A Natural Fit

Made of acetylated wood, the boardwalk delivers the unique look, feel, and sound wood, and reduces concerns for rot, decay, movement, and extensive maintenance. Photos Courtesy Of: Perennial Wood

In the densely populated Boston suburb of Somerville, Mass., open space is at a premium. Residents gravitate to natural areas, even if those spaces are undeveloped city lots on side streets, blocks from the city’s busy thoroughfares.

The city seized the opportunity to make more of one empty property, creating the Quincy Street Open Space, dedicated a little over a year ago. Neighboring residents saw it as their own private garden and gathering area, so the city developed the space with the residents’ input.. The design team also worked within the parameters stipulated by the lot’s donor: The property is to be used for conservation and as a bird habitat. An urban habitat design—for human passive recreation and sensitively built infrastructure—was a natural fit.

Spurr and WANTED Landscape Architecture began transforming the site in the fall of 2012, incorporating three levels of planted terraces and a stepping-stone path—all using recycled granite curb from a nearby reconstruction project: a seating area with Adirondack chairs made of recycled milk jugs, 16 new trees of a variety of species, and native plantings that are erosion-resistant, require minimal maintenance, and offer birds nesting material, berries for food, and shelter. Because of its sensitivity to urban wildlife in the vegetation strategy, Quincy Street Open Space has a minimal lawn—a feature the public-works department appreciates—and full-season trees and shrubs for year-round habitat.

Wood Wins Over Boardwalk

Because the design team also wanted water, air, and people to easily move within the site, the team incorporated into the plans a real wood boardwalk built a few inches above ground level. The boardwalk minimizes erosion by allowing water to drain through the gaps in the deck boards and into the integrated stone-filled drywells beneath, ensuring rainwater percolates down to the water table rather than drain into the city’s stormwater system. The walkway also disguises the infrastructure below, and allows for easy access to that infrastructure in a way that a paved walkway cannot. By simply removing a few deck boards, the public-works department can clean or repair the drywells.

Several materials were considered for the boardwalk—Ipe, mahogany, composite, and even metal. Given the project’s intent, the team preferred to use real wood due to its ability to enhance the

visitors’ experience. While traditional wood-decking carries the potential for rot and decay, and necessary maintenance, the team didn’t want to introduce synthetic decking as it doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal. Wood has a special feel and sound to it when walked on.

“We were looking for a material that would hold up to a variety of uses and traffic levels, and could be easily maintained by the public-works’ parks staff,” says Arn Franzen, director of parks and open space for the city.

The design team worked with a manufacturer of acetylated wood-decking, which is a relatively new advancement in wood for outdoor spaces. The decking is not treated, but rather modified, to resist moisture and its related effects: shrinking and swelling, cupping, bowing, and warping. The modification process uses heat, pressure, and an organic compound to change the wood’s cellular structure, leaving no toxic substances in the wood—an important factor for a boardwalk in a public space. Further, it’s sustainable, beautiful, real wood.

Birds Of A Feather

The boardwalk has a multicolored design inspired by the angles and camouflage patterns formed by birds’ feathers. It’s somewhat abstract but well-loved, especially by kids, and is the showpiece of the physical infrastructure at the space. Each of the ADA-compliant finishes—in shades of mahogany, Cape Cod gray, and cedar—seemingly alternate their prominence in the visitors’ eyes with the changing seasons. In the fall, the gray boards peek out from beneath the fallen leaves. A dusting of snow in winter accentuates the darker shades while making the gray boards nearly invisible.

“The walkway turned out even better than I anticipated,” says Letitia Tormay, RLA, project coordinator at Spurr. “The colors are vibrant in the daylight, and the shadows play well off the various shades. And the kids have fun following the colors with each step.”

The boardwalk design required a master installer to create the many precise, tight-fitting butt-joints, where boards of different colors were joined to form one tread of the decking. Through the installation and the first winter, the acetylated boardwalk remained tight at the joints, which was critically important to its appearance.

A Way To Wander

The boardwalk also helped to address the need for ADA-access throughout the site and to overcome one of the project’s unique challenges: the 5-foot change in slope from the back of the lot to the front. The boardwalk crosses and cuts through the grade, directing wheelchairs, kids, and other pedestrians through the space while allowing room for native plantings and habitat. The granite curb stones and 4-by-6 sculptural posts around the perimeter of the area also give visitors active and intriguing ways to move through the space, meeting the original design intent of providing passive recreational opportunities. The space is one in which people and wildlife can peacefully coexist.

One of the key considerations in this project was how the boardwalk would be integrated into the site’s existing trees, their roots, and rocks, all of which were to be preserved. The intricacy of the original boardwalk design was well-intentioned, albeit somewhat unrealistic when staked out. With slight modifications to accommodate site limitations, the boardwalk now nicely meets the team’s initial intentions of providing circulation through the space.

“The completed project is phenomenal,” Franzen says. “The push to use a combination of sustainable items, recycled curbstone, chairs of recycled plastic, real wood-decking, and native plants, contributes to the project’s success.”

Sights And Sounds Of Nature

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said at the park’s groundbreaking ceremony on Jan. 24, 2013, “It’s great to have such an intimate and beautiful woodland space so near our urban center. In a densely populated urban community, spaces like these allow our residents and neighborhood children to breathe freely, and have more contact with nature.”

The Quincy Street Open Space demonstrates people’s intense desire for natural settings and materials in a built environment. The once-vacant lot now provides a place where residents can fill their senses with the sights and sounds of nature, even in the middle of the city.

Cheri Ruane , RLA, is a Team Leader, at Spurr/Weston & Sampson in Peabody, Mass. Reach her at ruanec@wseinc.com .

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Strategies for creating urban wild spaces:

  • Gather input from residents and potential users

  • Consider the site features and limitations in the design phase

  • Incorporate opportunities for passive human recreation through a boardwalk, stepping stones, and posts of varying heights

  • Use a four-season vegetation strategy with native trees and shrubs, which minimizes erosion and maintenance concerns while providing habitat for birds and butterflies

  • Be creative in selecting materials that will reduce the project’s environmental impact

  • Include hidden infrastructure to manage rainfall and runoff.

Bryan BuchkoComment