Freeway Park, Seattle

I had the opportunity to visit Jim Ellis Freeway Park in downtown Seattle last June – an iconic public space designed by landscape architects Lawrence Halprin & Angela Danadjieva. It was the first park built over a freeway, and was conceived as a means of re-connecting neighborhoods that were severed from the downtown when Interstate 5 was built. The original section of the park was opened on July 4, 1976 – the nation’s bicentennial.

The park’s structures were designed in the brutalist style that was in vogue at the time, including board-formed concrete walls, planters, and fountain elements. Also, Halprin envisioned the character of this space as “freeway vernacular” (hence the emphasis on concrete), while representing the region’s mountain ranges with the various heights and shapes of the fountain structures. Waterfalls were a large part of the fountains during the early years of the park, and effectively masked the noise from vehicular traffic on the freeway below. However, due to maintenance and safety concerns, some of the fountains were shut off in more recent years. When I visited, no water was running, and I don’t know whether the fountains are turned on at all during the summer.

Plantings throughout the park were also designed to help mask freeway noise and to reduce vehicular pollution. The plant communities represent those typically found in the natural areas of the nearby mountains, and include many mature trees and broadleaf evergreen shrubs.

Urban parks built in this style in the decades following World War II have often suffered from neglect in recent years, but this space seems to be relatively well-maintained and appreciated, at least for now. I hope the interest and support for Freeway Park will persist into the future.


Main fountain structure in Freeway Park


Typical zig-zag walkway with seating


One of several park entrances


Smaller fountain structure next to one of the park’s plazas


Typical seating design


Main fountain structure, sans water

Photos by Alice Webb

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Post Office Square, Boston

In Boston’s financial district, a lovely 1.7-acre park is nestled between the office buildings, giving workers and others a pleasant respite for enjoying lunch and relaxation. Post Office Square, also known as Norman B. Leventhal Park, features numerous trees and other plantings, an open lawn, a pergola along one boundary, fountains, and a café. This space is privately-owned and maintained, but open to the public. It was completed in 1992 on a site that was formerly occupied by an above-ground garage. Parking is now located below the property.
 
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A central lawn, pergola with benches, and other seating areas provide plenty of opportunities for relaxation.
 
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Fountain near the north end of the park
 
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Seating wall along the west side of the space
 
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Café with outdoor seating at the south end
 
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The park is flanked by several attractive art deco buildings.
 
Photos by Alice Webb

North End Parks, Boston

On a chilly, windy Sunday back in late March, I walked the majority of the Rose Kennedy Greenway while visiting Boston. I found that most areas were devoid of visitors, except for the North End Parks and the southern-most tip at the Chinatown gate (which always seems to have activity). The two North End parcels (divided by a cross street) include a spacious steel pergola running along the east perimeter, facing a lawn and linear water play areas. I imagine that these spaces attract big crowds in summer, judging from the amount of use they got on the cold day I visited. The parks feel quite connected to the city, with views in all directions of downtown and north end buildings, as well as the iconic Zakim bridge. However, ample plantings and some grade separations help to segregate these spaces comfortably from the busy perimeter streets.
 
North End Parks 1
All the swinging benches in the pergolas were occupied at the time – unfortunately, I’ve heard that they’ve been removed due to maintenance/safety issues, and replaced with standard benches (which were there before).
 
North End Parks 2
 
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Area with water play jets
 
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North End Parks 5
 
Photos by Alice Webb

An Uncommon Playground

I finally got to visit the play area on the Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts – A superbly-designed space with hills, custom wooden structures, sand and water play areas, logs, plants, and other fun and unusual components. It includes many elements that help define a successful playground – one modeled on natural features that fosters imaginative, open-ended play. Although there weren’t many children there when I visited (likely due to cold weather and other plans on Easter Sunday), I could tell that the playground is well-used and loved, with sand tracked all over the place!
 
Cambridge Common Playground 1
A challenging wooden climber
 
Cambridge Common Playground 2
Sand play station
 
Cambridge Common Playground 3
Swings, plants, rocks, and a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round
 
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Climbing net on a hillside
 
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A custom wooden structure, slide, and tunnel
 
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Water play station (too cold in March for the water to be turned on yet)
 
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One of several attractive custom wooden benches
 
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Custom wooden picnic table and seats
 
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Sculptural entry gate
 
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Logs provide a balance challenge
 
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Wooden “ship”
 
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Double slide embedded in a mound
 
Photos by Alice Webb

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.
 
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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.
 
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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.
 
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Grand Canal Square, Docklands, Dublin, Ireland
 
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Earthly Pond Service Center, International Horticulture Exposition, Qingdao, China
 
Aerial 6
Superkilen (south section), Copenhagen, Denmark
 
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Superkilen (north section), Copenhagen, Denmark
 
All images obtained from Google Earth.

High Line at the Rail Yards

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Water Features in the Landscape

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

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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