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


An Urban Dog Park

I’m back from a blogging hiatus, and I’ve got a few sites to post about that I visited during a trip to Seattle earlier this year. The first is a unique little dog park on 6th Avenue, on Amazon’s campus but open to the public, tucked between a tall building and the company’s new “Spheres” near the downtown.

Most leash-free sites that come to mind are the suburban variety with large fenced lawns – although this one is small, it’s a valuable amenity for those urban-dwelling canines who don’t have their own yards to roam. Dogs who live in the city are probably used to smaller, cramped quarters anyway, so they don’t need a lot of space to run around and socialize off-leash.

This little dog park is the best-looking one I’ve ever seen – although the dogs don’t care, their humans probably appreciate the pleasant features of this space. Instead of being separated from the street and other areas with fencing, the designers took advantage of the grade change of the site and included a retaining wall which works very well as a barrier. This wall is an attractive metal gabion which includes a carefully-placed line of aqua-colored glass stones along the center.

The park also contains a little patch of lawn (artificial, I’m assuming); rocks (for peeing?); a dog-height drinking fountain; and a multi-level platform (perhaps so the pups can play “king of the hill”). And, of course, there’s the requisite doggy poop bag station. The whole park looks like it’s regularly washed down to keep things clean.

I rate this space as a win-win for both the dogs and their people.
Photo by Alice Webb

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.
A central lawn, pergola with benches, and other seating areas provide plenty of opportunities for relaxation.
Fountain near the north end of the park
Seating wall along the west side of the space
Café with outdoor seating at the south end
The park is flanked by several attractive art deco buildings.
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
Cambridge Common Playground 4
Climbing net on a hillside
Cambridge Common Playground 5
A custom wooden structure, slide, and tunnel
Cambridge Common Playground 6
Water play station (too cold in March for the water to be turned on yet)
Cambridge Common Playground 7
One of several attractive custom wooden benches
Cambridge Common Playground 8
Custom wooden picnic table and seats
Cambridge Common Playground 9
Sculptural entry gate
Cambridge Common Playground 10
Logs provide a balance challenge
Cambridge Common Playground 11
Wooden “ship”
Cambridge Common Playground 12
Double slide embedded in a mound
Photos by Alice Webb

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.

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

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

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

Chinatown Park, Boston

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is a 15-acre linear urban space in downtown Boston, sited on land where Interstate 93 was previously located (now in a tunnel below). The greenway has been criticized for not being designed cohesively; however, the space should instead be considered as a series of disparate urban parks, each with its own merits.

One of the better-conceived spaces along this route is Chinatown Park, located at the southern end of the greenway. It was designed by Carol R. Johnson Associates, a Boston-based landscape architecture firm. The park is approximately three-quarter acre in size, and includes a curvilinear path with red sculptural features, a waterfall fountain and stream, plants native to Asia, and a plaza for festivals and other activities. China’s culture, history, and natural scenery are all represented by the park’s elements.

Chinatown Park 1
This bold, modern gate at the north entrance of the park is a counterpoint to the ornate, traditional Chinese gate to the south (shown in later photo). Red is a very popular color in China, representing good fortune and joy.

Chinatown Park 2
North park entrance – The sculpture in background is entitled “Zheng He’s Mizzen Sail”. The park’s pavement pattern symbolizes the scales of a dragon.

Chinatown Park 3
The waterfall fountain is composed of reclaimed seawall stones, acquired from a part of the Boston Harbor where many Chinese immigrants arrived.

Chinatown Park 4
Recirculating stream, flowing from the waterfall fountain

Chinatown Park 5
The park includes Peonies and many other plants of Asian origin.

Chinatown Park 6
“Bamboo curtains” at southern end of serpentine walkway

Chinatown Park 7
Plaza at southern end of park

Chinatown Park 8
The traditional Chinese gate can be seen at the south end of the plaza.
Photos by Alice Webb