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Lyuxiao Liu, MLA ’20, presents her group’s redevelopment design of Brooklyn’s abandoned Red Hook Grain Terminal to a panel of professional landscape architects in New York City.

NYC-based landscape architecture course a first

The Red Hook Grain Terminal in Brooklyn was once a bustling hub of industry and infrastructure. Built in 1922 as part of the Erie Canal network, the grain storage facility was once the third largest port in the United States.

But changes in transportation and labor costs eventually led to the terminal’s closure. Over the past 65 years, the abandoned site has changed hands multiple times.

The facility is one of many post-industrial sites in areas that are now prime real estate, and it poses thorny redevelopment questions, such as how to deal with historic contamination, how to finance redevelopment in an expensive area, what’s best for the community and who exactly is the community. Redevelopment ideas include a concrete processing facility, a movie theater and a park.

Cornell landscape architecture students had the opportunity to work on addressing those issues in a groundbreaking, eight-week urban landscape architecture design studio and seminar taught over the summer in New York City. It’s the first course based entirely in the city for Cornell’s graduate landscape architecture program, ranked second nationally by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Jennifer Birkeland, assistant professor of landscape architecture, who taught the course, said having students actually live in the city, rather than just visit, was a key learning component of the program.

Cornell impacting New York State

“Landscape architecture is a crucial discipline in cities,” Birkeland said. “We deal much more with issues of social justice, making sure all communities have access to open space and recreation, for example. And that’s something that’s constantly being discussed in all five of the boroughs in New York City.”

In addition to the Red Hook Grain Terminal, which formed the basis for students’ studio projects, students visited dozens of other sites in the city, including the new Domino Park. Redevelopment on the site of the abandoned Domino Sugar refinery posed many of the same problems seen at the grain terminal, and students were able to see a successful redevelopment that is providing new housing and office space, along with an 11-acre waterfront park in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Students also visited several landscape architecture firms in the city, where they spoke with Cornell alumni. Some of those professionals also participated in seminars with students and evaluated their grain terminal projects, which included strategies to cope with the industrial contamination and ideas on how to redevelop the site.

Sage Taber, a student in the Master of Landscape Architecture program, said the opportunity to take an intensive studio course without the distraction of other courses “exceeded all of my hopes.

“It changed my academic career and defined my professional interests,” Taber said. “I loved the creative process and walked away from [Birkeland’s] studio wanting to push the field further.”

Taber is particularly interested in the “symbiotic and evolving” intersection of nature and human infrastructure, and how those spaces can be designed to cope with climate change.

According to Tim Baird, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, the new course “is in perfect alignment” with President Martha E. Pollack’s New York City Visioning Committee and its commitment to advancing the Ithaca-New York City relationship.

“While we have always done studios in the city and its environs,” Baird said, “this direct and intensive on-the-ground experience is a different animal and an unparalleled opportunity for our students.”

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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