired for change. by Chris Reed

Harvard Plaza, designed for programming throughout all 4 seasons | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

Harvard Plaza, designed for programming throughout all 4 seasons | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

Taking a cue from systems ecology, open space design must include flexibility and adaptability.

Times Square in New York. Discovery Green in Houston. The Arch Grounds in St. Louis. It’s clear, cities and urban spaces have been rediscovered over the past three decades as places of social and cultural vitality that draw residents and visitors alike. Leaders have understood the economic potential of these efforts, in terms of spending by visitors, the economic development of surrounding areas, and the competitive value that can be claimed for cities. And, the public spaces themselves have been put to work, through programming, to generate revenue—especially important in an era in which government resources for open space creation, upkeep and management are dwindling. 

But none of this explains why people want to be there in the first place—or what we can do through design to conceive and shape these spaces to remain vital over the long-term. I would argue for an approach to the design and programming of public spaces that allows for evolution—designing for diversity, flexibility, adaptability, and open-endedness. This is an approach that allows for various intensities of use and activity to be played out across daily, seasonal, and annual, environmental, economic, or other long-term cycles.   

Complex adaptive systems ecology tells us that healthy ecosystems are characterized by dynamic change over time. An ecosystem’s ability to adapt to new conditions or inputs (water, climate, disturbance, etc.) while maintaining its core structures and mechanisms is what ultimately ensures success and vitality. It’s not such a leap to apply these same principles to public spaces. Flexibility and adaptability allow for public spaces to change to accommodate different events and activities, and even adapt to new circumstances (physical, hydrological, programmatic, political, etc.). These qualities encourage appropriation of many flavors, for activities that might be planned and others that might be spontaneous or invented. And they do so in ways that appeal to people’s innate curiosity—their willingness and ability to explore new forms, spaces and situations on their own terms, without prescribed ideas.

People are incredibly inventive when given the opportunity, or the prompt. Much playground design recently has morphed from prescribed activities on single-use pieces of equipment to more exploratory and open-ended play environments that encourage improvisation and free, creative play. We explored ideas of open-endedness and free and creative play in a garden installation called Safe Zone at the International Garden Festival in Grand-Métis, Quebec. A simple, undulating topography of poured-in-place, bouncy rubber surfacing was the prompt, and people were invited in to do what they would. Kids quickly made up running and jumping games, but eventually adults were lured in. Wary visitors were encouraged to remove their shoes and socks to experience the sponginess of the surface directly on their bare feet and toes. And people opened up, exploring, moving about; finding comfortable perches to sit on and slightly secluded depressions to hide out in.

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Flexibility and open-endedness are ideas not completely foreign to the study and design of public space and cities. William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is exemplary in calling out the ways in which people can adapt to public spaces—even those less accommodating. Whyte’s studies of human behavior, and specifically of the ways in which people gathered on the North Front Ledge outside of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York, highlighted human behavioral adaptations to this space and its environment. He studied and mapped the evolving relationships of people’s positions on the plaza to changing sunlight, to work and lunch and commuting schedules, and to each other—noting how folks would use the space differently over the course of the day.

More recently, and at a larger scale, urban projects like OMA’s proposal for Yokohama Masterplan show how the programming of an entire district might result in dramatically different characters and combinations of activities over the course of the day and night—if an appropriate combination of facilities and public spaces is provided. Both examples point to a need to build in flexibility, redundancy, and the ability to change and adapt—whether we are talking about the ways in which people engage with public space, or the ways in which public spaces and districts can be set up to ensure a liveliness throughout the day and year.

Designing for Flexibility

Harvard Plaza, establishes a vibrant community in a space previously rendered lifeless by a lack of accommodation for anything but passing through. In contrast, the new space plays on people’s inexhaustible craving for discovery, for physical and sensorial experiences, for social interaction of many sorts; it is flexible and is set up—equipped—to be programmed and re-programmed easily. These same principles of diversity, flexibility, and adaptability that inform the space as a whole, are also addressed at the scale of the human body, in the dual seating elements incorporated. Custom-designed wood benches are shaped to accommodate different bodies in different ways, and give options for how people choose to sit—cross-legged, upright, slouchy, lounging—alone or in groups, on laps, cuddling, outright lying down, or if you’re a kid active play.

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The Plaza’s embedded flexibility and diversity allows it to assume different personalities—equally compelling when throbbing with activity or when small groups are quietly studying or moving through. It is intentionally designed to accommodate multiple time-scales, multiple audiences, multiple voices, and multiple agendas. It allows for fitting out and appropriation in many ways, anticipates many uses but leaves open more possibilities. In all these ways, it embodies the richest ideals of what public space can be—a simple platform for the playing out of various social lives: dynamic, evolving, open-ended.

Dynamic Programming

Healthy organisms and ecosystems adapt to changes in their environment, shifting strategy as circumstances evolve around them.  Healthy social spaces can learn and adapt, too. Ongoing design and management practices become key agents in the success of these spaces. Too often, programming is left to groups or organizations who apply generic toolkits to projects, deploying standard interventions (furniture, games, etc.), adjusted only in color or combination to a new place. In other cases, advisors or clients go too far in filling up spaces every moment of the day. Too much programming can be as problematic as too little—open spaces should accommodate a full range of uses and people, including quieter moments that are more about passive enjoyment, or open possibilities for unscripted events.  I say this recognizing the fact that we cannot dictate what is too much or too little, that in some ways the flexibility inherent in the spatial designs allows for someone else to decide this—that it is, in fact, a sign of success and health that many different inputs and impressions are possible here.

In creating spaces that are inherently flexible, built to morph if you will, designers must find ways to hardwire for change and provide ample opportunity for a space to be explored and lived on its own terms. This I would argue, infuses public space with vitality, energy and ultimately—longevity. Healthy ecosystems in my mind, are open systems.


Chris Reed is the Founding Director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism and is Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. This article was adapted from an essay in Staging Urban Landscapes by Canon Ivers.