The Art of Landscape Architecture: An Interview with WRT
While running the trails of Cherokee Park, my future ambitions were found. The intentional design of Louisville’s Olmsted park system was blind to me for many years. Finally, I discovered that the parks I loved so dear were a work of art. The following semester, I enrolled in landscape architecture courses and this summer I have been interning with 21st Century Parks.
What is most special to me about The Parklands is that the project is inspired by the very same parks that have motivated my aspirations. Learning from members of the 21st Century Parks team and The Parklands designers, Wallace, Roberts, & Todd (WRT), has made for a great summer. I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce some of our park users and blog readers to meet Charles Neer, an associate landscape architect at WRT in Philadelphia (where he serves as Manager of The Parklands project), so that you may also learn more about The Parklands and landscape architecture.
1. I didn’t always know what landscape architecture was. How did you decide you wanted to be a landscape architect?
I was aware of landscape architecture at an early age since my grandfather was a landscape architect. Even though he passed away when I was only three years old, he left a great impression on me. When I was a boy, I used to go through his office which was located in a barn on my parent’s property and read through his books and drawings. I loved to draw and as early as high school, I elected to take drafting courses and wood working classes. When time came to apply to colleges I was considering both architecture and landscape architectural programs. I finally decided to apply for architectural programs with a strong liberal arts background as I thought it would offer a well-rounded education. In the fall of 1991 I enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture in 1995. While there, I had a brilliant professor named Adrian Luchini, who helped open my eyes even further to the possibilities on the designed landscape.
After graduation, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school but I wanted to work for a while first. I took a job at HOK in St. Louis in their model shop which was a wonderful opportunity to get an exposure to a large multi-disciplinary design office. Every day I got a chance to work with architects, landscape architects, engineers and graphic designers. It was here that I decided I wanted to apply to graduate schools in landscape architecture – although I only applied to universities that also had a master’s program in architecture – just in case. I was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Philadelphia in 1996.
My time at Penn was a fertile and very formative period in my growth as a professional. I soaked up as much information as I could and took the teachings of Jim Corner and Anu Mathur as gospel. Penn has a very close relationship with WRT and I began working here right after graduation. Fifteen years later, I am still here with the past six, being spent as the Project Manager of The Parklands of Floyds Fork.
2. How are The Parklands inspired by Louisville’s Olmsted park system?
The system of parks and parkways developed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1890’s is critical to the development of The Parklands. Olmsted’s vision of putting nature into neighborhoods as a way of shaping a city’s geography creates a lasting legacy for future generations. In the 1890’s, Iroquois, Shawnee and Cherokee parks were considered well outside the urban edge, but as Louisville grew, these parks became ingrained within the fabric of the city to the point where current residents couldn’t envision Louisville without them. Everyone seems to have a story about growing up next to one of the parks.
It is within this context that 21CP set to replicate Olmsted’s vision for the twenty-first century. By acquiring land in the fast-growing eastern and southern edge of Louisville, 21CP set aside close to 4,000 acres of land which would be protected in perpetuity for the citizens of Louisville – once again putting nature into neighborhoods but within a twenty-first century context of sustainability. It will be fascinating to see what The Parklands will look like in one hundred years as the city grows up around the park like it did with Iroquois, Shawnee and Cherokee.
3. Can you explain the process it takes to complete a project like The Parklands? What is the most important piece of this process?
At one scale the process is linear and sequential: Master Plan, Schematic Design/Design Development, Construction Documentation then Construction. At another scale the process can feel curvilinear or tangential or even cyclical. Every step in the process is integral to the project outcome and no step can be shortchanged. We are trying to build a park that will last for generations – each piece of the process has to be thought out and understood before moving to the next piece.
