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Q&A: Master Park Designer James Burnett: Tearing Down the Pierce Elevated and Other Transformative Ideas for Houston

Houston landscape architect James Burnett designed the transformative Klyde Warren Park, which is on top of a buried freeway in downtown Dallas. Burnett says the same thing could happen in downtown Houston near the Brown Convention Center. Also, demolition of the Pierce Elevated could create a linear park on the south side of downtown Houston.

Houston landscape architect James Burnett designed the masterpiece Klyde Warren Park, which is on top of a depressed freeway in downtown Dallas. Burnett says the same thing could happen in downtown Houston near the Brown Convention Center. Also, demolition of the Pierce Elevated could create a linear park on the south side of downtown Houston.

When James D. Burnett founded his landscape architecture practice, the Office of James Burnett (OJB), in 1989 the Houston-based firm had one part time employee.  Within 14 years, OJB boasted 14 employees and had opened a second office in San Diego. A decade later, the firm took its brand to Boston. Today, OJB employs nearly 60 professionals in its three offices.  Over the past 27 years, OJB has received more than 80 design awards; the most prestigious was several weeks ago when the American Society of Landscape Architects named Burnett as the recipient of its ASLA Design Medal. “His design practice has been of the highest quality and is especially noteworthy for the refined detail and adventuresome planting. Each project not only serves its local function, but importantly, extends into the culture at large,” said Peter Walker, FASLA, and Founder, of PWP Landscape Architecture, in announcing the honor. To learn more about the award, the work of OJB and the future of landscape architecture, Realty News Report talked with Jim.

Realty News Report:  You’ve been awarded the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Design Medal.  Only one person receives the medal per year.  Can tell us more about this?

James D. Burnett: The award examines a landscape architect’s body of work, spanning an entire career, looking for consistent and exceptional design. I was truly humbled to learn that I would be this year’s honoree and am joining great company. It’s truly an honor being recognized among the peers I’ve admired throughout my career.

Realty News Report: Your firm designed Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, which creates green space seemingly “out of thin air” and connects a neighborhood cut off by an eight-lane freeway with the Dallas Arts District and downtown. What was your inspiration for the park?

James D. Burnett: There wasn’t a physical space that inspired Klyde Warren Park, but rather an idea. The goal was to create a park for all people. It wouldn’t be ego-driven, or a single sculptural moment. Rather we aimed to create a series of outdoor rooms that were custom-designed for various activities. It was more about making an active community space where all events would be free and the program would offer something for everyone– children’s areas, spaces to play games, water features to splash in, Texas native botanical interest gardens and even a dog park. It would also be a place where informal things could happen – no matter the scale – like birthday parties, outdoor meetings with colleagues, and impromptu gatherings for family and friends, along with festivals and large performances for hundreds. One of the biggest and most important driving factors was to create a space for the community, where people can come together and spend their precious free time in a place that they love and admire. Klyde Warren Park has become Downtown Dallas’ back yard. People visit to people watch, let their kids play, walk the dog, exercise and recreate. From a design perspective we didn’t want to look backwards. Because Dallas is such a progressive city, we would look forward. We aspired to create the most intelligent landscape strategy with native plantings, great lighting and water features along with interesting park features, focusing on the detailing and the richness of the architectural elements. Klyde Warren Park isn’t just a green space. It’s a welcoming and comfortable place where people can go not only to enjoy the activities, but also to reconnect with nature in an urban environment.

Realty News Report: Can it be replicated in other cities?

James D. Burnett: Every city has its own personality and every city deserves its own expression. The concept of having five acres of open space that heals the divide and bridges neighborhoods is a great concept and not only can be replicated, but should be. Reproducing the planning strategy of covering the freeway and knitting neighborhoods together absolutely can be replicated. Would this particular park work somewhere else? Not exactly. Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta would all have very different versions that speak to their individual identities and aspirations.

Realty News Report: Future funding and maintenance for Klyde Warren Park was integrated into the park operations plan. With public funds dwindling, how important is it today to create a solid strategy for fundraising for such projects?

James D. Burnett: It’s paramount. It’s the lifeblood of any type of cultural, arts, civic space or institution. You have to have the back-end figured out. You simply can’t charge into these things blindly with the idea of going to make a grandiose park where the last dollar is spent the day before the park opens. There have to be contingencies, endowments, and community support – and not necessarily tax dollar support, but rather the backing of people who love and believe in what you’re creating. People love to support parks, but they need to have ownership and that comes in many forms.

Realty News Report: In Houston, there is talk about tearing down the Pierce Elevated freeway in downtown.  What are your thoughts about making the Pierce a park if the Elevated is demolished?

James D. Burnett: I love the idea of it being torn down and turned into public open space. A linear park could dramatically change the look and feel of this area of downtown. It would be a great way of reclaiming a lost part of the City and giving the neighbors a common green.

Realty News Report: A proposal by TxDOT is exploring putting the freeways near the George R. Brown Convention Center underground, enabling the downtown area to flow to the east by possibly creating a park similar to Klyde Warren. Is that a workable idea?

James D. Burnett: Absolutely. There are approximately 50 new deck parks being planned in the U.S. today. These parks are reconnecting neighborhoods and districts, and the majority of these are in downtown areas similar to East Houston. These green bridges can make a huge impact as proven in Dallas. It would be a game changer for Houston.

Realty News Report: What are some of the other issues with downtown Houston landscape architecture?

