The South Garden Transformed: Q&A with Landscape Architect A. Paul Seck
When Brooklyn Botanic Garden's new Discovery Garden opens in June, BBG's youngest visitors will have their first opportunity to explore this naturalistic, immersive landscape created especially for kids. Its designer, the award-winning firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is well known for environmentally sustainable and experientially rich landscapes ranging in scale from city parks to intimate gardens. Landscape architect and MVVA principal A. Paul Seck, who is overseeing the South Garden Project—including the Discovery Garden, the new Flatbush Avenue entrance, and the Water Garden (opening in 2016), as well as BBG's larger water conservation project—recently discussed his design inspirations and hopes for this engaging new section of the Garden.
BBG: I understand that you have a four-year-old daughter—what did you draw from your role as an urban parent, and from your own childhood?
Paul Seck: I grew up in Ohio and spent my days exploring the woods near my house—at seven or eight, I'd be gone all day, and I loved it! You can't do that in the city. In contrast, I'm raising my daughter in Brooklyn, and it's important for me to find moments for her to have those kinds of experiences with nature. From a boardwalk through the trees to a meandering meadow path dipping down into a marsh, we tried to create a place where urban kids can have a chance to “get lost” in nature right here in the city.
BBG: What special considerations went into your design plans to facilitate interactions with wildlife in this garden?
PS: There's a whole level of being smart about the plant types we are picking to bring in a variety of animals for kids to interact with. We tried to pick trees, shrubs, and groundcovers that would attract different kinds of birds, butterflies, bugs, and squirrels. At the edge of the meadow, for example, there will be a whole series of plants that attract butterflies and bees—observing them is essential to understanding how nature works. It's amazing that you can build a marsh and not even put a fish in it, and yet they show up—frogs and turtles too!
BBG: This garden is just one piece of the larger South Garden Project that you're overseeing—how do all the improvements here relate to each other as a whole?
PS: As you enter BBG through the restored McKim, Mead & White arch—one of the coolest and oldest entrances in the Garden—you'll immediately notice that the path, which previously just looped around the Garden, has been reoriented, giving you the opportunity to look deep into the landscape. You'll be able to appreciate the stream, which will eventually be part of the Water Garden. Giving people different options for moving through the south Garden was very important in our designs. There are inviting "secret" passages that take you into the Discovery Garden, but you can easily observe and enjoy the activity happening in this space without walking through it. The marsh section is at the low point of the Discovery Garden, and this gave us the opportunity to direct storm water to this area. The marsh will actually be physically connected to the pond in the future Water Garden, so we made sure that there will be a connection that happens visually, encouraging kids to continue their explorations beyond the Discovery Garden.
BBG: What sets the Discovery Garden project apart from other innovative gardens and play spaces you've worked on?
PS: The input and experience of BBG's educators were instrumental in this project. Normally, a client comes to us and requests a play space, and it's up to us to consult with child play experts and think through how a space will be used. Our standard role then is to figure out the learning goals and what will really work for kids. But BBG's educators already know so much about this relationship that it created an amazing partnership and conversation. There was an understanding of what worked and didn't work in the previous Discovery Garden and what BBG hoped to add, and from there we were able to run with the design. It was great for us to have all the educators' different perspectives.