MLA Student Xiao (Phoebe) Cheng Receives National ASLA Honor Award

September 9, 2020
MLA student Xiao (Phoebe) Cheng receives American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award
Overhead map of Franklin Park, indicating racial, social, and economic disparities surrounding the park

University of Texas Landscape Architecture student Xiao (Phoebe) Cheng received an American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award in the General Design category for her project “Breaking Barriers.” Completed in the Spring 2020 Advanced Design studio “A Feminist Lens on Franklin Park,” co-taught by Assistant Professor Maggie Hansen and Visiting Professor and Dr. Nancy Panak Kwallek Endowed Chair in Design and Planning Gina Marie Ford, “Breaking Barriers” is a design proposal that re-envisions Boston’s Franklin Park as a shared natural asset, welcoming the diverse neighborhood community by activating the park’s edges.  

Cheng’s project was selected for the prestigious national award from among 560 student submissions from around the world, and she will be honored during the National ASLA awards presentation ceremony held virtually this fall.

Here’s what the 2020 Awards Jury said of Cheng’s award-winning proposal: “The work of Frederick Law Olmsted is often considered canonical in the landscape architecture field, yet his design for Franklin Park deserves revisiting with a contemporary lens. Walled off from neighborhoods along its eastern edge, the park effectively turns its back on the socially vulnerable residents. By opening up entrances along this edge, the park would nurture neighborly relationships and invite daily use, creating a vast, public backyard for residents who may not have their own. By rethinking Franklin Park in its current context, and modifying the park to allow more equitable access to it, this project fulfils Olmsted’s welcoming vision with updated design.”

Project Narrative:
The thesis of the studio, titled “A Feminist Lens on Franklin Park,” studies Franklin Park as a basis for broader questions of current landscape practices including the role of a historical, designed landscape, and the value of public space in a contemporary city context. These questions, along with theories of care and inclusivity, as well as challenges of the surrounding urban context, influences the proposal’s approach to designing collective spaces that, in turn, informs a contemporary park adaptation of harmonious inter-connectivity between a large, historical urban park and the surrounding fabric of the neighborhood – with a particular attention to social equity.

As the ‘crown jewel’ of the Emerald Necklace system founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park was envisioned to become a ‘country park,’ offering working- and middle-class users respite from bustling city life. Over time, the park and the surrounding urban fabric have undergone waves of changes. Today, the park sits at the intersection of large yet socially-divided neighborhoods. Jamaica Plain on the West side is a community of largely well-off and educated Caucasian residents; on the East side are neighborhoods including Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. These communities are struggling with racial, social and economic disparities, with a large population of socially vulnerable groups such as people of color, disabilities, low income and education. The physical boundaries aligning Franklin Park’s edges, the East and West social-demographic disparities, along with unequal programmatic interests on-site, have resulted in both tangible and intangible barriers to the park, with little to no accessibility and use of the park along its eastern edges.

“Breaking Barriers” intends to re-envision the edge of Franklin Park to activate under-utilized spaces, and to connect and engage with identified potential park users within the surrounding neighborhoods. The proposal re-establishes a healthier relationship between the park and adjacent neighborhoods through three processional strategies that correspond to and assimilate the process of establishing interpersonal relationships:

  • Invitation – By breaking physical barriers to the site and choreographing welcoming entry experiences, design operates within existing site topography and geological features to expand and embed gathering opportunities along the edges to provide visual and physical connection between the park and the urban context.
  • Participation - By breaking social barriers and providing spatial opportunities for maximizing encounters, fostering interactions, and sparking conversation, the design establishes rich spatial hierarchy through materiality and topographic interventions.
  • Reciprocity – By breaking psychological barriers, establishing resonance, and incorporating context-specific neighborhood characteristics into the park system, while also enabling the park to radiate and reflect upon the history and culture of the surrounding urban fabric, the design enhances interconnectivity and a sense of belonging.

At the master plan scale, a framework for the proposal imagines four distinct edge conditions of Franklin Park, each considering potential user groups and context both inside and outside the park to provide varying park experiences:

  • The Neighborhood Edge – focuses on enhancing the intimate relationship between the park and the neighborhood with ‘backyard’ public spaces that become convenient for daily, habitual use.
  • The Wilderness Edge - contains the largest amount of forested areas within the park that are loved by both visitors and neighboring residents, and therefore focuses on providing balanced vehicular and pedestrian traffic and an equal experience for both outside visitors and neighborhood park users.
  • The Activities Edge – this part of the site is full of visible drumline geological features and programming of the park, so the focus is on revealing and maximizing these distinct features to provide the most dynamic entry and gathering experiences.
  • The Green Edge - is a linear green buffer that is home to a number of heritage trees and has the best view into the rolling hills of the ‘country park’. Therefore, the focus is on blending the edge experience of bustling urban scenery and the feeling of escape, by framing and allowing views both into and outside of the park.

Through design interventions that provide a thickened park edge experience, “Breaking Barriers” prospects on the future of Franklin Park as the true ‘crown jewel’ of the Emerald Necklace, while taking a contemporary adaptation that values the large urban park as a natural asset to be appreciated and shared by people of all genders, colors, and social status. As the practice of care and inclusivity execute throughout the design process in various scales, Franklin Park will, in turn, service the park users equally as the ‘country park’ for everyone as Olmsted had originally intended.

For more detail about how this proposal manifests at the scale of the site and the human body, visit: