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Why design? Pt. 2

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post ahead of our Student Design Competition introducing the importance of design. This post serves as a follow-up examining the need for site-specific ecological design at the Urban Arboreta sites.


What makes for ‘great design’? Great or successful design does not exist in isolation: it responds to its surroundings and its users, and is made stronger by its physical relationships which reinforce its success. These elements are especially important when considering ecological design, which is inextricably tied to and dependent upon place.

Existing tree cover at the Parkside Avenue site

Site-specific ecological design was the basis for the Urban Arboreta Student Design Competition. Entrants were asked to respond to a variety of ecological, entrepreneurial, and projected community objectives on two specified sites in a thoughtful and cohesive manner. As background, participants were given an overview of former and current land uses, as well as local topographic features, hydrology and storm water management issues, and existing vegetation.

“I think one of the complex issues of this competition is it’s a very site scale competition. It’s not an ideas competition,” says Co-leader Tim Baird. “There’s a lot of stuff that we hope people will be able to actually site and locate. The synergies between all these different pieces need to be proposed and efficiencies of making every inch of the sites work.”

However, knowing how a nursery production facility might align with the present-day site and surrounding communities is not an easy task. Does a quality design in this case equate to long-term solvency for the business or an improved local ecology or increased community use? Will a great design produce all three and does it need to in order to be great design? In concept, it is a nursery that can also, through strategic plantings, begin to remediate some of the current soil conditions while improving the aesthetics of the site and community access.

Part of a Student Design Competition entry by Becky Waravdekar

Although Urban Arboreta is intended to be a prototype that could be replicated in various neighborhoods throughout the city, the design of one site to another is largely dependent on community stakeholders. A design-in-a-box approach transplanted from one site to the next simply won’t work. In this instance, the most distinguishing component of each site will be the design response that is drawn from community input from those who live in the surrounding community.

“We have to get the residents on board and involved. If the constituencies don’t feel some sort of authorship, then the long-term success is never going to happen,” explains Baird. “We know that – it has happened time and time again in the design-landscape world where a top-down thing happens and the people who should be involved aren’t involved. So, that’s very important that it succeed at the neighborhood scale.”

To that end, the Urban Arboreta Team has begun the process to get the conversation going about the site, the project goals and the design, through a series of community meetings. Some of the winning Student Design team members will continue to work together with the UA team and the community to develop the best feasible design for the sites. Stay tuned for further updates as we move towards production on the sites!

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