Stewardship of Historic Landscapes

This cover of the New Yorker suggests a conflicting relationship between the natural world and human intervention. Image © The New Yorker.

This cover of the New Yorker suggests a conflicting relationship between the natural world and human intervention. Image © The New Yorker.

How do we strike a balance between nature and culture in caring for historically significant landscapes? Partner Dennis McGlade recently addressed this question at The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s second annual “Bridging the Nature-Culture Divide” conference, hosted by the Museum of the City of New York. Dennis was one of eleven experts who examined the design, management and stewardship of successful landscapes, with a specific focus on how lessons learned from such projects can be applied to the woodlands of Manhattan’s Central Park. Dennis’s lecture focused on OLIN’s experience in addressing historic landscapes which balance nature and culture, including Bryant Park in New York, Midway Plaisance in Chicago, and Sylvan Theater at the Washington Monument Grounds in Washington, DC. By incorporating strategies for reprogramming, consensus-building, inventive redesign, and sustainable systems, Dennis illuminated how Central Park can preserve and enhance its woodlands for decades to come.


Bryant Park: New York, NY. Image © Peter Mauss/Esto.

Bryant Park is an example of how a park’s social function can be dramatically improved through adaptive reuse rather than radical redesign. To the casual observer the park still looked pretty much the same as it had prior to OLIN’s improvements. However, OLIN’s subtle changes to the existing architecture of the park made the place more visible and accessible, and thereby more inviting, to the general public. Whereas once Bryant Park was a haven for illicit activities, it is now a mecca of social engagement for New York’s residents, workers and visitors.


Midway Plaisance Winter Garden: Chicago, IL. Image © Marion Brenner.

The Midway Plaisance was a grand, grassy, but boring boulevard, the result of an incomplete realization of the original Frederick Law Olmstead design. In this case, community engagement through workshops and visioning exercises were critical to developing a new park program while creating a sense of community collaboration, authorship and buy-in among various stakeholder groups. The result was the insertion of major new landscape elements into an important, but uninteresting historic park, transforming the Midway from a great green divide to an inviting and active connection between communities.


Sylvan Theater at the Washington Monument Grounds: Washington, DC. Image © OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi.

Three key components of the competition-winning Sylvan Theater design are the upgrades to visitor services, the re-orientation of the site to maximize its iconic context, and the integration of sustainable ecological systems. The design team developed ways to both accommodate large crowds that dominate the National Mall in the summer and offer a more intimate experience to smaller groups throughout the year. They configured the theater to face the Washington Monument while enhancing a critical viewshed to the Jefferson Memorial. The design also included a reforestation strategy, with a diverse palette of native trees that provide autumn foliage color and enhance habitat for birds and other wildlife.



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