Storytelling, Placemaking, and Safety | Town Branch Commons | Lexington, USA

In 2012, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) kicked off an international design competition that sought to reimagine the corridor tracing the path of the Town Branch Creek, long ago captured in an underground culvert running through downtown Lexington. The downtown streets adjacent to the Town Branch corridor were busy, high-speed roadways, dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, and central public transportation routes. LFUCG’s goals were to improve this important corridor with public amenity spaces, revamp roadways that would calm traffic, and install new lighting.

Landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE won the contest with its proposal to “trace the path of the creek, express water in different ways, and improve pedestrian and cycling safety within a multimodal linear park system,” explains Gena Wirth, SCAPE design principal, and partner who led the project. SCAPE partnered with a team from Gresham Smith to execute SCAPE’s vision. The ribbon cutting on the greenway was held in October of 2022.

Gresham Smith Senior Landscape Architect Louis Johnson describes SCAPE’s design as “imaginative,” bringing a unique lens to the Kentucky Bluegrass region and its geology. “The idea of expressing geology and managing water has been at the core of this project,” says Wirth. “It is about storytelling, placemaking, and the practical aspects of making the area safer.”

The hydrology of the region – underground water cutting through the porous limestone to form caves and horizontal streams – was expressed through cascading slabs of limestone that define the borders of the pathway. “SCAPE’s design was an abstract expression of a stream cutting through the limestone rock walls carved out by water,” says Wirth. The slabs also play a safety role in separating cars and people. Interspersed in the limestone walls are precast concrete seating elements and endcaps at intersections that offer cues on how to use the space.

The stone walls run along rain gardens and plazas throughout the linear park. With water management a chief goal of the project, the gardens are sized to store, infiltrate, and transport stormwater as it makes its way into the Town Branch culvert. Town Branch Commons creates better public space and places to connect with a series of plazas offering places to sit and linger or have lunch. Water features within the plazas further reinforce the region’s geologic history, but also do so by offering amenities such as a splash pad. Over time, the plazas will become shady as trees mature.

Improved lighting was essential to the project and had to function effectively for both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The Torres area lights were selected because of their “scale and ability to play multiple roles,” says Wirth. Single and double fixtures positioned at a height of 12 feet and with a warm 3000K color temperature and Dark Sky rating provide safe, comfortable, and environmentally responsible lighting for cars and people.

But it was also Torres‘ design that appealed to SCAPE and Gresham Smith. “Lighting became part of the lexicon of this project,” says Gresham Smith Landscape Architect Patrick Henry. “Town Branch Commons includes coarse stone materials and clean, modern pieces. They come together to create a look that says to people ‘I’m on this path.’” Both firms found the simple, elegant design of Torres and its ability to fit into and not compete with the landscape important. Gresham Smith’s Erin Masterson, a Lexington local, has visited the Commons in the evening. She comments that the warm, soft lighting is welcoming to visitors. “This isn’t the garish light people associate with roadways. The fixtures blend in but people notice them, too, because they are beautiful elements of the space.”

Masterson notes that it’s not only about people being out and about throughout the day and evening, but she is also seeing a revitalization of the area as a result of the Town Branch Commons, with the ground floors of vacant buildings along busy Vine and Main Streets becoming activated. Wirth adds that the Town Branch Commons is giving this downtown corridor a “front door quality and creating more reasons for people to visit.”

Town Branch Commons

Location: Lexington, KY, USA

Design Team: SCAPE Studio and Gresham Smith
Landscape Forms Elements: Torres Area Lights
Photography Credits: Dale Clark, Arc Photography

Landscape Forms is a proud WLA (World Landscape Architecture) Sponsor.

About Damian Holmes 3274 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/damianholmes/