cover - WSDCC playground

Kids from impoverished sections of my city don’t often get to play in natural settings, since they typically live in apartment houses and buildings with little to no yard space. That has recently changed for some lucky preschoolers at the Webster Square Day Care Center here in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The center, which operates out of the lower level of a church, wanted to update their playground, which then consisted of scattered equipment within a sand surface. Originally their goal was to simply change the surfacing to a safer material that would be acceptable under current state requirements for day care centers. However, I convinced them to take the renovation a step further and add some nature-based features for a more enriching play experience.

My firm developed plans for this playground, and the day care center received several grants which funded the improvements over a period of a couple years. Since the budget was fairly limited, we retained the existing play equipment, keeping the larger pieces in their pre-existing locations and moving the smaller items. Plants, rocks, stepping stones, logs, water and sand play tables, musical chimes, and a vegetable garden were added to the space.

Although the playground is used exclusively by the day care center during the weekdays, it is open in the evenings and on weekends for use by neighborhood children. The kids get a lot of enjoyment out of this space, and I’m told that the natural features are particularly popular. A few “before” and “after” photos are included below to illustrate the improvements.

1 - before - west end A
BEFORE:  A couple of play panels, sand surfacing, weeds, and an ugly fence (owned by the neighbors) were all that existed on the west side of the playground. The wooded area behind the play area is on adjacent property.


2 - after - west end A
AFTER: Relocated play house, plants (including shrubs which will grow to hide the fence), stepping logs, & chimes. The drums are portable, stored in a nearby shed.



3 - before - west end B
BEFORE: West end of the playground


4 - after - west end B
AFTER:  Lots of enjoyment from a few simple features



5 - before - east end
BEFORE: East end of the playground


6 - after - east end
AFTER:  Rocks and plants create a space for imaginative play.



7 - before - central area
BEFORE:  Central section of playground


8 - after - central area
AFTER:  Existing play equipment was retained, engineered wood fiber safety surfacing was installed, and a sand table was added. An at-grade sand play area is situated behind the table.



9 - before - garden area
BEFORE:  Unused, weedy area west of the existing shed


10 - after - garden area
AFTER:  A raised vegetable garden for the children to learn about growing food
Photos by Alice Webb and the Webster Square Day Care Center staff

Deco Details

Straying once again from the subject of landscape architecture, I am posting some photos of my favorite style of historic architecture. Art Deco buildings are not very common in the northeastern U.S., and I always get excited when I see a well-designed structure in this style, especially those with interesting details. Below are a few examples I’ve photographed during the last couple of years. Also, you can check out more on this subject in two of my previous posts: Miami Beach Art Deco and Art Deco in New York City.
A - 111 Eighth Avenue NYC
111 Eighth Avenue building, New York City
B - American Radiator Bldg. NYC
American Radiator building, New York City
F - Film Center NYC
Film Center building, New York City
E - Higgins Armory Building, Worcester MA
Higgins Armory building (former museum), Worcester, MA
D - Empire Diner NYC
Empire Diner, New York City
G - Grand theater, Ellsworth ME
Grand Theater, Ellsworth, ME
H - Greenwich Substation NYC
Greenwich Substation, New York City
I - NET&T bldg in Worcester MA
New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. building, Worcester, MA
C - Coca cola bldg in Worcester MA
Coca Cola building (former bottling plant), Worcester, MA
J - Salvation Army Bldg. 1 NYC
Salvation Army building, New York City
K - Salvation Army Bldg. 2 NYC
Salvation Army building, New York City
L - Starrett-Lehigh Bldg. NYC
Starrett-Lehigh building, New York City
Photos by Alice Webb, except Higgins Armory building photo (obtained from Wikimedia Commons, and cropped).

