Board Member Feature: Landscape Designer Gina Ford Discusses Her Passion for Urban Parks and Her Mission-Driven Practice

Board Member Feature: Landscape Designer Gina Ford Discusses Her Passion for Urban Parks and Her Mission-Driven Practice
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City Parks Alliance welcomes Gina Ford, principal and co-founder of Agency Landscape + Planning, to the board of directors. For more information about the Cambridge, MA-based firm visit: https://agencylp.com/.

Agency is leading the first phase of the Sarasota Bayfront.

What drew you to the City Parks Alliance board of directors?

As an urban park designer and perpetual advocate of the value of landscape architecture, I have been a follower and a fan of City Parks Alliance for a long time now. I see the organization as a key player in the urban parks movement, its leadership integral to the success of some of the nation’s most significant parks and its mission very consistent with my own personal professional purpose.

I came to know City Parks Alliance while working with two of its board members on a project in Sarasota, Florida. While undertaking a master plan for 53 acres of the Sarasota Bayfront, I had the pleasure of working alongside Kathy Blaha (our governance expert) and Candace Damon (our economist). These women — and all the City Park Alliance leaders I have encountered over the years – continually impress me with their breadth and depth of experience in park-making and park-maintaining.

It was during this time I was also leading (for my prior firm, Sasaki) a project called the Bonnet Springs Park Master Plan, a 180-acre brownfield site turned destination urban park in Lakeland, Florida. My client there, David Bunch, had just returned from the 2017 Greater & Greener conference in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He was perfectly buzzing with ideas and energy that fueled our planning process until its culminating public launch. At that time, David invited CPA executive director Catherine Nagel to deliver opening remarks, which she did brilliantly, setting the tone for our master plan and speaking to the myriad benefits of park investment. I guess you could say I caught “CPA fever” big-time that day!

What are you excited to share with the other board members and broader City Parks Alliance membership?

The City Parks Alliance board is an incredible assemblage of some of the most innovative and unique thinkers in the world of urban parks. More than anything, I’m thrilled to share in the conversation about the work they are doing — the challenges and opportunities as well as the emerging trends and the ideas they are exploring. That kind of feedback and conversation will help me be better prepared to help my clients, partners, and collaborators in the work I do.

In exchange, I am excited to share with the board all of the ways I advocate for and promote the value of urban parks. I love being a voice for the urban park movement, and I do that through writing, speaking and social media quite extensively. Whether celebrating the role of public space in a thriving democracy as I did in this TED Talk, writing about the principles of great park design for Parks and Recreation Magazine, featuring work and thinking about urban activation and programming in the recent book Staging Urban Landscapes or my (constant) engagement on Twitter, I see myself as an apostle of sorts. As I continue to understand and learn more about the profound impact urban parks play in improving urban life, human wellness, ecological health, and economic value, the more I want to share that broadly.

My practice, Agency Landscape + Planning, is a women-owned small business led my partner, Brie Hensold, and me. We formed Agency to plan and design following our shared passions – but also to be advocates and leaders for more gender justice in design practice. I love the idea of being part of a board of directors that is helmed and steered by many powerful, smart and passionate women from across the country. I am sure we have lots to learn and share on this front!

Community engagement made fun in Greensboro for the Plan2Play.

What makes the Agency LP unique?

We named our practice Agency to signal our enduring – and, we think, unique – commitment to collaborative design and planning. Agency – as a philosophical term – is the capacity of human beings to act, to make choices. At Agency, we believe in the power of people to initiate and make purposeful, positive change – and in design and planning as essential tools in that work.

We also describe ourselves as a mission-driven practice. For us, this means a series of critical issues – social equity, cultural vitality, and environmental resilience – is central to how we work, what we work on, and the kinds of relationships and places we build. We believe that in order to address the most challenging issues of our contemporary society, diversity and inclusion are foundational to how we see, understand, and ultimately, shape our collective experience, particularly in the public spaces, parks, and streets of our cities.

