Monday, April 20, 2009

Public Plantings: A Designer's Response

A couple of weeks ago I posted a couple of responses to Veg Plotting's public spaces meme. I thought it would be interesting to here what the university's landscape architect, Jason Hodges, had to say about what went into the design and planning for one of them. He graciously agreed to do so, and without further ado, here are Jason's comments on the "hell strip on 18th street":

It is rare that I am asked retrospectively to speak or write about my work. I liken this challenge to a medical self-examination. As a design professional I become engrossed in the details of each project: the client, the space, the opportunities and the constraints. Each project is taken on as a new creative opportunity as well as a technical problem solving mission… and so this is an insider’s view my work as a Landscape Architect.

Actually, this exercise is exciting to me for the simple reason that it’s a chance for everyone to learn from Susan’s “village.” It is my hope that the information shared here can be taken into the places where we all live, work and play and used to re-examine and “read” the cultural and physical processes that determine the character of those spaces.

I have chosen to focus on the first public planting project for discussion here; Susan referred to it as “the hell strip between a campus street and a dorm parking lot.” The goals of this project were clearly defined at the outset:

  • Create a cohesive streetscape/vehicular road frontage for three residence halls that is attractive throughout the year and requires lower inputs of water/energy/human resources
  • Limit the amount of turfgrass in the new design
  • Develop a landscape that is safe for students to use 24/7 (walking paths and comfortable places to sit)
  • Screen / buffer the large adjacent parking lots from view of the adjacent street
  • Integrate public art as a seating element

The existing project site consisted of an approximately 650 feet long x 40 feet wide long parkway with an 8’ wide concrete sidewalk. There were no shrubs or planting beds existing in the area and little or no interest in the way of topography. The existing vegetation consisted of approximately a dozen shade trees and patches of thirsty turfgrass, worn down near the soil due to heavy foot traffic crossing over it daily. Several of the trees were dead or heavily diseased and in need of removal. Existing lighting was sufficient to provide a safe space during evening hours.

In response to the project goals and the existing site, the design solution preserves the sidewalk as the primary path while providing a smaller network of gravel paths that criss-cross diagonally through plantings of water-wise (natives and adapted non-natives) ornamental grasses and perennial flowering plants. The plantings are irrigated by drip tubing that is buried beneath a 2”-3” mulch of gravel. Decomposed granite was selected for its durability as a walking surface, its interesting crunchy texture, its ability to allow rain water to infiltrate and its earthy color. In large part, the diagonal sweeping orientation of the granite paths provides that feeling of “negative space” Susan mentions in her previous post.

(The 18th Street hell strip during construction)

One of the major challenges in this project was to successfully screen the parking lot while providing enough pedestrian paths. The solution is a combination of ornamental planting beds, gravel-covered berms and a minimal number of strategically placed shrubs and evergreen trees.

The second major challenge was to find a low cost ground cover alternative to turf that wouldn’t require a great deal of water or maintenance. The solution is the use of a slightly larger granite gravel material as a mulch over all the planting areas and the berms. The planting beds are placed in the foreground so as to claim the majority of your view when driving by or walking through the space and placement of the berms in the background (nearest the parking lot). The larger gravel is not as comfortable to walk through as it moves around under foot so it was used in hopes as a further deterrent to stray foot traffic.

Public art and landscape enhancements are combined in a lot of the work I do for the University. On this project, I collaborated with an artist, Barbara Grygutis from Tuscon, AZ. She was asked to create seating elements for the parkway area. Her idea of taking the blade of grass as an icon is represented by her two slender, curved seat walls. They are constructed of stone masonry and topped with polished granite seating caps. The granite caps are engraved with inspirational quotes. I corresponded around the seat walls with large sweeping beds of feather grass, crushed granite paths and a planting of flowering trees called Chitalpa that will grow large enough to provide shade.

(The mature hell strip in summer; notice students waiting for the bus in strategically placed shade.)

So, there is the designer’s statement #1… I’m looking forward to sharing ideas for Susan’s entry garden.


  1. Can something look a thousand percent better! It does! I love the use of natives and adapted non natives...and the water wise design.

  2. Nancy--OOOOOPS! I accidentally hit the wrong button and rejected your comment. Here it is:

    *I* love that sweeping, curved bench wall! Amazing -- I feel inspired just looking at it. (I want one!)

    Sorry, Nancy! Love the comment. :-)

  3. Gail--It does look a thousand percent better.

  4. I found myself going back and forth between the pictures and the drawing... wanting to walk through the spaces. It's such an inviting place. What are the quotes on the benches?

    Thanks for a really informative post Jason. Thanks Susan. :)

  5. Michelle--I'm not sure what the quotes are; I'll check it out and report back!

  6. Susan - I'm blown away by this. I love the insight Jason has given us from design brief thru design thru build in such a succinct but very telling way.

    The brief Jason's outlined is very similar to one I imagine was given for a park entrance makeover we've just had in the town. If only we'd had Jason here to execute it! It's awful, though on the plus side there's no red mulch this time. It's so bad it's even made the local paper! Expect a post from me soon.

  7. I love the design for the seating, especially the quotes! Great choice of plants, too.

  8. Very interesting to see things from a landscape artist's point of view. I am very impressed with the thinking behind the design, and the finished planting. I hope the different sized gravel does encourage people to keep to the paths - always a problem where there is foot traffic. Thanks for letting Jason show us what his work involves.

  9. Finally had time to read this wonderful post. How great that a hell strip got the focus from a designer, and that the benefits for passers-by, passers-through, and bus-waiters among others are so intensified by the transformation. Directing traffic is half the battle in a public space like this - not everyone loves plants as much as we do, some folks have to be trained to look where they're stepping. Neat to hear Jason's retrospective views, I imagine it's usually "on to the next project" and not a lot of time to look back and enjoy the results. Congrats on a job well done, and thanks Susan for sharing it with us!

  10. VP: ooh, I can't wait to hear about it! A public planting so bad the newspaper's writing it up? Priceless.

    Nola: that bench is truly lovely, isn't it? That graceful sweep...

    EG and Karen: I am intrigued by the different sized gravel, too. Jason wants me to think about using it in my yard, too, and I think it would look great.

  11. Learned about this post from Karen @ Greenwalks.

    So many interesting aspects of this design: shade at bus stops, different grades of gravel - the coarse gravel to deter foot traffic, the berm feature - to hide the parking lot, the footpaths - seem to follow desire lines, etc.

  12. Great post, Susan. It's nice to have the designer's perspective on how he created such a wonderful space and made it sustainable too.

  13. I think gardening in the public area gives a great effect to the place.This surely looks good.


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