Landscapes and the Human Experience

As urban landscapes continue to grow, Landscape Architects and designers alike are playing a key role in shaping both the built environment and the end-user experience.

“We live in a car-driven society,” explains SMMA Landscape Architect and Planner Laura Monies. “It’s our job to be mindful and prioritize our pedestrians and cyclists, especially within the context of sustainability and multi-transit societies.”

Safety First

In each design, Landscape Architects account for many considerations, from aesthetics to site functionality to circulation. One of the main focuses of the profession is that of improving safety, with an emphasis on the separation of pedestrians and vehicles through both subtle and more visually prominent measures. “There are a lot of things that we can do with site layout and design to positively influence safety and wayfinding,” continues SMMA Landscape Architect Erik Vangsness. “We can promote variable-widths in pedestrian and vehicular ways to accommodate differing volumes and types of traffic. Other strategies such as aligning pedestrian ways with focal points and destinations to provide a strong sense of direction, developing clear and consistent material palettes, and providing proper signage can aid in improving pedestrian wayfinding.”

Having a design approach that begins with a clear understanding of how people are intended to interact with their environment in a particular space ultimately determines their likely route and method of travel, informing the safety interventions that should be incorporated. This allows Landscape Architects to focus on identifying critical corridors, gathering spaces, and points of access to ensure safe, universally accessible routes of travel between the different components of a site. “We should incorporate accessibility because we want to, not because the regulations require us to,” says Vangsness. “Along each corridor, we have the opportunity to take pedestrians on a sequence of experiences that progress from one place to another. We can vary edge conditions, light levels, overhead canopies, and other environmental factors to achieve a certain response from both vehicles and pedestrians. We also strategically incorporate elements such as crosswalks, where pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, and other forms of traffic can safely interact.”

Implementing Material Cues

“We also use material cues to help manage pedestrian and vehicular corridors,” says Monies. “We’re trained as a society to see asphalt and curbing to indicate a roadway, and that other materials suggest pedestrian space. When we have vehicular areas that are intended primarily for pedestrians, like SMMA’s current project on Somerville’s Central Hill campus, elements such as bollards, greenery, and other visual cues can reinforce that drivers are passing through a pedestrian space, as opposed to pedestrians walking through a vehicular space. Even sustainable materials such as permeable paving, which is used to offset stormwater impacts, can also help with this distinction due to its pedestrian feel.”

Complete Streets

Traffic calming measures such as vegetative buffers, reduced-width vehicle corridors, raised crosswalks, and alternative pavements provide both a physical barrier between pedestrians and cars and promote the idea of Complete Streets. Complete Streets is an urban planning method that seeks to produce integrally designed corridors that incorporate and accommodate multi-modal transporation methods such as vehicles, public transportation, cyclists, and pedestrians. It also incorporates opportunities for gathering and rest such as outdoor cafés, seating, and waiting areas. These innovative approaches are designed and operated to enable the safe and enjoyable travel of multiple user groups, and feature physically separated spaces for vehicles and pedestrians, clearly delineated bike lanes, on-street parking, clear pedestrian crossings, tree plantings to reduce the urban heat island effect, and more. “We want to use design to slow people down and to encourage the use of safer, alternative modes of transportation,” says Vangsness. “We want motorists to feel like they’ve arrived at a place filled with activity, not just that they’re passing through it. Such an approach will hopefully result in reduced vehicle speeds, greater awareness, and safer conditions for all.”

Inside Out

To further elevate the end-user experience, Landscape Architects also seek to connect these outdoor destinations with the indoor environment. At SMMA, this is a joint effort that often calls for collaboration between the firm’s Site Design group and Interior Designers to ensure that the outdoors feel like an extension of the carefully coordinated interior architecture. Landscape Architects first look to identify common design themes, geometries, and materials used throughout the building to inform them of materials that can mimic those patterns outside. While they are not always able to find a perfect match, they can often incorporate small and subtle interventions to achieve the desired effect.

Indoor-Outdoor Connections at Work

Two notable examples include SMMA’s work on its Cambridge office, located at 1000 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA and the interior courtyards designed for Founders Park located at 89 A Street in Newton, MA.

  • Landscape Architects had the opportunity to refresh 1000 Massachusetts Avenue’s outdoor plaza and patio as part of a series of renovations following a recent brand refresh. Interior Designers created a lobby that was both inviting and inspired interaction, taking cue from the building’s neighbors at Harvard and MIT — both institutions known for their public commons and their dedication to innovation. The new floor tiling in the building’s lobby is mimicked in shape and color in its outdoor spaces. Additionally, the grouping and styling of furniture in the lobby work cohesively with the outdoor terrace and plaza, creating a visual connection between the natural environment and the interior.
  • Founders Park is a mixed-use development situated along Boston’s technology corridor and busiest motorway. Landscape Architects implemented two interior courtyards and outdoor patios to provide employees with a place of respite, encouraging them to engage with the natural world. They created soft landscapes by making use of spring plantings, alongside incorporating Asian-inspired rock gardens and elements of feng shui.