New Trends in Environmental Design, Part II

Oct. 1, 2004
A collaborative exploration of the impact of landscape design on behavioral patterns and social interactions in outdoor environments.

by Gail Greet Hannah

Note: For over a year, Landscape Forms, in conjunction with frog design, worked together to study the behavioral patterns and social interactions in outdoor environments and the integration of architecture, landscape architecture and interior design. The research involved round table discussions with over 225 high-profile professionals in 15 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Attendees included architects, interior designers, landscape architects, educators, civic leaders and commercial clients. A two-part CEU article, which began in the September 2004 issue and concludes in this one, explores how an integrated, planned approach to the design for public space can enhance the creation of outdoor environments that encourage social interaction, stimulate creativity and build community-thus improving the human experience in urban environments. The first installment explored the first of five themes that resulted from this research: Work/Lifestyle: Design for a 24/7 Universe; Technology: The Future of Real Spaces in a Virtual World; and The Corporate Campus: Dinosaur or Evolving Species? This second installment examines the remaining two elements: A Sense of Place: Creating Successful Public Spaces; and Design Practice: Challenges for the Profession.


What makes a public space successful? On the one hand, it's something intangible that resides in the ability to elicit feelings and experiences that transcend the realm of the everyday. San Francisco Chronicle design editor Zahid Sardar suggested that successful public spaces also satisfy the basic human needs for engagement and narcissism. They are places in which to see people and to be seen.

On the other hand, successful public spaces embody an array of quite specific characteristics. Participants singled out liveliness; diversity-of cultures, generations and activities; distinctiveness-reflected in the site-specific qualities of a space; intimacy; security; and comfort. Landscape architects reported a growing preference for smaller,
more intimate spaces in outdoor environments. They emphasized the importance of comfort in attracting people to public spaces and remarked on the identification of comfort with a less institutional sensibility and the feeling that one was "at home." Chicago participants recalled that replacing Daly Plaza's benches with chairs and tables transformed it from a rarely used space to a favorite gathering place.

In roundtables across the country participants stressed the importance of flexibility to the success of public spaces. New York's Bryant Park was a favorite point of reference. Its pioneering use of moveable chairs in a busy city park was greeted with skepticism when first proposed. Few thought that hundreds of Bistro chairs would last a week in midtown New York. But they've lasted for several years and their use has been widely adopted elsewhere. Landscape architect Dennis Reynolds talked about the implications of this development: "The notion of choice and flexibility makes us think differently about both the furniture and the places that it occupies," he explained. "Inherently, moveable furniture seems to be more chaotic, more random. It moves around, it clusters in different areas. And so the spaces we design need to be flexible. They need to have more clarity to them. We don't want these spaces to be overly complex, and we don't want the furniture to be overly complex, either. The attention is on the pattern language that evolves with use."

Most successful public spaces are firmly woven into the context in which they are located. Their edges are permeable. Design professionals voiced strong support for growing efforts to integrate commercial, residential and public space. American architects and landscape architects have long looked with envy at the lively social life surrounding European parks and plazas. As the trend toward more flexible and moveable furniture grows in this country, and municipalities that once restricted the use of sidewalk furniture relax their codes, private retailers are becoming more engaged in the street. Chairs and tables, which one poetic participant called "urban flowers" are popping up on sidewalks across the country. The movement toward greater flexibility is helping connect private business to the public realm.

Making Connections

Successful public spaces not only bring people together, they encourage them to interact. In some situations this happens naturally. There's seldom a dearth of communication in dog parks, playgrounds and smoking areas. Animals, kids and cigarettes invariably provide the triangulation that William H. Whyte identified as essential to successful social spaces. But getting people to interact in other settings can be a challenge. As one participant put the question: "How long does a bench have to be before you can get two strangers to sit on it?" Orrin Shively, executive director of Creative Services at Walt Disney Imagineering, noted that the theme park solves the problem by having each cast member wear a badge that displays their name and where they're from. This simple technique provides an excuse for people to exchange information, to act on the basic human desire to communicate and share. "We need to create more opportunities like that," he said. "Unfortunately, in America, you need an excuse."

