When most people hear the words “landscape architecture,” an image of a team of men with rakes and leaf blowers comes to mind. Few outside the design community may be familiar with the rich theoretical underpinnings of the architectural discipline of landscape design, which are still being formed in architecture schools across the country. Though all designers must solve concrete problems while producing an aesthetically pleasing solution, landscape designers have a particular relationship to the physical reality of the sites they develop. Keeping in mind the topography, climate, flora, and fauna of a site, as well as the engineering requirements for any nearby buildings, roads, or other infrastructure, landscape architects must find a way to accommodate a client’s goals while building a beautiful outdoor environment.
The meadow at Fresh Pond.
For the team at Carol R. Johnson Associates, rehabilitating the Fresh Pond Reservation required an ability to balance aesthetics, biology, engineering, and public opinion. Large portions of the land along the northeast shore of Fresh Pond had been environmentally devastated from being used as a construction staging area—parts of the reservation served as a parking area for construction vehicles and a storage spot for thousands of pounds of dirt. The area serves as an important stop for migrating birds along a path called the Atlantic Flyway—and bird population counts were in serious decline after years of construction and demolition around Fresh Pond. The goal was not only to restore the reservation to a more natural state while providing parkland for the citizens of Cambridge: CRJA also had to design the landscape in such a way that runoff from nearby Concord Avenue could be filtered before reaching the pond.
“The client for the reservation is the Cambridge Water Department, who manages the drinking water,” said CRJA’s John Amodeo. “So even though most people consider Fresh Pond Reservation a park, what it really is is a buffer between the developed city and the reservoir. It just so happens that it also serves as a public amenity for recreation.”
After years of research, planning, and construction, CRJA and the other consultants who worked on the project created a soccer field, community garden, hiking trails, and a parking lot, as well as a wetland and meadows tucked away inside the 25 acre plot. With such a varied program, Amodeo and his colleagues had to negotiate with a number of parties, all with different priorities. For many members of the community, the focus was on recreation—aesthetics, not to mention water filtration and wildlife, were not always at the forefront of the conversation.
“We had many public meetings where we talked about the design,” said Amodeo. “The public was very interested in a youth soccer field, and they were also interested in a community garden. To many people, those things are beautiful, particularly to the people who use those things. And so the soccer field and the community garden were at odds with the natural landscape character we were trying to achieve. So that’s where the balancing act came in. What we decided to do was create a transition from the chaos of the built environment into the calmness of the natural environment—we didn’t want to have people come walking through woodland trails and around meadows and then suddenly have to come upon a soccer field. We did it in reverse. We put the soccer field and the community garden close to Concord Avenue and the entrance into the site. … Once you get farther into the site it becomes more and more natural; you put the man-made things behind you and you get into an increasingly more natural environment.”
Some Cantabridgians were skeptical of landscape features like the meadow and wetland.
“We had to actually teach the local community as to the value of these kinds of natural landscapes that we wanted to establish here,” said Amodeo. “We didn’t have to educate our client; they said… ‘our master plan is looking for a natural aesthetic’ and we said, ‘We’re the people for you.’ Because we know that aesthetic very well.”
According to Amodeo, many skeptics were won over once the project was finished. “The wetland became a natural aviary,” he says. “If you go to the wetland on any given day from spring to fall, possibly even in the winter … there will be birds swooping in and out of that wetland. It looks like it’s choreographed—it’s just beautiful, birds of all sizes, the songbirds that had been missing from that part of Fresh Pond have returned.”
Though the area that CRJA reconstructed covered only 25 acres, the detailed nature of the project required intense mapping and evaluation of every bush and tree on site. Survey and civil engineers, ecological restoration experts, and soil scientists worked with the architects at CRJA on a number of fronts. Experts created a log of invasive species of plants and cleared them away, while planting regionally-appropriate plants in their stead. Different combinations of soil were formulated for different regions of the park. “Soil is not a one-size-fits-all,” said Amodeo. Soil scientists developed recipes for the wetland, meadow, and other areas that had to be built up or re-planted. “It told you how many strokes,” said Amodeo’s colleague Ruth Loetterle, of the soil recipes. “There’s very specific ways the backhoe goes down, this way and that, to get a nice blend. It’s very tricky.”
It may seem like a long distance from the study of columns and arches to the development of topsoil recipes, but an interest in traditional architecture was John Amodeo’s entrée into the field of landscape design. “I came into landscape architecture sort of through a back door, as actually many landscape architects do,” Amodeo said. “Because landscape architecture, at least when I was in elementary school and high school, was not a well-known profession.” Having taken an architectural design class in high school, Amodeo developed a particular interest in a building’s relationship to its site. Of his high school elective, Amodeo said, “I went up to my teacher and I said, ‘I’m just really interested in working with the land. Is there a specialization in architecture that deals with just the outside of the building and the land?’ And he said, almost with disdain, ‘well there’s something called landscape architecture.’ … And the light bulb went off in my head. I didn’t know what it is but that’s what I wanted to be.”
Since then, Amodeo has worked on projects with CRJA for organizations like universities and corporate complexes, but also such unexpected clients as the federal prison system. Though many landscape architects may be hired purely for their ability to create beautiful landscapes for resorts or corporate campuses, Amodeo and his colleagues are often engaged for environmental reasons. Those outside the landscape architecture community may be surprised to learn how much of CRJA’s work is focused on landscape design that is invisible to the naked eye. At a federal prison in Devens, Mass., CRJA created a wetland to manage storm water on the prison grounds.
“The federal prison system had never done that. They manage prisoners, they don’t manage storm water,” said Amodeo. The clients with the federal prison system may not have foreseen the environmental precautions CRJA were to recommend. Amodeo and his colleagues made a number of changes to the site in order to protect the area’s wildlife. “We ended up using light that didn’t pollute the sky, for dark sky concerns. You know a lot of light fixtures that prisons like to use are like what Fenway Park uses for a night game--big flood lights--and we had woodlands that had wildlife that would have their nocturnal habits disturbed by floodlights,” said Amodeo. “It was the first time the federal prison system used cutoff light fixtures that did not allow for light to escape.
Though a prison landscape project may not seem like a portfolio standout for a designer, Amodeo and his colleagues were proud of the work they did at Devens. “You think a prison project doesn’t sound too sexy for a landscape architect, but it’s been a project that we’ve won awards for, it’s helped get us other jobs, I got to learn about constructed wetlands and so I could apply that knowledge to Fresh Pond… It’s amazing how you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” said Amodeo.
Today, thanks to the expertise of Amodeo, Loetterle, and their colleagues at CRJA, Fresh Pond enjoys an active community of human and animal visitors, year-round. The Cambridge Water Department and other organizations host guided tours and nature walks, and dog-walkers frequent the footpaths around the pond. Many are surely unaware of the painstaking research and design that brought the pond’s wild environs to life—and with this, Amodeo and his colleagues’ aesthetic goals are achieved.