James D. Burnett: I think it’s important to continue to make pedestrian-friendly streets, narrowing street widths and incorporating wide sidewalks, street trees, on-street parking and pocket parks. We need places where workers and residents can get outside and take a break and get connected to nature. It’s not just about having one or two great urban open spaces downtown, but having many. That’s important. We need to look for innovative ways to continue to change the environment to make Houston a more humane and green city. Great cities have a strong commitment to public open space and it can be transformative. While the city has made great strides to develop open space, there are some huge opportunities that could dramatically change the feel of downtown.

Realty News Report: Will the design of parks change in the future? How important is green space nowadays?

James D. Burnett: Naturally, parks will evolve. The understanding that open space is vital to human life, that connection to nature in all forms – whether a wooded lot or mowed grass field or a place like Klyde Warren Park that features a variety of different landscapes – it’s encoded in our DNA. We thrive, are happier, friendlier, more creative, and healthier when we connect to nature. Having open space enriches our lives. We live better when we have places to go, recreate and relax – to enjoy the smell of flowers, the colors of the landscape, hear the sound of water – and escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Technology rules our lives and taking a break and unplugging can be very restorative.

Realty News Report: Your firm also designed Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University.  How did the design evolve?

James D. Burnett: We were brought in late in the process and our team determined that the landscape development between the pavilion and the library could become an important crossroads on the campus. We created a very simple approach to landscape that included a bosque of Elm trees with two matching water features on either side of the library entry. We were on a wonderfully supportive team that believed in our idea; Barbara Bryson from Rice University, the well-known architect Thomas Phifer and the donors, Susan and Raymond Brochstein. It makes me really happy to hear that people refer to Brochstein Pavilion as the heart of the campus. This pavilion and garden design are very beloved at the university. I’ve been told by friends that some of the professors will spend half their day there, treating the pavilion like an extension of their office. There is a duality to the space. It’s very rewarding to hear the faculty and students enjoy it as a social hub, but they also find quiet spaces both in the building and garden. The space has a very European quality to it with the crushed gravel, reflecting pools, and groves of trees on a grid. It is transformative and offers a nice break from the classroom.

Realty News Report: OJB is known as a firm that promotes healthy living through landscape design.  Were you ahead of your time?

James D. Burnett: My first year in business I was fortunate enough to work with WHR on a large replacement hospital in Texarkana. Preparing for the pursuit led me to research what makes supportive, healthy, and restorative environments. The client, the Sisters of Charity, was very interested in the healing arts and believed that nature played a big role in the recovery process. At the time that I was designing this project I was also watching my mom undergo cancer treatments in the most tragic setting, with no place to break away, breathe the fresh air or escape the institutional setting. The contrast of looking to what makes a healing environment coupled with being involved with my mom’s treatment helped me to put a stronger emphasis on this part of our practice. I felt we needed to propel this part of the profession, or at least our practice and understanding of the role of nature in design. The architects, interiors team and researchers inside buildings were innovating and breaking ground with patient centered care while the gardens and open spaces were being overlooked. I think our team has taken a lot of the principles of healing garden design and brought it to other areas of practice, to cultural institutions, the workplace, housing and urban parks. When you design healing gardens you have to consider how sunlight, sound, and fragrances affect people and make them feel. It’s critical to health restoration and we talk about it a lot during our design process.

Realty News Report: The firm takes a multi-disciplinary approach to landscape architecture.  How closely do you work with design teams of clients?  Are you involved from the beginning?

James D. Burnett: In the beginning we were called in later in the process. We’re now involved from day one. We work with some very inspiring clients and incredibly talented architects and designers. They treat us as equal partners, listen to us, and consider our advice. We have a voice. It wasn’t always that way. It’s pretty exciting to be treated as an equal partner throughout the design process. The expectations are much higher for our work and it is very satisfying for our team.

Realty News Report: OJB’s commissions range from academic to corporate, healthcare, to mixed-use developments. Why such a diverse portfolio?

James D. Burnett: Why not? Landscape design can be an important contributor in all of these areas. At one point, the most innovative design work was hospitality because that’s where people would go to relax – therefore it was critical to create beautiful, restorative gardens. That has changed. Now university campuses are investing in creating supportive environments because they want their students to be inspired and to learn at a higher level. There is much greater awareness of how landscape can change your perspective in a lot of areas. It’s all very interesting. For example, I have never designed a prison, but feel that a well-designed prison environment could play a big role in the rehabilitation process. Everyone deserves a good landscape. At OJB, we thrive when we’re presented with challenging projects. We want to work on projects that offer new opportunities with open-minded clients – it’s intellectually stimulating and keeps us sharp. We’re always innovating. This also helps to attract top talent – the types of people who want to continually evolve and grow their abilities.

Realty News Report: Where is the landscape architecture sector headed?

James D. Burnett: It is amazing to me that the field keeps widening. Landscape architecture is so diverse. It’s all over the map. There is an ever-expanding range of opportunities in landscape architecture and it is hard to pin down exactly what a landscape architect does. Landscape architects design cities, golf courses, airports, furniture, sustainable strategies for projects, etc. There are a lot of areas of specialty within the field and the leadership roles that landscape architects are taking continues to expand. I think that people are looking to landscape architects more now because there’s been a greater awareness that our resources are finite and we need to take care of our planet. People are increasingly interested in what makes things grow, how to reclaim the water, how to purify the air. Landscape is intimately involved in that. It’s a growing profession with tremendous opportunities that continue to expand as the environmental challenges grow in parallel with the population. Global warming has its own challenges and we are intimately involved with these issues as well.

July 12, 2016

Realty News Report is a Texas-based publication edited by Ralph Bivins.

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