Garden. Park. Community. Farm.
Landscape architect Thomas Woltz opened his talk at the recent Park Pride conference with those four words projected on the wall behind him. Not enough characters there to fill a tweet, but they contain a world of meaning.
Woltz, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz, sees nature as both a continuum and a web of interlocking systems. That perspective is reflected in the firm’s portfolio, which ranges from Orongo Station, a 3,000-acre sheep farm cum nature preserve in New Zealand to the future six-acre public square of Hudson Yards, the postindustrial reclamation project on Manhattan’s West Side.
It also informs his approach to individual projects. Before embarking on planning, the firm seeks public input and engages in extensive research into a site’s geology, ecology (he once altered a design to accommodate an endangered frog) and indigenous plant life.
It also researches a site’s human history. For instance, working on Memorial Park in Houston, his team uncovered the remains of a World War I training camp that occupied the land before it became a park, and he plans to make use of the ruins.
“There is no vacant site,” he declares, enjoying a sunny moment in the Atlanta Botanical Garden after his speech. But the object is to respect and acknowledge the past, not to re-create it.
Talk turns to Atlanta, which he has visited regularly over the past 20 years and is currently working on a landscape master plan for a 100-acre section of Georgia Tech’s campus. Fresh from a 14-mile bike tour of the Atlanta BeltLine and environs, Woltz is clearly impressed with what he calls Atlanta’s “incredible transformation.”
He says, “Atlanta is waking up to the potential of parks,” and the role they can play only in citizens’ physical well-being and sense of community but also, as the BeltLine has demonstrated, as an economic catalyst to attract residents and increase the tax base and property values.
Woltz notes that Atlanta’s relative lack of density and the edge parks and vacant lots he observed on his tour means there is still a lot of room for more parks to bloom. But he advocates taking a global view.
“I hope the city will look at its parks comprehensively,” he says. “The next challenge is connectivity.”
By this he means that the parks should work as a system rather than as discrete spaces, an approach also exemplified by the BeltLine. There’s an ecological benefit as well: developing the means to travel between parks by bike or foot would also create a corridor for wildlife.
Woltz is particularly taken with Bellwood Quarry. “It can be one of the most exciting projects in the U.S.,” he says.
The 350-acre site on the Westside will become Atlanta’s largest park when it opens (if all goes according to plan) in the early 2020s.
Its potential lies in its size, in the use of the quarry to store water and, from Woltz’s point of view, its metaphorical possibilities. Gravel is the basic material in construction materials for roads, buildings and so on. “It’s what we are made of,” he explains.
Artists would call this approach “site-specific,” and there is a body of temporary public art with similar aims, exemplified by the landmark exhibition Places with a Past in Charleston in 1991. (Woltz, who has degrees in art and architecture as well as landscape architecture, expressed interest in collaborating with artists.)
The North Carolina native calls it landscape as story-telling, but its implications run deeper. The art world buzzword is identity. Woltz often quotes Kentucky author Wendell Barry’s remark, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
He draws a parallel to the farm-to-table movement, with its heightened interest in food systems, farming and emphasis on native and local sourcing.
Millennials, he believes, have a different relationship to the land than their parents, a generation more likely to think about parks as objects in the built environment. “Millennials are not interested in ornamental parks,” he says. “They don’t care about camellias and azaleas.”
Botanical gardens and regional ecology are more to their liking. And surprisingly, in an age of instant gratification and short attention spans, this generation, he believes, is developing an understanding of the relationship of time and nature.
“A landscape design is not finished when it’s installed, it’s just started,” he says. “Olmsted said it took 50 years to grow a park.
“When you find young people thinking about the environment in terms of ‘100 years from now,’ that’s inspiring.”