Temporary landscape and the urban meadow

Julie Farris details two temporary landscape installations on vacant lots that she created in Red Hook, Brooklyn, one of which became a permanent garden and community space.

December 15, 2014

Julie Farris was awarded New York State Council on the Arts independent project grant in 2007 sponsored by The Architectural League. The funding allowed her to build Urban Meadow Bklyn, a wildflower-seeded open space in Red Hook.

In 2005, I noticed on my walk to work what seemed to be a vacant lot, only with sculptures in it. The lot sat on a corner in the Columbia Waterfront district of Brooklyn, and the large back wall created a beautiful white backdrop for the sculptures. I said to my husband that there should be a landscape installation there. (He said no one would give me funding for such a thing!) I soon discovered that the site was a privately owned lot known as the ART LOT and was curated by Jim Osman, a local artist and professor at Parsons. This neighborhood program provides a tremendous opportunity for residents and artists to transform the space, if only temporarily.

I applied to the New York State Council on the Arts for funding, and was awarded enough to move forward. Beginning with drawings and a model, I imagined how I might use both the vertical and horizontal surfaces, seeing the site almost as a large-scale diorama. The ground plane of Temporary Landscape: A Pasture for an Urban Space was an undulating topography of sod. The existing chain-link fence was removed temporarily and replaced with a split-rail fence; the wooden fence instantly transformed the lot, and kids played on it as though it was a playground feature.

Julie Faris | Urban Meadow, Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julie Farris
Temporary Landscape, film by Shane Sigler. Credit: Julie Farris

I reached out to cinematographer Shane Sigler, who worked in the photographer Bruce Weber’s office, and he put together a 45-minute film of some of the beautiful landscapes he had visited through his work: mountains in British Columbia, “Oreo cows” in rural New Jersey, waves in the moonlight in Montauk, and goats in the Dominican Republic. The film was all shot on an old 16mm camera, which made it look rough, but real. I rented an obscenely huge 10,000 lumen projector from New City Video and Staging to project the film onto the 30-foot wall at the back of the lot. The craziest part (other than hauling it up the stairs) was asking the woman across the street to both house the projector in her apartment and turn it on and off for two hours each night. Fortunately, she said yes.

Temporary Landscape at Columbia and Sackett Streets, Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julie Farris

When the installation was dismantled, the fence and the sod went to the Parks Department to be recycled and I was left with 200 cubic yards of soil. At the time, my kids were very young and I would bring them to nearby Mother Cabrini playground at President and Van Brunt Streets. Adjacent to the playground was an 8,000-square-foot corner lot owned by the New York City Parks Department yet closed to the public and covered with mugwort weeds and trash. As the Temporary Landscape was well-received, I contacted the Park’s Department about creating a similar installation on this site. After receiving approval, I moved the leftover soil to the site while I raised money for a park installation. I applied again to NYSCA, among other sponsors, and collaborated with my previous employer, Diana Balmori, the Parks Department, and the Borough President’s office to build Urban Meadow Bklyn.

Vacant lot at President and Van Brunt Streets before transformation into The Urban Meadow. Credit: Julie Farris

The site now known as the Urban Meadow was the culmination of a long effort to bring open space to the Columbia Street Waterfront District. Although the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation officially acquired the trash-strewn lot in 2000, the site remained cordoned off due to the lack of capital budget funds necessary for the park construction. The site’s orphan status was compounded by the fact that it was located on the boundary of two City Council districts. In 2003, a series of community-based design workshops reinvigorated interest in converting the lot into open space, but unfortunately the planned renovation’s $800,000 price tag halted the project for the next five years.

Julie Faris | Urban Meadow, Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julie Farris

Our budget was modest, but to me it was a lesson in how even the smallest budget can be used to design a powerful space. The main elements were simple: additional soil to create a rolling grassy topography, a serpentine steel edge holding back a wildflower meadow, and a grove of dogwood trees. We also wanted to incorporate signage to describe the environmental impact of this park’s footprint in the context of the larger urban environment. Dr. Stuart Gaffin and Greg O’Keefe, both research scientists at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University, volunteered to perform research on the site and its contributions to the overall environment, including data on stormwater runoff absorbed, carbon emissions offset, and air pollutants filtered by this specific footprint. The information appeared on two green panels at the entrance to the site. Initially intended as a temporary installation, the community was so in favor of a permanent green space that the site was inducted into the GreenThumb community garden program, thus establishing it as a permanent park in the neighborhood.

Julie Faris | Urban Meadow, Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julie Farris

I loved working on these projects. They were unique in that they relied on a lot of talent and good will from many people, and were true collaborations between many entities and individuals who felt strongly about the value of the projects. The Urban Meadow has evolved and is run by local residents. Now it functions as a verdant, multi-purpose, and well used space that is home to the Red Hook Jazz Festival, yoga classes, a food co-op, and a variety of other programmatic events that breathe life and energy into this previously vacant and unused space.

New York City feels different now than it was when these projects were built, as the rate of development has been rapid over the past few years, and land is not as available as it once was. However, what is clear to me is that the design of good parks that are enjoyed by people does not necessarily require huge amounts of money — instead, they require thoughtful design, and a strong shared desire to make them happen.

Support

Temporary Landscape: A Pasture for an Urban Space was installed in Brooklyn from July 21 to September 5, 2005. The project was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts, The Independence Community Foundation, and LMCC. Urban Meadow Bklyn opened in 2008. The park was designed by XS Space in collaboration with Balmori Associates, with additional contributions from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation + GreenThumb; Office of the Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz; Stuart Gaffin, PhD and Greg O’Keefe, Center for Climate Studies, Columbia University; scientist Alan Dye; Apple/ graphic design; and Official, LLC, landscape contractor. The project was funded by Clean Air Communities, Con Edison, the New York State Council on the Arts, The Lily Auchincloss Foundation, American Stevedoring Inc., The Independence Community Foundation, and The Architectural League of New York.

Biographies

Julie Farris

Julie Farris lives and works in New York City. A native New Yorker, Julie received her BA from Vassar College and her MLA from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She has worked at several large firms in New York City, including M. Paul Friedberg and Partners and Balmori Associates. In 2005, she founded a studio, XS Space LLC, and completed Temporary Landscape: A Pasture for Urban Space in the Columbia Waterfront District in Brooklyn. In 2007, she worked in collaboration with Balmori Associates and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to complete the Urban Meadow, now a permanent park in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In 2009, she collaborated with artist Sarah Wayland-Smith and The Public Art Fund to build a temporary landscape installation in Tribeca. Currently, her work has focused on international projects in Rwanda, Nepal, and Panama as well as residential landscapes on the east end of Long Island and townhouse landscapes in New York City.

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