Landscape Optimism: An Interview with Chris Reed

A vocal supporter of Landscape Urbanism outlines his approach, from the Design Observer – an interview  by QUILIAN RIANO

In 2000 landscape architect Chris Reed founded StossLU, or Stoss Landscape Urbanism. Since then the Boston-based office has emerged as one of the leading advocates for enlarging the scope and scale of landscape projects and practices. As Reed wrote in an essay in The Landscape Urbanism Reader, “Contemporary landscape practices are witnessing a revival of sorts, a recovery of the broader social, cultural, and ecological agendas. No longer a product of pure art history and horticulture, landscape is re-engaging issues of site and ecological succession and is playing a part in the formative roles of projects, rather than simply giving form to already defined projects.” [1]
In the past decade Stoss has indeed played a formative role in a range of ambitious projects, both built and proposed. Its growing portfolio encompasses the redevelopment of urban waterfronts, including the Fox Riverfront in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the Lower Don Lands in Toronto; the remediation of contaminated landscapes, including the Silresim Superfund Redevelopment Study, on the site of a former chemical plant in Lowell, Massachusetts; and the design of parks at multiple scales, from the recently completed, quarter-acre Erie Plaza in Milwaukee, to Streamlines, a finalist in the competition to redesign an extensive section of the Mississippi Riverfront in Minneapolis.

Along the way Stoss has racked up numerous awards, including the 2010 Landscape Award from Topos Journal, and been the subject of national and international publications, including a 2007 monograph. The firm has tenaciously articulated and acted upon the ambition not only to engage in but also to lead multidimensional and cross-disciplinary projects that blend landscape, architecture, urbanism, planning, ecology and economics; in this way it has made good on its name: stoss, from the German, means “to kick, as in ‘kick in the pants,’ to initiate, activate.” [2] And Reed and his colleagues have seen the concept of landscape urbanism emerge and grow, from an academic movement in the mid-1990s to an increasingly influential set of ideas to, most recently, the focus of lively debate on the future of urbanism.

Chris Reed’s role as an entrepreneur designer making work in an era of downturn is exemplified in this excerpt 

To give a concrete example: Stoss’ work on the Fox Riverfront in Green Bay has been very entrepreneurial, and it’s developed from both formal and informal associations. It all began years ago when an interested citizen, who teaches planning at the local college, saw an opportunity for a project along the Fox River. He contacted an architecture firm in Milwaukee that in its own work was taking on a development role, and introduced them to city officials. It was at this point that we were invited aboard to think more broadly about a whole series of downtown and riverfront development sites; ultimately we framed a larger proposal about infrastructure systems and landscape and ecological systems that were physically, fiscally and operationally linked to these potential developments, spanning the river at the heart of downtown. We met with Green Bay leaders to discuss possibilities — and we worked with a mayor so clearly interested in economic development as a tool for community building that he spent six hours with us over the course of two days. What a commitment!

After another round of meetings and workshops with city leaders and staff, our firm and the architect-developer presented a full proposal — infrastructure and landscape plans, development programming, urban design parameters, financing mechanisms — to local agencies and eventually the city council. This kind of integrated ecological/cultural/social project — on one side of the river it features an urban boardwalk lined with mixed uses, on the other an eco-forest, new wetlands and stormwater-processing terraces — was an entirely new idea for Green Bay. It was quickly approved as the city’s comprehensive plan for the downtown riverfront — and not because it just featured nice open space, but because it was a multifaceted renewal and redevelopment framework for an important piece of the city.

The project moved ahead as an integrated package and as the result of an entrepreneurial partnership between public, private and not-for-profit entities. Remarkably, in the last few years — during the severe economic downturn — the Mayor and the City of Green Bay have managed to complete two new buildings (low-rise riverfront condominiums and a mid-rise apartment house with ground-floor retail), begin construction on a third (a development that includes the Children’s Museum, restaurants and shops, and office and residential space), and execute about $10 million worth of infrastructural and landscape improvements (reconfigured roads and sidewalks and the first phase of The CityDeck, a riverfront promenade and event space). This is incredibly impressive for a city of 100,000. Yet it was not a project that followed traditional norms in the States: the usual sequence of non-integrated planning studies and responsive proposals confined to predetermined site, programmatic and policy limits. Rather, in dialogue with the city and engaged citizens and organizations on the ground, a team of landscape architects, architects, urban designers, developers, financiers and engineers spawned a renewal process — an extended set of dialogues, really — that is significantly remaking Green Bay, and which continues to unfold as we speak.

The CityDeck, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Stoss Landscape Urbanism

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