Enduring Gifts, Visionary Landscapes

Thomas Woltz lectured on the future of public parks and the legacy of private philanthropy during a visit to Auckland in November.

“The land holds our stories and it holds our bones.”

As lead landscape architect on the Cornwall Park 100 Year Master Plan, for which Boffa Miskell are design partners, noted landscape architect Thomas Woltz presented a well-attended lecture at the Auckland Museum.

Thomas began by explaining his design process – which begins with extensive historical and cultural research. “The first step is to listen to the ecology and the culture of the landscape. The energy of the site will inspire the design.”

Thomas used three of the firm’s current projects to explain this philosophy, and illustrate the role of private philanthropy in building public greenspace.

Memorial Park in Houston, Texas (USA) is an urban park twice the size of New York’s Central Park. Since being gifted to the city nearly 100 years ago, land has been damaged by hurricanes, drought, invasive non-native species, and infrastructure development – including multi-lane freeways – through and around the space.

Research into the land’s ecological past and historic timeline informed the long-range master plan, and placed ecological resilience and cultural perspective on equal footing.

“The challenge is to balance the restoration of native plants and ecologies, while considering the extensive and emotional history of this place, yet also servicing the needs of contemporary urban life,” Thomas said.

A second project, the Aga Khan Garden near Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) is currently under construction. Thomas says this garden presented an unusual opportunity.

“It’s not often a landscape architect gets the chance to design a large public park, and to work very closely with the benefactor – in this case, the Aga Khan. It’s not like the late 18 – early 1900s when public gifting on this scale was a more common occurrence.”

However, translating the traditional Mughal style garden into a near-Arctic climate is not without challenges. While summer temperatures in the city can exceed 30 degrees Celsius, they fall below -20 Celsius in the winter. An active wetland on the site made it necessary to manage excess water.

Woltz adapted irrigation mechanisms he had seen in Mughal gardens, and merging native plantings with Islamic design motifs will provide interest across all four seasons. A seed bank for the regeneration of native plants to help remediate wetlands affected by the development of Alberta’s oil sands — a major threat to the local ecology.

For the Cornwall Park 100 Year Master Plan – a project which was awarded the 2017 NZILA Award for Strategic Landscape Planning & Environmental Studies – Thomas said it was important to “ …understand and balance the Maori and European stories. Both have a place here.”

Ecology plays a key role in this project, as the park’s volcanic geology and working farm provide habitat for native species including the copper skink and a diverse range of lichen.

Thomas says that creating a framework for Cornwall Park’s next century allows “… audacious thinking and careful implementation.”

“A hundred-year plan is essentially a document of dreams,” he explained.

Faced with cuts to spending on local, regional and national levels, many of these large urban parks, which once were maintained out of public funds, need to find new ways to operate. Thomas said this is particularly true in the United States.

For further information please contact Rachel de Lambert

4 December 2017