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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Mid-Century Playgrounds – Imaginative Fun

Starting in the 1950s and extending into the ‘70s, playground design took a creative turn, away from the galvanized steel structures of yore. Instead of specifying manufactured pieces, designers began to customize entire play areas. Concrete, brick, and other hard materials were used extensively. Several playgrounds built in this style can be found in Central Park, New York City, (photos below). Some of these have been upgraded, maintaining the integrity of the original designs, while complying with today’s safety standards. I like the sculptural qualities and connectivity of the climbers and other features, in addition to the water play areas incorporated in several of the playgrounds. However, I found the spaces to be rather cold and drab in appearance. In my opinion, interspersing some low- and mid-sized plant materials throughout these playgrounds, (not just along the perimeters), would turn them into more inviting spaces and add play value to the sites.

1 - Ancient Playground A
Ancient Playground in Central Park, NYC, next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

2 - Ancient Playground B
Ancient Playground in Central Park, NYC, next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

3 - Adventure Playground A
Adventure Playground in Central Park, NYC

4 - Adventure Playground B
Water play in the Adventure Playground

5 - Adventure Playground C
Water play in the Adventure Playground

6 - Heckscher Playground A
Hecksher Playground in Central Park, NYC

7 - Heckscher Playground B
Hecksher Playground in Central Park (water play section)

Photos by Alice Webb

On the Ground – Creative Pavements in Montreal

While visiting Montreal recently, I came across a number of public spaces with attractively-patterned pavement, many combining various types of stone. My favorite was Place d’Armes, which was renovated in recent years, but other fine examples are shown below as well.

Montreal plazas 1
Place d’Armes, in Old Montreal, includes smooth granite pavers in various shades of gray, interspersed with stripes of pinkish cobles. The custom-designed tree gates coordinate well with the coble patterns.

Montreal plazas 2
The cobbles in the streets surrounding Place d’Armes are repeated in random stripes within the perimeter of the plaza.

Montreal plazas 3
The large, central, open area of the Place d’Armes includes gray granite pavers punctuated by these pink ones sporting fleurs-de-lis.

Montreal plazas 4
The renovated Square Dorchester includes pavers with a range of textures. The smoothest ones shine both during day and evening, giving the walkways a glittery appearance.

Montreal plazas 5
Intermittent crosses in the pavement at Square Dorchester, formed with rough-textured pavers, signify the historic use of this space as a burying ground.

Montreal plazas 6
Stripes of colored concrete pavers in various hues and sizes at Place Ville Marie

Montreal plazas 7
Metal drainage grates serve nicely as linear accents in this park next to Montreal’s convention center.

Montreal plazas 8
An attractive pattern of concrete pavers and tree grates

Montreal plazas 9
Strips of white pavers repeat the linear pattern of water jets in the Place des Festivals.

Photos by Alice Webb

Halprin Parks of Portland

Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009) was a prominent American landscape architect who designed many modernist parks, plazas, fountains, and other projects, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of his works feature poured-in-place concrete forms and running water that represent natural elements and processes. In Portland, Oregon, Halprin’s firm designed a series of three public spaces, which I visited in May of this year. The water in the fountains had been turned off at that time, but presumably would be back on during the summer months, since the fountains are meant to be accessible.

Sadly, some notable modernist landscapes have been poorly-maintained and at risk of demolition and re-design. Several of Halprin’s works have been threatened in this manner, but The Cultural Landscape Foundation has brought attention to these and other endangered landscapes through its Landslide education campaign. So far, Halprin’s Portland parks have not been considered at-risk.


Keller Fountain Park: The design of the Ira Keller Fountain (water turned off at time of photo) was inspired by the waterfalls of the Colombia River Gorge.


Keller Fountain Park: The fountain was designed to be accessible and therefore has 36” safety barriers along the edges.


Pettygrove Park includes this sculpture called “The Dreamer” by Manuel Izquierdo. In summer the pool surrounding the sculpture is filled with water.


Pettygrove Park features circular and curvilinear forms, and includes numerous grass mounds.


Lovejoy Fountain Park: Fountain and “stepping stones” (water turned off)


Lovejoy Fountain Park: The lower pool of the fountain is in foreground, with modernist-style buildings lining the east edge of the park.


Pleasant pedestrian walkways connect the Halprin parks in Portland.

Photos by Alice Webb