Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Construction at the Brook House in Brookline MA Nears Completion

Bill Pressley and Mike White have been working on a complete re-design of the landscaping at the Brook house creating a more beautiful, tranquil and colorful atmosphere to come home to. 

View A
The existing water feature has been improved to include new ashlar stone veneer, lighting and a dry stream throughout the north lawn that includes stone boulders and planting with year round seasonal interest.

View B, View C and View D
Careful attention was paid to the selection of perennial and evergreen plant material to provide a variety of color and texture throughout the year.

View E
The incorporation of the dry stream with stone boulders and planting throughout the north lawn engages viewers along this busy thoroughfare and strengthens the existing water feature beyond.

View F and View G
Facade improvements at this main entrance to the development include new signage, glass and steel building canopy, awnings, lighting and planting. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Q&A: Marion Pressley, Landscape Architect

Q&A: Marion Pressley, Landscape Architect
Olmsted Park restoration by Pressley Associates
Courtesy Marion Pressley
Marion Pressley, FASLA, is principal at Pressley Associates. In addition to her practice, Pressley has taught for the past 40 years landscape history at the Landscape Institute of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, and now at the Landscape Institute at Boston Architectural College. Marion received the 2004 BSA Women in Design Award of Excellence and the 2002 Massachusetts Horticultural Society Gold Medal Award.

Jared Green: For almost 30 years, you have restored and updated Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his famed system of parks. What has this project taught you about Olmsted? What do you think he did best? What do you think he should’ve done differently?

Marion Pressley: We started on it in 1984, and, actually, I worked on some parts of the system back in the mid-seventies. It has been a long time. It was part of an important statewide-Olmsted initiative that included 12 park sites.

What it really taught me is the man had the ability to not worry about politics. This system is owned by two municipalities and the parkway is under state jurisdiction. You have Brookline, with a small amount of the Emerald Necklace, and Boston, with the majority of the Necklace. When he designed it, he really didn’t care who owned it. In Olmsted Park along Riverdale Parkway, the system for pedestrians was sometimes on the Boston side and sometimes on the Brookline side. For him, this was one landscape. He reset the boundaries between the municipalities. That’s really one the most important things I learned about what he was doing.
I haven’t really looked to see if there’s other park systems he worked on that have been owned by different entities. I don’t know of one. Buffalo, the first system of parks he designed, was owned by Buffalo.

What he did best is bring all the parties together as he did the design. So that’s the attitude we took with the rehabilitation: This was one park and all groups met together. It didn’t matter whether you were municipal or state; everything was done that way. That’s possibly the best thing he accomplished when he created this system of parks and parkways.

What would he have done differently? One thing he never really thought about is the maintenance of these parks. The maintenance could be uneven because one town could have more money than the other. One might have a different aesthetic than the other, even though Olmsted designed it as one place. He also didn’t foresee as much active recreation coming into any flat space it possibly could, although I think it was late enough for him to recognize it would happen. He didn’t really provide a lot of space for active recreation. His Emerald Necklace was really a passive, linear system. You would pass through it in a linear way. That’s one of the things he might have done differently.
In his writings, there was one thing about Central Park that struck me: if his landscape was still intact 50 years or 100 years from now, he would know he’s been successful. The best thing he’s achieved is that this system has held itself together. The individual parks have had some changes. Some of the changes came with the dam going in, and changing saltwater to fresh at the Fens, but he created a system that was able to sustain itself.

Olmsted Park pathways by Pressley Associates
Courtesy Marion Pressley

JG: With your deep understanding of Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs, what do you think he would make of Boston today? What would he approve of? What developments would dismay him?

MP: He would very much approve of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and Brookline, Boston, and the state, getting together and recognizing it as one park. He would be amazed that it happened, in some ways. He would be really pleased with the fact that the park system has maintained itself. Different ownerships really could have allowed it to split. He would be most pleased that his vision continues today.

