Feature Article - November 2007
Find a printable version here

Parks with Purpose

Preserving the Past, Designing the Future

By Emily Tipping

This is not to say that Birnbaum is opposed to any additions to existing parks. In fact, he said, "I'm a big fan of a lot of the kinds of programmatic additions bringing people back to parks, but they shouldn't be done at the expense of significant cultural fabric."

For example, the 6.2-acre Madison Square Park, located in the heart of Manhattan's Flatiron District, underwent a $6 million renovation and revitalization, completed in 2001. "They've done so much to make that park come alive again. The Shake Shack is teeming with people on a nice evening," Birnbaum said. "They also built a new several-story children's playground in the middle of the park."

Unfortunately, Birnbaum said, the way the playground was sited disrupted a view—recorded in a classic photograph by Alfred Stieglitz—of the Flatiron Building. "Because that playground is now in the viewshed, you've destroyed that connection of these hundred-year-old trees framing the Flatiron Building. It's not to say that the tot lot is bad, but the way it was built is bad, because you destroyed a major part of that view. There are a lot more people living in Gramercy Park who need a place to take their kids. Imagine if instead, the tot lot was depressed two feet and had a perimeter seat wall built into it.

"These are design issues," he added. "It becomes a question of carrying capacity and appropriate scale. We like to create stereotypes: These people are only interested in history, and these people are only interested in program. But the challenge for designers is how do we transform program? …Any landscape of historic importance should have research done. You wouldn't go to the dentist, open your mouth and say, 'Start drilling.' You'd want to get X-rays and give your dental history. Parks are the same way. We need to understand that history to guide change."

Birnbaum decries the destruction of open space and beautifully designed landscapes envisioned by such masters as Olmsted and Halprin. "A lot of people don't realize that 70 to 80 percent of people who use parks use them for passive enjoyment," he explained. "Why are not trees and lawns sufficient?"

The Green Outdoors

Many architects and park planners have become increasingly familiar with green building standards, such as the LEED certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which measures a building's environmental impact. Now there is an equivalent for designing the great outdoors.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has teamed with the University of Texas at Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center and the U.S. Botanic Garden to announce the development of a new rating system for sustainable landscape design.

Called the Sustainable Sites Initiative, this rating system will measure the sustainability of designed landscapes, including public, commercial and residential projects. The USGBC is supporting the project and also plans to adopt the new metrics into its LEED system.

"This will provide the missing link for green building standards," said Nancy Somerville, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA in a press release announcing the initiative. "Developers, designers, owners and public officials will now have the tools at hand to significantly increase sustainability in the built environment, from interiors to landscapes."

Often, sustainable design is plagued by the misperception that designing green is an expensive prospect. Frederick R. Steiner, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and a member of the Wildflower Center Advisory Council, acknowledged that green guidelines will not gain acceptance unless builders and landowners can see that they are also cost-effective, and pointed out the fact that long-term savings often make up for initially higher costs for construction. "Sustainable landscapes have enormous environmental benefits, and any additional costs should be easily recovered over the life of the project in energy, water and other savings."

For more information about the initiative, visit www.sustainablesites.org.