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Revitalizing Riverside Park

Revitalizing Riverside Park

How do cities revitalize historic post-industrial sites deteriorating from age and harboring a reputation for pollution? Assuming they can reverse the affects of centuries-old environmental damage, how do they get the public to use these spaces again?

This fall graduate students in the advanced design studio Transitory Nature of Matter: Bricks and Water for Urban Play have been wrestling with these issues. More specifically, they’ve been challenged to propose eco-friendly architectural designs that radically reinvent Riverside Park, a waterfront esplanade in Olneyville, one of Providence’s most historic and culturally diverse neighborhoods.

“The park has the potential to be a really lovely public space,” notes Rachelle Crosby MLA 14, a student in the interdisciplinary studio offered by Interior Architecture and Landscape Architecture. “We want to help make the ideas we’ve come up with through this studio into a reality.”

The studio poses murky, real-life challenges for student designers. Built on a capped brownfield site, the park abuts the Woonasquatucket River, which has long suffered from heavy metal contamination. A 5,000-square-foot brick mill building originally owned by the American Woolen Company in the early 1900s sits abandoned in the corner of the park. Explorers of the now dilapidated Industrial Revolution-era relic can spy seedlings sprouting on its roof.

“You’ll see that there’s going to be a growing demand to find solutions to complicated issues associated with post-industrial areas – especially in urban environments,” notes Assistant Professor of Interior Architecture Markus Berger, who is teaching the studio in conjunction with Nadine Gerdts, a senior critic in Landscape Architecture who has extensive experience working with nonprofits dedicated to community-based design. “The studio provides an opportunity for students to become involved in a realistic study of adaptive reuse.”

To better understand both the environmental issues involved and the needs of the neighborhood, students have been collaborating with Olneyville residents, members of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council and the Providence Parks and Recreation department. And Gerdts confirms that officials who oversee Riverside Park intend to consider adopting some of the RISD students’ final design ideas.

With newly constructed urban housing projects and a popular bike path just a stone’s throw away, the park is far from deserted, even though it’s in need of tender loving care. During a trip to the site to record the area’s weather patterns, Crosby and Colin Stief MIA 14 ended up meeting a group of small children on the playground who turned discarded tarps into makeshift hammocks and play parachutes.

“It turned out to be this amazing spectacle – all of these kids came out to play with us,” explains Stief. “What we learned from our field experiments is that people want to experience the whole park – not just the jungle gym.”

Crosby now envisions that birch and cottonwood trees could add some much-needed outdoor shade. A lofty rope swing could hang from one of the trunks to allow visitors access to the water. “There isn’t much foliage there,” she explains. “I’d like to see the park bursting with new life.”

Lindsay Qi MLA 14 used AutoCAD to design an entire collection of age-appropriate building blocks made of biodegradable materials. The landscape architect imagines that a field of wildflowers could be planted to add pops of color to the ground. She also designed signs that would effectively guide kayakers to a boat launch on the river.

Inspired by his interactions with the neighborhood’s resourceful youth, Stief imagines that the former mill building could be transformed into a community center. Risers would be installed to make it easier for visitors to engage in thoughtful exchange. As so many proponents of adaptive reuse ask, “Why tear something down when you can find a new use for it?”

–Abigail Crocker