One of the things that would dismay him is the fact that most of the understory areas in critical places, like the Riverway and Olmsted Park, were wiped out over time. But this happened in all parks. It happened in universities. It happened everywhere where people all of a sudden felt unsafe, so the shrub and herbaceous layer had to be wiped out. That’s something that he wouldn’t have foreseen.
All of his plantings were very dense — if you look at photos in 1906, a few years after it was finished in 1895, and then, the 1920s, you see it as he envisioned. He was trying to use the density of the planting to achieve the picturesque. To see these plants totally wiped out would have upset him, because he was trying to create and control views with the plants. He was creating this vegetation with openings in it, so you could see the water. There was a very definite sequence of open and closed and open and closed, as you went down through. The fact now that some areas that are just totally open or totally closed off would really disturb him.

Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Courtesy Nigel Young

JG: Beyond Olmsted, you’ve worked on other important historic landscapes, too. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston recently got a Norman Foster design addition. His new building sits right on top of a courtyard created by landscape architect Arthur Shurtleff, a site you had updated in the 1990s. I understand you were brought back in after the Foster additions. How did you reconcile the remnants of the old Shurtleff design with the new Foster one?

MP: We were frustrated when it happened because there’s not a lot of Arthur Shurtleff’s work in existence that you can go and see. The 1928 courtyard had been closed and went into benign neglect. They literally just closed the door and left it like that for many, many years. The trees were still extant. All four were growing beautifully. The Shurtleff landscape was extant. So the reopening and rehabilitation was a fairly easy thing. It was frustrating given it was such a perfect example of his work, to see them take it out. But the new building is beautiful.
We were brought in by one of the major donors from the museum, who was very concerned the landscape hadn’t achieved what they had hoped it was going to achieve. So we were called in to look at it. It was mostly vegetation that they were concerned about; they wanted a native woodland theme. Interestingly, Foster kept a part of the Shurtleff design, because the building was placed within a sunken area in the middle of the courtyard.
In the Shurtleff design there was a pool with a fountain, four major deciduous trees, and plantings. There were these outer areas that were lower in elevation that were like long slots containing garden quality sculpture, paving, and plantings. Those edges are what remained as four small courtyards, when Foster’s building addition was constructed within the courtyard.
What Foster did was a very unique thing. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, you should go into the museum. As you’re walking through the new building you see into the four courtyards or what are now called slot gardens. It’s quite beautiful, actually. As you’re walking through the museum, and everything’s always so enclosed, all of a sudden, you get this little vignette of woodland planting and sculpture. This just happens all the way around, and it’s a very nice thing.

Glass House Landscape Restoration by Pressley Associates
Courtesy Pressley Associates

JG: You also have worked on the landscape surrounding Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the other buildings in that compound so they are more accessible. What was it like to work with Johnson’s vision of this place and update this historic landscape?

MP: We were asked by the National Trust to make it possible for people to get into the Glass House, and the brick house, its counterpoint, and other structures: the sculpture studio, the painting studio, the Monsta, etc. What we were most concerned about was the main core area. We were asked to do this to meet current codes without destroying it.

Putting ramps all over the place would’ve been a disaster, so we looked very closely at the grading and met the 5-percent rule. We just re-graded paths slightly in order to achieve the right pitch. We had an idea, which we’ve used at one of our Harvard projects many years ago: a temporary ramp that is brought out, put down, and allows you to not have these ramps all over the place. The temporary ramp allows you to provide access for a person in the wheelchair or with a cane and then take it away.
This is all possible because every visitor has to check in at the historical society before they are taken to the site. The society knows before anybody comes if there’s a need for universal access so when they put them on the bus and bring them there, they’re all set for it. It has been working beautifully because we didn’t have to totally change the landscape. We were able to re-grade pathways, including his little eyebrow bridge. We were able to work with the local municipality so we did not have to put in handrails.

In short, we were able to make it like when you go in for a haircut and you come out and don’t want anybody to know you had your haircut.

East Boston Piers Park
Courtesy Kaki Martin

JG: Among your contemporary projects, you have done some wonderful work in Boston. You have transformed some brownfields into real community assets. In East Boston, you turned an old pier that was a brownfield into a park. A 600-foot long promenade takes visitors out into the water, where they get some of the best views of the city. What was the experience of that project working with the community? And what do you think the legacy of that project is in East Boston?

