Three weeks ago, I spent seven days traveling through two national parks with an old friend. Both Banff and Jasper National Park offer breathtaking views of verdant valleys guarded by snow capped mountains and dotted with impossibly blue lakes. The experience was a stark contrast to the city that I currently call home.
Although New York is an extraordinary place, the lack of green space and biodiversity takes its toll on those who live there.
Too much time in the day-to-day grind of New York can lead to feelings of claustrophobia. It is for this reason that it has earned the nickname of the ‘concrete jungle’. At times it can be an unforgivingly dense environment of towering structures populated by a curious mix of unfamiliar faces. And just like a jungle, it never sleeps.
Living in such an urban environment makes reconnecting with nature especially important.
So when I was offered the opportunity to be part of a team that would design and build a public seating structure to occupy two car parking spaces on the corner of 5th Avenue and 13th Street, I enthusiastically signed up. The project is sponsored by the city’s Department of Transport (DOT) and managed by Parsons School of Design. It is set up as a formal class that any design student can take during their Spring semester.
As a team of fifteen, we set ourself the goal of using materials that shared the environmental values that are so prevalent throughout Parsons ethos. We spent time in the universities material library, quizzing the staff on potential options that would be rugged enough to survive outside for six months, yet soft enough to allow us to fabricate with hand-operated tools. Eventually we settled on Bamboo. It’s an incredibly fast growing grass that thrives in a range of different climates around the world. When used correctly, it has exceptional structural properties and when harvested, nearly every inch of the plant can be put to good use.
The more research we did the more impressed we were. Like most plants, bamboo sequesters carbon dioxide as it grows however it also emits 30% – 35% more oxygen into the atmosphere than an equivalent stand of hardwood trees!
We designed a structure that could support the weight of six large benches, running the full length of the site. Each bench extends from the frame using diagonal supports to dissipate the load of human weight. The frame itself is designed as a series of stacked units. Each unit providing space for a planter to inhabit. We set aside almost half of our available budget for purchasing 75 native American plants to occupy these spaces. When looking for a solution to housing the plants, we settled initially on terracotta pots but soon found an alternative material made almost entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
The goal of the project was to create an a unique space that would welcome anyone who passed by to sit down and engage with both the plants and the bamboo surrounding it. Since the structure occupies what would otherwise be space for parked cars, it was important for us to create some sort of divide between the road and the sidewalk. The gridded structural frame offers a semi-perforated wall that doubles up as the back support for the benches.
We were keen to extend the life of the structure beyond the hours of available sunlight and so a small team branched off to develop a system of solar powered LED lights that would illuminate a number of the planters in the evening. Twelve solar panels mounted to the frame provide energy after dark, giving the structure a whole new life.
This year, the call for World Environment Day is to reconnect with nature. Our response was to design a framework that would encourage nature to flourish within the city – for everyone to enjoy. But bringing attention to diminishing urban green space doesn’t have to be big production. It could be as simple as creating a photo essay, painting or illustration that draws attention to this important issue. No matter how big or small the goal you’re trying to achieve is, it helps to start in a familiar environment where you have access to resources and support that will help you along the way.
Use today to get outside and engage with nature! Go find your creative spark. And then use that spark to create something that reminds people to enjoy and preserve our planet. I’m challenging myself to do the same.
Finn Harries is a Project 1324 Ambassador and an Architecture student at Parsons School of Design. Follow him on Instagram at @FinnHarries.