Participants suggested that one reason for the decline in open communication in public space is the loss of public ritual in our society. In some Hispanic neighborhoods people still "paseo"-that is, stroll along a popular street or promenade and socialize along the way. In Asian enclaves people shop during certain hours and gather to practice Tai Chi. But such rituals prescribing the use of the shared realm are few and far between. More than one participant noted the role that Starbucks now fills in reviving what one nicely called "the ritual of coffee in a locale of exchange."

At our New York roundtable, the destruction of the World Trade Center loomed large in the minds of design professionals. During the weeks following the disaster, New York experienced a flowering of ad-hoc spaces. People constructed memorials and created informal venues for information exchange. Public spaces became necessary spaces. City parks became magnets for people who simply wanted to connect with each other. New York City's Commissioner of Parks, Adrian Benepe, said: "New York parks play a unique role as a commons. People just go there when they're happy, when they're
sad or stressed. Understanding and accommodating that was the biggest revelation for us."

In the aftermath of the event, landscape architects joined other design professionals in planning for the rebuilding of the downtown site. Kim Mathews, of Mathews Nielsen in New York, moderated an ASLA-sponsored workshop attended by people living and working in the area. She and her professional peers discovered that people in the community were as interested in the connections between open spaces-pedestrian, vehicular and visual connections-as they were in the quantity or location of the open spaces themselves. Walking from the subway to the office or the office to lunch they cherished the encounter with corner and pocket parks, churchyard cemeteries and other little green spaces that dot downtown-and wanted to continue to enjoy the newly reopened views across lower Manhattan. The quality of movement-what Mathews called "the meandering route through the finer-grained spaces of downtown"-was regarded as essential to the use and enjoyment of open space.

The Quality of Space

Walter Hood offered a broad framework for thinking about public space. He observed that, as a society, Americans think first about quantity, not quality. When we have a piece of land we declare that we need a park or a monument or some other "thing." We don't think about the qualities of the space and, as a result, we have created a market for a standardization of type in public space and in the objects we put in it.

"It would be a new direction if we started thinking about quality. Instead of making the roads wider, just making great roads. We don't need more curving gutters. And I can't change someone talking on a cell phone. But if for a brief moment the sun is hitting the ground and the shadows are falling, someone might just say, "hold on for a minute dear. Wow."

Jane Brown Gillette, writer, editor and industry observer, provided another perspective. She challenged the assumption that physical use is the sole judge of the success of public spaces. Beautiful spaces serve our mental and emotional needs as well, she observed, and can be very important to us because they exist as possibilities.

Understanding Culture

Design professionals are challenged by cultural differences in how people use public spaces. Chicago participants, for example, noted that parks on the north side of the city are populated mostly by "Anglos," described by one participant as "sitting 10 feet on center," while in parks further south, Hispanic families hold huge family picnics. Fred Holman, landscape architect with the Providence, Rhode Island Parks Department, recalled master planning a rural college campus in upstate New York which had problems keeping inner city students. These urban youth were frightened by the open space character of the campus and found it impossible to study in a quiet environment. Landscape architects are called upon to address the needs of a wide variety of users, sometimes in the same place and at the same time. Successful public spaces understand the people they are meant to serve. Programming that draws input from the community
is critically important in determining whether public spaces will be embraced, defaced or ignored.

Programming: Do No Harm

Design professionals address both design programming and usage programming. They plan and design physical spaces then create the infrastructure to support elements and events within those spaces. Once again, there was strong consensus that flexibility is key to success. Many participants maintained that trying to predict how spaces would be used was seldom successful and often unwise. They suggested that providing possibilities for things to happen was a better course. Several participants warned against over design that
can get in the way of people simply interacting in a place. Susan Brown, landscape architect with the Boston Parks & Recreation Department, offered this rule to work by: "We should take the approach of 'do no harm'," she declared. "Put in an infrastructure that allows many different things to happen-but don't put in things that preclude what you can't even imagine."

There is an anecdote about Frederick Law Olmsted's visit, after long years of planning and building, to Central Park. As the story goes, he was appalled to find the common folk sitting on the lawn instead of walking with their parasols down the paths. The Sheep's Meadow has, of course, become one of the most widely used and beloved spaces in the city, precisely because it can be whatever people need it to be. It is the stage on which a vast variety of dramas are enacted.

On the other hand, insufficient programming can result in spaces that are underused or inappropriately used. Participants argued that successful programming helps people understand how to use public space while not necessarily dictating how it must be used. Some suggested that landscape architects should receive more training in asking the right questions and building the relationships with the public that can determine the success of designed spaces.

