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Landscape Architecture Queens Square 1

Queen’s Square Restoration by Seferian Design Group

In this fascinating and detailed article, Brad Smith of Seferian Design Group answers our questions about their 2018 Landscape Architecture / Small Scale Landscape Projects award-winning design, Queen’s Square Restoration.

I am a Senior Landscape Architect and full member of the OALA, CSLA, APALA, and ASLA. I have a passion for design and carry a fresh, forward-thinking, enthusiastic energy to every project. I have a keen interest in urban design, place-making, community development, and recreational planning and design. I am driven on each project by the intimate relationship to memories of place, emotional connection to environments, and the understanding of how people interact with the landscape. I strongly believe that it is both the opportunity and responsibility of landscape architects to give back to their communities and educate on design and the profession. I am passionate about giving back to the community. Seferian Design Group (SDG) was established in 1992, and approach each project with a highly skilled and integrated team of Landscape Architects that foster a collaborative and energetic approach to design. At SDG our team believes that at the core of all our work is the belief that we can do better and be better. Through design, we aim to put our permanent mark on the relationship between our place in nature and nature’s place in our lives. This is why our team envisions, creates, and designs spaces for life. Spaces that boldly and creatively connect us, our communities, and our environments. Our team has a shared commitment to excellence. We place strong emphasis on superior design knowledge, support, and teamwork. We challenge, inspire, and support each other. We are in a creative field, and working creatively is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Our studio environment is fun, relaxed, and motivating. Our landscape architects are encouraged to explore their talents through education and community participation. SDG values our local sense of place, as well as a global consideration for sustainability and hope. We are firmly rooted within our community but always practice with a sense of global responsibility.

Media Statement (100 words): The timely refurbishment of Queens Square has transformed an ageing space in the heart of downtown Cambridge into a civic hub open to all members of the community. The key challenge of the project was to modernize and improve the space while working within the original design concept and remaining respectful to the site’s heritage. The re-imagining uses clean lines and locally-sourced concrete to provide a smooth, accessible surface, while the reconfiguration of site elements improves pedestrian circulation. By emphasizing the historic character of the site, improving accessibility and working sustainably, the design helps unite people and the landscape.

Project Description (500 words): For nearly 200 years, Queens Square has been the heart of downtown Cambridge. This urban plaza forms a key linkage in the open space system of the city, joining the Cambridge Main Street Bridge and the Grand River to the east and Memorial Park to the west. Together, these three spaces form a crucial part of the identity of the city and act as landmarks for locals and visitors alike. Queens Square not only has great iconic and heritage value, but it also plays an important role in the civic life of Cambridge, hosting Canada Day and Remembrance Day events that bring people together. However, over time the space had grown less welcoming, with cracked paving and aged utility sheds that were periodically flooded, affecting the function of the Square’s centerpiece, Gore Centennial Fountain. Restoring the site was a priority for the City of Cambridge, especially because Queens Square is one of the key public spaces near the Grand River. This made it a target of the Back to the Rivers Plan, an initiative that strives to enhance connection to the waterfront, encourage civic participation and improve quality of life for residents and visitors to Cambridge. Canada’s Sesquicentennial was also an important consideration – not only would Canada 150 funding make the project possible, but it would be appropriately symbolic to re-dedicate the Centennial Fountain 50 years after it was first built. The main goal of the project was to respect the Square’s original design intent while improving the functionality and aesthetics of the site. In addition to repairing the concrete fountain and replacing surfacing and structures, the design team worked to increase accessibility and ease of pedestrian circulation by manipulating the grading and site layout. Seat walls around the existing planting beds were re-shaped to create more open space for gathering, and dated benches were replaced, while other features like light standards and waste receptacles were refurbished. Existing heritage features like the Russian Gun, a Crimean War-era cannon donated to the City in 1864, and the Gore Centennial fountain dedication plaque were lined up with the existing Geodetic Survey of Canada benchmark, enhancing the Square’s strong east-west visual axis. Bands of exposed-aggregate concrete are used to define walkways and seating areas while echoing the fountain’s angular design. In addition, enhancing the functionality and heritage character of Queens Square, the project used small interventions to enhance sustainability during design and construction. For example, all existing trees on site were retained. This ensured that the many environmental benefits of mature urban trees were not lost but improved, as re-grading directed all run-off toward planting beds, where the water could be taken up by the trees or infiltrate into the ground. Other steps were taken to reduce transportation and waste, from the selection of a local contractor to the use of local materials and reuse of existing structures. The restored Queens Square is welcoming a new generation of Cambridge residents and visitors, offering a unique place meet, relax, learn about heritage, interact with water, or enjoy a civic event.

