Entitled to good design?

Dead of winter. No sun and freezing temperatures for the past week. This is the perfect time to dream about garden stuff. The sweet smell of spring. The tender touch of warm air. The songbird symphonies at sunrise. The enjoyable emergence of the first green sprouts.

Our problem is, we don’t have a garden – yet. We have the space, but we haven’t done anything with it, other than a raised vegetable planter, some planters on our back porch, and planters on our front porch.

To soothe my green itch, I had decided to tackle our parkway landscape first. I planned ahead and started growing my own plant material, which came along nicely. I also was able to score a hickory as a parkway tree, which miraculously survived the transplanting.

The big picture

But public landscapes – or landscapes in the public realm such as our parkway – are complicated. They need some deliberate design to succeed. It was time to step back and look at the big picture.

“People who live in poor communities […] are entitled to good design. I’d love to see good buildings, an aesthetically engaging place. … [A] smart, clever, interesting place to live—and one that looks good.”


This quote by my friend and former Director of the North Lawndale NHS office, the late Charles Leeks, sums it up nicely.


Our grassy parkway may look good to many, particularly if compared to other stretches nearby (typically owned by investors). But it is hardly good design, nor smart, clever or interesting. It ought to accommodate a stimulating and functioning landscape – a landscape that performs and gives back. A landscape that communicates care, value, and pride in a community that feels left behind and ignored.

Inserting care, value, and pride may seem like common objectives, yet they rarely have reached North Lawndale over the past few decades. That makes it all the more important that we share these objectives in our semi-public landscape, the parkway, and use it to engage with our community.

The nuts and bolts

If the parkway landscape is to be successful, we have to account for the ever present urban pressures.

Vandalism can be reduced in landscapes that communicate care and pride. Moreover, care and pride may generate a level of ownership among the nearby community, which in turn may be quick to call out and disrupt vandalism when it happens.

Street parking has to be addressed. An 18 inch wide paved strip along the curb would allow for passengers to get out of their cars without stepping into the landscape. A knee fence alongside the paved strip would further prevent exiting passengers from stepping into the landscape and from having car doors swinging into the vegetation.

We have a school and kindergarten down the street from us. Each afternoon when school lets out, we have a lot of kids with pent up energy flying down the street, across sidewalks and parkways. If our parkway landscape is to survive at all, it needs a knee fence all the way around, not just along the curb side.

Blowing trash has the pesky habit of accumulating in plantings and it is a lot of work to continually pick it out. Because most of the trash is blowing around close to the ground, a knee fence with some solid panelling should keep it out.

We have some material limitations. Even though metal seems to be the first choice for fencing, I worry about scavengers, in particular with a knee fence in the parkway. Even if we can generate ownership through care and pride, it may not be enough protection the fence from planned theft. Whatever the material is, it can’t be metal.

Surface drainage on our street is poor. After each decent rain, we have standing water in the gutter until it dries up. That can be days, sometimes a week or two. Turning our parkway landscape into a rain garden and draining the street gutter into it would keep the street dry and the stormwater where it belongs: in the ground. Lowering the parkway’s elevation, would create the perfect trap for blowing trash, however, since it likes to accumulate in low spots. That’s one more reason for a knee fence with solid panelling.

For the rain garden to successfully infiltrate street runoff, I will have to rely on native prairie grasses and sedges. Their root system keeps the soil open and sustains good infiltration levels. We must keep in mind that plantings with prairie grasses and sedges can result in a somewhat wild look.


We learned on our 168 Elm pilot project that this wild look, if juxtaposed with carefully crafted hardscape, communicates care and pride and can make for an aesthetically engaging, smart, clever, and interesting landscape – which takes us full circle.

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About Marcus de la fleur

Marcus is a Registered Landscape Architect with a horticultural degree from the School of Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Sheffield, UK. He developed a landscape based sustainable pilot project at 168 Elm Ave. in 2002, and has expanded his skill set to building science. Starting in 2009, Marcus applied the newly acquired expertise to the deep energy retrofit of his 100+ year old home in Chicago.

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