Something For Everyone

Participants in these discussions advocated for the design of public spaces for all people. They emphasized the need to design spaces that work across generations, provide access for the handicapped, and accommodate people at all levels of the economic scale. They advocated for dog walkers and skateboarders. "I don't think that we should look negatively at all the ways people want to use spaces," Drew Becker, landscape architect and Chief of Staff of the Chicago Park District, said. "We should figure out the best place to accommodate them."

The appropriate amount and kind of active, ongoing programming within public spaces was a subject of some debate. Solutions differ by community and environment. Active programming is sometimes staged in spaces that are not well used in order to attract people and help make those spaces safer. Events such as ethnic festivals and music fairs are employed as opportunities to celebrate cultural diversity and engage community members in the public realm. Expectations play a role. New York landscape architect Terri-Lee Burger noted that, "It's hard to get children today out of the house and away from the virtual worlds available via computers and video games. The environment alone doesn't seem to be stimulating enough. If there is not continuous and active programming, you're never going to get their attention." And Ann Mullins, landscape architect and principal of Civitas, suggested that parks in the center of cities may require a lot more programming and organization precisely because people expect to find structured activity there. Whereas parks situated in natural areas can be more passive because people come to them looking for a different kind of experience.

Whether, when and how to accommodate technology in public spaces was, perhaps, the most divisive issue discussed in our sessions. Many design professionals praised the use of technology-based programming as a stimulant to vitality and a necessary accommodation to a changing world. Others decried it as a desecration of nature and a direct assault on out door public spaces as sanctuaries and places of escape. (See discussion on technology in the first installment.)

Design professionals noted the importance of a very specialized type of programmed public space. Vancouver landscape architect Margot Long observed, "A lot of landscapes are now being designed as memorials. These landscapes bring back the memories and stimulate the senses. They are very powerful." The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, DC, and the park in Oklahoma City memorializing the victims of the Murrah Federal Building bombing are examples of public spaces, cited by a number of participants, that attract a broad range of people and touch them in powerful ways.

Working With The Community

Landscape architects embrace their role as agents for helping communities develop outdoor public spaces that have genuine significance for the people they serve. That means listening to people talk about their experience and interpreting their history and meaning in the designed environment. Professionals share an interest in solutions that enable people to act in hands-on ways on their environments. And they recognize that designing public spaces involves more than creating a streetscape or park. The process itself is important in engaging people and helping them become invested in their spaces. The community building that often results can be critical to revitalization.

The public's investment in public spaces is essential to their long-term viability. The more people care about spaces in their communities, the more likely it is that those spaces will be respected rather than abused. But the resources for maintenance are decreasing. Participants remarked on the growing importance of private investment in maintaining public space. Partnerships between private organizations and public parks are being forged in which private entities assume responsibility for upkeep and oversight. There is also a growing reliance on private funding to underwrite active and costly programming in public space.

Artful Spaces

There has been much recent discussion within the landscape architecture profession about the value of what might be called "high-design" public landscapes. Martha Schwartz's award-winning HUD Plaza in Washington, DC. Has been a lightning rod for debate. It raises the question: Can a public landscape be considered successful if it is visually arresting, intellectually challenging, critically acclaimed, but rarely used? Some design professionals said yes. They celebrate the boldness of the vision, the exploration of new ideas, the ability of the work to enchant and delight.

Most landscape architects at our roundtables framed the responsibility of the designer in a traditional light. Landscape architects, they said, are stewards of the natural environment, mediators between the land, the client and the built world. They recalled the profession's historical commitment to context, the responsible use of natural resources, and the forging of a connection between people and the land. Vancouver landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander said, "It is very important to experience discovery in the landscape. It's like going to an art gallery and seeing paintings you've never seen before. However, art must be integrated into the landscape to make spaces that are people friendly and environmentally responsible."

Many landscape architects are actively seeking to bring an artful dimension to the design
of outdoor spaces by collaborating directly with artists. And it's not just about creating objects or what one participant called "plot art and murals on walls." Designers and clients are looking to artists for the unique perspectives they can bring to the understanding of place.

summary: Successful public spaces strike an emotional chord and often serve as places of refuge and comfort in times of crisis. The qualities that determine the lasting value of spaces frequently reside in natural and site-specific characteristics rather than objects or programming. Flexibility in design and programming is key to serving an increasingly diverse population with wide-ranging customs and expectations. Design professionals are working closely with communities to develop public spaces that respond to local aspirations and needs. Public/private partnerships for maintaining and programming public space are on the rise.


