Archive for the ‘Urban Meditations’ Category

the content of space

As I was walking to work this morning, I came upon a sight I had noticed many times before but never seen: the Ten Commandments.  Conner Memorial Park, a vest-pocket park behind Aspen City Hall, is little used save for Farmers’ Market Saturdays, but this morning I stopped to study it. A large evergreen tree. A dormant drinking fountain. A picnic table and a bench. The usual suspects for a park, I suppose, and yet as I glanced about, I came upon the anomaly for which I stopped.  Beside the park’s sign conspicuously stands a large polished granite slab inscribed with the Ten Commandments floating within a frame of floral filigree.  Did the designer of this park place it here?  Was it added post-design as the Memorial in the Conner Memorial Park? Regardless, whoever located the slab in the park wanted to tell me something, and they felt that something could be best told to me right here.

As landscape architects, we seek to forge space around specific programs.  At best, form and program are clearly linked and a space is used as it was intended. This does not mean to say that a designer is able to predict or control content. Content, or narrative, of a space is left to the user and is highly mutable, subject to volatile change. How many spaces begin as grand and devolve into grimy? How many spaces meant for the use of all are leashed by dog culture, annexed by skateboard theatrics, or simply abandoned?  While a use may stray from the original intent of the space, the narrative that emerges soon defines it.  The design serves as a crucible for human interaction and spatial innovation.  The use of a space defines its content.

Which brings us back to the Ten Commandments. This didactic object, questionably placed within a public park, acts as a catalyst. It raises questions that users choose to ignore or answer. While it does not dictate the content of Conner Memorial Park, it surely goads it on. So how can we as designers influence the content of a space? Could be as simple as an object placed within lawn, yes, like the Ten Commandments, or it could it be something more clandestine, such as materiality or other deftly hidden subtext?

While the content of space is not wholly within the hands of landscape architects, it is within our abilities to create and direct narrative. Need proof? Just head down to Conner Memorial Park.


I’ll meet you at the corner

Is it the planner who defines perceptions of public space or is it the individual user? This chicken and egg conundrum has no definitive answer. Each individual moving through the city from destination to destination has a unique trajectory that ultimately helps define the ever-changing shape of the city. The planner, always on top of the game, recognizes the patterns and trends of the collection of individuals. Working together, the planner and the individual should create meaningful civic spaces. Consider examples of planners taking the tabula rasa approach (think Brasilia) and consider examples of bricolage-style community building (think illegal settlements) and you see can see how one does not work well without the other.

Lets go back to the individual, who is each one of us, as we move through the streets between various destinations. As we walk, negotiating the sidewalk becomes a sort of dance, a unique improvisation of asserting, ceding, drifting and stopping. The route is not without form, as the street grid gives us a structural framework for finding and remembering our way. As we walk, we drift in and out of different states of awareness. Walking down the length of the block we may be lost in our own thoughts, but once we reach an intersection our focus is usually called to some thing or some body that requires our attention. As a nexus of streets and sidewalks, intersections are the most dynamic points in the grid, and the corners are places where we are more likely to have chance encounters, meet friends and greet strangers. They are natural places for pause and conversation, for seeing and being seen. We are more likely to make eye contact with passersby at intersections. Any business located on a corner will double its visibility and often be considered a landmark when giving directions, as in turn right at the cafe.

Viewing intersections in this light, the design possibilities are limitless. Street corners are more than just the intersection of streets and sidewalks, they are points of opportunity, and they could be designed to engage communal fraternization. If it is mandatory that pedestrians stop at crosswalks for traffic signals, we have a captive audience!

Community connections are a hot topic in Aspen these days. We are all excited about pedestrian friendly linkages between the mountain, downtown and river, and hopefully  the city will consider the intersections as key points for design opportunity to enhance our vibrant civic environment.

in praise of alleys

It is obvious that as our cities become denser, the more important open space becomes.  But what defines urban open space?  Parks, plazas and greenways are wonderful expressions of sensitive and functional preservation of land for community use, but there are many unsanctioned spaces just as valuable. We have made it our business to seek out these untapped spaces and, similar to a collector of coins or baseball cards, amass them (at least mentally), waiting for their value to rise. Alleys are one of these untapped spaces.

Alleys are a city’s sleight of hand.  While we shop, dine or trudge off to work along streets, avenues and boulevards, alleys deftly conceal all the unsavory truths of our urban habitation.  Dumpsters, electrical meters, grease traps, smoke breaks, those that want to hide, and those that we want hidden. Alleys become little gray smudges in the urban experience that we observe from our peripheral vision, dark canyons into which we seldom pass. And though the alley and main street are spatially similar, their function differs so wildly that we are unable to see them as mirrored selves; and we are happy to ignore the alley.

Which is understandable.  Next time you find yourself walking with a few minutes to spare, turn towards that gray smudge in the corner of your eye.  Venture down that alley for a few blocks and mark what you see. Garbage, utilities, delivery men, loading docks, air conditioners, exhaust pipes. Note how truly unglamorous the alley is as it humbly accepts all that we need but don’t want to know we need. The esoteric exterior manifestations of interior functions. Delivery and removal of items that seem to exist without origin or grave. The gritty skeletons and organs of our urban lives.

And then look again.  Because we are so willing to ignore alleys, they become spaces available for other uses. Private places for conversation. The real entrances to buildings. Canvases. The impromptu living rooms of smokers seen in two vinyl chairs. Alleys then are not just infrastructure passageways but vital components of the urban landscape, rich and inviting.  And grimy, too. There is a reason we avoid alleys, but development pressure in our ever growing cities may force us to change our opinions of them.  What might they become then?