Grand Design: Who Are the Landscape and Urban Planning Visionaries of Today?

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EVER WONDER WHO THE MODERN DAY FREDERICK LAW OLMSTEDS ARE? Who has the vision to create public spaces on the scale of Central Park? The next time you pass a beautifully manicured green, tree-lined boulevard, or activity-filled park, give a nod of thanks to Alexander Garvin and Jess Zimbabwe. For although they may not have been directly responsible for that particular place, chances are it reflects their inspiration and passion. Their design of the public realm--the parks, great lawns, and city streets that bring life to our communities--differentiates them from others, and make them special places in our lives.

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Alexander Garvin is president and CEO of Alex Garvin & Associates, a planning and design firm that specializes in de signing parks and public spaces on a grand scale. His resume includes substantial stints as managing director of planning to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to New York City, vice president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency that tackled the revitalization of the World Trade Center following 9/11, and an adjunct professor of urban planning and management at Yale University.

On Garvin's plate now is Hinton Park--a master plan to transform farmland into park land in Collierville, Tennessee. The town of Collierville acquired 110 acres of land to improve the quality of life of its citizens by preserving a beautiful landscape as a public park--one that enhances the site's natural beauty and fashions a place for the community to gather, interact, and have fun. The Hinton Park Master Plan proposes immediate actions that will create an enduring framework for the park's future, while the landscape matures and the surrounding area is occupied by new residents. They include: providing access and connections to residential areas via existing and proposed greenways and roads, establishing destinations that offer recreational opportunities not now available in Collierville, and minimizing future maintenance and operating costs. The master plan also delineates a sequence of expenditures that will allow the town to stage the park's development in response to community demands and available resources.

Also in the works is Shelby Farms--a 4,500 acre site just outside of Memphis, Tennessee. The historic farm is already the county's largest park, but it lacks the activities and programming of a great recreational destination. Shelby County and a group of private foundations seek to transform the park into a vibrant multi-use community resource. Alex Garvin & Associates was retained to manage the design process and create the vision and program for the new park. Working with key stakeholders, the firm will develop an RFP to solicit the world's best landscape architects. When complete, the revitalized Shelby Farms Park will be integrated with adjacent neighborhoods, connect to a county-wide open space system, and create regional destinations for visitors and residents of the Memphis area.

But it takes more than architects and landscape designers to create the master plans for projects of this scale. Jess Zimbabwe is the executive director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the Urban Land Institute, whose mission is to encourage and support excellence in land-use decision-making. Zimbabwe works to provide public officials with access to information, best practices, and other resources in guiding them to make "creative, efficient, practical, and sustainable land-use policies" in their own hometowns. Zimbabwe and Garvin have collaborated on projects to ensure better public participation.

Together, Garvin and Zimbabwe form the perfect storm of design in the public realm. Parks, boulevards, open space--the spaces that we, the people, own. The spaces where we congregate, play a pick-up game of basketball, or listen to an outdoor concert. …