Rising Stars: Fully Grounded

Shauna Gillies-Smith, principal of Somerville-based landscape architecture firm Ground, explains why cities deserve to be more than concrete jungles.

BOSTON HOME: How does the term “landscape” apply to an urban area?
SHAUNA GILLIES-SMITH: When people hear that word, they think of their backyard, or of the sweeping untouched lands that are the domain of SUV commercials. In reality, much of our daily experience in the city also centers around designed landscapes, from roads to parking garages. People should view these environments as dynamic, and question the design choices: Everything, even the simplest sidewalk, can be practical and extraordinary at the same time.

[sidebar]BH: So landscape architecture isn’t just about trees?
SGS: A lot of our projects are as much about working with stone and sculptural elements as they are about greenery. For example, we’re creating a plaza for the Massachusetts College of Art and Design outside a soon-to-be-built residence hall. We wanted to give the students an outdoor “living room,” so we designed undulating concrete seating walls that create different options — for individuals, for couples, and for outdoor classes. Similarly, while I was a principal at Martha Schwartz Partners in Cambridge, we landscaped the roof of a parking garage in Dublin’s Grand Canal Square. It does have plantings, but the aim was to keep the space open to accommodate lots of people. Instead of using trees as three-dimensional elements, we used big red light poles.

BH: So your work, in the end, is all about making a city livable.
SGS: That’s true. Good landscape architecture boils down to problem-solving — finding answers that are practical, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing. In Dublin, for example, the garage needed to be vented, so we made the rooftop benches out of perforated metal so air could pass through them into the garage below. And there are sewage pipes under the MassArt project that workers may need to access, so we had to position our seating walls to accommodate the length of a truck’s turning axis.

BH: Where does that kind of creativity originate?
SGS: My approach to design is very team-oriented. Instead of coming up with one vision and waving a magic wand to make it happen, I work with many different people to think of lots of ideas quickly and uncritically, and then select a few of them to pursue.

BH: Why are green roofs so important to cities?
SGS: There’s obviously an environmental component, but we also think of roofs as open canvases that can enrich our daily experience with fairly minimal effort. You’re so often in one tall building looking down at the rooftop of another — why should you have to look at an expanse of black tar?

BH: What’s the trick to growing something 20 stories off the ground?
SGS: Plant selection is critical. A roof is a tough environment — the cold and heat are more extreme because there’s no insulation from the earth, and the plants have to withstand stronger winds. We select species that are hardy, but we also overplant, because it’s all about survival of the fittest up there. We never really know what’s going to thrive the best, so we like to use a mix of at least four species.