Envisioning the Future of Community Design for World Landscape Architecture Month

Park visitors
2019 ASLA Professional Honor Award in General Design. Barangaroo Reserve. Sydney, Australia. PWP Landscape Architecture / image: PWP Landscape Architecture

Today marks the start of World Landscape Architecture Month! Given the 2021 WLAM theme of healthy, beautiful, and resilient places for all communities, ASLA’s Community Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team put together a set of thought-provoking, community-focused questions for the PPN’s leaders to address to celebrate the launch of WLAM. Below, we share answers from the Community Design PPN team on a range of topics, from reimagining brownfield sites to what the future of community design may look like post-COVID:

  • Stacey Weaks, ASLA, PPN Co-Chair – Denver, Colorado
  • Scott Redding, ASLA, PPN Co-Chair – Sacramento, California
  • Oliver Penny, ASLA, PPN Officer – Fort Worth, Texas
  • Bob Smith, ASLA, PPN Officer and past Chair – Watkinsville, Georgia

Stacey Weaks, ASLA
Principal, Norris Design
Denver, Colorado

How do you deal with brownfield sites and other types of sites that require remediation for new development? How do you make these reimagined sites an addition to the community fabric and an enhancement of the community environment?

Redevelopment remediation projects require a significant commitment from the lead developer and the teaming partners, including public and private entities. Norris Design has been collaborating on Miller’s Landing in Castle Rock, Colorado, a centrally located property in the Downtown Castle Rock area which historically served as the town’s former landfill. The property recently completed an extensive remediation process. Our team, in collaboration with the Town of Castle Rock and an extensive team of subconsultants, has been guiding the planning, design, and entitlement process to redevelop the 80-acre property, which required complete remediation prior to any redevelopment.

The vision for Miller’s Landing establishes a mixed-use district that diversifies the community fabric to serve the growing Castle Rock area and expand the economic opportunities in the area. A key aspect of the master plan is the establishment of a central Main Street with connections to a restored greenway, linking a critical segment of the trail network between downtown and the regional park and resulting in a healthier environment that would not be possible without the extensive remediation process.

Miller’s Landing rendering / image: Norris Design

What have you been seeing in terms of the impacts of working from home on communities?

Over the past year, we have moved from the tremendous uncertainty of where the planning and design market would go to engaging in a variety of new opportunities, including a range of project types to serve an evolving marketplace. With offices in Arizona, Colorado, and Texas, we are experiencing new residents and businesses transitioning into these marketplaces. This has led to a diverse mix of single family, single family for rent, and multifamily projects to meet the growing housing demand.

The pandemic has brought a renewed emphasis on quality outdoor space and some projects include an increased footprint for outdoor space. We are seeing community reinvestment into new and renovated parks, trails, and urban space. This rediscovery of the value of public space creates exciting opportunities. Yes, the experience is somewhat different today, but we shall return to the days of gathering and sharing concerts, events, or simply enjoying the outdoors together.

What do you foresee for community design post-COVID?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, communities looked to the public realm, multi-modal strategies, and parks and open spaces as opportunities to support health, social well-being, and economic stability. It has become evident that public and private outdoor spaces provide many interrelated benefits to communities at various scales. Community design will focus on the integration of public and private outdoor realm. The private outdoor space may be the front or rear yard, porch, deck, terrace, or other creative area to provide residents access to comfortable, enjoyable outdoor space. The collaboration of the architectural and landscape architectural team is key to maximizing these private spaces. As communities plan housing, retail, and civic projects, this balance of private space as well as public realm are essential to enhance the overall living experience. It is vital for public community space to establish comfortable spaces, whether in a park or plaza setting or a retail/mixed use area.

Programming for the public realm will become more dynamic to create an assortment of places and spaces for people to enjoy comfortably. For example, a park may need more nodes of gathering space to accommodate small groups and provide social distancing. At the same time, these spaces need to be strategically planned for future gatherings for small and large groups as we emerge from the pandemic. This unique time has presented opportunities to rethink our design of private and public realm to continue to enhance each person’s experience as well as the larger community.

Scott Redding, ASLA
Independent Landscape Architect
Sacramento, California

What do you foresee for community design post-COVID?