MP: A park was a very important thing for the community of East Boston. I don’t know how much you know about this Boston community, but these were the same women who had been out at the Boston airport runways with their baby carriages, telling Massport that they couldn’t put in more runways. You had a group of people who absolutely wanted a park. They had also lost an Olmsted park, which now sits under an airport runway. This was absolutely the most important thing to this community. They wanted it to be a community park for everyone. They wanted it to be the best park it could possibly be. They worked very, very hard to get it. They were absolutely great fun to work with, actually.
The site was a brownfield. It has three feet of cover. There’s the layer so you know when you hit it. The whole park had to be raised because of flooding. If we knew what we know today, we probably would’ve raised it higher. But at that time, three feet was enough.
The pier was the only solid piece. It was an area where grain and other goods were delivered. There were larger wooden boardwalks on either side. But there was this core of soil and, basically, riprap on the sides. We were able to save that as this 600-foot linear pier.
It’s a very popular place for wedding pictures. The park is heavily used. It has playgrounds, spray pools, an amphitheater, and an exercise area. It has everything these people wanted.
The pier promenade gives them the view of the city. They have one of the absolutely best views of Boston.

East Boston Piers Park

Pope John Paul Park II
Courtesy Kathry O’Kane

JG: You also transformed a landfill into a park. With the Pope John Paul II Park, your firm built natural land forms, brought back native plants, created meadows set within wetlands. What were the challenges in making all that a reality?

Another very important brownfield, but, of course, brownfields always so much depend on the engineers, as it did with the East Boston piers. The engineers made it possible to have these things happen. In this particular case, we were able to do more with the site.
We had a garbage dump and we had a drive-in theater. The dump was used for trash for years. That’s why there’s this rolling landscape, which we kept and accentuated.
All of the area had completely become overgrown with invasive plants. The landscape was a complete urban wild. But it was still an important park to these people, even in that condition because everybody walked their dog there. There were paths people had cut through themselves. Nobody had made it into a park. It was a community asset, as far as they were concerned, for certain things.
Again, we had a very active community. We worked with a state agency. At that time, it was the Metropolitan District Commission.

We were able to create wetland areas. Because this area is tidal, just like Piers Park, there’s a nine-foot tidal change of water here.

Pope John Paul Park II
Courtesy Kathry O’Kane

We were able to do what they wanted: A place where they could walk or wander through. There were plantings and an area of community gardens. There were shade structures that looked out over the water.

We took the brownfield area that was the drive-in theater, which was really one of the more contaminated areas, and turned it into a series of fields now mostly used for soccer. That was very popular. A playground with a shelter structure was also added. This became a totally new park with both active and passive uses. The community invested in its design.

JG: Lastly, looking over your multi-decade career, what advice do you have for young people who want to get into landscape architecture today? What special advice do you have to those who want to focus on historic preservation and design?

MP: One of the hard parts about going into preservation is that most of our academic institutions don’t really teach you enough landscape architectural history to make you an authority on even American landscapes. Forget about European or Asian or any place else. Most of us who are in this field at my age, and who started in the early seventies, are self-taught in many ways. What it really means is you need to build up a base of understanding of history. If you’re going to do preservation, you need to understand the theories and how things were done at particular times. You need to obtain this knowledge by either supplementing it with additional courses or you need to teach yourself.
There are some programs that are trying very much to add to this. There are four or five programs now doing this. Georgia is definitely one. I know ESF has a program. Education is an important piece and hopefully they will expand it, but no matter how much they expand it, you really have to know your history to know when you walk into a design what you’re looking at. You have to know what its context is. There’s so much you have to know to do these cultural landscape reports. It’s a process of self-education.

For example, with Steepletop, which was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house, you have to look at other writers and artists who had similar landscapes during the period of significance. The homes of Edith Wharton, Robert Frost, or Theodore Dreiser are examples. There’s a whole series of these people, who were writers who created their own landscapes. You have to have that context in order to know what you’re preserving or bringing back. You have to know what’s important and what has integrity.
I would advise young landscape architects entering this field that they have to realize there’s going to be a lot of work they have to do before they get to this point. They should join a firm that’s doing that kind of work because that’s how they’ll learn to do it.
Most people who go into landscape architecture and stay with landscape architecture absolutely love their jobs. There’s a great deal of love in the profession. That’s one of the reason landscape architects keep working to such an old age. They just can’t give it up.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Brook House Progress

Our Work on the Brook House in Brookline MA is under construction and progressing nicely.

