Kim Mathews and Signe Nielsen give new life to old land. As the principals of award-winning New York landscape-architecture firm Mathews Nielsen, they specialize in transforming urban terrain, whether they’re revitalizing Lincoln Center’s public plazas, restoring the historic St. Paul’s churchyard near ground zero, or contextualizing Manhattan’s new Whitney Museum of American Art with untamed greenery that echoes the neighboring High Line. They’re currently working with designer Thomas Heatherwick on Pier 55, a high-profile island park that will be built in the Hudson River. “People at parties have asked me, ‘You’re a landscape architect based in New York City: What do you do, rooftops?’ ” Nielsen says with a laugh. “But as industry moves out of cities, space is becoming available that can be parkland. A lot of what we do is take this land that had another life and turn it into something else.” The issue, though, is how to make these dead zones truly come alive. Mathews and Nielsen walk us through their approach to creating inviting public spaces.
The first step with any location is to find some kind of hook. “If the place is steeped in history, you might find that authentic place on the site that you can interpret and have [park users] celebrate,” says Mathews. For example, with upstate New York’s West Point Foundry Preserve, they played up the location’s industrial history by building sculptural versions of machinery that was formerly on-site, including a 36-foot-diameter water wheel.
Residents often assume that public spaces are the responsibility of some city or state agency, from conception to upkeep, and that nobody is interested in their wishes. “But if you can get people engaged in the creation process, they are more likely to care about it after it is built,” says Nielsen. The firm cultivates this connection through community referendums, surveys, historic research, and reconnaissance. “Additional support from a not-for-profit or community group can be instrumental too,” Nielsen says. “That hackneyed term ‘grass roots’ really has value.”
A well-designed park allows for change. “As a society, we’re not static,” says Nielsen. “We want different things over time.” That’s why the firm is wary of dedicating square footage to any single use. “People ask for everything: a dog run, a playground for two-year-olds, somewhere to fly kites,” says Nielsen. “If you try to accommodate each of those very specific requirements, there will be no room for flexibility.”
Humans are creatures of habit, so it’s important to design spaces that complement people’s daily rhythms. When the firm built a park adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital, it took into account how foot traffic would actually function. “We created three types of circulation: a fast lane along the street curb, a slow lane that skirts the interior of the park, and a meandering path that’s a stopping lane,” says Mathews. The different routes allow one person to dash to class, another to stroll while talking on her cell phone, and a third to stop and take in the space during a work break, all without getting in each other’s way.
In New York—a city full of tourists, traffic, and tall buildings that block sight lines—views and space are at a premium. That’s why Mathews and Nielsen try to maximize both. “One of the most remarkable comments we got in a community outreach,” says Mathews of one project located next to the Bronx River, “was from a kid who said he wanted us to design a space where he could ‘make memories and have his picture taken with a friend.’ ” So the firm did just that, creating an amphitheater of stone seats that offered a perfect backdrop for social media documentation. It’s further proof that in the same way parks must evolve to reflect changing needs and mores, so must their designers.