Interview with Ken Smith

Interview with Ken Smith

Landscape architect Ken Smith (MLA ‘86), considered in the vanguard of N.Y.’s urban design scene, is currently working on a range of projects in and around N.Y.C. Among the balls he has in the air are a public plaza and streetscape for the BAM Cultural District in Fort Greene, an ongoing series of planting installations at Rockefeller Center, and a park on the East River at the foot of Wall Street. Smith has been practicing in N.Y. as Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect since 1992, and before that he was in San Francisco at the office of Peter Walker and Martha Schwartz.

In an interview with Jen Saura, Smith discusses his green urban projects, transportation modes that have made their way into his designs, and his thoughts on N.Y.’s recent park-building boom.

Ken Smith

JS: How have the needs of the N.Y. in which you started your practice changed over the years?

KS: I think N.Y. shaped my practice in several ways. First in a densely populated place like N.Y.C. there is always a strong social aspect to the practice. You learn early on to work with people, communities, and pay attention to the social uses and social life of public space. The other aspect is that at the time I opened my office in the city there were not a lot of new works of landscape architecture being created. Most of my early projects were small, working in the interstitial space of leftover or overlooked places in the city. It wasn’t until the Bloomberg administration that the program for reclaiming the waterfronts and old industrial areas really got going in a major way. The Hudson River Park and Battery Park City occurred earlier, but with Mayor Bloomberg, public space design and improvement got a big push as part of his quality of life programs and initiatives to maintain N.Y. City’s standing as a world economic city.

I remember when I was working for Peter Walker, his feeling was that nationally oriented landscape firms didn’t have much opportunity to get commissions in the city. It was true in the late ‘80s and ‘90s that most of the landscape work went to local practices. In fact, traditionally, the N.Y.C. Parks Department is the largest employer of landscape architects in the city.  In spite of Pete’s advice to the contrary, I wanted to practice in the city. I felt there were opportunities for 3 reasons. First, there were a lot of top national practice architects in the city, so I reasoned there should be commissions working with good architects. I also realized there was a lot of wealth in the metropolitan area, so there should be projects of good funding potential. And I sensed that there were potential landscape spaces to be recovered from old waterfront and industrial areas.  All were true. The other thing I realized was that N.Y.C. was a media capital so there was access to press and publication, which is important in brand building in contemporary practice.

JS: What are some of the recent projects you feel have most transformed the city’s landscape?

KS: The programs to reclaim the waterfront areas of the city have profoundly changed the city in very apparent ways. Also the Department of Transportation’s policy—to think of our streets as “complete streets,” with multi-modal forms of movement and open spaces and plazas - has been a very positive improvement to the quality of life in the city.

JS: Do you use Citi Bikes?

KS: I was a charter member of the program. I have been riding since the first day. My office is three miles from my home. It takes me an hour to walk, which I do quite often because walking is very pleasant. If I’m in a hurry I can bike in twenty minutes and when weather is bad or I’m schlepping stuff the subway takes a half hour. I’d say I bike or walk about half the time and take the subway the other half.

JS: How do you predict the bikeshare program will change how city-dwellers use green space?

KS: It’s hard to say. Citi Bike is a transportation program more than a leisure or recreational program. As a transportation program in conjunction with an expanding program of dedicated bike paths the program could have a big impact.

JS: What have been some of the major urban needs you have focused on integrating into the East River Waterfront Esplanade?

KS: The East River Waterfront Esplanade project at a most basic level is focused on issues of access. Early on we studied both the cross-grain access to the various neighborhoods and districts along the length of the two-mile project. The linear movement is also important. This project creates a meandering passage that reflects the different conditions along its length as well as an intention to slow people down and create a varied experience.

Along its length, the project creates small social spaces. Some are seating areas; there are bar stools along the railing; there are “get downs” to the water; fish-out balconies; seating terraces; swings, etc. Even though the site is burdened with being for the most part under the elevated FDR highway, the views are fantastic, and the varied social spaces create good public space. This pilot project has been a success. The other aspect is that even with the constraints of elevated structures and on structure conditions, the landscape has created a lot of green space and robust planting areas. There is also a very interesting and sculptural mussel habitat demonstration area called “mussel beach” located at Pier 35.

Along the length of the project is a series of specific program areas, including two open space piers, several pavilions, a dog playground, a skateboard area, exercise areas, ball kick area and ball courts.

JS: Who do you consider to be your audience at the East River Waterfront Esplanade?

KS: There are a number of audiences. There is a rather general audience of people including tourists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and joggers who move along the waterfront. There are specific neighborhoods along the way including the Financial District, the Seaport, Public Housing Projects, Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

JS: Is N.Y. unique in its drive to incorporate more green space into its urban center? Or is N.Y. just a strong example of how landscape urbanism is being utilized as a tool for rethinking urban centers as the demand for city living grows?

KS: N.Y. City has always sought to incorporate green landscapes into the urban fabric. Central Park was a response to the grid of the Commissioner’s Plan. Contemporary landscapes often are a response to zoning conditions that create bonus space in exchange for density. The waterfront historically has been either a working edge or a hardened infrastructural condition. It's a really recent phenomenon to create green edges and functional ecological systems into these landscape areas of the city. I think N.Y. City in recent years is a good example of how cities need to pay attention to landscape as social and environmental space in providing the kinds of high quality of life that is expected for a city to remain economically competitive in the global community.

KSLA's East River Waterfront Esplanade is slated for completion following four construction phases. Phase II, a narrow stretch of land extending from the Battery Maritime Building to Old Slip, opened this past spring; its integrated system of pedestrian and bike pathways make the East River Waterfront Esplanade highly accessible. If you’re in N.Y. and curious about the future of green urban spaces, now is an easier time than ever to pick up a Citi Bike and check out this multimodal urban park for yourself.

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