Existing Conditions:
A photo of the existing water feature and north lawn.

Dry Stream Rendering:
Proposed rendering of the dry stream bed at the north lawn and ashlar stone veneer with radial arch at the water feature.

Progress Photo:
A progress photo looking toward the water feature taken on August 27th.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sculptor Ann Hirsch and Pressley Associates Collaborate for Bill Russell Legacy Project

Bill Russell's accomplishments extend far beyond his time as a legendary member of the Boston Celtics; he was a true team player, an advocate, activist, mentor, and visionary. The Bill Russell Legacy Project honors the legacy of Bill Russell not only for his accomplishments as a champion athlete, but for his broad-reaching achievements in professional sports, his national leadership in human rights, and his dedication to youth mentoring. The Project incorporates a public art commission as well as the creation of the Bill Russell Mentoring Grant Program, which focuses on quality youth mentoring for the Boston community.

The public art commission is being designed through a thoughtful collaboration between local artist Ann Hirsch and Pressley Associates. The design honors the legacy of Bill Russell and embodies the spirit of the Mentoring Grant Program, urging visitors to draw on the work of Bill Russell to find their own inspiration from within.

Bill Russell is a former Boston Celtics Captain who led the team to a string of eleven championships in thirteen years. He was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player a total of five times. Only two other NBA players have achieved that honor. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the record with six MVP awards and Michael Jordan is tied with Bill Russell at 5.) Mr. Russell is the first African American to coach in any major league sport. He is also an impassioned advocate of human rights and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He continues to advocate for equality, especially as it pertains to youth. He is a founding board member of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. This organization has been the unwavering champion for quality youth mentoring in the US for over 20 years.

The design of the Bill Russell Legacy Project aims to capture this vast array of achievements. A Plaza of Champions will be constructed within Boston's City Hall Plaza. It will be located in the southeast corner of the existing City Hall Plaza, near the Congress Street overlook.

This view looks south toward the location in City Hall Plaza where the Bill Russell Legacy Project will be installed.  The Plaza of Champions will stand in the foreground, currently defined by the open brick paving found throughout City Hall Plaza. The Washington Mall corridor extends beyond with the Old State House visible in the background. (Photo by Pressley Associates)

A rendering shows the completed Plaza of Champions within City Hall Plaza.  Boston City Hall stands to the  north, seen at the left edge of the image with Faneuil Hall visible in the background, to the east of the site. The brick pavers relate to the existing material of City Hall Plaza while the granite pavers and plinths reflect the architectural building blocks of City Hall.  (Rendering by Bill Pardy, Pressley Associates)

The Plaza of Champions creates an interactive landscape for visitors to engage themselves in the accomplishments and visionary leadership of Bill Russell. A field of brick will be installed that reflects the proportions of a basketball court. A larger-than-life statue of Bill Russell will stand atop one of eleven granite plinths, representing Mr. Russell's eleven Celtics championships. Each of the plinths will be engraved with a quotation from Mr. Russell, along with a keyword that embodies the spirit of the quotation.

A computerized model depicts the statue of Bill Russell within the  Plaza of Champions. Quotations and single words are engraved on the granite plinths, conveying messages important to the core of Mr. Russell's work as an athlete, leader, and mentor. (Photo by Ann Hirsch)

The statue itself will depict Mr. Russell during his years as a player and coach for the Celtics. He stands in uniform and is poised with a basketball in his hands, positioned to pass the ball to a teammate. He aims his pass towards a low-standing, open plinth engraved with the word 'Teamwork' on one side; on the opposite side is his quote, "The most important measure of how good a game I'd played was how much better I'd made my teammates play." As visitors step up on the open plinth, ready to catch the pass from Mr. Russell, they become his teammate, not only in a game of basketball, but in continued advocacy, leadership, and visionary thinking.

