News & Events | New Landscape Declaration

Experimental Landscapes: The Power of the Prototype

June 11, 2016

Nina Chase
Senior Project Manager, Riverlife

This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. Emerging leaders from LAF’s Olmsted Scholars Program were asked to write a 1,000-word “Declaration” of leadership and ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time and the next 50 years. Select Declarations were then presented at the Summit during the Emerging Leaders panel.


Experimental Landscapes: The Power of the Prototype

By Nina Chase

We are in the midst of a refreshing paradigm shift. Pop-up parks, guerilla wayfinding, temporary parklets, DIY bike lanes — you cannot scroll through an article about urbanism without finding projects that are framing the process of city building as participatory, fun, and chock-full of experimentation. Designers, activists, and even developers are heeding the call, taking to the streets, quite literally, to prototype the potential of their cities’ public realms. Most notably, in New York City, Times Square has experienced a pedestrianized transformation that began with a tactical takeover by the NYC Department of Transportation using lawn chairs.

Conceived and implemented as pilot initiatives, short-term projects position landscape solutions as first-phase building blocks for cities and have found a home within the tactical urbanism movement. Sensory and interactive, this creative approach invites stakeholders to connect with a future investment, albeit at a smaller scale and with less financial risk. Tactical urbanism projects show citizens what they’re buying before they write the check. Phasing, flexibility, evolution — words once confined to the playbook of landscape urbanists are making their way into common practice. But the tenets of tactical urbanism — quicker, lighter, cheaper — should not be limited to temporary solutions. The movement has the potential to tackle larger environmental challenges and be led by the original urban placemakers: landscape architects.

Indeed, cities are resolving some of their most pressing challenges by using landscape prototypes to demonstrate and inspire systemic change. In Raleigh, a guerilla signage campaign aimed at encouraging people to walk, resulted in a new pedestrian plan for the city. In San Francisco, Park(ing) Day became an international phenomenon that has since led to the transformation of parking spots into permanent parklets. In New York City, Janette Sadik-Khan, a former Commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, wielded pilot testing as her secret weapon to transform city streets. “Instead of arguing and debating, try something first and give people something to experience,” she said in a recent interview. Her proof-of-concept pilots included painted bike lanes and the lawn chairs in Times Square. The efforts led to the transformation of more than 400 miles of streets, integrating bike lanes, safer pedestrian crossings, and narrowed vehicular lanes.

More and more, cities are searching for solutions to large-scale environmental and societal pressures. Tactical urbanism’s can-do, optimistic approach has the potential to galvanize support for long-term landscape strategies, well beyond the scale of the parking spot. Sea level rise, underutilized vacant land, and long-term drought are issues on which citizens and municipalities often have difficulty finding common ground. To complicate matters, these issues are occurring at the scale of whole regions, which often lack a single entity that can act unilaterally to address them.

The profession of landscape architecture is equipped with the skills to untangle these thorny problems, by coupling the efficiency of engineered solutions with the sensitivity of cultural and ecological opportunities. But because it is difficult to show what nature-based projects might look like until they are finished in 5-30 years, garnering support is tough. It is not easy for the average citizen to imagine what a resilient coast could look like or what new environmentally-focused land uses will mean for their neighborhoods. Long-range landscape planning takes time, political will, money, and community patience. Pilot landscape projects that embody the “test before you invest” mantra could help synthesize collective visions toward a landscape-centric future.

Take sea level rise as one example. Scientists project that tides will rise two feet by mid-century and six feet by 2100. This new tide line will transform the world’s coastal landscapes. Designers have posited optimistic visions for our new wet future. Concept renderings show raised sidewalks, floating buildings, and protective wetlands. But ask the average citizen what it means to build a resilient coast, and you’ll often be met with blank stares. As coastal cities plan for long-term investments, pilot projects could demonstrate the potential of resilient landscape solutions sooner rather than later.

Imagine a segment of an existing seawall in South Beach Miami transformed to include seating, animal habitats, or recreational features (e.g. a climbing wall at low tide). Today’s seawalls serve only one purpose: to keep the water out, but given the lack of valuable space in our city, coupled with the need for better protective measures, our coastal edges should serve more than one role. Cities could pilot test creative ideas for multipurpose seawalls before investing millions in storm surge infrastructure. Existing seawalls would provide necessary protection, while a series of newly designed temporary facades could illuminate the possibilities for multifunctional projects. Or envision the Boston Harbor Islands transformed into a testing ground for a variety of resilient coastal strategies. An island could become a research hub for experimenting with new edge conditions, where designers, ecologists, and engineers could document and quantify the protective effects of dunes, saltwater marshes, multi-purpose seawalls, or small flood gates. The tactical takeover of one or more islands could demonstrate the potential of innovative shoreline structures and landscapes that could then be applied across the city.

Cities are facing environmental and social threats that will affect urban development for the next several decades. As a planning and design tool, tactical urbanism has proven effective in generating short-term action around long-term change, but it doesn’t absolve those at the helm of city planning and design from committing to planning rigor, political process, and public investment. Where traditional planning approaches — so often opaque and abstract — fail to ignite public passions, tactical urbanism can add a dose of accessibility, whimsy, and experimental fun. Designers, city officials, community members can engage with prototypes, collectively iterating and creating a dialog around what works and what does not. Cities are increasingly positioning innovative public spaces and nature-based solutions as necessary to sustainable urban growth. The profession of landscape architecture is poised to claim short-term projects as harbingers to long-term urban transformations. By harnessing the power of the prototype, we can show, not just tell, what is possible for our cities’ and our profession’s futures.