On the west side of Manhattan, an armada of cranes and construction workers is building the city’s largest 21st-century development. A 28-acre, $25 billion megaproject by Related Companies, Hudson Yards will include six skyscrapers, 17 million square feet of commercial and residential space, a performing arts center, and a hotel. The project’s scale is impressive, as is its location spanning one of the busiest railways in New York City—an industrial site filled with train cars and a tangle of tracks and tunnels. But when it’s completed in 2025, people won’t see any of that heavy infrastructure. They’ll stroll through 14 acres of open space planted with native flowers and grasses, beneath groves of trees, and along pathways that will link the new neighborhood to the surrounding parks and streets.
And that’s just above ground. Below the surface, the park will be an engineering marvel. Temperatures hit 150 degrees on the railway, meaning the 225 trees and 28,000 plants will need protection from the heat. To ensure the vegetation in the park stays healthy, a cooling system will route chilled glycol around the planters. An irrigation network, rainwater storage, and ventilation system will also be integrated into what’s essentially a massive green roof. "It’s like cultivating an oasis over a desert," says Thomas Woltz, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture (NBW), the firm enlisted to design Hudson Yards’ landscape.
The concept illustrates Woltz’s vision for urban parks: a marriage of local ecology and culture that acts as a connective tissue for the city. For centuries, parks have been civic beacons and points of pride, moments of respite amid steel and concrete. But as cities grow increasingly complex, with real estate at a premium and sustainability and resiliency top priorities, Woltz sees the role of parks evolving. They are now essential to the urban fabric. "As a society, we do a pretty good job of creating urban parks as destinations, but it’s important to see those destinations as connected to our daily lives via the streetscape, public transportation, the systems of storm-water management," Woltz says. "It’s about seeing [everything] as one giant complex system."
NBW’s approach to urban design has distinctly rural roots. The firm first made its name in ecological restoration, working to return, for example, commercial farmland to its natural state. Woltz, who joined in 1997, spent the first 15 years of his career immersed in these sorts of projects before applying his regenerative method to cities. He’s now the sole principal of NBW and working on nearly a dozen high-profile, large-scale urban parks in North America and New Zealand. And though they look nothing alike, they share his signature technological savvy, ecological sensitivity, and attention to history.
Woltz and his 45-person team, which is split between New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia, begin each project by digging into a location’s past, reading old newspaper stories, tracing the line of ownership, and uncovering what was on the site before human intervention—all clues for how it might be restored. Such work led them to discover a vital untapped water source for Nashville’s 132-acre Centennial Park. For St. Louis’s two-block Citygarden, the area’s history as a warehouse hub informed NBW’s unique, parceled-out plan.
Woltz’s team also takes a scientific approach to discovering a site’s current characteristics, looking into soil composition, native plant and insect communities, and hydrology. That meant gleaning how to use water from the Patapsco River to naturally cool the adjacent buildings for Under Armour’s forthcoming campus and waterfront promenade on a post-industrial site in Baltimore. When NBW was tasked with reinvigorating Houston’s 1,560-acre Memorial Park, the firm developed a master plan that balanced the needs for urban wild land and recreation space (for more, see Parks and Restoration). "By the time you’ve done this ecological research and a deep dive into the cultural research, you’re just fighting away the ideas," Woltz says.
One of Woltz’s recently completed projects was turning a pocket-size field in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard complex into the Naval Cemetery Landscape. Because the site is a former potter’s grave (the Navy has since exhumed most of the bodies), the designers couldn’t dig into the earth. Instead, they built a raised wooden path that meanders through a field of native tall grasses and wildflowers—a natural habitat for insects and birds and a nod to the area’s rural past. "It’s a pollinator of information as well as plant materials," says Milton Puryear, cofounder of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, which commissioned the park.
"Culture and biodiversity, that’s what it’s all about," Woltz says. "There’s a growing realization that bridging the two yields the most responsible, exciting, and engaging landscapes in the public realm."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.