Post-COVID, community design will have a greater focus on the arrangement and placement of outdoor spaces allowing for flexibility in their use use—whether it be individuals, small family gatherings, or larger groups. Outdoor spaces have always been crucial to the success of the community but due to social distancing, residents may feel more comfortable in smaller, more intimate spaces. These spaces should be more engaging than just a random seating area or moment for pause. For example, designers should look to frame views, provide educational or interactive elements/art, engage the senses including smell, touch, and sound, and provide varying experiences based on the season. This requires us to look at both the macro and micro scale of community design. It will take some time before residents feel comfortable interacting in larger groups/settings—special attention should be given to even the smallest of community spaces.

In the studio, how have you and your firm adapted to today’s workflow to deliver projects and communicate with our clients and the community?

Working from home over the past year has taught us important lessons on the value of communication, both individually and collectively. We have adapted by increasing our use of technology for communicating with staff, our clients, and the community in ways that are more useful and engaging. Meetings are much more organized and concise as we all experienced ‘Zoom fatigue’ early on in the pandemic. Community engagement has been challenging for the same reasons but we have been able to strike a balance by offering different forms of interaction. Aside from a typical web presentation we have utilized online surveys, interactive web forums/portals, and video messaging, as well as increased the use of 3D modeling to fully illustrate and convey our designs. Our next challenge will undoubtedly be the hybrid of working from home and within the office. Trial and error, flexibility, and patience are all a part of adapting to this new way of doing business in the post-COVID world.

Oliver Penny, ASLA
Landscape Designer, Pacheco Koch
Fort Worth, Texas

What do you foresee for community design post-COVID?

There will be a strong demand for developments that genuinely foster community by creating more opportunities for casual, chance encounters with neighbors. Such encounters lay the foundation for developing the deeper ties that lead to a real sense of community. People are yearning for such in-person interactions and have grown tired of their digital substitutes. Even before the pandemic, many of us had become overly reliant on digital devices to fulfill unmet social needs. Landscape architects can play a key role in reversing this trend by designing convivial spaces that draw people out of their smartphones to reconnect with their neighbors and immediate surroundings. Such connections will be crucial for creating the strong, resilient communities needed to face the growing threats tied to climate change.

Bob Smith, PLA, ASLA
Principal, Smith Planning Group
Watkinsville, Georgia

As community planners, we continue to innovate through planning and design. What recent projects have you been involved with that have notable elements enhancing community spaces, connections, and overall experience?

As towns and cities grow, they often grow to surround a thriving industry that serves as an employment center. As the industry grows, sometimes it is impossible to expand nor prudent to expand onto adjacent parcels. More recently, product demand, manufacturing processes, and distribution channels have changed, requiring the industry to move or perhaps completely cease to operate. The sites are then abandoned, along with the accompanying infrastructure such as water and sewer lines that were necessary to support the use. These sites are now prime candidates for redevelopment. The question is: how should the site be developed to respond to the fabric of the surrounding land uses and needs of the community?

To answer this question, Smith Planning Group has recently conducted a series of charrettes to design three separate, but nearby sites. All the sites are abandoned manufacturing sites, two with existing buildings suitable for adaptive reuse, and one site that had been cleared of all structures. Using the principles of traditional neighborhood design, we were successful in the creation of mixed-use communities that respond to the existing fabric of the city.

One project is Wire Park, located on a 67-acre site of a former wire manufacturing plant within the city limits of Watkinsville, GA. The plant was originally constructed in 1965 and was the largest employer in the area, operating three shifts of as many as 180 workers each. Since the plant ceased operations in 2013, the building site has been void of any activity, other than occasional vandalism.

Wire Park / image: Smith Planning Group

The site is now planned for a variety of housing types, including multi-story flats, townhouses, village-style single-family detached houses, and several “estate” lots. The existing 221,000-square-foot building is being repurposed for retail and restaurant uses, along with a variety of “maker spaces.” To make this possible, a portion of the roof was removed to allow natural light to stream into a new courtyard. A public park, complete with a band pavilion, will serve as a distinct unifying feature. Pedestrian paths and broad multi-use trails will link the park and green spaces to a future planned greenway, making the site truly accessible and walkable.

The design approach and vibrancy created in this new mixed-use neighborhood was enough to convince the local library board to move the county library to Wire Park. I can’t think of a better way to enhance this new public space for the benefit of everyone in the community.

This post was written by ASLA’s Community Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team.

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