How Landscape Architecture is Changing Attitudes About Cities

Mar 28 • Best of 2015, Landscape Architecture, VANCOUVER • 1900 Views • 2 Comments on How Landscape Architecture is Changing Attitudes About Cities

By Phil Roberts…

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Architecture is more than buildings. As the global conversation about cities continues, it is obvious that we see our cities not as a collection of buildings, but as an interconnected set of landscapes. For Greg Smallenberg, one of the partners at PFS Studio in Vancouver, landscape architecture is raising awareness about the natural richness of our cities.

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“From our perspective, landscape is all about systems,” he says. “We establish a set of inquiries at the outset. What’s connected to what and why.” He believes in Lewis Mumford’s idea of cities being fundamentally ordered by open space and transportation.

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It is an idea that goes far beyond buildings. “The underpinning of landscape architecture is more comprehensive than architecture. It is a basic ordering principle of great cities.”

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Several decades ago in Canada, landscape architecture and town planning used to be part of the same association. However, over time it became clear that designers understood physical form more than policy and that town planners understood policy better than physical form. This split in perspective is probably one of the key reasons why the disciplines are now somewhat detached from one another and why landscape architecture has really matured as a separate profession. Now landscape architects are increasingly taking on very large assignments that in past decades might have been expected to be under the purview of planners. Most landscape architects like to think big and it makes sense given their commitment to systems.

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Another reason is the quality of instruction and resulting talent coming out of landscape architecture schools.

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“In the last 5 years, the portfolios that we have seen from applicants from a number of great schools around the world include these very well-conceived, comprehensive large scale projects,” describes Greg. “As a result of their schooling and interest, these students are not settling for designing set pieces and incidental space, but are committed to a much larger scale of work and to solving for very complicated issues.”

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He holds the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design in especially high regard. “UofT are graduating some of the best landscape architecture students that we have seen. And in general, universities are doing a great job exposing the students to big ideas. Schools are teaching students how to think on a very heroic scale.” As a result, academia is contributing to the push of the profession in pursuit of more comprehensive assignments.

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PFS is use to working on projects of colossal scale, particularly in China, where they have an office in Shanghai. One of the projects that they are working on is 53 km2. Greg recently left for China to begin a 2 km2 planning assignment, which over there is considered a relatively small project.

“We were one of the first west coast firms doing work in China,” he says. “Typically, North American firms do the conceptual work, hand it off to a local firm and they never see it again until the project is completed. This frustrates a lot of western firms as they are often disappointed in the final result. One of the major reasons for our Shanghai office is so that we can take our work from design to completion.”

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In 2011, PFS worked on the Punggol Masterplan in Singapore under the leadership of Urban Strategies Inc. of Toronto and UK-based BuroHappold. PFS were tasked with the open space components of the plan, including streets, parks, waterfronts, and other elements of urban design. The challenge for the team was determining what sustainability meant for a new town in a tropical, Southeast Asian location.

Though Southeast Asia and China are close geographically, there is a contrast between how projects are developed.

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“In Southeast Asia, the way they work is closer to what North American firms are familiar with in terms of procurement, client expectations and work schedules,” explains Greg. “But in China, the way in which professionals operate is very different and you have to be flexible and nimble. In China, they like trying new things and taking chances. And while they are cautious with their investments, if a good idea comes out in a meeting, they jump on it.”

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Projects in China typically work on a 24 hour cycle. The downside is the speed at which things are designed and constructed, leaving little time for designers to think about the work and reflect on it in a recursive manner.

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This process of meta-thinking is vital to creating work that is useful, where people are engaged by a memorable space. “Anyone’s work that can evoke an emotional response like delight, joy or surprise would likely be memorable. Will Alsop’s Sharp Centre in Toronto does that. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to walk by it without having an opinion.”

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When asked what makes a memorable place for him, Greg responds with Paley Park in Manhattan. A pocket park, a block east of MoMA, Paley Park is elevated from the street on a podium, with a water wall at the end, vegetated walls on both sides, and seating in the middle. It is an urban space that Greg says for some makes you forget that you’re in Manhattan. For others, it emerses them completely within the density of the city. Paley Park’s strength is in its simplicity, where the city and nature combine to make a place of respite.

As one of Greg’s former professors puts it, ‘You can make anything look good, but unless the spaces are designed to allow people to engage through some sort of program opportunity, formal or informal, then you haven’t succeeded.’

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“If you try too hard, you won’t succeed. There’s a subtly to it. If you embed too many things to try to extract place you lose the idea,” he explains. “Placemaking is about history, culture and context. Placemaking, by the very word can only exist in the right context.”

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A PFS project that has some of the attributes of Paley Park is 909 5th Avenue in Seattle, a publically accessible space near to Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Library. The plaza is raised from the street, covering a parking lot, and given the dramatic slope between 5th and 4th avenues the courtyard terrace offers some of the best views of the Seattle Library. Seattle’s many street walls can make it difficult for people to get good views of the city from the sidewalk. People come from other buildings in the area just to have lunch at 909 5th because of the raised internalized landscape, the remarkable views and its distance from the traffic.

At the Chase Center tower, also in Seattle, PFS’s roof landscape gives lunch hour workers the feeling of being transported out of the city simply by going over the threshold between inside and out. Though high above the city streets, the space is designed to make you feel embedded in the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.

Making people aware of their surroundings is one of the main goals of many landscape architects. Projects such as Toronto’s East Bayfront and Sherbourne Common offer many opportunities for Torontonians to understand what really makes a healthy city.

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PFS worked with Boston-based Koetter Kim on the precinct plan for East Bayfront. As in the work at Punggol, PFS was charged with planning for the streets, parks and waterfront spaces. One of the overarching principles established by the design team was to reconnect the lakefront with the city by continuing the existing north-south city streets all the way to Lake Ontario. Because of the the Gardiner Expressway, Lakeshore Boulevard and the many condos created in earlier decades along the waterfront, both physical and psychological barriers were set up between the City and the Lake. “You had a city surrounded by an infrastructural moat,” jokes Greg. “We wanted to break that barrier down.”

In Vancouver, city guidleines govern all views to the water, which allows people to look down almost any street and feel like the water is accessible. This is not yet the case in Toronto but things are improving dramatically with all the work along the central waterfront by Waterfront Toronto. “Whether people get to the water is not really the point, but people living in a city bounded by water should be able to see it and use it as a legibility marker, telling them where they are in the city.”

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The idea of capturing storm water throughout East Bayfront on a community-wide basis was established in the precinct planning work and committed to by Waterfront Toronto. This was part of the design inspiration for Sherbourne Common which is a park and a storm water treatment facility. When fully built out, East Bayfront storm water will be directed to box culverts under a future boardwalk spanning the waters’ edge of the new community.

The water in the box culverts will then move by gravity to a primary UV filtration plaza at the head of Parliament Slip. From there it flows to one of the most advanced, Canadian – developed UV filtration treatment systems in the world, located under the park pavilion in Sherbourne Common. From there the water is pumped up to the north part of the park before cascading down three dramatic public art features into bio-filtration pools and then into a 240 meter long urban water channel, finally discharging back into Lake Ontario 90% – 95% cleaner than when it began.

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These kinds of design gestures and environmentally intelligent systems for public space are what Greg hopes makes a difference in how people view the landscape of their cities, both natural and man made. “The amount of water actually flowing through Sherbourne Common in the bigger scheme of things is incidental, but we hope that it celebrates the resource and sets up an attitude that is sometimes missing between society and something so precious.”

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