Landscape architect talks public parks

The latest design trend to affect urban, neighbourhood parks is that city dwellers are asking more of their parks, according to a landscape architect, and it’s none too soon for space-limited Vancouver.

This spring, the Vancouver park board announced two new parks for Vancouver, one downtown and another on the Fraser River where an emerging neighbourhood is expected to welcome 10,000 new inhabitants to 130 acres of once industrial shoreline on a still very active river.

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That burgeoning community south of Marine Drive is the East Fraser Lands, or the River District as it's being marketed. The park board is promising 25 acres of park land, and Vancouver landscape architects at space2place are tasked with developing 7.8 of those acres over four parks. Their ideas and $840,000 budget won out over seven other bids. The work should be done by the end of 2018.

Jeff Cutler opened the firm 15 years ago. “People are starting to become more interested in public spaces and ask more,” he said.

What kind of statement do you want make in this growing neighbourhood?

I don’t have a pre-conceived statement. We go through a discovery phase at the beginning of a project that will include looking at what the site is, from ecological and hydraulic, and also looking at the trees around the site and how that will relate to the new community that is going in there. Now as part of the process, we will be meeting with community as well to see what they would like the space to be. And there will be other people living there in the future that won’t be there yet. We will have to look at that and look at the nature of that future development, so what is the thing they will be looking for in the space. One important aspect of this park is that Vancouver really doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to connect with the Fraser River. There is a lot of connection with the ocean but not the Fraser River, and the city has almost turned its back on the river. That is one really unique thing that is special about this community. It’s really a river-oriented community. I think this park is going to have to fulfill a number of different roles. Whether it has children’s play elements in it, there might be parts of it that are a little bit more formal and areas that are more natural, so how one would transition from one to the other. For the natural elements, we will really look to our engagement with the community to firm those up. We are able to look at other opportunities and needs so that will evolve through the design process.

It’s a blank canvas.

In a lot of parks, whether you might not realise it, there is a design to it, and often it has to do with how you move through the space or what the sequence of spaces is. Downtown parks tend to be more formal and it is much more obvious that is a designed space, but just because it doesn’t look that way, doesn’t mean it isn’t designed. By formal, I mean, that would tend more toward urban activities just as a shorthand. One thing that is starting to happen now — and I know a lot of Vancouver Greenest City guidelines and other policies are looking at how do we start to integrate nature back into cities. There was a long time when it was about trying to draw a sharp distinction between what is urban while the natural is over there, and people were almost afraid of the natural environment. Now we are looking at ways how we live together with the natural environment, even some engineering is starting to look at how we deal with water on the surface and allowing more green applications instead of just putting that water in pipes. I think this project has a real opportunity to demonstrate some of the potential of how we can have more natural space within cities. There are lots of published benefits for people who have exposure to natural environments — you are healthier, you are calmer and have less anxiety. 

What work are you most proud of?

I was bit naive when I [launched space2place] but I saw that there was an opportunity. When I stated around 2001, a lot of the work in the city seemed more to be looking toward the past rather than the future. Historical styles or post-modern styles and I was more interested in contemporary or forward-looking. One of the early projects that we stated out looking on were more youth oriented. At [his previous firm], the last project I worked on was Hastings Bowl.

That park has a strong identity.

It was quite interesting working on it. Usually, for landscaping they don’t have much planting. They are fairly technical. We were able to show that we were able to deliver on these municipal projects and move into other kinds of park projects.

When you design playgrounds, do you consider what skills children stand to develop?

For sure. We have been trying to base a lot of what we’ve been doing on research that is defendable. We like to encourage a play spectrum. Playgrounds are often focused on active play but there are many kinds of play: social play, creative play, fantasy play and then there is natural play. So, if you think of play in that context, the play equipment is one part of it but there are many other types of things you can do. You really try to create more of a playscape… a landscape that has some play elements in in it, something that really triers to encourage children to bring their imagination to the space a little more. That holds up on repeated visits. There is an actual study done that if a park is heavily thematic, the second time a child visits that park, they will be totally disconnected with the theme. Not for big destination places like Disney World, but if you’re in a neighbourhood park and it’s the kind of place you will go weekly or daily, you need to have more abstract elements so children can be many things or they can imagine the space to be many different thing. They can interact with it in many different ways. You are not telling them this is what you should be doing.

