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

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tribute to Engineering Unveiled at Northeastern

On December 8, 2011, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of the Bernard M. Gordon Tribute to Engineering Leadership. The main feature of the tribute is a digitized gateway with two large LCD screens and thousands of scrolling LEDs. The screens and lights are motion activated; as you walk through the gateway, the tribute comes to life, telling the story of ten exceptional engineers, including Gordon.(Think of walking through your own mini Times Square!!)

Gordon is an engineer with ties to many Boston institutions, including Northeastern. He has over 200 patents for his inventions, including the high-speed analog-to-digital converter, the instant imaging computer-aided tomography scanner, digital Doppler radar, the fetal monitor, and an advanced bomb-detection device, to name a few.

Despite his impressive resume, even Mr. Gordon could not design a paving pattern as snazzy as Pressley Landscape Designer, Matt Latimer!!

Rehabilitated Point State Park Inspires Design Competition!

Principal in Charge Marion Pressley and Project Manager Andy Elliot have been hard at work to rehabilitate Pittsburgh's iconic Point State Park. 10 years of research and planning have come to fruition as ground broke for the final phase of construction in November 2011. The 37-acre park was originally designed by Ralph Griswold and Charles M. Stotz and was built from 1954-1974. Placed at the confluence of Pittsburgh's three famous rivers, the park commemorates the historic Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt, marking the site of several battles of the French and Indian War.

As the impressive rehabilitation of Point State Park reaches its culmination, designers are finding inspiration in the park landscape and its unique urban setting. The energy and excitement of the nearly complete park has served as a springboard for Portal to the Point, a competition addressing the tunnel beneath Portal Bridge. The bridge was constructed in 1963, bisecting the park. Park users can walk under the bridge, crossing a pedestrian bridge that spans a shallow reflecting basin. However, it is not a space where you want to linger; instead it functions as a dark void in the bustling park.

Drawing from the reignited enthusiasm for the newly rehabilitated park, designers must find ways to enliven the tunnel, transforming it from a void in the landscape into an engaging portal that draws visitors through the space. Visit for more information on the competition and to view the finalists!

It's exciting not only to see 10 years of hard work come to life at Point State Park but also to see how, as designers, we can inspire others to think about space and what makes a landscape unique. It makes us wonder... what inspires you?