In addition to the subjects addressed in the preceding discussion, three major issues emerged as especially critical to design practice going forward. They are security, sustainability, and an integrated, cross-disciplinary approach to design.

Security: At What Price?

Until recently, security in the design of outdoor environments focused on measures to discourage vandalism and street crime and create perceptions of safety intended to attract people to outdoor spaces. Those issues are still real. People do not typically choose to spend time in places that are debased, defaced or dangerous. Putting a cop on every corner runs the risk of marking a place as especially unsafe and can have negative impact on the life of the community. Architects and landscape architects have addressed the challenges of combining security and amenity with some success. New York's Bryant Park and Oakland's Lafayette Square are notable examples. But security after September 11, 2001 has new meaning. Designing and building structures and outdoor spaces that provide security from terrorism present challenges of a different order.

The push is on for design professionals, product manufacturers and service providers to develop new security solutions. Meanwhile, municipalities have limited public access to entire city blocks and architects and landscape architects are using existing products and techniques including barriers, planters, bollards, and berms to address the issue at hand. The participants in our roundtables expressed concern about the impact on public spaces of restrictive and physically intrusive security solutions. They fear solutions that threaten a free and open society.

Washington, DC participants generally agreed that the city was the loser as a result of increased security measures and restrictions on access to the downtown. Landscape architect Frederick D. Jarvis, of HNTB Corp., described the strategic and tactical differences in the way landscape architects and security professionals are approaching the
situation: "Design professionals want security features to disappear into the landscape, become invisible. We don't want to see huge, overpowering and intrusive elements everywhere. Many security specialists want the exact opposite. They want the solutions to be overbearing, to demonstrate a sense of invincible power and strength. How you design to accommodate security interests while making the solution aesthetically pleasing is a difficult challenge."

One way that this might happen is through increased awareness and collaboration among architects, engineers and landscape architects on such issues as the relationship of buildings to the exterior environment, and the interface between building systems
and public spaces.

Supporting Sustainable Design

Design professionals welcome environmental sustainability as a growing trend. The pursuit of sustainable practices is reflected in planning strategies targeted at reducing sprawl and promoting public mass transportation. It is expressed in more efficient allocation and consumption of natural resources through land management, water conservation and reuse of materials. In the South and Northwest special attention is being paid to the design and building of sustainable water systems for waste, storm and natural water. Environmental sustainability is being implemented in parks and other public spaces through the use of wind power, solar power, condensation recovery and other sustainable technologies. And design professionals are asking manufacturers to develop products that are harmless, and beyond that, helpful to the environment.

LEED is emerging as a forceful agent for change. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing sustainable buildings and environments administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED provides detailed standards
for assessing sustainability and confers certification at four levels on projects that meet its criteria. Many corporations and educational institutions are following LEED guidelines to "green-up" their facilities. New York architect Ed Pang advocated for greater implementation of sustainable practices and products in urban landscape design. He noted that cities like New York are, by virtue of their scale and density, sustainable environments and suggested that urban parks should express that sustainability.

Many landscape architects view the pursuit of sustainability as an aspect of their role as environmental stewards. They define sustainability as a core value.

Participants reported signs that sustainability as a movement is gaining momentum. Design professionals are becoming more proactive in their adoption of sustainable practices and are educating their clients and the public. Students in landscape architecture programs are contacting firms to get information about sustainable innovations such as eco roofs. Clients are beginning to understand sustainability and are making the connection between it and the bottom line, realizing that they can often save money over the long term by implementing sustainable solutions in facilities and outdoor spaces. Business leaders are searching out architects and landscape architects who are
knowledgeable about sustainability to help them achieve their goals.

Kori Chan, an architect with Vancouver-based Proscenium Architecture and Interiors, observed that other benefits also follow from the pursuit of sustainability. "The design challenges are quite stimulating. You get an opportunity based on the sustainable principle to explore new directions, and look at systems and ideas that wouldn't have had a chance five or six years ago because we couldn't quantify and we didn't have clients who were environmentally sensitive to these ideas. Sustainability has opened up doors on the process of thinking in design which is quite important."

