In need of an urban pick-me-up? Boosting quality of life in cities doesn’t always require large-scale intervention. These projects are improving the way their cities look, act and feel.
Many cities in former Soviet states have developed rapidly over the past 30 years – and Vilnius is one of them. Here, neighbourhoods are regularly reimagined and revitalised. And at the heart of one such development – a mixed use site in the centre of Lithuania’s capital – is a plaza by Martha Schwartz Partners. Tasked with breathing life into the burgeoning development, the landscape architects have created a public space that takes visual cues from the surrounding landscape.
“We were inspired by the shape of [the city’s] castle on a hill – Gediminas’ Tower,” says project landscape architect Ceylan Belek Ombregt. “The iconic tower and hill represent the progression, culture and history of Vilnius.”
The result is a square with undulating planters that mirror the nearby hill. These design choices are complemented by water features that introduce sound and movement. It also entices people to walk through it thanks to connections with new buildings and the warren of residential streets that surround it. It is a combination that ensures the new plaza has been lively from the outset while still grounded in the existing fabric and vernacular of Vilnius.
Landscape architect: Martha Schwartz Partners
What it achieved: A new civic space in a forgotten part of the city, connecting its historic heart to dense residential areas.
Communities in Haifa are often cut off from one another by roads with fast-moving traffic. This, coupled with the hilly terrain in the northern Israeli port, means that walking between lively neighbourhoods and major civic institutions, such as famed university Technion, can be unpleasant. Enter Rolka Studio and Schwartz Besnosoff Architects, which won a competition to design a new entrance gate for the institution by designing a grand pedestrian bridge instead.
Bringing together two existing yet disconnected pathways – one linking to the city centre, the other to the university’s historic heart – the architects worked with the terrain to create a gentle promenade that feels like a natural part of the landscape rather than an infrastructural afterthought kowtowing to the car. It also entices passersby to stop and enjoy views over the bay.
“[The result is] a dynamic platform that has become a new focal point for the campus,” says project architect Omri Schwartz. “It enables people to host events and explore the potential of a new connection with the city.” In short, it’s not just a bridge but a public space that doubles as a much-needed connector of Haifa’s urban fabric.
Architect: Rolka Studio & Schwartz Besnosoff
What it achieved: More than just a new entry to the university, it is a physical gateway linking the city to the famed institution.
A couple of years ago, Kitaya Park in Shibuya was a sorry sight. What was once a charming pocket of backstreet greenery had become a storage facility for bikes. Now the park has been given a makeover and brought back to life with fresh plants, plenty of seating and a Blue Bottle Coffee shop with an outdoor terrace and space for a food truck.
“We wanted to create a place where people could gather, meet and use the park however they like,” says project manager Yu Kawai from Tokyu Corporation, which oversaw the transformation. “We also took advantage of the natural slope to build bench seating.”
Tokyu paid for the overhaul, with an additional grant from Shibuya, and teamed up with architects Nikken Sekkei and advertising agency Crazy Ad. Blue Bottle Coffee worked with architect Keiji Ashizawa to give its wooden building a suitably earthy interior (note the volcanic ash-glazed tiles). Although this park is privately run on a 20-year contract by Tokyu and its partners, public rules apply, which means that there’s a ban on big corporate signage. It’s a welcome addition to the neighbourhood.
Architect: Nikken Sekkei
What it achieved: An unloved open space has been turned into a place that can be used freely by anyone.
Photographer: Andrej Vasilenko, Jonas Opperskalski, Asuka Ito