In a dense, residential Brooklyn neighborhood, a tiny backyard has been transformed into a soothing, contemplative garden. Behind a five-story row house, the garden creates the illusion of a larger space and suggests the feeling of wandering in nature. An abandoned water cistern was re-activated and the garden's water collection is a model for the value of stormwater management in micro-urban spaces that also provide peace and pleasure in the city.
Site Challenges The very small space was darkened by bordering houses and enclosed on two sides by a 12-foot brick wall. The lack of sunlight added to the unwelcoming feel of the stark space. Like a fishbowl, the site had no privacy from the adjacent row houses and apartments. The only access to the yard was through the house, forcing all materials and plants to be hand carried in. This constraint dictated the size of the trees and the choice of materials. Environmental Sensitivity During construction, the designers discovered a large 19th-century rain cistern, abandoned and under plywood below grade. Clearly a hazard, it was made safe, repurposed, and reactivated. The thirteen-foot deep brick structure was filled with gravel, and all of the stormwater runoff from the garden and the brownstone’s roof was routed into the cistern where the water gradually seeps into the water table – not into the already overwhelmed and combined storm and sanitary system. Instead of replacing the unstable surrounding brick walls (and creating more waste and consumption), the landscape architects engineered stabilizing columns and thus preserved an interesting historical element. All the project’s materials were sourced within 300 miles of the site. To conserve water, drip instead of spray irrigation was installed. Several trees were planted to naturally cool the garden terrace and house in warmer months and to create a habitat for birds. Design Value A gently curing path creates the dreamlike feeling of a walk through a forest. The design objective was to create the feeling of being in a landscape that is complex enough to take you away from the frenetic energy of the city. Challenging the traditional notion of a backyard as space for recreation and outdoor cooking, the design creates a space that encourages relaxed meditation. The mica schist paving, reflecting light back into the sometimes sun-starved space, is arranged in a flowing pattern that mimics how logs flow down a river. Adding further uniqueness, the yard’s protected urban microclimate makes it warmer than the surrounding city and allowed the use of plants such as camellias and crape myrtles, plants that would normally have a hard time surviving in the region. The tree canopy was designed to provide privacy from the neighboring buildings. The arrangement of the plantings creates layers and a forced perspective, which both make the space seem larger.
Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO
Scott Streeb, Project Designer
Statile & Todd Inc.
Schist Pavers: Goshen Quarries, Goshen, NY
Plants: Rivendell Nursery, Greenwich, NJ
Natchez Crape Myrtle
Green Shade Pachydandra