Miami. It's the Magic City in the Sunshine State. This town has too many superlatives and nicknames associated with it to list, but they add up to the same thing: it ain't bad living in the sub-tropics. Our weather is the envy of Bostonians and Chicagoans who curse our tanned asses as they hunker down for another bitterly cold winter. And yet, one of the things Miami does not have to the same extent as many other major cities, including those a tad bit closer to the frozen tundras, is a wealth of parks and open spaces around town.
Obviously, it's not as if we have no parks, but it's tough to argue against the idea of installing more places for Miamians to enjoy the natural splendor of the city.
Among the most barren parts of town - as far as parks go, at least - is Wynwood, the booming art district borne out of a post-industrial warehouse sector of the city. That's something that landscape architect, Matthew Lewis, is trying to change, starting with a concept called "the Ideagarden" along the side of the LAB Miami.
"I moved to the neighborhood [Wynwood] about a year and a half ago...we were getting ready to move into this new space, and we had this alley out here, and being a landscape architect, I saw the potential in the neighborhood 'cause it's so raw as a post-industrial area of Miami," said Lewis, who originally hails from Ohio and spent several years working as the design director for Miami landscape architect Raymond Jungles.
The alley in question is about as wide as the High Line in New York City, a modern urban open space that Lewis sees as an inspiration for how to use what space you have in a creative and innovative way -- something he intends to do throughout Wynwood.
"It's not about making any grand statements, what I'm doing," Lewis noted, "it's more about repairing the neighborhood. This all used to be something before settlers got here. The Puerto Rican community had their neighborhood here, then the industrial aspect came into the city and that's kind of what we were left with. So what I'm trying to do is revert little pieces of the neighborhood back to what they were before everything was here, and by doing that using native plants and native trees, we start to recreate and return the area to its original habitat. That not only creates nice spaces for us to use as people, but we're also repairing the habitats for the birds and the butterflies and the lizards and all sorts of South Florida fauna so the ecosystem can keep regenerate itself. Conceptually, that's the idea - repairing the neighborhood."
And while some of you may think helping out the birds and the butterflies and the lizards is all well and good, others might think 'Yes, ok, cool - but why the fuck do I want a park in an alley in Wynwood?' The point is that this won't be an alley anymore. It'll be a comfortable green corridor with spaces to sit and shoot the breeze or make your way from the Wynwood Building to Panther Coffee under some shade in the summer so you don't feel like you're going to pass out.
"Certainly, one of the reasons it's so hot down here in the summer is that there's very little shade," explained Lewis. "Another reason is that everything's covered in asphalt and you wind up with a major urban heat island effect in this concrete jungle. One of the main things that's important to me isn't covering up all the asphalt or the concrete, but just making the neighborhood into a more livable place."
Among the many comments and compliments people shower upon Wynwood, "livable" doesn't tend to be a word that gets associated with the neighborhood. As a thriving art district, it still has to deal with its fair share of crime, as well as a history and reputation that hang heavily over the area. And some of the mean, rough-edged vibe that Wynwood exudes is perpetuated by the aesthetic of the area, the rows of warehouses - some fading, some reinvigorated, some utterly derelict - the overwhelming amount of concrete and the equally overwhelming absence of greenery.
Fortunately, Lew is working on more than just the Ideagarden outside the LAB's offices.
"Right now, I'm working with seven or eight of the local business owners," said Lewis. "I'm working with O Cinema, we're going to do an al fresco outdoor movie theatre experience, but we want it to feel like an outdoor garden movie experience, so you walk into the space and it's going to be very lush and feel different, but still feel like Florida.
See also: O Cinema to Open Outdoor Movie Theater
"We're also redoing Gramps right now," he continues, "and you know, Gramps is a great bar, but that outdoor space has so much potential and it's basically like the surface of the moon right now. Again that's an area where we're trying to keep simple hardscape and bring in native trees and shade. We're also working with Plant The Future to create this kind of futuristic landscape in their outdoor area."
Lewis explained that oftentimes projects of the scale that these open spaces fall into can take around a year from conception to completion, but that with Art Basel around the corner, that timeline is getting inexorably shortened by business owners who would like to have their rejuvenated outdoor spaces ready for the masses come December. And while he recognizes that this adds a great deal of pressure (and a great number of hours to his work week), Lewis feels there's something very exciting about getting to see a project he's so passionate about coming together so quickly. And it's Lewis' hope that his work will spur on more architects and businesses to follow suit so as to keep helping Wynwood grow out of its concrete shell.
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"Maybe we here in Miami think that we need these grand ideas to make anything happen," Lewis said, as if thinking aloud, "whereas if we start doing these little elements like these block to block creations that eventually tie together, we can make something that becomes really grand as a whole."
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