respond, heal, contribute

Signe Nielsen

When was the last time you heard a landscape architect say “I don’t do residential. I don’t do suburban.  I work in degraded urban spaces.”  Signe Nielsen opened her talk entitled “Optimistic Landscapes”  for the NYBG Landscape Design Portfolio Series with that opening salvo.  

Hunts Point Landing Photo courtesy of Matthews Nielsen

Nielsen spoke about 3 projects:  Hunts Point Landing, The Lowline and Pier 55.  If you have ever gone to the Hunts Point Market; you know it’s hard to navigate, ugly and on first glance has no livable space.  The Hunts Point Landing project was all about creating community and restoring ecological systems to the river front.
Before Nielsen took on the project: an 800 ft long and 100 ft. wide asphalt road that dead ended at the water, desolate, blighted, surrounded by warehouses:   an unlikely place to feel optimistic about.  Nielsen argued that this is exactly the kind of project she enjoys working on.  The over arching goal:  to make this area an asset to the community.  She began as she begins every project that involves people who live in the neighborhood, with the local consitutency.  She listened and responded.

One small bit of trivia: in the 2000s, DOT replaced the Willis Ave Bridge. Nielsen got hold of the boulders from the bridge and “recycle” them for the Hunts Point Landing seating and pathways. Hunts Point Landing is now a populated spot, used by kayakers, boaters, fishermen. and the community. Included in this project was restoration of shoreline into a sustainable eco-system.
Knowing from the get go a project you are working on is going to be demolished in two years might discourage some people: not Signe Nielsen.  She said more than once “It’s not a park.  You can’t call it a park.  It’s a green space. The challenges of creating a space underground that people will want to go to and hang out in are both educational and psychological”.
Nielsen made a case for the idea that in an urban environment, like NYC, there is no more green space.  The vision of the Lowline was to create a green space in a neighborhood, where no green space existed or would ever exist at ground level. If you go to The Lowline site, you will quickly find out the name The Lowline lab was about an experiment, an experiment in growing plants through a complicated, but ingenious way of bringing sunlight underground.
 For some it might be hard to understand how being involved in a project that was slated to close in two years and seems to have a very slight chance of re-opening is an “optimistic landscape.”  When you listen to Signe Nielsen, you believe that being involved in trying to solve a problem and the learning what it that takes to create an exciting space is sufficiently gratifying.

Pier 55 Thomas Heatherwick

Park Guell – Gaudi. Nielsen mentioned that people have compared Heatherwicks design for pillars to the supports in Park Guell. Heatherwick has stated that the design came from his image of leaf floating in water.

There has been a lot of press about the fate of Pier 55.  It’s not going to happen. After an input of $38 million dollars by Barry Diller and a lot of hard work on Signe’s part, the project is dead in the water.
Nielsen spent her time talking about the challenges of the site: the changes in elevation, the differing soil depths, the problems of potentially planting full grown trees in this created environment, the plant palette and the necessirty of getting light underneath the structure to keep aquatic life robust. Not everyone would still feel optimistic after being disappointed that the project is not going to move forward.

I am currently reading, Grit:  The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.  If anyone is a gritty individual it’s Signe Nielsen

“As a product of the ’60’s, I consider myself a committed feminist, but I would rather put my energy into projects that benefit many people rather than a few and sites that can be healed than than decorated.”
-Signe Nielsen from Q&A with Susan Szenasy, Metropolis.











Signe Nielsen
Optimistic Landscapes
Monday, October 16, 2017
2017 Landscape Design Portfolio Lecture Series
Scandinavia House

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