Creating Vibrant Spaces

Designers want their end results to be loved and used!  It isn’t enough to make a place look great or have the latest in sustainable features.  What creates a vibrant public place?  Beautiful spaces with rich detailing draw people into a place.  But what keeps them coming back?  It is often the interactions that take place in a park and the sense of ownership that keeps people coming back.

A beloved site takes on life beyond what was anticipated during design.  As humans, when we feel a connection, we want to be involved in a place. When a group has this attachment to a park, a street end, or an open space and then maintains it or plans activities there, it is a lovely outcome to the design process. We can provide a design that incorporates the elements a community requests during the public process; but attachment cannot be designed. A designer can only provide the foundation for connections.

The sites we work with are not static.  The day construction finishes is only day one in the life of the design. Like living things, public spaces need care and upkeep.  The intent is that communities and or special interest groups take ownership of the places we’ve worked on and help the spaces evolve and thrive. This public stewardship makes for lasting, beloved places.


Salmon Bay Natural Area

The Salmon Bay Natural Area overlook is an example of community effort resulting in a loved space. Groundswell NW led the effort to preserve the wooded bank along the Salmon Bay waterway. The viewpoint gives views and educational opportunities while native plants help buffer the parking lot and enhance habitat.  In addition to conducting the design process for this site, Groundswell NW still organizes work parties to maintain the habitat and preserve the work done during installation.

Salmon Bay Natural Area Viewpoint

During design we structured the site design so that an art piece could be added at a later date.  The community came together to add an art element after construction of the overlook.  Groundswell NW hired artist Marvin Oliver to create the Salish Welcome sculpture honoring the salmon and local indigenous cultures, creating a signature focal point for the site.  The figure is eye-catching from the Burke-Gilman trail and draws people down to the site to enjoy the view or to learn about restoration efforts.

Salmon Bay Natural Area Sculpture

Cayton Corner Park

Cayton Corner Concept Sketch

The commitment of the Friends of 19th and Madison group to the future Cayton Corner Park is an example of community taking ownership and creating a new public space in a dense urban environment. The park springs from the desire of the neighborhood to make a park from a vacant lot. The Friends pursued Department of Neighborhood grants to fund the design for new Seattle park space that will become a living room for this part of the Central District.  Even before the park’s development, neighbors are making connections to the place and to each other.  Chalkboard paint on an existing wall, a little library, and regular cleanup days are all evidence of care.  Through future park elements like amphitheater steps, an embankment slide, musical play, and a sensory garden, an open space will be created that serves as a signature space for the neighborhood.


Culturally Sensitive Design

by Jim Brennan

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Taiwan’s scenic east coast again and present at a symposium.  I have been involved with tourism planning for the East Coast Tourism Bureau for the past 15 years and previously worked on development of the Green Island Master Plan.

The S.E. Coast of Taiwan is experiencing increased visitation of tourists from mainland China.  The rapid growth in tourism and resulting encroachments on tribal lands and traditional use areas is creating negative impacts to Taiwan’s aboriginal community.  At the symposium, I presented concepts for culturally sensitive design and discussed processes to involve the native community.  I worked with Joe Lee of ECG International, a partner firm, to explore and present case study projects that successfully express cultural identity.

As the first discussion, the symposium served as a starting point for the long-term goal, which is to find common ground that leads to mutually beneficial solutions for the government, tribes, and developers.

Jim and Joe Lee.
Jim and Joe Lee.

There will be lots of hard work to get to a win / win outcome.  The director of the East Coast Scenic Area was impressed with the progress made during the meeting.  We expect that the plan resulting from this process will protect tribal interests and improve Taiwan’s scenic east coast for all visitors.


Appreciating My Local Greenbelt

By Drew Coombs, Landscape Architect

kids on trail 2

I live in the Shorewood neighborhood, on the southwest edge of Seattle at the Burien border.  We are fortunate that we have two or three locations within walking distance where we are able to access a peaceful natural forest setting.

Experiencing the Greenbelt

One of my favorite walks is down Seola Beach Drive and through Seola Park.  This a loop walk through the neighborhood and offers a variety of experiences, from a rural street condition to a nature trail through the forest canopy.  The trail provides framed views to the water and leads up to a small neighborhood park at the top of the ravine, perfect for picnicking or exploring a wonderful eucalyptus tree.


As the two lane street descends towards the Puget Sound, it follows the bottom of a tree-covered ravine.  The canopy is primarily comprised of second growth alder, big leaf maple, madrona, and some conifers.   A seasonal stream runs along the edge of one side of the street.  At the low point of the ravine the sound of water flowing and gurgling is evident during the wet season, which adds to the special character of this setting.  There is a sense of being in a natural riparian corridor as one travels towards the water.