HISTORY AND HERITAGE: Queens Square is one of the oldest public spaces in Cambridge, located at the end of Main Street, south of Grand Avenue. It certainly dates back to 1835, and likely was built shortly after the first European settlement of the area, in 1816. At this time, the area was known as Shade’s Mills, named after an early settler. The name was changed to Galt after the town’s post office was built in 1825, in honour of John Galt, Scottish novelist and Commissioner of the Canada Company. In 1973, the City of Galt was amalgamated with three other nearby communities to form the City of Cambridge. Through all of these iterations, Queens Square has been a civic anchor in the community. In a painting of Queens Square from 1885, Central Presbyterian Church can be seen, standing in the same location as it does today. Across from its spires stands the Commercial Building – today the structure is home to the Grand Café and the Galt Juice Company. The bridge in the background of the image mentioned was first built in 1878 to replace a series of wooden bridges that spanned the Grand River, connecting the east and west sides of downtown Galt. In 1931, this was replaced with a concrete bowstring arch bridge that still stands today. Designated as a heritage bridge by the City of Cambridge in 1982, the Main Street Bridge is one of four similar structures built over the Grand River in the 1920s and 30s. This bridge is not only significant as a heritage structure in the context of the Galt’s historic downtown, but also as the first in a series of landmark spaces which continues through Queens Square and into Memorial Park. Memorial Park is located just west of Queens Square, across Grand Avenue. Though not as venerable as the Square itself, Memorial Park also has a long history in downtown Galt. The site was originally home to the Scott Opera House, built in 1899. When the theater burned down in 1928 the block was redeveloped as a park. In November of 1930, the Galt cenotaph was placed in the park, commemorating 239 soldiers from Galt who gave their lives in the First World War. After the Second World War, 137 more names were added to the front of the statue. In 1991, a second memorial was added to include the names of soldiers lost after 1954. Memorial Park remains vital in Cambridge today as a place of remembrance and contemplation. On holidays like Canada Day and Remembrance Day, Grand Avenue is closed and the Memorial Park joins with Queens Square to become one unified civic space, hosting events and activities. Queens Square’s civic and heritage value lies not only in its context but also in site elements, like the Russian Gun and Gore Fountain. The Russian Gun is one of several cannons taken from the City of Sevastopol, Russia, near the end of the Crimean War in 1855 by British troops. It was donated to the Town of Galt, which was at the time the largest town in Waterloo County, and was placed in Queens Square on December 2 of 1864. In 1910, the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire replaced its wooden stand with a concrete base and added a plaque commemorating the Gun’s history. In 1967, to mark the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, Queens Square gained a new centerpiece. This fountain was donated by Gore Mutual Insurance Company, and designed by Mark Musselman McIntyre Architects. The fountain’s central feature is its concrete maple leaf symbol, based on the logo of the Canadian Centennial celebrations. Jets of water spring from each triangle of the maple leaf, which is surrounded by an angular pool. The square was redesigned to work with the new fountain, with planting beds and benches that reflect its angular forms. A plaque was also installed, identifying the fountain’s donor and year of construction. Since the 1830s, Queens Square has been the heart of historic downtown Cambridge. It is a key civic space, hosting community events and ceremonies, and also is used day-to-day for walking, sitting, and interacting with water and plants. Today, the square’s location across from the public library, as well as its proximity to the Grand River, facilitate frequent use and encourage passers-by to continue a local tradition and consider their town’s heritage.

