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Maximizing Space

Squeezing open space out of a HOPE VI development requires more than good intentions–it calls for tenacious advocacy by landscape architects

By Jeffrey Miller, ASLA, principal of Miller Company Landscape Architects

The tot lot was designed to maximize the minimal space that was left between segments of the residential subdivision. Small backyard patio areas, separated with wood fence, back up to each side of the tot lot. On the Yerba Buena Plaza East development, each residence was fortunate to have a small backyard patio area. This design concept works only if the residents get some assistance in envisioning what they can do with their patio landscape. Residents need assistance from a non-profit gardening group to help them developing their garden spaces or else they'll go sallow. Eucalyptus nicholi, Pyrus calleriana, and Washingtonia Robusta trees were planted in the small backyard patio spaces.

"There is a deep sense of mistrust--much of it quite well founded--that exists within the public housing resident community regarding the intentions of all housing authority programs."--Jeff Miller, principal, Miller Company

Yerba Buena Plaza East (YBPE) is a HOPE VI residential development in San Francisco. Completed in 2000, 193 townhouses replaced high-rise towers that were degraded from years of abuse and neglect. Balancing the goals of the new development was tough--the building architects wanted to maximize housing units, while residents screamed for open space. Miller Company Landscape Architects performed the YBPE landscape design.

Building vs. Landscape

The project architects designing the YPBE Hope VI community were challenged to provide as many housing units as possible so that almost all the residents who had been evacuated during the rebuilding process could return to the community upon completion of the new development. They decided on a townhouse style that allowed each unit its own private garden, which resulted in the high-density development of 74 units per acre. Their effort to maximize space for living units provided very little available land for community open space.

A safe playground makes all the difference for residents at Casa de las Madres, a shelter for battered women and children. Miller Company, who has developed a solid reputation for designing projects for at-risk communities, designed the playground.

Their work includes a solid wood playground design at the Women's Alcoholism Center, which provides treatment for recovering alcoholic women and their children; and a playground at the Whitney Young Child Development Center, which provides 24-hour-care for children of the working poor. Playgrounds in these projects often require a sturdy, secure privacy fence. The women and children that use these facilities are often at-risk and require privacy.

Residents wanted to create an area within the development that was designed for small children's play. They also wanted a separate area that was oriented to older children. Miller Company Landscape Architects facilitated two additional design and planning workshops, which worked closely with area residents who focused on the need for open space and the community's desire for recreation facilities and distinct play areas.

Maximizing Space

How do you create open space where there really is none? Landscape architects from Miller Company saw potential in the rear patio areas between townhouses. To create a toddler play area, a small space was taken from each of the rear gardens of several parallel units, leaving a narrow strip of open space squeezed between the backyards of back-to-back townhouses. While the play area is narrow, it still gives tots plenty of room to run and exercise on the play equipment, gliding down a double-slide or climbing up a rope net. A checkerboard of red and charcoal modular rubber safety surface tiles protect kids knees and elbows from falls. Eucalyptus trees add a hint of green to the playground.

Another children's play area was built between Turk Street and Buchanan Street, near a pedestrian mall. The urban area was paved with more of the checkerboard modular safety surfacing and given similar play equipment with a double slide and climbing activities.

Resident's Fears Inhibit the Design Process

The context of HOPE VI public housing replacement is entirely different than other project types because the resident clients are under a great deal of stress. The stark reality is that public housing is one short step away from homelessness. When residents are being forced to move out of their homes, no matter how poor the conditions, there is a great deal of fear that they will not ever return to the community. There is a deep sense of mistrust--much of it quite well founded--that exists within the public housing resident community regarding the intentions of all housing authority programs. This presents a very difficult backdrop for a productive design workshop environment that is meant to focus on the possibilities that lie ahead for the new community.

A significant portion of each workshop that we facilitated for YBPE was consumed by concerns and fears that were far outside of our abilities or expertise and indeed had nothing to do with the development of the landscape for the community. The design workshops took place at a time when residents were still living in the high-rise buildings and were preparing to move out for a period of two years. The logistics of this mass exodus were quite complicated and stressful for everyone involved-hardly the most conducive atmosphere for creative thinking.

Designing for Low-Budget Maintenance

Over the past 25 years, our company mission has been to focus a good deal of our practice on the goal of providing high quality design services to low-income communities. We have worked extensively with nonprofit organizations by providing landscape solutions within the context of health care facilities, schools, community open space and housing.

Yerba Buena Plaza East is a HOPE VI residential development built between Turk and Willow Street in San Francisco. Completed in 2000, the development replaced degraded high-rise towers with 193 units of flats and three-story townhouses. Finding space for landscaping was tough--the building architects wanted to maximize housing units, while residents wanted to keep some open space and play areas for children. The San Francisco Conservation Corps (SFCC) is a program that offers on-the-job training for at-risk youth. Their workers built the play areas (the tot lot and the older children's play area near the Buchanan Street mall). The play area designs had to be simple enough to reflect those worker's construction skills.

