Since opening in March, Hudson Yards has drawn crowds to gawk at the glistening Vessel, the epic Shed, and the terrifying but awe-inspiring lip of the Observation Deck.
However, just as impressive as these soaring structures is the landscape design that supports them. About half of the Eastern Yards is composed of open space – for a total of about five acres –which has been carefully designed to connect all of the different elements and buildings in the neighborhood.
“There are such wonderful architectural buildings that surround the open space, and so one of the goals that we had was to bring all of this disparate but beautiful architecture together and make it feel like it’s one place,” said Mark Strieter, Senior Associate at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBWLA), the landscape architecture firm on Hudson Yards, “It’s this place where people can gather, and in a way kind of signifies and can be the symbol for Hudson Yards.”
For inspiration, Strieter and his team at NBWLA looked at famous European plazas, such as Piazza San Marco in Venice or Piazza del Campo in Siena, adding gardens and other low-level greenspace “to create human space and human scale.”
But unlike those plazas, Streiter and his team had to contend with another, very challenging element when designing the open space in Hudson Yards: the railyards, which still operate underneath the plaza.
As Hudson Yards was built on top of these tracks, the trains – which used to sit in open air – were suddenly closed in but still running their engines, creating a sweltering furnace of heat beneath the ground, particularly in the summer. In fact, the engineering team found that the soil could reach up to 150 degrees in the hottest months.
Those conditions are not exactly conducive to fostering a healthy plant life (soil temperatures in nature are usually between 50 – 60 degrees), and so NBWLA and Related gathered a team of mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, soil scientists, aborists and architects to figure out a way to cool down the soil when needed. They came up with the never-before-used solution of cooling the soil by adding a system of tubing into a four-inch bed of concrete installed at the bottom of the planters. When the temperature of the soil rises above 74 degrees, sensors trigger a cooling solution of glycol to pump through the tubes, acting almost as an air conditioner for the soil temperature.
In addition, the train yards themselves are being ventilated by enormous fans – equivalent to those used by jet engines – which remove heat from the tracks below.
Once the infrastructure was in place to support the greenery, NBWLA then had to design the landscape itself, choosing which trees and wildlife would suit the neighborhood, as well as what the structural elements would look like. Taking into account that most visitors would want a place to perch, for instance, they specially designed 75 percent of the walls to be at a precise level that is comfortable to sit down.
They selected plants that are native to this region, as well as those that would grow berries to attract migrating birds and pollinators. Species included Black Tupelos (a special tree that originates in Georgia and had to be transported on a flatbed truck to New Jersey, where they were cared for and maintained for three years in order to adjust to the Northern temperatures), as well as Dawn Redwoods, which will one day tower over the landscape.
“Hopefully they’ll be as tall as the Vessel someday,” Strieter said.
No surprise, growing a Redwood in the middle of New York City did require some engineering marvels as well, and NBWLA worked to create a special, sand-based structural soil, which can support the pavement above, but also provide enough aeration and porosity for plants and trees to be able to thrive.
“When you’re looking at Hudson Yards, what you don’t realize is that we had to carefully plan everything below that pavement,” Strieter said.
Of course, the testament to good design is that no one who experiences it will ever know exactly how complicated it really is. Walk around the Hudson Yards public square and gardens, and you won’t hear the jet engines roaring or see the glycol pumping through the ground. Instead, you’ll hear the cheerful chirps of birds in the trees, and see visitors sitting on the carefully measured walls, taking in the sunshine and views of the Vessel.
“A lot of the people who are going to visit Hudson Yards aren’t going to understand what it took to create this park, this public square, this landscape,” Strieter said, “But they’re using it, and for me, that’s the most rewarding thing.”