Landscape as Art

While attending an outdoor concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the late 1990s, I remember feeling curious about a seemingly odd series of large shapes in various materials lined up between the museum building and the amphitheater. I also wondered about the geometric forms protruding from the stage in strange directions, and a gray-painted rectangle superimposed on part of theater seating area. I never closely investigated the objects, being more interested in the musical entertainment at that time. Then I happened to see an aerial image of the site, discovering that the shapes are actually letters spelling “Picture This”— clever, but really only when viewed from above. I later learned that some of the letters include phrases that reference the history, culture, and landscape of North Carolina – at least that is something to be gained when viewing the objects at ground level, where most people see them.
Aerial 1
“Picture This”, a sculptural installation at the North Carolina Museum of Art
In my opinion, for art to successfully function as part of the landscape of a public space, it not only needs to be comprehensible from eye level; it also should communicate well with its surroundings. Furthermore, the design should include a sufficient amount of elements at human scale (such as seating and planted areas), especially when a plan includes vast expanses of pavement. In recent years, various blogs I’ve followed have included striking images of public landscapes with interesting flowing forms, geometric lines and shapes, and bright colors. Many of these photos, however, were taken from above. For some projects, aerial images were the only ones included, which makes me wonder whether these spaces truly work: Are they comfortable and inviting places? Do people tend to linger in these settings, or are they devoid of much activity?
One such project that intrigues me is the seafront promenade in Benidorm, Spain, probably because of its rainbow of pavement colors and curvy walls which mimic ocean waves. I haven’t visited this beach, so I couldn’t say whether it succeeds as a public space, but I like how each color lends some identity to every section of this extensive walkway, instead of repeating the same pattern and/or colors along its entire length. I think that certain unifying elements are important throughout any type of site design; but long, linear spaces should include some variety as well, to avoid creating a monotonous experience along these corridors.
Aerial 2
Seafront promenade, Benidorm, Spain
For comparison, in another part of Spain, a median promenade along the Avenida de Portugal, in Madrid, includes large flower motifs throughout its length, referencing a valley in the region known for its cherry blossoms. The median is actually the roof of a highway tunnel, and the image below only shows one portion of this walkway. I’m curious to know whether this space is well-used.
Aerial 3
Avenida de Portugal, Madrid, Spain
The following aerial images include a few more public spaces which are fascinating and attractive when viewed in two dimensions. Some of these and others that I’ve seen in photos from above make me think of abstract paintings or fiber art works. Do they function well in 3-D at human level? I will reserve judgment until and unless I have the chance to experience them in person. (Even photos taken from the ground don’t often give me a sense of how a space feels.) If any of my readers have been to these or other sites with an emphasis on artistic forms, I would love to hear some comments.
Aerial 4
Grand Canal Square, Docklands, Dublin, Ireland
Aerial 5
Earthly Pond Service Center, International Horticulture Exposition, Qingdao, China
Aerial 6
Superkilen (south section), Copenhagen, Denmark
Aerial 7
Superkilen (north section), Copenhagen, Denmark
All images obtained from Google Earth.

City Creek Center

During a recent visit to Salt Lake City, I had some time to check out an upscale outdoor mall in the heart of the city. I typically dislike shopping malls, especially the indoor variety, but even many of the newer open-air types are trying too hard to duplicate quaint old urban streets (and failing). City Creek Center’s site, designed by the landscape architecture firm, SWA Group, has a different focus: celebrating a stream that historically ran through the downtown area, most of which is now buried underground. Each of two sections of this mall (divided by a city street) includes a recirculating water feature that represents a creek and flows along the middle of the shopping center’s walkways. The streams also meander in some places and turn to follow perpendicular entrance corridors, terminating with waterfalls at the connecting streets. A variety of fountains (including an interactive ground-level set of jets) can also be found along the pedestrian areas, combining with the creek to provide a pleasant water-centric experience. This is one mall that I actually enjoyed visiting – not to shop, but to hang out with an iced coffee and take in the sights and sounds around me.


City Creek Center 1
The streams include numerous footbridges, most of which are made of decorative metal, as shown.


City Creek Center 2
Native trout inhabit several areas of the creeks.


City Creek Center 3
The recirculating creeks flow along the center of the walkways. Narrow slot drains on each side of the stream catch runoff from rainfall (one of which is visible in this photo). I have wondered how the mall handles snow removal, however.


City Creek Center 4
A wider section of creek


City Creek Center 5
A fountain accents one of the central intersections of the mall. Water on its opposite side falls in a sheet off the rim, contrasting with the stepped edge on this side.


City Creek Center 6
Another interesting fountain at City Creek Center


City Creek Center 7
The site design takes advantage of the area’s sloping topography, with a waterfall flowing into the mall from South Temple Street.


City Creek Center 8
A recirculating waterfall also flows from the mall to the adjoining street south of the site.


City Creek Center 9
Nature-themed fencing and chairs adorn the sidewalks on either side of the street that splits the mall. These areas were designed as part of the project.
Photos by Alice Webb

On a recent March weekend while visiting New York City, I had the opportunity to walk the newest section of the High Line that opened last September. This half-mile long segment wraps around a large storage yard for commuter trains, between West 30th and West 34th Streets, with a nice view of the Hudson River along part of its length. The final 1/3 mile of this new phase is currently open as an interim walkway, to be completed once the neighboring Hudson Yards mixed-use development is built on a platform over the train yard.

