Alison Duncan


When did you realize you wanted to become a Landscape Architect?

A: I’ve always had a deep regard for the psychological impact that quality of space can import. Growing up in Lowell, MA and witnessing the city’s revitalization through urban design/preservation initiatives made a huge impression. Twenty years ago, visiting Parc de la Villette for the first time, blew my mind, and at the time, I was also drawn to the projects happening along Battery Park which really kicked off the waterfront rejuvenation we see all around NYC today. But, it was working at Carol R. Johnson Associates (my first job after college) that truly introduced me to the profession.

What Landscape Architects who are currently active do you admire and why?

A: I really love the works of Mikyoung Kim and Claude Cormier who balance achieving site goals with playful, sculptural, and complex fabrications and solutions that break the mold of traditional definitions of landscape architecture. MVVA for their planting sensibilities and working with nurseries to cultivate desired planting outcomes from the start of the project rather than as after-thought. Field Operations – they are proposing some of the most high-profile, large-scale, and challenging work within the urban scale.


What advice would you give to Emerging Professionals?

A: Landscape architectural design and project outcome are a long process and ones that require patience, adventurous conceptual thinking, and much attention to detail and technical skill; same goes for learning the landscape architectural profession in all of its aspects; it is a lifetime profession that requires accumulating knowledge in many fields over many years. I think it’s important to stay curious, observant, diligent to detail, and take the chances to expand the traditional definitions of the profession that are being embraced by a larger audience today.

What about this project sets it apart from the rest of your work?

A: It’s a landscape architecture project wrapped within my first foray into industrial design. This is a pro-bono project working with a senior citizens’ center in Harlem; I had never worked on a project specifically focused on seniors, but given that they are our largest growing demographic, this was a valuable design exercise. The project initially had a site, but later evolved into the design of innovative and modular site furniture that could be used in a variety of settings, provides opportunities for inter-generational community gardening, with a focus on senior users (i.e., comfortable seating, easy-to-reach components, shade features).

How did you get involved with DesigNYC, and this project in particular?

A: DesigNYC contacted me originally to request that I submit an application. I think they felt that I would be a good match with the senior center client and the scale of project.

Have you worked on pro-bono projects in the past?

A: This is my first pro-bono project with this type of arrangement, with an agency like DesigNYC acting as matchmaker. Over the years, I have worked on many initiatives, pro-bono, including a Textile Test Garden in Lowell, MA, a course book for the NYC Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, design proposals for the East River Waterfront in Williamsburg, some garden/art installations, and much of the work I do on various boards I serve on, including ASLA-NY.

What part of the process was most rewarding?

A: Having worked on many projects on public ground and in urban environments, I have enjoyed the intersection of designing places and features that serve a broad range of goals (environmental, sculptural, economic, hydrological, infrastructural) for a diverse community. This project had to meet a range of goals, and I believe that the best designs achieve the complex layering of those in a clean, simple, and legible manner. Central/East Harlem is a greatly underserved community for healthy eating options, so the best part will be fabricating the site furniture components in the near future, getting the farm-to-table gardens growing, and actually impacting a community in real time and space.

What unique challenges did you face in this project and the pro-bono process?

A: Coming up with the ‘right’ and ‘best’ design, conceptually, to achieve the goals set forth by the client and site, is always a challenge. I usually know when I have it, but that takes a lot of thought, time and energy that is hard to quantify into fee. Pro-bono is a challenge on one’s earnings too, especially as a new start-up practice. In the case of this project, I put a lot of work into proposals for a particular site that the client eventually lost management of, so I had to switch gears and start with a new site and evolve the design to help them achieve their goals.

How will this project effect your work going forward?

A: I am hoping that these site furniture components can be used not only for the client it is meant to serve, but because its modular design is flexible and adaptable, it can be used in a variety of settings and sites around NYC and/or elsewhere to provide education about nutrition and healthy eating practices, as well as provide inter-generational activities to a broader community. If the prototype is successful, perhaps there in an opportunity to market the site furniture on a commercial basis.

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