Tom Eblen: Landscape architect Lyle Aten's many designs decorate Lexington

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 23, 2013 

Landscape architect Lyle Aten, 86, worked on Central Kentucky projects throughout his professional life.

TOM EBLEN — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

You may not have heard of Lyle Aten, but if you live in Lexington, you see his life's work every day.

Since moving here in 1952, the landscape architect has had a hand in creating master plans and site designs for more than 60 projects in Central Kentucky.

Aten and his firm helped design neighborhoods such as Eastland, Cardinal Valley, Lansdowne, Stonewall, Merrick Place, Hamburg, Hartland, Beaumont and Wellesley Heights.

His shopping centers include Lexington Green, Hamburg, Beaumont, Tates Creek Center, Lansdowne, Lansbrook and Palomar.

Aten helped with the realignment of Main and Vine streets downtown and the epic reconstruction of Paris Pike. He worked on the IBM campus, Commonwealth Stadium, Coldstream Research Park and the Lexington Legends' baseball field.

He helped plan Lexington's Jacobson and Phoenix parks, as well as several state parks, including the lodge complex at Lake Barkley.

"I've been very fortunate," said Aten, 86. "I was in the right place at the right time. And, most of the time, I had clients who let me do what I thought was right."

Aten grew up in Macomb, Ill., and didn't know what a landscape architect was until a career counselor gave him an aptitude test and pointed him toward the profession and the University of Illinois.

"Fortunately, I was on the GI Bill or I couldn't have done it," he said.

His timing was perfect: one of his instructors was Hideo Sasaki, who would go on to become one of America's most influential landscape architects and the longtime head of Harvard University's landscape architecture program.

After graduation, Aten joined the Peoria, Ill., firm Scruggs & Hammond, which sent him to Lexington to work on a couple of projects. Kentucky had only a half-dozen landscape architects at the time, he said.

"That was good and bad," Aten said. "People didn't know what a landscape architect was. It wasn't about putting bushes around a house."

As Lexington began an era of rapid growth, the Scruggs & Hammond office Aten headed found plenty of work and grew to 30 employees. In addition to design work, Aten taught as a longtime adjunct at the University of Kentucky, wrote several local environmental ordinances and, after retirement in 2000, served eight years on the city planning commission.

All of that made me think Aten would be a good person to talk with about development in Lexington — the successes, the mistakes and lessons for the future.

Lexington has a better history of planning and managing growth than most places. That has included protecting rural land and fertile soils with the nation's first Urban Services Boundary and the Purchase of Development Rights program.

"Very few places in the United States have gone through this process, where we give value to our environment," he said.

But a lot of mistakes were made, too.

"The first thing you have to do is to find out what nature is doing and respond to nature's systems," Aten said. "When you start to conflict with those systems, you get into some expensive problems."

Among Lexington's mistakes: trying to bury or reroute streams, which contributed to flooding and water-quality problems. The best example of that was the decision a century ago to bury Town Branch Creek beneath downtown.

"Now we're going back and rediscovering the quality of that drainage way there and making it an asset rather than something you turn your back on," he said.

Aten has been impressed with the master planning processes being used for the Rupp District and Town Branch projects downtown, he said.

"I think it can work out real well," he said. "I really appreciate the approach that the mayor is taking to these things."

The key to good planning and design decisions, Aten said, is a process that includes sound research, a collaboration of talented professionals and public involvement.

Metro Lexington must find better ways to increase density, do more mixed-use development and limit sprawl, especially in low-tax counties surrounding Fayette where tax revenues never manage to pay for sprawl.

"We have to learn to live closer together in more quality ways," Aten said. "But you fit the city to the land. You don't alter the land to fit the other pattern."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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