One can now walk the entire 1.5-mile length of this former freight train trestle. It’s become a very popular place for both locals and visitors, with a steady stream of walkers even on the cool and windy day when I was there. The High Line ranks as one of my favorite urban parks, with a creative design that incorporates many references to its historic railway usage. I also enjoy the numerous interesting views of the city from 30 feet above the streets.

Be sure to check out my other two blog posts on this terrific linear park: Up on the High Line and The High Line, Section 2.


High Line at the Rail Yards 1
The Grasslands Grove features a variety of “peel-up” furnishings, including benches, a picnic table, a see-saw rocker, and a chime feature for children. This signature style of site amenity can be seen along many parts of the High Line.


High Line at the Rail Yards 2
Stacked seating borders the section that parallels West 30th Street, near a new building that is under construction to the north. The landscape near the High Line in this area will be changing over the next few years as tall buildings transform the low-lying rail yards site.


High Line at the Rail Yards 3
The high line’s original rail tracks are exposed and now function as walkways in three places along the route, referencing the park’s former use. Aggregate bonded with an adhesive was installed between the ties, creating a very firm and level surface, accessible to wheelchairs.


High Line at the Rail Yards 4
A row of benches flanks the 11th Avenue “Bridge” (to the left of the photo), a section of walkway that arches somewhat above the surrounding surfaces. The rail yards can be seen to the right.


High Line at the Rail Yards 5
The Pershing Square Beams: A children’s play area featuring an exposed portion of the High Line’s original framework, and also including entertaining elements such as periscopes and a “gopher hole”. In the warmer months, perennial plantings sprout up in the spaces between some of the beams.


High Line at the Rail Yards 6
The interim walkway includes the original tracks with self-seeded plants (as the High Line had appeared for many years after the trains stopped running in 1980). It becomes a lush green linear meadow during the warmer seasons. The walkway portion is surfaced with bonded aggregate, flush with the intersecting rail lines. The High Line curves to the right to run parallel with the Hudson River in the distance.


High Line at the Rail Yards 7
Large stacked timbers serve as seating at this section of the interim walkway, somewhat reminiscent of oversized railroad ties.


High Line at the Rail Yards 8
The interim walkway slopes down to its terminus at West 34th Street.
Photos by Alice Webb

Aside from inducing a sense of calm, moving water tends to have a psychologically cooling effect, and it softens or masks surrounding noise. In the built landscape, it can be incorporated in many ways. Examples below illustrate some of that variety: a few of these features are meant to be interactive while others are not; several of them emphasize the water, which is more subtle or secondary in other cases; and some were designed to mimic nature whereas others are geometric in pattern or form. In all cases, the inclusion of water clearly adds to the appeal of these outdoor spaces.


Water feature 1
Playful jets in Place des Festivals, Montreal, Quebec


Water feature 2
Waterfall in the Split Basin, CityGarden, St. Louis, Missouri


Water feature 3
Rock wall resembling natural strata with water seeping out, Teardrop Park, New York City


Water feature 4
Fountain in the Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon


Water feature 5
Interactive fountain in Portland, Oregon, that alternates between jets and mist


Water feature 6
Sculpture with trickling water in the Rose Test Garden, Portland, Oregon


Water feature 7
Water feature in Portland, Oregon


Water feature 8
Waterfall and channel, Chinatown Park, Boston


Water feature 9
Mosaic fountain, Lincoln Road pedestrian mall, Miami Beach, Florida


Water feature 10
Planter with falling water in a courtyard, Miami Beach, Florida
All photos by Alice Webb, except the following:
Photo with bear sculptures/fountain in Portland, Oregon, by Nancy Novell

Miami Beach Art Deco

Since we’re in the depths of winter here in the northern U.S., I’m sharing some photos of art deco buildings in Miami Beach, in happy pastel colors to help melt away the cold weather blues! I’ve always been a fan of this style of historic architecture, and am happy to see these buildings so well-preserved. For more on this topic, check out my post on art deco in New York City.


Deco district (1024x687) (2)


Avalon (728x1024)


Barbizon (1024x768)


Berkeley Shore (1024x796)


Blue & purple bldg (1024x669)


Boat-like hotel (1024x588)


Breakwater (683x1024)


Cavalier (1024x724)


Colony (683x1024)


Deco detail (1024x572)


Delano (1024x727)


Loews (683x1024)


Marlin (683x1024)


McAlpin (794x1024)


Park Central 3 (1024x667)


Starlite (683x1024)


Waldorf Towers (890x1024)


Winter Haven 2 (683x1024)
Photos by Alice Webb


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