Bourbon enthusiasts are quick to point out that as water naturally filters through Kentucky’s limestone bedrock, it absorbs just the right combination of minerals to give the spirit its distinctive taste. Inspired by that phenomenon, New York-based SCAPE / Landscape Architecture used “karst topography”—a geological formation of water-worn rock—as inspiration for a linear urban watershed running through downtown Lexington, Kentucky.
On February 4, SCAPE won an invited competition to design a master plan to daylight the buried Town Branch Creek flowing beneath Lexington. The firm’s proposal—called Reveal, Clean, Carve, Connect—seeks to create a procession of distinct “blue rooms” where Town Branch surfaces to create site-specific interactions with surrounding urban conditions. “We didn't want to take an idealized vision of the Kentucky landscape and recreate it in the city,” said Kate Orff, partner at SCAPE. “Rather than a contiguous linear stream, we were interested in the multiple conditions of water, like the pockets, holes, and sinks that you see in caves.”
Orff was interested in how a watershed can move through an urban environment, carefully studying the how the karst topography affects the water conditions in section. “The real challenge is to match the landscape to an urban condition,” Orff said. The new landscape is carefully woven through the city, often within narrow rights of way, creating a distinctive urban feeling in four separate landscape zones: the Lexington Hollows, Downtown Greenway, Karst Commons, and Eastern Headwaters.
“We didn’t want to create a romantic or stylized idea of landscape,” Orff explained. “It’s a site specific way of intervening where water can impact the urban condition. We weren’t interested in a singular gesture. The water becomes a tool to create these different environments.”
The proposal helps to highlight and magnify Lexington’s existing strengths, Orff said. Near housing, rapids and a waterfall complement a children’s play area; adjacent to the city’s growing theater district, the landscape is more conducive to nightlife with a series of plazas; at a large bus depot that creates a pedestrian barrier, a walkway arches up to create a small amphitheater, promenade, and connect with the surrounding city.
Each segment of the landscape is also meant to serve as a form of water infrastructure. “Lexington is facing the same issues as other cities, such as sewer overflows,” Orff said. “We’re trying to do a green infrastructure project that deals with the reality of urban waters.”
To mitigate flooding, one of the two existing underground culverts diverting Town Branch will be kept in place to move excess water during heavy rain events. At Rupp Arena, home to several University of Kentucky (UK) sports teams, the site widens and flattens out to create a floodable landscape that provides recreational space and wildlife habitat. Additionally, the stream is filtered as it moves through the various water conditions filled with native grasses and plants and is aerated by waterfalls along its course.
Michael Speaks, Dean of the UK College of Design and a member of the competition jury, noted in his comments that SCAPE’s design was “among the few proposals in the competition to transform the Town Branch into a water filtration system in its own right.” Speaks was impressed with the site-specific nature of the design and the unique infrastructural systems and armature for future growth that each gesture creates. “There is a wonderful sense of revelation and concealment that is dramatic without feeling staged,” he continued.
Orff insisted that Town Creek will be a functioning urban waterway, not a linear fountain presenting the “facade of water.” At the heart of SCAPE’s proposal is an interest in the “processes of natural systems combined with a deep love of the urban condition.”
The competition jury unanimously selected SCAPE as the winner over four other teams. The other three teams were led by Denver-based Civitas, Minneapolis-based Coen+Partners, Inside Outside from the Netherlands, and Danish firm Julien De Smedt Architects. Besides Speaks, the jury included Ned Crankshaw, chairman of the UK department of landscape architecture, Brad McKee, editor-in-chief of Landscape Architecture magazine, local developer Holly Wiedemann, and Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum.
The Downtown Development Authority will award SCAPE $200,000 to further refine its proposal. Orff will work with at team of engineers and financial consultants to establish a more detailed master plan, including the feasibility of implementing the proposal and a phasing plan.