A clay mock-up shows what the finished statue of Bill Russell will look like. In his late-1960s Celtics uniform, Mr. Russell stands atop a low granite plinth, ready to pass the ball to a teammate - maybe you! (Photo by Ann Hirsch)

Standing up for others to help them be the best they can possibly be is the core lesson of Mr. Russell's legacy as an athlete, a coach, an activist, and a mentor. This core lesson is conveyed to visitors within the Plaza. As visitors move through the Plaza of Champions, around - and over - the plinths, they interact with the setting. As they read and engage with the quotations, they become champions themselves. They can draw from the inspiring words of Mr. Russell and become champions of positive change in their own community. The plinths are an invitation, a celebration, and a declaration of responsibility through mentorship. By standing or sitting on a plinth, a declaration is made: you can be a champion too, you can be a mentor too. The declaration is a promise to believe in young people to help them believe in themselves.

For more information on the Bill Russell Legacy Project, visit:
For more information on artist Ann Hirsch, visit:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Renovated Camp Beech Cliff Reintroduces Kids to Nature

Camp Beech Cliff is a non-profit educational and recreational summer day camp on Mount Desert Island in Maine. With incredible views toward Acadia National Park and waterfront cabins sitting on Echo Lake, the camp encompasses 50 scenic acres of undulating terrain. The camp's mission is to foster healthy physical and social growth of children by providing fun outdoor education experiences. The goal of the renovation was to rebuild the entire infrastructure of the camp, providing modern and safe camping facilities for up to 120 children.

Renovations included all new program cabins that accommodate boating, swimming, archery, science and nature, performing arts, and arts and crafts. Additional cabins provide staff housing, administration, and maintenance. A central community building houses an indoor climbing wall and a full basketball court. The infrastructure for the camp was completely revamped. Extensive walk and road improvements were implemented, including a prefabricated boardwalk that connects three waterfront cabins.

The overarching goal of the landscape design was to create an environment that will immerse the campers in a true nature experience. The landscape incorporates large boulders, which were uncovered on site. Planting throughout the camp uses primarily indigenous materials. The final design incorporates an impressive amount of materials found on site, defining a distinct vernacular for a picturesque Maine camp.

A stone amphitheater provides a gathering space for campers. An open recreation field beyond provides space for soccer and other sports and camp games. (Photo by Pressley Associates)

Sculpted landforms mimic the dramatic, rolling mountains of Mount Desert Island. (Photo by Pressley Associates)

Many of the built landscape features are constructed of natural stone, contributing to the scenic, naturalistic character seen throughout the camp. (Photo by Pressley Associates)

Large boulders were uncovered on site during construction and placed in the landscape. Stone paving complements the discovered boulders. (Photo by Pressley Associates)

Beds of indigenous plant materials break up the large swaths of stone paving. (Photo by Pressley Associates)
The form and details of the architecture work with the naturalistic stone work and plantings, creating buildings that enhance the landscape design. (Photo by Pressley Associates)

Though Camp Beech Cliff focuses on summer activities, it offers a range of programs year round. Visit their website for additional information.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Muddy River Restoration Project Breaks Ground!

The Muddy River is one of the central features of the Emerald Necklace, connecting Olmsted Park, the Riverway and the Back Bay Fens to the Charles River. In recent years, the river has been subject to dramatic flooding, overflowing its banks into adjacent roadways and properties. The parkland along the river has been greatly altered from its historic 1895 character with the banks of the river now full of invasive plants and views to the river blocked.  Over time, silt and trash have built up in the river bottom.  Parts of the river have also been put into culverts, eliminating the continuity of the river.

The Muddy River Restoration Project seeks to reclaim the historic character of the river while reducing the risks and economic damage of flooding. Two important areas of the river previously buried will be day-lighted along with the re-creation of an Olmsted-designed island within the river’s course. A groundbreaking ceremony was held last month, signaling the start of an Olmsted restoration project decades in the making.

Pressley Associates is the historic landscape consultant and landscape architect for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) for the river dredging and restoration between the former Sears Roebuck parking lot and Avenue Louis Pasteur in the historic Back Bay Fens of Boston. Working in close coordination with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation and the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, Pressley assisted the ACOE in the configuration, alignment, and bank stabilization of the river and island.

