Place making in Santa Monica: Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square

Santa Monica Park Construction-web


Parks and open public spaces are “fundamental to the life, culture, sociability, imagination and the ecological health of a city.” So landscape architect James Corner told a public audience in Santa Monica two years ago, around the time his firm, James Corner Field Operations, was working towards approvals for two new parks in the city’s civic center.

Parks offer a very tangible example of holistic sustainable design, addressing the long term social, economic and ecological needs of a community. They bring nature into the city. They provide a place for recreation and casual social interaction, as well as acts of organized, collective expression. When well designed, they can connect people to place and encourage healthy living by getting people outdoors to walk, bike and interact with others in the community. And by virtue of establishing places where people want to be, they become economically advantageous to neighboring businesses and communities.

Engineering’s contribution to an endeavor as ambitious as Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square may be less obvious, but the challenges are no less exciting. BuroHappold was selected as the project’s engineer of record because of our previous work with Field Operations on the much celebrated High Line in New York and our proximity to Santa Monica. Our integrated services, which included structural and MEP engineering as well as sustainability consulting, meant we were considering nearly every facet of the project, from making sure this dramatic new topography would provide enough room and water for trees to thrive, to realizing the elegant, deceptively robust overlook structures, to creating restrooms that tuck into the undulated landscape, and to collaborating on new street furniture and lighting—we were working out the details.

Success in Santa Monica, as it would be in most cities, hinged on the community taking ownership of the park. The city wanted the many diverse voices of their community to be heard and their values and priorities represented in the final design. In fact, Field Operations’ skill with community engagement was a key factor in the firm’s selection, it’s been reported. 

Intensive community workshops and surveys established sustainability and the environment as critical concerns, and this alignment of purposes underscores the fundamental interconnections that James spoke about. A landscape of native plants signals the seasons, strengthening visitors’ connection with nature, while inconspicuous swales and bio-retention areas filter runoff and promote groundwater recharge, contributing to the city’s broader ecological well being.

It’s part of what makes this such an exciting time for cities, when design, engineering, culture and ecology can align to enable much greater impacts. Of course, engineering is inextricably linked with rise and evolution of cities, but during these rare times of catalyzing change in cities, it is especially gratifying to be an engineer. 

In addition to the parks, which are set to open later this fall, BuroHappold is providing full engineering services for the Santa Monica Civic Center redevelopment program, a multiphase project comprising a new mixed-use community, streetscape and light rail improvements, a new library, and other enhancements.

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