The urban park, from well-manicured, small lots in residential neighborhoods to massive, city-defining landmarks such as Central Park, have long been centerpieces of city life. But in an age of climate change and evolving urban-planning concepts, parks are being viewed through many different lenses.
More that just escapes to help residents reconnect with nature, parks and public spaces are now used as tools for engagement and environmentalism and means to promote resilience, knit together neighborhoods, and help revitalize cities. Landscape architecture is fast becoming a centerpiece, not just a facet, of urban design.
As spring weather begins to sweep the country, it seems like a good time to look at some of the parks and public spaces that have recently opened or will open later this year. Here’s a list of some of the projects—community gathering spaces, new examples of engineered nature, or important reflections of cultural heritage—that will continue to redefine the role of parks.
Emancipation Park (Houston)
Reopened in January after a $33 million project spearheaded by Perkins + Will, this city park has great significance that belies its humble origins. The site of the state’s first Juneteenth celebration, a holiday celebrating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, the park was created in 1872 when a group of freed slaves pooled together $800 to purchase 10 acres of land.
This new redevelopment of Emancipation Park, a project led by Phil Freelon, one of the architects behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will feature refurbished landscapes and playgrounds and a soaring new canopy on the main plaza that functions as a band shell. Freelon has said the rust and earth tones found in the new structures reflect the tin roofs traditionally used on homes in the nearby Third Ward.
Portland Japanese Garden Expansion (Portland)
Long considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in the world outside of Japan, this Pacific Northwest landmark will become an even more refined expression of traditional landscaping and design with the completion of a new Cultural Village expansion this year. The first stateside public project by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, this $33.5 million addition was completed last weekend. It includes galleries, an arts center and an intimate tea cafe, and a series of wood-framed structures gathered around a traditional courtyard. There’s also a new bonsai terrace and a tiny urban garden, known as a tsubo-niwa.
Swale (New York City)
One of the biggest evolutions in urban landscape architecture over the last decade has been the growing prevalence of engineered parks that repurpose man-made structures, whether it’s the High Line and the many similar parks it inspired; the in-the-works Low Line, an abandoned subterranean station turned high-tech public space; or the scores of repurposed highway underpasses, such as Miami’s forthcoming Underline, which breaks ground at the end of 2017.
The Swale goes a bit further out in rebuilding and recreating nature, aiming to transform a 5,000-square-foot barge into a solar-powered permaculture station, perennial garden, and man-made orchard (sponsored by Strongbow Cider). Anticipating the Plus Pool, another floating public space being developed for the city’s rivers, this exhibit, which opens at Pier 25 on the Hudson River on April 20, offers an engaging take on engineering new public space for an increasingly dense city.
Constitution Gardens (Washington, D.C.)
Located on the National Mall between the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, this 50-acre parkland, previously designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) and modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, was meant to be a peaceful gathering place in the capital, an "American Revolution Bicentennial tribute,” according to President Nixon, who dedicated the park in 1976.
The renovation of this high-profile space by PWP Landscape Architecture—the first phase of which will be completed this November—will open up the area, starting with a relocation of the historic stone Lockkeeper’s House, an 1830 landmark and one of D.C.’s oldest buildings. The new landscaping plan by Rogers Partners and PWP Landscape Architecture also includes an ice-skating rink and a renovated pavilion plaza.
Apple Park (Cupertino, California)
Yes, this is a massive corporate campus designed by Foster + Partners, and not a public park per se. But the landscaping work going into Apple’s 175-acre campus, which may cost up to $5 billion by the time it opens later this year, deserves special notice. The tech giant isn’t sparing any expense when it comes to landscaping: More than 8,000 trees will grace the campus, most of which will be fully grown plants meant to replicate Cupertino’s lost agricultural past. Because Apple opted for the very expensive choice of adding mature plants, the new landscape, which seeks to recreate how the region looked before the tech boom brought in scores of low-lying office buildings, will take shape right as the campus opens to employees this month.
DTE Downtown Park (Detroit)
Detroit is in the midst of a number of new landscaping and public park projects, especially on its riverfront. This relatively small, 1.5-acre park near the DTE Energy Headquarters, a lot formerly filled with empty gravel, aspires to become a new gathering space on the west side of downtown, boasting bike parking, a stage for performances, food trucks, and a year-round restaurant. In a city center not necessarily known for green space, this could be a transformative project akin to Campus Martius, and help steer more investment to this section of downtown.
Cornfield Park (Los Angeles)
With the ongoing renovation of the LA River and the announcement that the city’s infamous Pershing Park is in the midst of being redesigned, news of this Chinatown park’s makeover by Spurlock Poirier Landscape Architects hasn’t dominated headlines. But the new look of Los Angeles State Historic Park, nicknamed Cornfield Park, is worth the three-year wait. Officially re-opening later this month, this 34-acre park now features a raised pedestrian bridge that curves across the park, as well as a meadow and wetlands area.
This new 1.5-mile stretch of revitalized and redesigned riverfront, under construction since 2009, wraps around the city’s downtown Loop, running from Lakeshore Drive to Lake Street and turning the banks of the Chicago River into a civic gathering space, park, and transportation corridor. The new series of walkways, staircases, and event spaces, a collaboration between Sasaki and Ross Barney Architects, which completed its final phase last year, represents the cutting edge of landscape architecture and the many ways that urban parks are evolving and changing.
The Hills on Governors Island (New York City)
Another highlight from 2016, this engineered natural park in New York Harbor deserves a second look, or a visit, this year after it opens on May 1. Featuring a series of manmade hills that provide slides, nature trails, and outlooks for panoramic views of the city, this 40-acre island park, designed by Dutch firm West 8, exemplifies a new generation of hybrid 21st-century parks that blur the boundaries between the natural and artificial worlds.