Utilizing Olmsted planting plans as a basis for design, new planting plans were designed for the re-vegetation of the new river banks and existing banks impacted by dredging operations. The historic plant lists were used as starting point for plant species selection, though plants were also selected for long term sustainability using a palette of mostly native plants. Emergent and wetland plants were selected for placement along the river’s edge to create a wetland shelf as recommended in the previously completed Environmental Impact Report. Historic views to the river are maintained by the use of lower growing shrubs and groundcovers, using larger plants to frame the original Olmsted views. Designs have carried over into the adjacent upland park landscape where new tree plantings and pedestrian pathways were laid out following Olmsted’s original design. 

To learn more about the project visit the Muddy River Restoration Project Maintenance and Management Oversight Committee (MMOC) website at:

This 1905 photograph shows the area of the historic Muddy River landscape that will be restored, including the Olmsted-designed island within the river.

In the 1950s, Sears Roebuck & Company (seen at right) purchased a portion of the historic Olmsted-designed park and culverted portions of the Muddy River in order to build a parking lot. When Sears moved their operations, the parking lot was covered and planted in turf. The Muddy River still flows beneath this former parking lot.

This image, taken from within the former Sears building, shows the existing character of the landscape to be restored. The Muddy River flows in culverts below the deteriorated turf landscape.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Social Life of Brewer Fountain Plaza

As landscape architects, we often spend a lot of time agonizing over the details of a design – Which bench is most fitting? What type of paver will best illustrate the design pattern? What plant species best reflect the intended character of this space? – but more importantly, we must consider how – and why – people use the public spaces we create.

When I was a landscape architecture student, I visited a public plaza designed by one of my favorite contemporary landscape architects. It was a relatively large plaza/park situated in the center of an enormous apartment complex. I touted the ingeniousness of the design to my professor, showing him an array of site photos illustrating the various playful features and colorful site furnishings. ‘Wasn’t there anybody there?’ was his immediate response. Well, no, as it turns out, I did not encounter a single person using this plaza. Here I learned one of my most important lessons as a designer, and one that seemed so obvious once it was pointed out: If no one uses a space, how can its design ever be considered successful?

When I visit an urban plaza today, I always remind myself not only of that lesson, but also of William H. Whyte's seminal Street Life Project. In 1970, Whyte began studying the social life of small urban spaces. Through time-lapse recordings and site observations, he developed a series of criteria, or features, that together create urban spaces that draw people in. If you aren't familiar with his work, you can check out the original video here:    (I promise, it's a fun watch!)

After years of study, Whyte and his team were able to distill seven common features that transform small urban spaces into plazas teeming with life and social interaction.  The relationship between the plaza and the street is arguably the key design factor. Whyte determined that a good plaza starts at a busy street corner, which will have a social life of its own. The best, most highly used plazas have a blurred transition between where the sidewalk ends and the plaza begins.

The second most critical factor is sittable space. As designers, we often include benches or tables and chairs in our designs, but do we always consider how people want to sit and experience a space?  Whyte found that people prefer options; the most successful plazas incorporated a range of seating options, including fixed benches, movable chairs, and informal seating, such as ledges, steps, or tall curbs. With options, people are free to experience the life of the plaza in whatever way they want – secluded in a single chair placed under a shady tree canopy, together with a friend on a bench for prime people-watching, or sitting on a step or ledge, basking in the sun.

Environmental factors, such as sun and wind are also important. People want access to the sun, but don’t want to be overwhelmed by it, making the balance between sun and wind extremely important. Whyte also found that trees played important roles in drawing people into plazas. Use of trees is closely related to sitting and sun exposure. Tree canopies can create patterns of sun and shade, defining pleasant cool spots under which users can sit.

Food draws people into a plaza. This, in turn, will attract more vendors, which will attract more users. Whyte’s study found that the type of food isn’t the critical factor; whether it’s a full service outdoor restaurant or simply a vendor with a cart full of pretzels, the availability of refreshments will entice people to enter the plaza. 

Water draws people into a space; the sound of flowing water can create a much-needed escape from the sounds of a city street. However the presence of water is not enough; water should be accessible to visitors. People like to be able to reach out and touch the water.

The final element is something called triangulation. Whyte defines this as an external stimulus that prompts strangers to interact and talk to each other. This could be something as simple as a nice view of a nearby object or building, or could be more something interactive, such as a street performer.