Design Integration

Design professionals working to creating a built environment for the future are faced with a host of complex challenges including global economic change, cultural diversity, technology, urban growth, security, and environmental sustainability. The consensus in these roundtables was that successful solutions will require multi-disciplinary effort.
For landscape architects, the opportunity to engage in projects at the planning stage and to remain active team members throughout the process is of critical importance. Many landscape architects complained that for too long they were viewed as the people brought in at the end of a project to "shrub it up." "Integration is something that has to happen," said Orlando landscape architect Christina Lathrop. "You can't have a successful project without it. And in my experience, landscape architects often act as the catalysts." Another Orlando-based landscape architect declared, "We often serve as
keepers of the vision."

In Europe and Asia an integrated approach to the design process is more deeply embedded than in the U.S. Here the collaboration between design disciplines enjoys stronger support in some parts of the country than in others. Orlando and Grand Rapids participants reported significant multi-disciplinary collaboration. Design professionals in Atlanta reported that most major projects in and around the city include integrated design teams while participants in Dallas noted that the amount of collaboration varies by client and industry. In Houston and Phoenix, landscape architects are frustrated at their exclusion from multidisciplinary teams. In Portland, Doug Macy's landscape architecture firm solved the problem by merging with an architectural practice. Size is also a factor. Small landscape architecture practices are less likely to be invited to the table than large, well-known firms, which frequently act as prime consultant. Landscape architect Laura Solano of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates reported that her firm ensures the integrity of its work by securing its own contracts with clients. "By not having a veil between us and the client we get better results," she explained.

When landscape architects are not given an important place at the table, who's to blame?

Entrenched practices, lack of financial resources and the struggle for power among professions certainly play key roles, but a few landscape architects called their own profession into account. A landscape architect affiliated with a large multi-disciplinary engineering firm complained that landscape architects are not taught the necessary skills for selling themselves to architects and engineers or at interacting effectively with them. Another argued that the profession has become reactive rather than proactive, defending its work rather than promoting it, in contrast to predecessors who were forceful, eloquent voices for the landscape. Florida-based landscape architect Gerald Marston asserted that the leadership in environmental planning has shifted to the hard sciences and it is the landscape architects that choose to do the hard science that may represent the future of the profession.

Everything I Learned

While design professionals agreed that cross-disciplinary education is essential if multi-disciplinary teamwork is to flourish, they reported that educational practice, in many cases, continues to proceed along segregated disciplinary lines. One participant characterized the still widely practiced "silo" approach as a guild system, which acts to "carve professions out of professions and legislate other people out of them." On the other end of the range, younger professionals reported growing awareness in schools of the need to provide a more integrated design education and the emergence of curricula to support the goal. Evidence of this was offered by a landscape architect who observed that young graduates coming to his firm don't have the sense of division that some older professionals have and cautioned his peers to be careful that they do not put up the walls.

The Future

Future professional collaboration will be driven by a variety of factors, including cross-disciplinary education, technologies that make it easier to share information and ideas, and an increasing number of clients demanding packaged, coordinated services to address their needs. But the pursuit of environmental sustainability will, perhaps, play the deciding role. Participants reported that the LEED process is changing the way projects are being done. LEED criteria and documentation require the design disciplines to work together and are thus providing a framework for integration.

Design professionals have become leading advocates for environmental responsibility, education and action. In many cases they are far ahead of industry practices and regulatory requirements. They share a vested interest in protecting and sustaining the natural systems on which the built environment depends. Architects, landscape architects, interior designers, engineers and related professionals working together offer hope for a sustainable environment and a livable future.

summary: The events of 9/11 have changed the definition and scope of security, and the impact is being felt in the practice of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and city planning. Environmental sustainability is a growing concern and LEED is emerging as a forceful agent for the promotion of sustainable practices. The complexity of design for a global environment requires multi-disciplinary, multi-national efforts. Collaboration will be key to building livable environments in the 21st century.

Gail Greet Hannah is an author and freelance writer for the contract design industry. Her book, Elements of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002, explores the structure of visual relationships. Greet Hannah distilled and articulated the ideas and observations of the 15 high-profile panels of leading design professionals, city and transportation planners, developers, academics and others.

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