Landscape Architecture Students Inform Revitalization in the Highlands
Highland Falls is a village of around 4,000 people on the western bank of the Hudson River, an hour’s drive north from New York City. Its Main Street is filled out with a barbershop, a few restaurants and bars, two hardware stores, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. The mayor’s office, the clerk’s office, and the police department all share space in Village Hall, a three-story building on Main Street that was built as a bank in the 1890s and later placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Like a lot of small towns in the region, it doesn’t have a very strong tax base to work with, says Jim Modlin, president of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce, which has members in a handful of towns around Orange County. But unlike a lot of towns, it’s located directly next to the United States Military Academy at West Point. So huge numbers of visitors—cadets and their families, faculty and staff—are always nearby.
“There’s all kinds of potential and all kinds of opportunity, and we’re working really hard to be able to tap into that, and to do it in a nice way, because it is a very small little village …” Modlin says. “The small-town quaintness we do not want to change. But we definitely want to see how we can get more economic development, more growth in the community—a good kind of growth.”
Over the last year, the town’s identity and growth became the focus of a cohort of students in the Master of Landscape Architecture program at PennDesign. In the fall, students joined the second-year core studio (LARP 601), which this year studied four sites in the Highlands, described in the syllabus as a 1.85 million-acre ecoregion that stretches from northwestern Connecticut to eastern Pennsylvania. Their goal was to explore how landscape design interventions at four sites, including the Hudson Highlands trail system where it passes near Highland Falls, could help shape a “dynamic future” for the whole region.
In May, the students who’d selected Highland Falls as their focus presented their design ideas to a group of local leaders, including Modlin, Highland Falls Mayor Joseph D’Onofrio, and representatives of Scenic Hudson and the Hudson Highlands Land Trust. Now, Modlin says, city officials are planning to incorporate some of the students’ design ideas in grant applications for waterfront revitalization work in the area. And that possibility—that student work could end up having real-world impacts—was what drove the exercise in the first place.
“The studio was inspired by a desire to get students out there thinking about what landscape architecture and ecological thinking have to offer in a situation where economic development is urgently, urgently needed,” says Ellen Neises, executive director of PennPraxis and critic for the studio, which she taught with Todd Montgomery, Mark Thomann, Molly Bourne and Alec Spangler.
Last year, Neises's landscape architecture and public policy practice, Range, was selected as half of the winning team, with PennDesign colleague Chris Marcinkoski’s office, Port Architecture and Urbanism, in a design competition held by the Regional Plan Association. The competition was focused on four corridors in the New York metro area, and the team led by Marcinkoski and Neises was selected to focus on the Highlands—what the RPA referred to as the New York’s “near nature.” The work introduced her to a variety of local and regional leaders who were thinking about ways to strengthen environmental and economic connections in the Highlands.
“In the course of all of those conversations,” Neises says, “we came to see that we had just scratched the surface.”
The sites for the studio were chosen based on their scale—200 to 3,500 acres—opportunity for landscape design to instigate major transformation, the presence of a lively, and sometimes heated, debate about the future of the site, and regional significance of the type of design problem, Neises says. In addition to Highland Falls, students focused on a 3,500-acre wildlife management area where logging had recently been approved by the state, a superfund site that encompasses the homes of members of the Ramapough-Lenape turtle clan in Ringwood, New Jersey, and a riverfront redevelopment site that was once a campus for 5,000 people living with disabilities. Each site had a group of 8 to 15 students focusing on it. Highland Falls was included partially because its issues reflect those of many other communities.
“It’s a great test case for thinking about a small town in the Highlands that doesn’t have a lot of sources of tax revenue, and that needs to think about how it can leverage its natural assets to create more economic development,” Neises says.
For Xan Lillehei, a Master of Landscape Architecture student going into her final year in the program, the Highlands’ regional identity is tied up with a larger national identity. Painters of the Hudson River School inspired movements that culminated in the creation of the National Parks System. She chose to focus on Highland Falls because, more than the other three sites, the study area itself is lived in. She narrowed in on a channelized brook as a possible site of intervention.
“We spent two days walking around the town and talking to people, and that was really important,” says Lillehei. “... This one woman was like, ‘I lived here for two years before I even realized there was a brook.’”
Lillehei eventually came up with a “stormwater park.” Focusing on vacant parcels near the creek, she tried to create ways for people to interact with the water while the landscape itself served an ecological function. Other students focused on the area’s waterfalls and waterfront, bridge crossings, reservoirs, and trails.
“We do these projects as a learning experience, but what's really cool about this semester and the way that Ellen has set it up, is that you are working with hot issues,” says Lillehei. “People are going to use it.”
The studio’s focus on Highland Falls reinforced some of local leaders’ instincts about how the town can build on its strengths and attract growth, says Modlin. He said the planning work was creative and professional enough to “add credibility” to the town’s efforts to get $10.3 million in funding for design interventions.
“I’m not sure who knew exactly what to expect [from the studio],” Modlin says, “but it just exceeded everybody’s expectations.”