If you watched even a few minutes of Whyte’s video, you quickly realized how long ago his study was undertaken. However, if we look at today’s urban spaces, these lessons still apply. The recently renovated Brewer Fountain Plaza is a prime example.  

Before its renovation, many people weren’t very keen on using the Brewer Fountain Plaza, in spite of its prime location in the Boston Common. There was a strong contingent of homeless people who slept on the benches, making people wary of entering the plaza space. A stepped terrace separated people from the central fountain and the plaza was deteriorating. Through a series of conceptual design alternatives, Pressley Associates helped the Friends of the Public Garden and Boston Parks and Recreation develop a plan for the plaza that would bring life back to the historic public space. Now the fountain plaza is alive with residents and visitors eager to enjoy the new urban oasis.

When we compare the features of the new Brewer Fountain Plaza with Whyte’s criteria, we’ll find it stacks up quite well. The plaza is situated at the southeast corner of the Boston Common; people enter and exit the red and green line subways via highly used head houses on the sidewalk adjacent to the plaza. With the widened sidewalk, it is difficult to pinpoint where one leaves the sidewalk space and enters the plaza. Here, the social life of the sidewalk and subway spills over into the fountain plaza. 

A large paved area between the sidewalk, subway head houses (visible in the background), and the plaza creates an undefined transition, blending the sidewalk space with the plaza proper.

The new fountain plaza also boasts a range of seating options. Park benches sit at the outer edge of the plaza, circling the fountain and allowing people to choose whether they face the street or the park. Small park tables are placed on the plaza with movable folding chairs available for visitors to arrange however they please.

Seating options include fixed benches and movable chairs with small tables. Umbrellas function as trees would, providing shade in the open and otherwise sunny plaza.

Because much of the plaza is open to the sun, people also sit on the tall granite curbs that line the walkways leading to and from the plaza. Here, people can enjoy the plaza while sitting comfortably beneath a shady tree. Folding umbrellas placed with the tables provides additional shade within the plaza itself. The openness of the plaza combined with the tree-lined walks leading to it allow for cool breezes without overwhelming wind tunnel effects. 

People sit on tall granite curbs that line the pedestrian walkways, enjoying the plaza from beneath large shade trees.
Food options abound at Brewer Fountain Plaza. Boston's famous Clover Food Lab has a food truck parked just beyond the plaza, in the transitional space between the plaza and sidewalk. A variety of food vendor carts also arrive at the plaza each day, selling refreshments like lemonade, frozen treats, and even gourmet pickles!

Clover Food Lab parks a truck, at right, at Brewer Fountain Plaza every day, providing one of many food options.
Water, of course, is the major feature at Brewer Fountain Plaza with the historic fountain sitting center stage. The new plaza gives visitors direct access to the fountain basin; here people can be observed peacefully sitting on the basin edge or posing for pictures while children reach in and splash the cool water. 

The fountain basin, and water, are easily accessible and draw people into the center of the plaza.

Plenty of opportunities for triangulation can also be found at Brewer Fountain Plaza. One of the most prominent is the striking view of the Massachusetts State House, sited at the top of the hill in direct alignment with the fountain. The solar-powered player piano that is rolled out onto the plaza every day could also spark conversations between users. The plaza boasts a ‘reading room’ with shelves of books defining a mini-space within the broader plaza. Here users can borrow books and arrange themselves on the movable chairs, enjoying a quiet read in the shade – another scenario that is likely to strike up conversation between readers. 

The view of the State House from the plaza is an example of triangulation, prompting visitors to interact with each other.
A reading room is tucked in a corner of the plaza; the piano sits in the shade of a large tree beyond.

Whyte argues that the popularity or level of use a plaza receives is not related to its aesthetics or visual appeal, but rather a combination of elements that inherently draws people in and encourages them to interact. If there’s any doubt that the synthesis of these factors create successful, well-used plaza with engaging social lives, head on down to the Brewer Fountain Plaza on your lunch break – you’ll enjoy it so much, you won’t want to leave!!

The lunch hour is the best time to enjoy the rhythm and excitement of the renovated Brewer Fountain Plaza!

-Sarah K. Cody
    Landscape Designer
    Historic Preservation Specialist
    Brewer Fountain Plaza Enthusiast