URBAN DESIGN CONTEXT: In 2014, Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig announced a five-year plan called ‘Back to the Rivers’, which promotes infrastructure projects to enhance the city’s waterfront areas. This plan intends to bring the social and economic focus of city life back to the Grand and Speed Rivers, and by extension, the downtown core areas of the Cambridge’s original three communities; Galt, Hespeler and Preston. Though it is not a typical urban design plan, the Back to the Rivers initiative promotes and funds projects that will enhance connection the waterfront and improve quality of life for residents and visitors alike. It has facilitated a number of important projects within the past four years, including the restoration of Queens Square. Some projects that are representative of the Back to the Rivers Vision include the new pedestrian bridge over the Grand River and the transformation of the old Galt Post Office into a public library. The pedestrian bridge, which opened on May 26 of 2018, crosses the Grand River between the Cambridge Sculpture Garden and Founder’s Point, two important public spaces in the area. The old Galt Post Office has been re-designed and expanded as Canada’s first all-digital library. It is just across the river from Queens Square, which can be seen from the new library’s viewing deck. The Queens Square area is important for the Back to the Rivers plan, not only due to its historical significance but also because it is one of the only three areas along the Grand River where passers-by can hear the sound of water flowing. The existing concrete embankments along the river are significant and create visual and sensory distance between the water and people nearby. The presence of the Queens Square Fountain allows people to experience the calming and cooling effects of moving water, even though they are not able to interact directly with the river. Queens Square also provides excellent views of the Main Street Bridge, continuing this east-west line that binds downtown Galt together. Another factor that contributed to the redevelopment of Queens Square was the time – 2017, Canada’s Sesquicentennial Year – and the associated Canada 150 funding. The City of Cambridge was motivated to ensure that the Gore Centennial Fountain was redeveloped for Canada 150; not only was it fitting to have the re-opening 50 years later, but the Federal Government also provided nearly half of the project funding in grants, as long as it was constructed before the end of 2017. The combination of the Back to Rivers initiative and Canada 150 made the Queens Square Restoration a reality, demonstrating the importance of urban design planning in ensuring that great projects get built.

CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT: In order to develop a design concept for the restoration of Queens Square, Seferian Design Group focused on initially on the existing site conditions, and the major goals outlined by the City of Cambridge through the Request for Proposal (RFP) process. This meant not only focusing on ways to restore the existing space, but also attempting to modernize the layout of the site in order to organize circulation patterns, create more gathering space and reduce maintenance requirements. In order to eliminate pinch-points throughout the site, the design team chose to change the shape of existing raised planting beds, removing sharp corners and creating more open space. The walls around the beds were replaced with concrete seat-walls, encouraging passers-by to sit and linger in the Square. The reduced height of these walls also opened up sightlines, facilitating passive surveillance, increasing safety, and making it easier for users to enjoy views of the fountain and surrounding heritage sites like the Main Street Bridge and Memorial Park. Two at-grade planting beds, at the east and west ends of the Square, were eliminated in the new design through consultation with the City of Cambridge. These annual-planting areas were costly to maintain and were trampled heavily during events – eliminating them added much-needed gathering space, and ensured that limited maintenance did not detract from the visual impact of the site. Another key part of the concept development was finding ways to add to the visual language of the Square without detracting from its heritage character. The added bands of exposed-aggregate concrete break up the expanses of paving and help articulate the space while enhancing the original forms and remaining true to the concrete-focused design. Other interesting elements, like wooden bench-tops, moveable planters and solar lighting, were deferred during budget revisions but will be added later by the City, increasing the modern-classic feel of the space.

