Greening the urban jungle

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May 8, 2006 // UPDATED 2:07 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Downtown landscape architect sculpts open spaces

Landscape architect Thomas Oslund has softened the hard edges of the city with creative green spaces that contrast with the concrete and asphalt that

otherwise dominate Downtown


From sleek manicured rooftop gardens at the Humboldt Lofts in the Mill District to an innovative green plaza next to Bookmen Stacks and Bookmen Lofts in the North Loop, Oslund’s work has transformed bleak urban spaces into organic landscapes.

At the Bookmen complex, Oslund’s firm, oslund.and.assoc., 115 Washington Ave. N., designed a unique green space that covers a parking ramp for residents at the loft developments at the corner of 6th Avenue and 3rd Street North.

The plaza has aesthetic and environmental benefits. Instead of looking out onto a drab asphalt parking lot, residents see green grass and trees — a rare site in the burgeoning neighborhood with industrial roots.

The Bookmen plaza features a Muellner Green Roof System — a layered green roof that filters water and then reuses it to irrigate the plaza.

Sidewalks bisect the urban oasis at Bookmen creating five distinct green areas. The plaza also features large circular planters with native grasses and square planter boxes with willow trees. Soon, the area will also have a restaurant.

The Bookmen green roof/plaza is unique in that it’s at ground level, making it more accessible to people than the typical green roof designs.

The popularity of green roofs is growing. They have sprouted at other Downtown locations, including the new Central Library set to open May 20. The library at 300 Nicollet Mall features low-growing succulents and bedrock bluff prairie plants.

There are also plans for a 5,800-square-foot green roof at City Hall, 350 S. 5th St. The green roof will top the building’s inner courtyard.

Oslund is also working on the riverfront park next to the new Guthrie Theater proposed by UnitedHealth Group CEO William McGuire.

The park got the green light from the City Council on April 14. Under current plans, the park would be about eight acres, feature more than 300 trees and have a large viewing mound in the center that would give visitors a view of the Stone Arch Bridge spanning the Mississippi River. The site, east of the Guthrie, is now home to a parking lot.

Oslund said those involved in the project want to create a neighborhood amenity that has a strong connection to the river. City officials have lauded the park proposal, which beat out competing proposals that called for housing on the site.

The proposal is completely devoted to something organic — trees and green space — something rare Downtown. Oslund looks back fondly on the days when Park and Portland avenues were “amazing tree-lined streets.”

While there have been efforts to beatify some Downtown streets with trees and flowers, such as 3rd Avenue and Nicollet Mall, many remain relatively bare.

Some officials are hoping to turn that around. In April, Mayor R.T. Rybak announced plans for a design team to focus on transforming Washington Avenue into a grand boulevard that is more inviting for pedestrians.

Oslund said he supports the idea, adding it would make Washington much more “human in scale.” Oslund also pointed to other cities, such as Chicago and Boston, as leaders in preserving green open spaces in the heart of

the city.

“[Minneapolis] has such a great legacy for open space, but it’s sort of neglected urban open space,” he said.