Hindsight is excellent, but even in 2013 when Kate Orff’s SCAPE was chosen to design the Town Branch Commons in downtown Lexington it seemed clear that great things would come from and to this intense, unpretentious landscape architect.
Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation recognized Orff’s commitment to designing landscapes that not only enhance the look of communities but also improve the human and physical environment with one of its so-called “genius grants.” The grants, announced annually, recognize “exceptionally creative people” with an award of $625,000 distributed over five years.
Orff’s Lexington project figures prominently in the MacArthur Foundation’s presentation of her work, including a video in which she discusses it herself (alert viewers can spot Van Meter Pettit, our local genius who has tirelessly promoted the Town Branch Trail along the buried waterway for almost two decades).
The linear park, “is literally trying to reconnect Lexington, Kentucky with its geographical, geological past,” Orff explains, “to celebrate not only the karst geology that is part of what has made Lexington but also to create this linear, connective space that brings Lexingtonians together.”
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SCAPE was one of five firms invited by the Downtown Development Authority to come to Lexington, develop a proposal for the park and present their ideas to a panel of five judges.
“What really stands out about this plan is how the SCAPE team came to understand ... how a karst water system works as it flows through limestone. It surfaces, pools, submerges and disappears, all in the course of a stream. They gave urban interpretation to that,” developer Holly Wiedemann, one of the jurors, said when the selection was announced.
And, the plan was practical. “This project is poetic and pragmatic,” said Michael Speaks, another juror who was then dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design.
As Orff notes in her video remarks, large-scale public projects like the Town Branch Commons, which will stretch over two miles from the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden at Third and Winchester to Rupp Arena, take a long time to plan and develop.
Orff and her team have been in Lexington many times since 2013 to gather information, refine the proposal, present their ideas and get feedback from the community.
Construction on the publicly funded commons will begin next year. It will feed into the proposed Town Branch Park, also designed by Orff’s firm, on the 10-acre space behind Rupp Arena. Private fund-raising for that $30 million project, expected to take at least three years, is underway.
When both are complete, they will link the Legacy Trail, which runs from the Kentucky Horse Park to Isaac Murphy, and the Town Branch Trail, which carries on to the west through the Distillery District to Masterson Station Park, into more than 20 miles of continuous public recreational space.
Orff’s recognition — the most significant of several she has earned — should help accelerate fund-raising for the park.
The challenge now is to honor her work, and our community, by raising the money to faithfully make her vision a reality.
Lexington displayed its own genius in choosing Orff. Congratulations to her, congratulations to us.