Landscape Architect's 'Genius' Work Recognized by MacArthur Foundation

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New York-based landscape architect, educator and environmentalist Kate Orff is one of two designers to be named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. . (Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Landscape architect Kate Orff wants to turn Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal — long considered one of America’s most irredeemably nasty waterways — into a lush, community-centered network of parks and public spaces.

Is Orff’s plan to transform the 2-mile-long tidal creek-turned-industrial dumping ground-turned-Superfund site into "NYC’s Next Great Park" impossible? Unrealistic? Too starry-eyed?

There will always be naysayers whenever a metamorphosing project of such dramatic scale and scope is unveiled. This is particularly true when it involves improving a place so maligned, so malodorous that the word "Gowanus" alone is enough to prompt a crinkled nose.

But the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation doesn’t fall into this camp. In fact, the MacArthur Foundation thinks Orff’s vision is straight-up genius.

Last week, Orff (profiled in the video above) and 23 other creative visionaries — a painter, a playwright, an anthropologist and a social justice organizer among them — were named as recipients of the MacArthur Foundation’s 2017 batch of "genius" grants. Each individual named as a MacArthur Fellow is awarded with a stipend of $625,000 dispersed over a five-year span. Meant to serve as "seed money for intellectual, social and artistic endeavors, " the funds come with no strings attached — that is, there are no restrictions on how the stipend is spent.

In an era when the federal government has all but checked out when it comes to climate change-related issues and cities have been left to lead the charge in creating a built environment that’s stronger, smarter and more adaptive to a warming planet, the inclusion of Orff as a 2017 MacArthur Fellow is particularly apropos; spotlighting her resiliency-minded work all the more vital.

As a PBS NewsHour profile explains, Orff, who in addition to serving as founding principal of landscape design firm SCAPE is an associate professor of urban design at Columbia University, "... specializes in designing urban habitats that can adapt to climate change and other human impacts on local ecosystems. The self-declared activist also champions approaches that engage community members in the design process while encouraging them to become stewards of their environments."

When asked about her reaction when she found out that she had been named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, the 46-year-old Orff says getting "the call" was "shocking and overwhelming."

She explains: "Mostly because I wasn’t fully aware that landscape architects or the kind of work that I do was really on the radar of the foundation. What I am trying to do is science-driven, community-informed, large-scale architecture. My distant understanding of the MacArthur program is Lin Manuel Miranda [the ‘Hamilton’ playwright is a 2015 fellow] or a person doing mathematical equations on a whiteboard. So, it was just exciting thing to be recognized by the foundation."

A rendering of Gowanus Lowlands, Brooklyn
Described as"a blueprint for NYC's Next Great Park," Gowanus Lowlands is a framework plan that reclaims a notoriously polluted urban watershed. A master plan is now in development. (Photo: SCAPE )

Described as 'a blueprint for NYC's Next Great Park,' Gowanus Lowlands is a framework plan that reclaims a notoriously polluted urban watershed and transforms it into an ecologically sensitive public space. (Rendering: SCAPE)

Imagining the unimaginable in South Brooklyn

A majority of SCAPE’s work revolves around beautifying and bolstering New York City, where Orff lives and her firm is based.

A framework plan meant to "shine a light on the canal’s history and singular beauty against a backdrop of a healthy environment and safe, connected streets," the aforementioned Gowanus Lowlands — launched this past summer in collaboration with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy — has generated significant media attention not just because of the waterway’s noxious reputation but also due to the controversial flurry of development that’s changing, for better or worse, the once-sleepy South Brooklyn neighborhood surrounding it.

The New York Times recently wondered if the low-key neighborhood abutting the "famously filthy canal," which is currently being dredged as part of the first stages of a $500 million Superfund cleanup job, will emerge from the luxury building boom that’s enveloped the area with any of its beguilingly ragtag character intact. "This is not the beach," longtime Gowanus resident Linda Mariano tells the Times, bemoaning a loss of authenticity around the oddly beautiful canal. "We should be retreating from the water, not creating an artificial utopia." (No one should be holding their breath for a River Seine-style beach but the canal is certainly more swimmable than in the past.)

Described by the Times as a "dreamscape of sloping grassy knolls, maritime meadows, performance spaces and picnic spots," the Gowanus Lowlands does sound like a utopia. And it certainly doesn't retreat from the water. SCAPE's vision pulls people closer to the canal and makes it more accessible while also acknowledging that the entire around the canal is within a 100-year flood plain.

Gowanus Canal Postcard
Gowanus Canal Postcard illustration. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

If anything, the plan makes the Gowanus more authentic by converting it into something that more closely resembles the verdant, wildlife-filled tidal estuary that existed prior to the mid-19th century construction of the shipping canal, which was subsequently lined with dozens of factories, mills and chemical plants. Nicknamed "Lavender Lake" due to the disconcerting color of the water, the canal quickly gained national infamy as a garbage-filled, grease-slicked dumping ground and sewage overflow site. Part of the current EPA cleanup effort involves removing a 10-foot-thick layer of toxic sludge from the bed of the canal. Past samples of the so-called "black mayonnaise" collected from the canal have shown a host of bacteria and viruses along with lifeforms unknown to modern science.

Reads an entirely more pleasant project description: "The Gowanus Lowlands is a template for change that values and protects the weird and powerful experiences of the Gowanus Canal, while improving neighborhood and ecological health over time."

