Feature Article - November 2007
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Parks with Purpose

Preserving the Past, Designing the Future

By Emily Tipping

The Dearth of Historic Landscape Landmarks

Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) pointed out recently that historically, landscape architecture has been underrepresented in National Historic Landmark designations—a fact that he attributes to the "publish or perish" dilemma.

"If we don't write about these landscapes, they'll be forgotten," he said. "One of the things we're seeing now is a surge in books by and about significant landscapes and landscape architects. We now see Ph.D.s in landscape history, so we're beginning to grow an army of scholars who can recommend these places for designation."

He added that "branding," so to speak, is also important. If people are unaware of landscape architects and their work, there will be no drive to protect that work.

"With all the parks and the interpretation done in Louisville, Ky., the citizens know their parks were designed by Olmsted, but they also know there's more than one Olmsted. If you look at downtown Louisville, you have buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe and Michael Graves, and the people don't know who they are. You have to go out and instill those values in people."

In Indianapolis, for example, people are beginning to recognize the works of George Kessler, whose Park and Boulevard plan, designed in 1909, represents the largest National Register of Historic Places listing in Indiana, at nearly 3,500 acres. "With that designation, people start to recognize and wonder who was this Kessler fellow," Birnbaum said.

For more information on the National Historic Landmark program, visit www.nps.gov/history/nhl/. To learn more about TCLF, visit www.tclf.org.

Creating the public realm

In urban, developed areas, landscape design can serve to bring people together, creating a public sphere for citizens and visitors to interact with one another and with their environment. At the eight-acre Charleston Waterfront Park, dubbed "this generation's gift to the future" by the mayor of Charleston, S.C., fountains, lawns, garden rooms, paths and a pier combine to provide a public space in an urban setting. The park received the 2007 Landmark Award from the ASLA, which recognizes a distinguished landscape architecture project completed between 15 and 50 years ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes significantly to the public realm of the community.

Charleston's waterfront hadn't always been so publicly accessible. Like many harbor and waterfront areas in America, Charleston's had suffered from years of industrial use, followed by abandonment. By the early 1980s, the waterfront was mostly used as a parking lot, despite the fact that it sits among some of the most historic neighborhoods in the city.

Bucking the idea of private development, Charleston turned to Sasaki Associates to design a park that integrates sustainability with urban design. Completed in 1990, the design has transformed the informal parking lot into a curving, expansive park that is a huge draw and has inspired further development in the area. Marsh grasses were restored and supplemented to protect the river's marine ecology, and numerous spaces were created within the park for the public to enjoy.

"It is now a glorious part of the public realm and it is enjoyed by local and regional residents and tourists," said Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. "It is a very democratic place, as it should be."

Care was taken to ensure that the park would be a true public space for the use of all—not just a few lucky citizens. For example, the head of the new 365-foot pier was designed for recreational fishing and gives everyone a chance to experience the deeper water beyond the salt marsh.

The park's development has led to rising property values, increasing tourism and additional projects in the surrounding area.

On a much larger scale, the city of Chicago transformed a similarly blighted area along its lakefront into the 24.5-acre Millennium Park. What had long been an eyesore in the corner of Grant Park consisting of railroad tracks and surface parking has now become a crown jewel for the city, attracting millions of visitors.

"What they've accomplished at Millennium Park has to be viewed through the lens of great civic spaces," Birnbaum said. "The city of Chicago has some incredible parks from the Olmsted-designed Jackson Park and Washington Park to Columbus Park, which was designed by Jens Jensen. Millennium Park is just another jewel in the crown. And if you think about it, they didn't steal existing parkland to create it. They said, let's create something wholly new. Let's create a park where there never was one. Let's increase the amount of urban waterfront open to citizens and visitors. I think it's tremendous, and it's part of that continuity of civicness."

Among the prominent features of the park are the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which hosts outdoor concerts and performances of all kinds; the interactive Crown Fountain; the contemporary 2.5-acre Lurie Garden; and the popular Cloud Gate sculpture. The 925-foot-long, BP Bridge provides amazing views and is a work of art in itself. The bridge's 5 percent slope allows easier access for people with physical disabilities.

Birnbaum pointed out that the development of the park—which took four years longer than expected and eventually cost nearly $500 million—didn't take place at the expense of other parks in the city.

"During that same period, you had Columbus Park and the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool both undergoing restoration and rehabilitation, and being designated as National Historic Landmarks. You have this duality of embracing the heritage and celebrating it with these designations. Here were these masters—Jens Jensen and Caldwell. Chicago recognized that they were extraordinary.

"They also recognize that parks are neighborhood revitalization engines," he added. "Think about Douglas Park and Humboldt Park. Those parks had fallen into disrepair, but now to go back there, you can see the community spirit at Humboldt Park in the green market they have. You have nature, culture, scenery, economics—all playing hand in hand."