In the master planning process the emphasis was on understanding the structure of the park – how were these various parcels of land going to be assembled into the park? What was the park organization going to be? What is the vision of the park? To answer these questions, we established an organization device or framework that looked at the park as a system of points, planes and lines. The planes were the areas of broad scale sustainability of habitat and agriculture and set a goal that 80% of The Parklands would be set aside for habitat. The lines were the connectivity of the Park Road, Louisville Loop, Signature Trails, Excursion Trails, Hike/Bike Trails and most importantly the Fork itself. The points were the areas of “theater” or high use/high event areas of the park. Many of the theater areas were defined as future recreation pods as a full park program matrix was still too premature at this stage.
After the Master Plan was completed, the desire was to jump into construction documentation, but we needed to go through a schematic / design development phase that began to develop the design framework for the park. If we established the vision of what The Parklands could be in the Master Plan, then now we had to determine what The Parklands would look like. What would the materials be made of? Where would all the connectivity systems go? What would they be influenced by?
Parallel to the master plan and schematic / design development phases, we worked on acquiring the regulatory and compliance permitting which was necessary before we could go into construction. Because we received federal funding we had to go through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act of 1970) Categorical Exclusion documentation. This involved the Section 106 Compliance for Cultural Historical and Archaeological work which had to be approved by the SHPO (State Historical Preservation Office), the USFWS (United States Fish and Wildlife Services) Biological Assessments, and the USACE (United States Army Corps of Engineers) Nationwide Permits. This wasn’t the most glamorous phase of the project but it was a critical milestone in the development of the park that allowed us to move into construction.
Construction documentation (CDs) and the preparation of bid documents were next. Due to the large scale of The Parklands, the CDs were broken into a number of bid packages starting from the north at Shelbyville Road and working our way south to Bardstown Road. Each geographic area was broken into federal bid packages and private bid packages based on the various funding sources. We are currently wrapping up the eight bid package. With each package we do our best to learn from what we have gone through before. Some areas of The Parklands have been open for two or three years, so we can look to see what is working and what needs to be revised. The Parklands is continuously growing and there is something for us as the designers to learn from every day.
4. What were some of the most challenging obstacles when designing the park? Where were you able to find unexpected opportunities?
One of the challenges that is unique to The Parklands, and unlike some of its contemporary mega-parks, is the issue of connectivity. The Parkland’s 4,000 acres are spread out along Floyds Fork Creek stretching in a straight line from Shelbyville Road to Bardstown Road for close to 12 miles long. To date, 21CP has negotiated over 80 separate real estate transactions to create what we know of as The Parklands of Floyds Fork. Providing access to these areas has been a real challenge for 21CP and the design team.
Though Floyds Fork is the central spine of the park, it is the Louisville Loop that ties together the user experience of the park. Taking a trip on the Loop from Shelbyville Road to Bardstown Road is a 19-mile journey through floodplains, valley floors, hillsides and upland plateaus.
In order to locate the Loop through this varied terrain, we had to get creative about how we laid it out. Where possible we tried to locate the Loop next to the Fork as the creek served as the design inspiration for the circulation system. This meant we had to bridge over the Fork a number of times – nine to be exact, not counting smaller creeks or tributaries. The Loop also had to dodge the interstate highways, county roads, and active train tracks. In these cases we had to go under I-64, Taylorsville Road and the Trestle Point tracks operated by Norfolk Southern. The two existing bridges at Seatonville Road and Fairmount Road had to be retrofitted so that the Loop could be piggy-backed onto the existing bridge structure. We were also able to take advantage of two existing farm roads at the old Miles Park near the MSD facility and in Seatonville at the ascent..
At each of these challenging obstacles, the design team was able to take a difficult situation and turn it into a special place. This is best exemplified at Distillery Bend where the design team was challenged to elevate the park road and the Loop from the valley floor sixty feet above to the intersection with Echo Trail Road. On one side we had the Fork and on the other, a sensitive archaeological site from the old whiskey distillery. We looked at dozens of options in the schematic/design development phase before arriving at the realization that the only way up was to construct a massive retaining wall that could limit the area of disturbance on each side. Bravura and Qk4 did a great job designing and engineering this structure so that as you traverse up or down the wall by car or by walking/biking, you never sense the magnitude of the infrastructural goliath that it actually is. Many times in the design world, challenging sites can lead to some of the best design work as you are forced to tap into your creativity and design outside the box.