The rim of the ravine is lined with single family homes.  The landscape in the ravine is plagued with invasive plants.   The usual suspects: ivy, clematis, and blackberries are the invasive culprits.  These aggressive vines climb many of the trees, robbing them of nutrients and light, which can kill them.    wheelbarrow

Positive Changes

In recent walks we have started to notice positive changes in the health of the understory. The ivy is slowly being removed, and pockets of newly planted native species, mulched with bark, have popped up.  It’s apparent that action is being taken to reclaim the greenbelt.

Ava and James at work
Ava and James at work


Green Seattle Partnership

I have volunteered my time on a couple occasions to assist Seattle Parks and the Green Seattle Partnership with restoration work in the Seola corridor.  Most recently, I assisted our local forest steward by placing bark mulch in the pocket park at the top of the ravine.  In the Fall I helped plant native plants.

Teaching Green Values to My Kids

I have taken my kids (3 and 6) to help out during these volunteer projects.  At each event, they first have a high interest in assisting, but after an hour and a half, boredom does set in.  Of course, my productivity is impacted, but the tradeoff is acceptable to me.   The idea of instilling community service values and showing the kids firsthand how to preserve and enhance an urban forest is important to me as a landscape architect and a parent.

forest steward

I want to acknowledge the efforts of Seattle’s forest stewards.  Without them, Seattle would be a less green place.




Fuzhou Pavilion during the moon festival at Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Park, © J.A. Brennan Associates

Good civic spaces provide communities with vital places for congregation and celebration and can augment, if not define, the spirit of a neighborhood and city. Part of the design process for public spaces involves pinpointing and expressing significant and unique character traits and culture in the resulting forms. Through creative collaboration with the community, designers can assist groups in interpreting their identity and the specific needs for public spaces. As landscape architects we synthesize our physical understanding of a site and its history with our creative ideas to establish placemaking features into a space.

Eureka Focal Point_20091019_2009-10-19_0056
Focal point at the end of F Street in Eureka, California, © J.A. Brennan

Over the next several weeks the JABLOG will explore processes and design techniques that invigorate civic life and articulate a neighborhood’s character within the public realm. We will discuss how history, people, landscape interpretation, art, and architecture are translated through the design process to create bold or subtle statements about a community’s identity.


A component of developing successful civic spaces includes establishing placemaking features and/or iconic focal points in collaboration with the people who use the space and who it represents. This is a process of exploring a community’s understanding of itself.

Inherent in designing is the task of finding common ground and working towards a common purpose, distilling a vision from many voices. An inclusive public process brings people together to express and hear diverse ideas, bonding the participants.

How does it happen?

Understanding -> Vision -> Design


Artist Smoker Marchand's installation at Beebe Spring's Natural Area, © J.A. Brennan
Artist Smoker Marchand’s installation at Beebe Spring’s Natural Area, © J.A. Brennan

The importance and history of a site are known to those around it.  As designers we work with the public to understand and articulate a community’s core values and its culture. Some have a clear vision of how to express their identity. Others look to the landscape architect to facilitate the process of synthesizing the ingredients they have gathered to make a bold statement. Ultimately, good placemaking expresses the core of a community in the design.


The designer distills what is learned about the site and uses forms, materials, colors, and natural elements to design placemaking features.

Bitter Lake Reservoir Open Space Expanding Waterdrop Plaza
Bitter Lake Reservoir Open Space’s Expanding Water Drop Plaza, © J.A. Brennan

There is the satisfying moment of finding the perfect expression of a place.

Will it be…

  • A gateway marker?
  • A view?
  • A pattern in the wall?
  • A signature structure?
  • A fountain?
  • A sculpture?
  • A story told in the landscape?

Iconic placemaking elements ultimately enhance gathering places, enrich relationships with the landscape, and improve wayfinding and navigation within the geographic setting.

A good process results in an iconic placemaking element and spirit of place that is embraced by the community.


Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas, Final Rule

by Dan Shaw

The ABA Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas final rule went into effect on November 25. Anyone involved in outdoor accessibility issues in a federal setting will likely be affected by the final rule.

Changes in materials need careful consideration, (Juanita Beach Park, Kirkland, WA)
Changes in materials need careful consideration, (Juanita Beach Park, Kirkland, WA)

Several of us at the office recently participated in a webinar on these updates. The ABA Accessibility Guidelines provide technical requirements to ensure projects on federal lands (or built by federal agencies) are accessible to people with disabilities. In our day-to-day work we often choose to follow ABA standards (even on non-federal projects) because they provide effective, reasonable, and specific design guidelines for accessible outdoor facilities including trails, beach access, camping sites, etc.