All of these facilities share common problems of minimal funding for development and limited resources for long-term maintenance. These challenges have significant impact on the design approach that needs to be understood from the outset. The landscape must be able to withstand a considerable amount of abuse from users and neglect from a long-term maintenance perspective. Within the context of Hope VI, these two distinct problems of abusive treatment of the landscape and the lack of quality ongoing maintenance required careful consideration.

Residents Need Landscape Advocates

In order for public housing residents to be effectively involved in the rebuilding of their community, it is necessary that the landscape architect's contractual arrangement be constructed in a manner that redefines our role as advocates. The Hope VI residents need landscape architects to help them advocate for open spaces and for a landscape that's consistent and sustainable throughout the project. These contracts often go to the lowest bidder, so during construction the landscape architect spends a lot of time just trying to get the contractor to build according to the specs. After the construction is complete, the issue of ongoing maintenance is paramount. The landscape architect must be connected to the project during the next few years so that adjustments, changes or additions can be made to reflect the evolving community that is using the area. The idea to have each residence enjoy a small backyard patio area works only if the residents get some assistance in envisioning what they can do with their patio area. Then they need follow-through with a non-profit gardening group to assist them in developing their garden spaces or else they will go sallow.

The landscape architect's role needs to be expanded to include their involvement for six months to a year after construction so that remediation can take place in these landscapes. They are so poorly maintained and roughly treated by residents and the local community, because of their street location, that someone--an advocate--needs to notify the housing authority so they can take action before the lack of maintenance gets out of hand. These issues exist in a very difficult arena within the context of the huge federal bureaucracy that funds these developments and the equally cumbersome organizational structure of the local housing authority.

The contract we worked under for YBPE was quite traditional as was our role in the design of the project. We worked closely with residents to develop the landscape plans in an interactive and engaging process. We administered the work of the landscape contractor that was hired to carry out the plan. We even provided guidelines for ongoing maintenance as a part of our professional services.

Overcoming Cumbersome Bureaucracy

One theoretical issue lies at the core of the Hope VI developments is trying to "fit" the development into the greater context of the surrounding neighborhoods. Typically Hope VI projects involve demolishing high-rise buildings and replacing them with low-rise buildings. In this case, the architects designed three-story buildings that "fit" into the neighborhood. On the surface, this appears to be a reasonable goal. Within the context of San Francisco, the original high-rise public housing towers stuck out like sore thumbs in the midst of the Victorian style houses that dot the city. Many of the towers were planned and built in the 1960s when the concept of concentrated high-rise residential buildings surrounded by a large expanse of open space was thought to be the model for low-income housing. The beauty of this model was that there was a considerable amount of shared open space for playgrounds and community gardens. However, the lack of ongoing maintenance of the buildings and the shared landscapes led to an overall sense of decline and isolation from the surrounding neighborhood.

The Hope VI residential development located at 1300 Buchanan Street in San Francisco transformed minimal land space into two common play areas, one for toddlers and another for kids under 12 years old. The kids play area sits on a small paved area between Turk Street and Buchanan Street adjacent to the Buchanan Street pedestrian mall and allows just enough room for play equipment with two slides and climbing ladder. The checkerboard of red and charcoal modular rubber play tiles was used as safety surfacing for the play area. An existing pine tree (background), with a curved trunk, brings shade and color to the urban site.

The contextual model of housing that is being constructed under Hope VI not only brings the buildings down in scale to match that of their neighbors, but also provides for private gardens connected to each living unit. The high-density, which stems from the need to maximize the amount of housing units, (each with its own private back yard), results in a development that lacks shared community open space. This has a great deal of negative impact on the possibilities for open space amenities. There simply is no room for playgrounds and public gardens.

Determined Landscape Architects Needed

Despite the difficulties involved it is important that landscape architects play a role in the development of Hope VI projects, and that we endeavor to infuse these projects with the sensitivities that are unique to our field. It is essential that we speak out clearly from the very beginning to encourage solutions that are site planned to promote the development of the new communities that are being built.

We must be stronger advocates for the spatial arrangements and site amenities that make for livable, strong and safe communities. We must learn more about building types and advocate to balance both private and community open space needs. It is clear that we must push harder from the beginning to achieve these goals. This is an exciting arena of design for those that have the fortitude and determination to undertake the task.


Miller Company
Landscape Architects

Principal: Jeffrey Miller, ASLA

Employees: Nine

Firm originated: 1979

Types of projects: Nonprofit, community group and affordable housing, schools, urban design and high-end residential clients.


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December 6, 2019, 12:43 pm PDT

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