Batchelor’s urban projects embrace both past and future

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After residents weigh in on how construction should affect their community, Clara Couric Batchelor’s interpretations map out a plan that takes into account both their hopes and their concerns. The Harvard-trained landscape architect and her team approach urban rejuvenation projects by structuring proposals with an appreciation of both the past and the future.

Batchelor believes that public spaces should be updated every few decades. She compares the process to redecorating or redesigning a well-loved, frequently used living room. After a while, she says, “It’s time to re-think and re-do tired spaces.”

Both ancient and anticipant is the nature of this work. Citing an article, “The Craving for Public Square” by Michael Kimmelman, Batchelor references Aristotle’s idealized vision of polis space, loosely translated as city space. He declared civic areas should be no larger than the distance of a herald’s cry and not preclude face-to-face communication. Kimmelman’s article states that “architecture requires not just making attractive buildings but providing citizens with generous creative, open, inviting public spaces. And one of the basic truths of urban life turns out to be that there’s a nearly insatiable demand for such places.” Addressing the on-going importance of centers of public assembly is as relevant today as it was for the philosopher in 380 BC, Batchelor believes.

Each urban landscape project designed in and around Boston by Batchelor’s firm, CBA Landscape Architects, acknowledges the desirability and vitality of shared space. Public zones designed by CBA seek to match communal objectives with enhanced opportunities for engagement.

The Boston Schoolyard Initiative is an example of how architectural landscaping can affirmatively and organically impact urban settings. The challenge was to redesign the play area of 12 schools with the expectation both educational opportunities and physical challenges would be included in the plan. CBA’s extensive landscape engineering sought to find common ground between the School Committees’ objectives and the desires of parents, neighbors, students and teachers. Rejuvenation plans grew to include 12 outdoor class rooms offering students an exposure to the fundamentals of botany, meteorology, and topography. The plan also included vibrant activity zones with state-of-the-art climbing equipment. The physical metaphor of offering students a chance to climb to new heights complemented passive spaces designed for class gatherings, and reflection.

The Box District Parks (Courtesy of CBA Landscape Architects)

The Box District Parks (Courtesy of CBA Landscape Architects)

Chelsea’s former manufacturing district is the center for two projects of urban distinction. John Ruiz and The Box District Parks in the heart of Chelsea offer neighborhood plazas of significance.   Attractively redesigned, well-lit spaces encourage community members to reflect on accomplishments of hometown boxing hero John “The Quietman” Ruiz. A playful double-dutch pathway saved from an old park adds character with new play equipment and a trellised picnic area that opens to refreshed lawns. The new Box District Plaza encourages neighbors to share the area’s proud industrial past extending beyond their homes into an engaging communal sanctuary.

Three of Somerville’s community spaces have also been redesigned to engage residents in multi-generational interaction. Dickerman and Morse-Kelley Playgrounds, with Kenney Park, are vibrant, artfully reconstructed spaces.  A lyrically painted mural surrounds newly resurfaced, multi-function courts near splash pads, a skate park, a climbing wall and a tot-lot as parts of the city’s urban revitalization process. These parks have been re-imagined by CBA to connect neighborhoods and neighbors with perennial plantings, trees and fashionable lighting outside the confines of their homes.

Dickerman Park (Courtesy of CBA Landscape Architects)

Dickerman Park (Courtesy of CBA Landscape Architects)

The urban revitalization project Batchelor seems most proud of is the award-winning cultural landmark The Harriet Tubman Park in Boston’s South End. This small, shady memorial site honors the namesake’s memory as well as commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Its fenced park serves the neighborhood as a contemplative oasis, sculpturally linking two stories of slavery. In the ethnically diverse neighborhood, the simple elegance of the park’s contours, benching and pathways serve as an urban interpretation of continuity of spirit.

Collectively, these projects, and those like them, inherited the physical properties of their neighborhoods through elevation grades, grass blades, pre-existing building and tree shades. Before urban planners successfully mapped a plan to breathe new life into tired spaces, revitalization plans respected the best of the area’s past, listened to the cultural concerns of the present and anticipated the neighborly needs of the future. As Kimmelman’s article stated, architecture should affirm “our shared sense of place and desire to be included.”

Looking back on history, and towards the future, it may be that a verdant appreciation of Boston’s urban health herald’s the next chapter of our Commonwealth.