ADA accessibility works with crushed surfaces but has its challenges. (Beebe Springs Natural Area, near Chelan, WA)
ADA accessibility works with crushed surfaces but has its challenges. (Beebe Springs Natural Area, near Chelan, WA)

ABA guidelines may also serve as the basis for ADA updates, potentially going into effect as early as Spring of 2014 depending on how negotiations go with rule-makers. We anticipate that even more municipalities will start to adopt ABA guidelines on a project-by-project basis.

An accessible viewpoint and bench (Beebe Springs Natural Area, near Chelan, WA)
An accessible viewpoint and bench (Beebe Springs Natural Area, near Chelan, WA)

The webinar format made it easy for us to learn about these updates- we simply gathered in our conference room and listened in, which made it possible for us to discuss what we were learning with each other and how these guidelines will shape future projects. 

A serpentine path often reduces the gradient, improving accessibility (Don Morse Park, Chelan)
A serpentine path often reduces the gradient, improving accessibility (Don Morse Park, Chelan, WA)

The new guidelines are a great way to enhance accessibility for all.

The full report is available at this link.  The ABA PowerPoint show may be found here.

The Beauty in My Garden

This is what it looks like when all is going and growing perfectly…

by Tanja Wilcox, Senior Associate, Landscape Architect

Creating, Nurturing, and Watching Things Grow

As landscape architects, we all come to our profession for a multitude of reasons, but one of the reasons that I am drawn to landscape architecture is due to a shear love of creating, nurturing and watching things grow.  At home I get to play this out in my own vegetable garden!  The miracle of tiny seeds planted in the cool and rainy days of spring that sprout up to create big heads of lettuce, giant Swiss chard, black dinosaur kale, and green bean stalks that curl and twine far above my head!  We go from having to run off to the grocery store for every bit of vegetable to frantically doing research on new ways to use the incredible bounty of produce springing forth in the back yard.


Solving Challenges
Landscape architects enjoy a challenge, a chance to experiment and to problem solve…Being an urban farmer provides me with ample challenges, such as when my carefully tended 200 square foot garden plot is attacked by a prowling neighborhood cat eager to dig up my lettuce starts, or the pill bugs multiply madly and come up from their hiding spot along the garden borders to eat all my freshly sprouted peas (again!), or when the cabbage worms hide in plain sight as I wonder what could possibly have made my perfect kale leaves look so holy!  Armed with sets of new, bigger, lettuce starts, a slew of sticks, Sluggo, and gardening gloves, I go on the attack!  The sticks, planted firmly in amusing patterns give us something to look at while we wait for the lettuce to grow and simultaneously create a simple way to keep the naughty kitty at bay.  My be-gloved fingers go after and mercilessly squash the unsuspecting cabbage worms, and the Sluggo Plus sprinkled about, guards the delicate plants from pill bugs and slugs when I’m away. 


As a landscape architect, I love natural beauty, especially when I’ve had a hand in shaping it.  There is beauty in the sunflowers that attract bumble bees, mason bees, honey bees and later nuthatches and chickadees.  There is beauty in the purple bean flowers and later, the long green bean pods tossed together with bright red cherry tomatoes.  Landscape architects enjoy being a small part of “the solution.”  I practice that at home by planting a garden and reducing the carbon footprint of our food.  By planting flowering plants we’re providing much-needed habitat for beleaguered butterflies, bees, and many other pollinators.  In the process, there’s a chance that our efforts will be contagious, infecting our friends and neighbors with the same bug!

Salad Nicoiseps
Salad Nicoise

Evolution of Project Photography

by Chris Nack

The Button
The Button

Keeping the image library organized and up-to-date is time consuming for a design firm.  We found something image-related to smile about when we found this relic, with its original box, in the back of our old storage cabinet.

Then: $26.99 Fred Meyer price tag

Today: $6.99 on ebay

As the pre-digital version of instant-photo gratification, The Button performed for us when we desperately needed a real-time photo.  From the early days through the 1990s, the majority of our project images were collected as slides and organized in binders.  We still have the binders and are on the verge of converting some of that collection to digital format.

From the Slide Era:


The slide library awaits selection for digitizing.  Too bad we can’t locate our slide projector.  We’re looking forward to a day of bending over the light table!

Negatives and Prints


What will we do with these?

Scan the prints? Scan the negatives?

Most likely: After we pick out our favorite images for scanning we will accept that we have not opened a box in seven years and let the rest go.

A Digital World

Today site photos come back from the field via phone camera, DSLR camera, and compact digital camera; we have a camera for every occasion.  Keeping digital images organized is no easier!  There are more photos than we had in those simpler days of The Button’s reign.