Overhead rendering of Gowanus Lowlands plan, Brooklyn
While much attention has been paid to high-end development in the area, the 2-mile navigable petri dish otherwise known as the Gowanus Canal is also currently undergoing a half-billion dollar Superfund cleanup. (Photo: SCAPE)

'Oyster-tecture' comes to Staten Island

Another Orff-helmed project about to make waves in New York is Living Breakwaters, a community-centered coastal resiliency scheme revolving around "oyster-tecture"-based flood mitigation.

Selected as one of six storm resiliency projects to receive $60 million in funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition, Living Breakwaters was also the winner of the 2014 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, a prestigious humanitarian design award honoring the legacy of the influential American inventor and polymath. Conceived during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Living Breakwaters will entail 4,000 feet of storm surge-blocking seawalls that double as habitats for oysters and other marine life returning to an increasingly cleaned-up New York Harbor.

As Orff explains to PBS NewsHour, Living Breakwaters is "basically a one-and-half mile linear chain of ecological breakwaters that are designed for finfish and shellfish habitat. They help to reduce wave action, restore sediment to the shoreline and reintroduce this civic shoreline as a place for recreation." Work on the hugely ambitious project, described in detail in the above video, is expected to kick off on the Sandy-battered southern shore of Staten Island in 2018.

Other New York-based projects, both completed and in the pipeline, include a green roof and ecologically sensitive waterfront esplanade for Red Hoek Point, a Norman Foster-designed office campus planned for the low-lying, flood-vulnerable Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook; Blake Hobbs Play-za, a community-reenergizing playground/plaza hybrid located in underserved East Harlem; the sprawling, volunteer-built 103rd Street Community Garden, also in East Harlem; the undulating Discovery Terrace at the Hall of Science in Queens and Deconstructed Salt Marsh, a collapsed pier in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, reimagined as a "public learning laboratory for intertidal habitat and harbor ecology."

Overhead view of Red Hoek Point, a development in Red Hook, Brooklyn
Kate Orff will oversee the landscaping elements at Red Hoek Point, a massive, Foster + Partners-designed waterfront development in this writer's very own backyard. (Photo: SCAPE )

Landscape architecture firm SCAPE will oversee the green roofs and other elements at Red Hoek Point, a Foster + Partners-designed waterfront development located in this writer's own backyard. (Rendering: SCAPE)

The Kentucky connection

Despite a primary focus on bringing adaptive and ecologically sensitive design to historically underserved and climate change-vulnerable New York communities, it’s Lexington, Kentucky, that’s most loudly singing the praises of Orff and her work following the MacArthur fellowship announcement.

One of only a small handful of non-NYC projects for SCAPE, Town Branch Commons is a planned linear park project that follows the path of Town Branch Creek, a historic waterway buried beneath downtown Lexington. As the MacArthur Foundation notes, the project harnesses Lexington’s porous limestone (karst) geology as the core inspiration behind a "2.5-mile network of trails, parks, pools, stream channels, and storm water management systems in the heart of the city."

And from the sounds of it, Lexingtonians couldn’t be more thrilled about the in-progress park, which will serve as a recreational trail and a water filtration landscape.

Rendering of Town Branch Commons, Lexington, Kentucky
Town Branch Commons, an upcoming linear park and stormwater management system, will span nearly 3 miles through Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo: SCAPE )

Town Branch Commons, an upcoming linear park and stormwater management system that follows the path of a historic creek, will span nearly 3 miles through Lexington, Kentucky. (Rendering: SCAPE)

An editorial in the Lexington Herald-Leader opines: "Hindsight is excellent, but even in 2013 when Kate Orff’s SCAPE was chosen to design the Town Branch Commons in downtown Lexington it seemed clear that great things would come from and to this intense, unpretentious landscape architect."

The paper goes on to note that fundraising for the $30 million Town Branch Park, a sprawling public green space connected to the commons and also designed by SCAPE, is currently underway.

"Orff’s recognition — the most significant of several she has earned — should help accelerate fund-raising for the park," explains the Herald-Leader. "The challenge now is to honor her work, and our community, by raising the money to faithfully make her vision a reality. Lexington displayed its own genius in choosing Orff. Congratulations to her, congratulations to us."

MacArthur Fellow Kate Orff at work
A graduate of the University of Virginia, Orff's projects include urban parks, community gardens, green roofs, public terraces and flood-blocking seawalls. (Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

While Lexington proudly champions the MacArthur Foundation-recognized genius who is set to make revitalize a long-neglected natural attribute of the city, Orff herself remains both humble and eager to share tips on how ordinary Americans can help make their own communities greener, healthier and less vulnerable to the impacts of an unpredictable and warming climate.

Speaking to NewsHour, Orff lists three basic things that ordinary citizens can do on an "individual or family level that can make a tremendous difference." She begins by suggesting that we do away with sprawling grass lawns and replace them with pollinator-friendly native landscapes. Secondly, she notes that homeowners should be aware of and employ bird-safe design tactics to help reduce avian mortality levels.

Last but not least, Orff stresses the importance of leaving the car at home whenever possible and living a less carbon-heavy lifestyle. "I guess that’s easy for me to say as a denizen of New York City riding subways everyday. But as cities become greener and our air quality improves, living in more dense urban cores has got to be more and more attractive."

Gowanus postcard illustration: Wikimedia Commons