(Over a Cup of Coffee) with Kinder Baumgardner

| September 13th, 2011

Kinder Baumgardner plays Get With The Program: orphange/ fountain of youth / megachurch (programs) in a hidden room (site)


In the first installation of the SOA lecture series interviews for Fall 2011, gray_matter(s) and AIAS discover Kinder Baumgardner’s favorite city, his attitude to sustainability, how the transformation of the I-75/85 Connector will improve Atlanta and how he takes his coffee.

AP: How do you take your coffee?

KB: Americano with honey

AP: Your firm, SWA Group, has a book out called Landscape Infrastructure, what is meant by this term? 

KB: There are many systems that really influence what a city is and the engineered infrastructure is a huge piece of it. Firstly, landscape is just as important (as buildings and streets) … Landscape is required. Secondly, infrastructure is required – freeways, train tracks, gas lines, etc. Right now the city and single use infrastructure are mutually exclusive, infrastructure needs to learn from landscapes and cities and be a catalyst for making a better city. For example, if a power line is built but it includes a trail system, we have hundreds of miles of trails. This helps improve public health and creates connectivity. It grows out of that way of thinking – of redefining landscape in the city and redefining infrastructure in the city and putting the two together.

AP: SWA is a leader in landscape architecture, urban design and planning – how separate or integrated are these fields today?

KB: Highly integrated. First and foremost we’re a landscape architecture firm. We view the world through this lens. When we’re doing urban design I’m absolutely interested in the urban fabric of the city, but I’m going to be less interested in the form of a buildings and more interested in how the street functions. How does storm water fall from a roof to a storm water system? This systemic approach to planning is the lens we look through. We don’t have a monolithic approach, everyone is free to explore what they want to explore. Entry level staff are given the freedom to figure out what they’re point of view is.

AP: What is your favorite city?

KB: I grew up in Louisiana then I moved to DC, Monterrey, Vancouver, Portland, LA, Boston and Houston. I’ve lived in Houston for 7 years and it’s the best city I’ve lived in. As a young designer, when you live in Boston everyone is scrapping over an entry court or a one block streetscape, however in Houston we’re re-envisioning huge chunks of the city. Every year we do two or three urban design projects for significant pieces of the city and they’re going to be implemented. It’s not just planning for planning’s sake. It’s the Houston can do attitude. We’re looked down on because we don’t have zoning and it is automobile centric, but I get a huge kick out of living there.

AP: How critical is sustainability, with its multitude of dimensions, in your firm’s work?

KB: It’s very important, though I say it with a smirk. In a lot of ways, for a long time, everything we have done has sustainability as a major piece of it. However, I do think that there is so much window dressing that goes on. No one does a greenfield development plan without putting windmills on it, but unless there’s the calculations to support it, they’re just eyewash and it becomes very unproductive to the conversation. I’m interested in how public policy is going to make a city/ state/ nation sustainable. I really think it happens at that level, creating policies that say we’re going to subsidize electric cars and create new dense development prototypes. I always remind people who ask me, ‘How green is your project? How many trees are you putting on it?’, that New York is the most sustainable city in the country because it’s dense. However I only have minimal control over density, in urban design we try to set the foundation for greater density, but often it’s up to public policy. Sustainability is at the heart of the Landscape Infrastructure approach – making things mixed use, putting habitat into the heart of a community on single use infrastructure, but it’s a word that we have to be cautious with.

AP: How important is the transformation of the I-75/85 connector to the future growth and livability of Atlanta?

It’s hugely important, but it all depends on how you frame it. When it came to us it could have easily been a project about flowering the interstate – a sort of adopt a highway project – but what we saw was an opportunity. How to make a better gash through the city was the problem, how to do it in a way that would be transformative for the city.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the project. We want something that is buildable, to get funding and turn into a real project right away. What the project is not is the big dig in Boston. We don’t have 22 billion dollars. The interstate is part of the fabric of an American city. We’re not pretending we’re in 1880 and that the thing never existed. Take the landscape infrastructure approach and let the connector become a catalyst for change for good. If you beautify it in a robust way it changes the character of adjacent properties, which changes the experience of someone walking along it. By making a systemic change to the project, by inviting in other systems – things to do with the heat island effect, stormwater, trails hanging along it, thinking about how it’s part of the art scene – it transforms to something more than a highway.

For me the goal is a layering effect. We’ll find it more interesting if I drive or walk along it. Landowners may then transform garages to cafes for these new pedestrians. We can create a district of walkable streets, by creating a new edge that becomes a new public open space –  so now it’s attractive, cleaner and it feels cooler. Suddenly I can build an urban park that runs the length of certain segments of the Connector. Incrementally the Connector, this positive influence, starts to dig deeper into the city, transforming blocks and creating new land uses. You can’t force someone to build a hotel, but if you transform the connector, you can then change the zoning and someone might come in and build a hotel because it’s not a negative anymore. So that’s how we see it being transformative. Not that it’s a big park, but that it’s a matrix for a lot of different things to happen. But it’s still highway, it has to be.

AP: How do you see this project working with the Beltline project?

KB: This is the connective tissue that works with the Beltline, creating a short cut across the hole in the middle. The connector is more challenging because I have 400,000 cars using it every day. There is a lot of synergy, such as the urban trails that hang off, tying people across the Connector. At the heart of the project for me is that, once you want to walk along it, you want to walk across it to get to transit easier, this changes a lot of the dynamics which is very similar to the Beltline project.

AP: There have been proposals in liberal media to flood the connector. Does the absence of a body of water in Atlanta impede its ambition to be a great, livable city?

KB: Water is intoxicating, it’s an amazing force of nature. In a lot of projects we try to put water in them, through dealing with stormwater, retention ponds or unearthing old streams. However, a city like Atlanta has developed along certain patterns – it’s all about transportation. I think if you introduce a body of water it would be weird, it would be non-Atlantan (if there’s such a word), because it just doesn’t fit in. If we put a big lake in, I can imagine people water skiing in the middle of the city, which could be fantastic, but it just seems bizarre. I think the scale of the ponds in Central park would work for Atlanta. I love the idea of making the connector go away, and we have ideas not so much through design form but simply through way-finding. We could rename 285 as I-75 / I-85, to divert most of the traffic which is just driving through. The connector would then be named local access street and I-75/85 then officially goes round the city. The connector becomes redundant infrastructure. Of the 60% of the people who are driving through, if half of them followed the new signs, it would reduce the traffic volume by 1/3, which means we can take lanes out and eventually we might not need it at all, it just becomes surface streets. Other cities are taking out interstate highways from the core of the city such as San Francisco and Vancouver.

AP: If visitors are being diverted around the city, does this preclude people passing through from being enticed to pull off the interstate and spend money in Atlanta? Is this a motivation for this project?

For sure, but part of the conversation was never to get rid of the connector, so how do you make it better? It provides a very negative feedback loop to people travelling through the city. It’s very scary – you’re low, it’s dark, you don’t know what’s up there above this concrete canyon. Then you pop up and there are these big sound walls. So that is definitely a part of it – that even if I’m driving through maybe I take away something positive, so on the way back I think… I’ve heard of Atlanta, I’ve heard they have a nice aquarium, it’s not that scary, maybe I should get off and go check out the aquarium. That’s definitely at the heart of it. That’s the other side of it – people moving through it as oppose to people trying to move across it.


Interviewer: Anthony Payne

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