Jan 13, 201412:02 PMPoint of View
Q&A: Thomas Balsley, Landscape Architect
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Hunter's Point South
Thomas Balsley, FASLA, is the founder and principal of Thomas Balsley Associates, a firm he has run for 35 years. Balsley has taught and lectured at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, the National Building Museum, and Seoul National University.
Jared Green: Last year, during Hurricane Sandy, Hunter’s Point South, your new park in Long Island City, Queens, was submerged under four feet of water as it was being constructed. Amazingly, the park survived this first test and drained as it was designed to. How did you and your design partners prepare for this? How is this a new model for dealing with climate change and improving resiliency?
Thomas Balsley: The park has a purpose beyond resiliency, but we believe it’s a new model for 21st-century urban parks in all respects. Sustainability underpinned the design approach right across the board, from the environmental and ecological to the social, economic, and cultural. Hunter’s Point South Park is a design-collaboration between Thomas Balsley Associates and the architects Weiss/Manfredi.
Part of our job when we work anywhere near the shores is to anticipate the effects of global warming, the storm surges. We had co-designed Gantry Plaza State Park and the whole Queens Park master plan prior to this park, so we had a chance to study that site and understand the East River. Gantry Plaza State Park was not affected to the extent others areas were hit by Sandy, but waters had breached the top of the bulkhead walls and the piers, so flooding was already on our minds.
At Hunter’s Point South, as we did at Gantry Plaza State Park, we started with the idea that these were at one time industrial sites; there was rail use in this case. Our approach was committed to conveying a message, a subliminal message of toughness and ruggedness, not preciousness. I don’t know what parallel to draw, but some projects we all love and admire are really precious to the point where they have a fragility to them. We purposely wanted this park, from the very beginning to be muscular, to reflect its blue-collar, industrial history, and that of its upland community.
With these rugged materials and detailing, we were way ahead of the game in terms of resilience. Because the river is actually a tidal body with strong currents of saltwater, we avoided catchment areas that might catch surges and hold them. Long-term exposure to the saltwater can be pretty harmful, so the park had to drain itself, with water eventually finding its way back out over to the river as the waters receded.
Hunter's Point South
Courtesy Albert Večerka/Esto
Obviously, the employment of native plant material was important, too. We had a very tight budget, so there was no chance of using automatic irrigation, even with recycled water. It just wasn’t going to happen, so we focused on low-water use native plants that have proven themselves along the shorelines of local saline rivers. The park's plant palette was purposely selected to be resilient, low maintenance, and provide visual integrity.