Growing up in the forests of Delaware, Gena Wirth, a design principal at SCAPE, spent her days building forts and collecting sticks. Wirth recalls observing how elements in a forest function within their ecosystem: the way trees provide shade and create a layered habitat, how decomposition cycles work.
But living in cities as an adult, Wirth noticed that many of those ecological processes were “totally covered up, broken down, and disassembled” in urban environments. In some ways, it was her experiences with harmonious landscapes that led her—and her colleagues at SCAPE—to the field of landscape architecture.
“I think our work at SCAPE is really about revealing those systems—systems of water drainage, systems of vegetative growth, systems of geology,” says Wirth. “[They’re all] kind of hidden below the ground.”
And in light of the seemingly relentless pace with which hurricanes pummeled the United States and its neighbors in the Caribbean this summer, along with rising sea levels, this idea of landscape architecture as a solution for combating natural disasters feels more urgent than ever.
Kate Orff founded SCAPE in 2007 and leads the New York City-based landscape architecture and urban design practice along with her partner Elena Brescia and three other principals, including Gena Wirth, Alexis Landes, and John Donnelly. “We're overlaying the expertise of the landscape architect with the strategic visioning and urban scale thinking of the urban designer,” says Orff, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship this year, becoming the first landscape architect to receive what’s become known as the “genius grant.”
Whether by designing city pocket parks or large-scale coastal resiliency projects, integrating long-term research projects and experiments within a habitat, or creating educational initiatives, SCAPE considers landscape architecture a form of activism that can address the deleterious effects of urbanization and climate change.
In Toward an Urban Ecology, a book that is part monograph, manual, and manifesto, Orff sets forth the idea that the landscape can be both “a frame and a solution” to create change. Put another way, SCAPE harnesses the potential of landscape architecture and urban design by creating regenerative infrastructure and encouraging communities to become active stewards of the places they call home.
Though its work sounds, and is, scientific, SCAPE is above all using a multidisciplinary approach to build connections between members of a community—and between a community and its environs. “It is all melded together: Science is design, and science is people is anthropology,” says Brescia, one of the partners.
Living Breakwaters, a $60 million dollar project led by the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, is one of the most high-profile of SCAPE’s projects and exemplifies this approach to a problem that is ambitious both for its scale and its vision for the future.
Initially developed for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design Initiative, Living Breakwaters, proposes a plan to combat wave damage and coastal erosion on the South Shore of Staten Island, New York, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“Coastal resiliency is one of the major things we're focusing on right now, [along with] sea level rise, and storm surge,” says John Donnelly, SCAPE’s technical principal. “[For] Living Breakwaters we’re leading with a whole team of engineers and researchers to reduce the risk of storm surge along the South Shore and to rebuild the beaches in very targeted ways.”
The project proposes a “necklace” of breakwater structures that would reduce the risk of wave damage and regenerate the aquatic habitat along the shoreline. This layered approach reduces the force and speed of waves, slows erosion, and encourages beach formation. The breakwaters also foster a more diverse habitat for juvenile fish, oysters, and shellfish through the creation of complex, reef-like habitat.
To account for the unknowns, SCAPE often integrates experiments within some of their large-scale work—case in point, the “five or six different ways” the firm is rebuilding the South Shore’s oyster population. “So there's this larger scale goal,” Wirth explains, “but we're using this project as a way of understanding which restoration techniques are most viable and most cost-effective over time.”
But in some ways, it’s the Gowanus Lowlands project in Brooklyn’s industrial Gowanus neighborhood that showcases SCAPE’s ability to implement strategic urban design on a large scale, based on the history of a specific site—all while looking ahead to preserving it for future generations.
Working closely with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, SCAPE has envisioned a network of parks and public spaces formed by sloping banks, lookout points, streets, and paths centered on the Gowanus Canal and connected to the surrounding watershed. The Lowlands proposal would continue the cleanup of the toxic waterway to create a vibrant place of work and play for the community, one shaped by those who live there.
“[Gowanus Lowlands looks] very broadly at a district and practically retrofit[s] an entire piece of city as a new form of park,” Orff says. Building on canal research first begun in 2005, “It’s really exciting for us to be able to pull a lot of that early research and thought process into a project that's going to affect the history of New York in the next 200 years.”
A precursor to the Gowanus Lowlands proposal is SCAPE’s Town Branch Commons project in Lexington, Kentucky, where a 2.5-mile long path along the historic Town Branch creek will be revitalized into a linear park and public space. By redirecting the stream above ground (what’s called “daylighting”) into a series of pools, pockets, water windows, and stream channels, the project effectively brings water to the people.
Here, SCAPE worked with students of the University of Kentucky to develop a public education campaign, in podcast form, about urban water systems called Town Branch Water Walk, a self-guided tour of downtown Lexington’s hidden waterway.
“One of the principles of our practice is really community engagement,” says Alexis Landes, a managing principal at SCAPE. “We are still trying to think about solutions that impact communities, and [to] communicate our ideas to communities so that they can be stewards of the landscape and take ownership over our work and over the landscapes that they inhabit.”
“It’s setting an agenda and establishing a dialogue and a constituency around a landscape,” Orff continues. “And it's also not just a one-way conversation. It's a means of activism that brings other expertise into the fold.”
By creating “living infrastructure” that encourages natural ecological cycles and systems, SCAPE hopes to foster resilient urban habitats for the future. But that means planning for the unknown.
“We're trying to design landscapes for conditions that we know are highly likely to change,” Wirth says. “Whether that's a pocket park or plaza, we're thinking about what the temperature might be in 15 years; what plant palette might be adapted to future conditions; the urban scale; how flooding might impact a neighborhood at the regional scale; how sediment conditions might change in the large estuary or harbor. That's a constant in all of our work: the planning for adaptation and uncertainty.”
Unsurprisingly, there is no panacea.
“It's not coming up with a single solution but for allowing for multiple opportunities and multiple ways things might resolve,” says Landes.
In the end, it’s about bridging the physical landscape with the people who will make use of it—the stewards of the landscapes SCAPE is building. Orff sums it up, “We're very interested in fostering and understanding how those overlap.”