What are the significant issues affecting your industry right now?

Nothing unique to Vancouver. Definitely in Canada, Vancouver is, I would say, a bit more progressive than a lot of cities. Portland is ahead of Vancouver on a lot of these ideas. There are a lot of different initiatives, but we have seen over the last 10 to 15 year, the number of park spaces in Vancouver, we are starting to see real demand for those. Or looking at all of the projects that need replacing — like highways — helping to heal some of the mistakes that have been made.

What are your favourite public places here and around the world?

One of my favourite public spaces is called Ira’s Fountain. It is an urban square and was done in 1970s but it is designed to recall a mountain stream or waterfall and it’s something that would be difficult to build now because there are some pretty dramatic drops, but it is very powerful and simple. It does recall some of the natural world and it is definitely one of my favourite landscape architecture projects in North America. In Vancouver, I’ve always thought the Seawall is the best piece of landscape architecture. It is just a great amenity for the city and especially as you go around the park, it really has to work with the natural environment. How does it integrate with the rock outcroppings and all that. I’ve always quite liked that part of it. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see the design elements in it but they are really subtle.

What piece of public land would you most like to work on?

Usually I don’t get the choice… usually someone hires us to do something. I guess a project we haven’t done yet… I haven’t done an urban plaza and I would like to do that. There are not a lot of those kinds of projects that are being developed so there is not a lot of opportunity to get those projects, but I would be intrigued in doing smaller, very urban square or plaza.

Like the one you admire in Portland.

I do like big landscapes as well, I initially became a landscape architect because I wanted to be a golf course architect. We do a variety of different scales and we also do a number of play-oriented projects, some skateboard parks and playgrounds, so those are smaller more detail-oriented projects and it’s fun. You can have some freedom with some of those projects.

What is an example of a public place that makes poor use of its space?

One project that I would say has some real potential but feels cut off from the street isCathedral Square. As you walk along, it’s very urban and very downtown, but it doesn’t feel like it is part of the public life. You don’t feel drawn into it.

It feels like private land, closed off for unknown owners.

It has huge potential, but I think a bit part of it doesn’t feel welcoming. You have to work your way past the barriers. I guess it’s elevated a little bit and is a challenging space.

What would you do with it?

If I was to get that project… there is a lot that is already built there. I would try to understand if there is a reason for it to be elevated. There might be something under the ground. I would try to understand why it is working right now, what are the things you would like to keep as part of that design if you came up with a new design that you could integrate and really help fix some of the things that aren’t working. I would expect there would be some substantial changes, but early on it would be trying to really understand that space and why it isn’t functioning as it should be. The design would come out of that analysis.

People in this city do love their parks.

One thing in Vancouver I’ve been encourage to see over the last number of years is that people are asking more of their public spaces and are expecting more. Parks have a really great opportunity to establish character for neighbourhoods and really bring some identity to different neighbourhoods. I think that is something that we would hope to bring to East Fraserlands. I am definitely encouraged by the way I see it trending in Vancouver. People are starting to become more interested in public spaces and ask more. Vancouver is a city where were are not going to be able to build a lot of new parks because there is not a lot of land left to do that. There is a whole network of parks, that over time they will start to be renovated and I would encourage people to participate in that process: voice your opinion and say what you want that park to be. I think that would make parks better in general, the more that people are asking for a high standard in their public spaces as parks are going to have to become more thing for more people. Especially as you add more and more density and bring more people around here, there is not a lot of outdoor space and with so many people living in condos, the parks are becoming people’s yards in some ways. I think there is a huge opportunity for parks to be doing more in the city.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Twitter and Instagram: @MHStewart

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