2014 marks the 100th anniversary since the founding of the New York Chapter of American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA-NY) and we have much to celebrate.
From the early days of Central Park, to the recent opening of public parks on Governors Island and unveiling of the Rebuild by Design competition winners, the roles of landscape architects have evolved as a new generation of parks and green spaces are redefining the urban environment of the future. Central Park was originally designed as a place where all people can enjoy and escape the busy city life. Our new definition of urban public spaces not only includes equity for all to enjoy them but also the need to address sustainability, stormwater management, and high performance design. Our waterfronts need to be designed to withstand sea level changes and possible flooding. Streets need to be safer for pedestrians while providing more environmentally sound means to collect stormwater. Rooftops need to not only provide added amenity space but also cool buildings and provide much needed green space in a city that is primarily paved. The reduced open space in our city has led to an increase in urban rooftop farming. Our urban environment needs to be more resilient. Fortunately, landscape architects are also resilient—we are able to take these difficult urban challenges we are confronted with and respond with solutions that are not only effective but creative and enduring.
Throughout history in New York City, landscape architects have been directly involved in shaping the city’s most important spaces. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, Central and Prospect Parks have both stood the test of time and continue to thrive as our city’s most valuable amenities and urban park icons. The Bronx River Parkway, opened in 1923 and designed by landscape architects Hermann Merkel and Gilmore Clarke, became the model for the great American parkway that many of us drive on today. In the late 1920s when Robert Moses had grand ideas for expanding our roadways and parks, he looked to Clarke and landscape architect Michael Rapuano to develop the green parkway and park systems and that served as a catalyst for urban parks across our nation. During the Moses era over 650 new playgrounds were built in our city, including 15 playgrounds in Central Park, enabling the park to truly be for all people, including children. The ASLA-NY with founding member and landscape architect, A.F. Brinkerhoff, are responsible for the Great Lawn in Central Park. In 1931, they produced plans which transformed the unused lower reservoir into a verdant oval for recreational activity and leisure walks that today is one of the most popular spots in Central Park, not to mention the best place for a concert venue. In the 1960s, the Adventure Playground movement reinvented how playgrounds were designed. Led by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, these playgrounds aimed to give children more opportunities for exploration and discovery, providing spaces that foster cooperative play and creativity. This model for playground design is still being utilized today as communities want to give children something more than the typical playground.
In more recent years, environmental and quality of life issues in New York have prompted even greater attention to our profession as city agencies turn to landscape architects for expertise in providing more effective and sustainable design solutions. The PlaNYC initiative, spearheaded by then-Mayor Bloomberg, brought a new focus on urban design to improve the quality of life in our city while making green design a much higher priority. Once again, landscape architects were needed to improve and expand our parks, develop new stormwater standards, create green roofs and urban farms on top of buildings, and improve our waterways to restore coastal ecosystems as well as provide recreational opportunities. After Superstorm Sandy devastated our region, it was clear that smarter resiliency strategies for rebuilding were critical. What resulted were bold new high performance designs like those developed through the Rebuild by Design competition, in which landscape architects were at the forefront of the winning design proposals.
Landscape architecture in New York has been receiving more and more publicity and exposure due to cutting edge design and creative new urban spaces that are serving as the model for other municipalities. The High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Governors Island all redefined urban parks and news reports, articles, blog posts, photos, and social media have exposed landscape architecture to an even broader audience, making the profession more well known. Even President Obama used the term “landscape architects” in a recent speech on improving our infrastructure. As more and more people look to New York for design inspiration, landscape architects and designers here are demonstrating that the bounds are endless. As long as our current and future city administration continues to foster all of the abilities that landscape architects bring to the table, New York will continue to thrive as a prime model of green urban design.
A few years ago, Alan G. Brake wrote about landscape architecture’s ascendance and the growing importance of the profession. It is becoming more and more evident that our time is now and New York City is a great place to be a landscape architect.