Kate Orff, whose New York landscape architecture firm was chosen last week to design Town Branch Commons, has made a name for herself by looking below the surface and beyond the conventional.
The approach served her well with Lexington's Downtown Development Authority, which hopes to create green space through the center of the city along the path of the long-buried Town Branch Creek.
Orff said in an interview that her team figured out quickly that the key to this project wasn't recreating the stream as it used to be, but working with the complex limestone geology and hydrology beneath Lexington's streets and structures.
She also realized that Town Branch Commons should do more than create beautiful public space to attract people and private development. It should play an important role in solving Lexington's persistent storm-water and water pollution problems.
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In addition to being a partner in the firm Scape/Landscape Architecture, Orff is an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at Columbia University. As founder and co-director of the university's Urban Landscape Lab, she leads seminars on integrating earth sciences into urban design and planning.
With Town Branch Commons, Orff said she saw an opportunity to accomplish goals that are often seen as contradictory: increasing commercial development and sustainably improving the environment.
"This Lexington project is an amazing opportunity for me to try to bring those two realms together," Orff said. "I really think that's the future, this concept of green infrastructure."
Orff said green infrastructure has many advantages: It is less costly to build and maintain than concrete and pipes. It is less prone to massive failure, because it is less centralized. And it provides the side benefit of public green space.
"But you have to think very systematically," she said. "It requires more, frankly, of the urban space. It's more of a dispersed strategy of touching the water where it lands at multiple points in multiple ways. But a more dispersed model leaves you more room for resiliency."
Orff, 41, grew up in Maryland and earned a bachelor's degree in political and social thought from the University of Virginia, then a master's degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University.
She started Scape/Landscape Architecture in 2004. The firm's projects have ranged from a 1,000-square-foot park in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a 1,000-acre landfill regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland.
Orff has made several national lists of up-and-coming designers. Last year, the organization United States Artists chose her as one of 50 American artists to receive $50,000 fellowship awards.
She was co-author, along with photographer Richard Misrach, of the 2012 book Petrochemical America, which created an ecological atlas of the petrochemical industry's effects on the 150-mile Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as "Cancer Alley."
Currently, Orff's firm is doing projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Greenville, S.C., where she is working on an environmental education center with Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur "genius" award winner who did the site plan for the proposed CentrePointe development in Lexington.
Perhaps Orff's most high-profile effort is a proposal to restore the Gowanus and Red Hook sections of New York harbor with a system of designed oyster beds. Before harbor dredging and industrialization, oysters flourished there. One oyster has the ability to cleanse 50 gallons of water per day. (She explains the project in a TED talk online: Bit.ly/hW22FN.)
Her "Oystertecture" plan, which will begin with a pilot project in March, has attracted a lot more attention since superstorm Sandy showed the vulnerability of the Northeast's urban coast. Orff is part of a task force New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed to study those issues.
To prepare her Lexington proposal, Orff said she studied water flow data and made floodplain maps to understand downtown's hydrology and geology. For local knowledge and engineering expertise, she engaged Lexington-based EHI Consultants and Sherwood Design Engineers, a major national firm.
Orff also met with city officials to understand Lexington's consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, which will require millions of dollars in fixes for long-ignored water quality problems throughout Fayette County.
"Before we ever started to design, we did a very comprehensive series of maps that included flooding, the SSO (sanitary sewer overflow) events and so on," Orff said. "We had a very clear sense of how water was moving and the amounts of water and what would be possible and what would not be possible."
Orff said her team also tried to work with what already existed or was proposed for downtown "rather than tearing down and starting over from scratch, because clearly a lot of money has been spent already."
Orff plans to return to Lexington in a few weeks to meet with stakeholders and the public to gather feedback and ideas. Then, more civil engineering will be needed, as well as a plan for how to build the project in phases.
"We are aiming to refine the plan and provide some alternatives for different areas," she said. "I think the way our scheme kind of fits within the landscape, it provides a lot of alternatives and backup plans."