Gina served as the lead designer for Sasaki’s team on the Chicago Riverwalk.

Do you have a signature project that is addressing equity, green infrastructure, transportation, recreation, resilience, and/or underserved communities?

Projects are a lot like children. It is next to impossible to pick a favorite. As a planning and design practice, our approach to urban parks is also unique and has created an incredibly diverse portfolio. We work at all scales – from regionally-scaled strategic plans (like the White River Vision Plan and High Line Canal Framework Plan) to city-wide park system plans (like the Denver Game Plan or the Greensboro Parks Plan) to specific site design (building off past work like the Chicago Riverwalk or the Lawn on D). This breadth allows us to understand the strategic and programmatic issues as well as the physical and operational ones. We believe these considerations inform each other deeply and, when considered together in a planning and design process, result in more integrated, beautiful and functional places.

Many cities are seeing population growth and seeking to make the most out of scarce land. What are your thoughts on this trend (or another trend you would like to address)?

We have thought about these issues – growth, change and what they mean for urban parks – with many cities across the country. These are very present issues, for instance, in Denver, as was evidenced by the continuous thread of related conversation there during Greater & Greener 2019. Denver is experiencing growth in spades, with 2.5 percent growth per year and a range of potential growth rates that could result in between 125,000 to 250,000 new residents by 2040. At the same time, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation takes seriously other pressures – the need for equitable service delivery, the challenges of a changing climate, and the continued need to innovate within a resource strained economic paradigm.

Our work together on their strategic plan, dubbed the Game Plan Update, tackled these issues together. We identified that land in a moment of scarcity needs to be multi-functional, whether that scarcity is from growth pressures (as was the case there) or environmental factors (like coastal erosion and sea-level rise impacts elsewhere in the country). We discussed how growth, unchecked, tends to deliver benefits unequally. This makes a push for equity even more important in areas experiencing growth and change. And importantly, we identified growth also as a huge opportunity – to do smart public-private partnerships, rethink the definition of public space and access, and share the load of delivering excellent public services.

While we completed the Game Plan with Sasaki, Agency also worked with the High Line Canal Conservancy and our design and planning partners Livable Cities Studio to create a Framework Plan for the High Line Canal in Denver. The plan equally tackled environmental change and equity, giving a new life to the canal through the potential introduction of stormwater and prioritizing improvements in high-need and under-served areas of its reach. It takes collaboration, innovation and a willingness to seek multi-beneficial solutions – and the results can be extraordinary!

Agency’s work in Denver includes the Framework Plan for the High Line Canal.

What is next for Agency Landscape + Planning?

We are settling into our soon-to-be second year of business and working happily to nurture and expand our team to deliver outstanding planning and design work. Specifically, we have an incredible array of projects to tackle that are just starting now – a slice of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, a stunning transformation of a new 25-acre park on the Atlanta Beltline, a master plan for Boston’s famed, Olmsted-designed Franklin Park with our teammates Reed Hilderbrand and MASS Design, and a county-wide parks and recreation master plan for Mecklenburg County, among others. We are delighted to be living our dream of a practice dedicated to socially-minded public work and clients that are all motivated to partner, engage, innovate and deliver. We are collectively thrilled to bring all of our best energy, ideas, and passion to the engagement with City Parks Alliance. This work – the work of urban park planning and making – is purposeful and thrilling, particularly at this moment in time in our country and around the world. City Parks Alliance – in its sharp focus on urban parks, its commitment to environmental sustainability, and its wholehearted embrace of equity as key to vitality – is leading the movement. We feel lucky every day to be a small part of it.

About the Author

Gina Ford is a landscape architect, co-founder, and principal of Agency Landscape + Planning. Her work has received awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects, the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Architects, among others. She is on the board of directors for the Cultural Landscape Foundation and was the recipient of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Charles Eliot Traveling Fellowship and Wellesley College’s Shaw Fellowship.

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