The main challenge through the design process and into the construction phase was working within the limited confines of the site, and working around various existing elements that could not be altered. Consideration of the existing trees was especially important; the design team had to balance the need to create more space for pedestrians, re-grading, and the need to protect the trees’ root zones. The existing fountain also remained in place, with only minor repairs done to ensure that it remained water-tight. Another site element that was both a feature and a constraint was the Geodetic Survey of Canada benchmark. Known as ‘fundamental benchmarks’, these concrete elevation markers were installed in major cities starting in 1926, as part of a nation-wide effort to create accurate maps. As they are still important references for accurate digital mapping today, it was important that the restoration did not disturb the benchmark in any way. It was important that the site be re-graded extensively – not only were some slopes too steep to be comfortably accessible, but stormwater runoff was being directed into the existing utility sheds, causing them to flood. The grade in this area was raised, directing new runoff toward soft landscape areas, without disturbing the trees, benchmark or fountain. The Russian Gun and Gore Fountain dedication plaque were shifted to improve sightlines, and careful observation of existing site users allowed the design team to improve circulation and provision of seating areas. Careful attention to existing conditions and awareness of the history of the site allowed Seferian Design Group to bring Queens Square into the 21st century, functionally and aesthetically, without breaking its connection to the past.

Sustainability was a core value of both the design team and the City of Cambridge, and ensuring that the restoration of Queens Square was done in an environmentally sensitive way was a priority. The heritage character of the space limited the opportunities to implement new sustainable technologies to some extent, but the process of construction was managed in order to reduce waste and increase efficiency. Reduction of construction waste served to meet the goals of both sustainability and heritage, as existing structures and elements on site were mainly repaired and reused, rather than replaced. Existing light poles and waste receptacles were repainted and reinstalled, saving them from the landfill and saving the energy, water and transportation costs of manufacturing new site furnishings. The size and shape of the existing Square were also maintained, meaning that there were no new excavation works, and very little material was disposed of off-site. Where new materials were used, they were locally-sourced. A local contractor was retained to build the project, minimizing travel to and from the site, and therefore lowering emissions from vehicles. Sand and aggregates for the concrete were sourced from a nearby quarry, and new plant material from a local nursery, for the same reason. Finally, Low Impact Development principles were used to guide the re-grading of the site. Drainage patterns direct runoff to the planting beds, irrigating the vegetation, filtering urban contaminants, and allowing stormwater to infiltrate back into the water table. Finally, all the mature trees on site were retained in the new design. Mature urban street trees provide a variety of environmental benefits, including cooling the microclimate through shading and evapotranspiration; reducing stormwater runoff through interception and infiltration, and filtering any water that does run off; and sequestering carbon. Small, newly-planted trees take several years to provide these benefits, and many do not survive for very long in the harsh urban environment. Careful attention to the details on this project made it possible to complete construction effective and sustainably. This combination of reduced waste, transportation and urban runoff help make the restored Queens Square not only a heritage landmark but also a modern piece of Cambridge’s green infrastructure.

I decided that I wanted to become a landscape architect in Grade 11. My family had a vacation property in the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada, and from an early age, I was fascinated with the landscape, ecology, climate, and recreational opportunities of that area. Landscape architecture brought them all together and, to this day, I approach design as a relationship between our place in nature and nature’s place in our lives. The profession has allowed me to change communities, inspire place-making opportunities, spark relationships, foster experiences with the environment, and create unforgettable personal moments.

I am a big supporter of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future and the central messages that came out of those discussions. Landscape architects are at the forefront of protecting our natural resources on the planet. The future is landscape architects continuing to educate communities how to adapt to a changing world — producing food, protecting cultural heritage resources, enhancing ecological landscapes, opportunities to harvest fresh water, and building sustainable parks and open spaces for all communities.

I am incredibly proud to receive this award and have our project recognized on an international level. We had a strong team and a very supportive client in the process. This award gives our team confidence and gratitude in what we are doing is making a difference in communities and landscape architecture. We are very honoured and proud.

Many thanks to Brad Smith for answering our questions in such a rewarding manner. I’m sure readers will agree — there is a lot to carry away from this article, details to ponder, and a strong sense of passion throughout. Thank you!