5. Are there ways in which the park reflects the natural and cultural history of Floyds Fork? Do themes of the landscape play into design elements found within the park?
During the Schematic / Design Development phase of the project development, we focused on ways that the design form of the park could be drawn from the existing site. We developed a “Florknacular” – a Floyds Fork vernacular – that derived from the natural and cultural histories of the Fork.
The pathways and layouts reflect the fluid nature of the water in the Fork. The architecture reflects the rural Kentucky Bluegrass heritage of dry-laid rock fences and black stained tobacco barns. The planting forms a middle ground between forest edge and the buildings.
Since Floyds Fork Creek is the central focus of the Parklands, we looked for ways to connect people to the water. We developed three words to do this: “Flow”, “Dive” and “Leap”. “Flow” is defined as the force of water as an inspiration for design of the Connective systems (Park Road, Louisville Loop, Excursion Trails, Hiking Trail, Canoe Trail). “Dive” is defined as a sweeping gesture to connect people to the water, and organize the park features along that line (Trailheads, Community Parks, Canoe Launches and Landings). “Leap” is defined to emphasize the Fork by using bridges to express the energy of leaping across the water. Back in the winter of 2009 when we were just getting started to design the form of the park, WRT and Bravura both put together power point presentations that had an image of a deer leaping over a fence. We knew we were on to something and Bravura ran with the concept to develop the beautiful leaping bridges crossing the Fork that we see on site today.
6. What are you most excited about as the park continues to develop? What do you think the future of The Parklands will be & how will the park’s role fit into the rest of the city?
I am most excited about the use it is getting and the way it is being loved by the public. I remember being onsite at the Marshall Playground last June right as school was letting out for the summer and at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, there were already two hundred people at the playground and sprayground – I couldn’t believe it. I also remember during the North Beckley Creek Park construction seeing a young lady sitting out on the Lake Overlook in the William F. Miles Lakes area one evening, computer in her lap and the half-constructed roof over her head – people were using the park before it could be completed. The old saying “if you build it, they will come” has certainly been proven by the establishment of The Parklands.
I think that 21CP has done a fantastic job of activating and programming the park. I love to see all the images of the concerts, balloon glows, weddings, school events, movie nights, running races, etc…
The future of The Parklands is unlimited. At 4,000 acres The Parklands will be everyone’s backyard park as well as a regional and national draw. In one hundred years, The Parklands will be discussed in the same vein as Olmsted’s best works.
7. What is your favorite area in the park?
I honestly do not have a favorite area of the park – all areas are my favorite. I cherish anytime that I am able to get out on-site as it is much better than being in the office working on the project from a thousand miles away in Philadelphia.
Each area or each “room” in the park is so different. They are constantly changing, growing and evolving – especially with the construction and the post-construction maturation of the design. Each time of day and each season brings about different moods in the landscape. I feel as if I am never stepping into the same room twice – it is always different. I love to photograph the park and seeing The Parklands through a camera lens has helped shape the way I see and read the site. I have become increasingly aware of the various qualities and conditions of light that exist in the park.
In the six years of working on this project, I am still finding new and unexpected jewels. Last month I made my first visit to the section of Floyds Fork by Pope Lick Park that I am now calling “Floyds Fury”. It is a large bend in the Fork full of gravel bars that collect the driftwood of trees which have become dislodged from the banks further upstream. It is a terrifyingly awesome place where mother nature’s fury is on full display. Gnarled, stripped tree trunks the size of city buses have collected into debris dams. Ten feet in the air, 3 foot diameter sycamores trees lay suspended amongst the still standing canopy trees, slammed into place by the force of recent floodwaters. I couldn’t believe that I had never been to this section of The Parklands before, but it goes to show that in the 4,000 acres, there is so much space to cover that there is always going to be an area that awaits personal discovery.
Story by Meg Maloney, 2014 summer intern for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. Meg is a Landscape Architecture student at the University of Kentucky.