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Landscape architect Thomas Woltz on the importance of public space

Orongo Station

As our cities become denser, the role public space plays in thriving urban areas cannot be underestimated. That’s the message Wall Street Journal’s 2013 design innovator of the year and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects principal Thomas Woltz says – and he believes Auckland, our densest city, is doing an extraordinary job of it. 

Over the past twenty years, Woltz has established himself as one of the world’s most important landscape architects and created an impressive body of work that spans the globe.

 As the principal and owner of US landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, his team is split between New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia.

However, Woltz is a frequent visitor to Aotearoa and has worked on projects across the country for the last 16 years, including Orongo Station, the Hobsonville Coastal walkway, Eastwoodhill Arboretum in Ngatapa and now, Cornwall Park.



Orongo Station. Nelson Byrd Woltz transformed a 3,000 acre overgrazed sheep farm into a landscaped space incorporating a series of gardens inspired by the ecology and culture of the area, a working farm and a Maori cemetery.

He visited Auckland recently to discuss the 100-year master plan in place for Cornwall Park.

Woltz says the work a landscape architect does is quite distinctive from the work of an architect.

 “It’s quite different in that architecture is making an object that occupies a system,” he says. “Landscape architecture is everything outside the building – the design of transportation, public spaces, boulevards, streets, parks.”

It’s also a profession whose work can often be underappreciated or underestimated.

While a building being erected is a big, bold and obvious action that people will marvel at, the work that goes into the landscape surrounding it is often invisible to the naked eye.

The landscape architect looks at all of the elements that make up a public space – streets, parks, trees – as one interconnected landscape, Woltz says, even if the public does not.

“But I think that’s what makes it such an exciting profession because you can make such a big difference, particularly when you practice it the way we do it, where we try take into consideration the ecological health and cultural history of a place.”

He says he always begins each project by listening very carefully to the land for stories of its ecology and culture.

“That becomes the inspiration for contemporary design – not patterns or stripes or lumps or mounds. A lot of very flash contemporary landscape architecture can almost erase history or have a total disregard for history. I think history’s hot,” he says.

“Knowing where things came from is amazingly inspiring. I’ve watched over the 20 years since the start of my career, and people feel so connected to these places when they start to learn these stories – the landscape is the thread that binds us to a place.”

An example of this is the Houston Memorial Park, where instead of creating a memorial statue to honour dead soldiers who hailed from the area, Nelson Byrd Woltz is planting trees in memory of the fallen. In 25 years’ time, the trees will be cut down and used on furniture, houses and buildings.

“When the trees are planted perfectly in a row, they kind of remind you of soldiers marching in formation,” Woltz says.

“I think it’s a powerful reminder of sacrifice. That’s an example of looking at history, honouring history but not recreating it. We’re not creating the camp, canvas tents or re-building buildings, we’re using very contemporary planning and our imagination to honour this piece of history, but in a 21st century way.”


Houston Memorial Park

But the role that landscape architecture can play isn’t just significant for its ability to tell a story. Woltz says as cities growing increasingly complex and denser, parks – and landscape design – play a crucial role in the urban fabric of a place.

And as developments place more strain on cities, he says it’s of the upmost importance to keep the quality of public spaces high.

“You can rent apartments and hotels and restaurants, and all of those places people pay to be in, but the landscape is not something you pay for in the same way,” he says. “It requires cities to be quite visionary in assuring that the quality of the landscapes – I’m including streets, boulevards, parks, coastal walkways – is keeping up with the pace and density of development.”

He says Auckland, New Zealand’s fastest growing city, is doing an “extraordinary job” of treading the fine balance between public spaces and high-density developments.

“With the coastal walkway in Hobsonville, that was a big commitment to the quality of the public realm around the perimeter of that development, which will be fully accessible to the public.”

The Hobsonville coastal walk

But for Woltz, the importance of designing public spaces goes even deeper than this – it helps combat short-termism thinking and fretting about the devastation reaped by current events.

Often, the spaces he designs are 100-year master plans, so the work he does is incredibly poignant in the way he won’t live to see some projects complete.  

“Really unfortunate political elections, like what’s happened in the United States, they’re heart wrenching and problematic, but once you’ve planted a million trees and you’re helping of planting another million, you see the world on a slower time frame. Or maybe a faster time frame,” he says.

“You’re thinking on the scale of a century, so with the day-to-day you become extremely patient with life. I think that’s been a helpful psychological tool in a very depressing era in the United States – thinking about the persistence of nature and the aspiration that our work will undo some of the damage our species has done.”

And for naysayers who look at a park and label it as ‘empty’, he says they couldn’t be further from the truth.

“My line I use all the time is the landscape is not empty, the landscape is full. It’s full of stories, it’s full of culture and ecology, so our job is to see those stories that might have gone invisible or been interrupted and help bring those back to visibility.”

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