For major developments that involve new public parks and green spaces, landscape-architecture firms take on a significant leadership role; the landscape takes center stage, and the landscape team functions as a hub, coordinating the efforts of all of the other specialists. For Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA), such multidisciplinary initiatives have presented valuable opportunities to leverage the firm’s biggest asset—a staff with a diverse knowledge base.

“We are the synthesizers.”
With backgrounds in areas ranging from civil engineering to environmental planning to art history, the MVVA team is capable of communicating with collaborators in nearly any other field. This expertise has served the firm well. MVVA works in tandem with partners ranging from community groups to transit authorities to private developers. “All public space projects have many constituents at many different levels,” firm principal Matt Urbanski says. “You have to listen to everyone.”

What sets the firm apart from its competitors is that MVVA puts forth a team of generalists who provide balance and bring together different specialties. “Instead of being the bush-pushers, we are the synthesizers,” Urbanski says, noting that because the functionality of public spaces can be difficult to describe, education and communication are key. “We get a commonality of language about landscape possibilities going with the client. The language of landscape is different from everyday language.”

Landscape architects and designers also must constantly adapt to the evolving purposes of the spaces they create. “Landscape has great capacity to facilitate all kinds of activities, uses, experiences, and emotions,” Urbanski says, adding that expectations surrounding park design have changed dramatically. People expect the landscape to be more engaging and incorporate a sense of spectacle, he says. They want interactive features that facilitate experiences with the nature that surrounds them.

“We are transforming the site’s function.”
Because an increasing number of parks are being developed on sites that previously served industrial or commercial purposes, the task of coordinating these efforts has become more complex. “We are often transforming the site’s function,” Urbanski says. “The client is hiring us to invent the problem and then solve it.” One such project is Hudson Park and Boulevard, which is transforming three Manhattan blocks into a single park. The space will serve as the centerpiece of the newly designated Hudson Yards district and will feature grassy nooks, water features, a pedestrian walkway, and large spaces for public events.

The surrounding neighborhood is in transition, so MVVA must create a space that meets the needs of the current residents while simultaneously looking to the future. At the same time, the green space itself is expected to be sustainable and not disruptive to the natural environment. Rather than source wood from Brazilian rainforests, a practice that would have presented a collection of issues in terms of eco-friendliness, MVVA chose a rot-resistant black locust that is native to the region.

“[Density is] the ultimate sustainable gesture.”
The firm has a history of including such sustainable features in its work. Another prestigious project, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, recycles storm water on-site with cisterns and uses portions of the site’s former pier structures as light posts.

Urbanski believes that parks foster sustainability in ways that reach far beyond the communities they serve. By attracting residents to denser cities and away from suburban sprawl, he explains, parks serve as an important eco-friendly resource. “You can accommodate a lot of people in a small amount of space,” Urbanski says. “That’s the ultimate sustainable gesture.”