Interview with Landscape Designer & Urban Design Fellow, Margie Ruddick

By NYCxDesign

Future Culture Urban Design Fellow Margie Ruddick is leading a Community Working Group session. Photo courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Future Culture Policy Fellow Ben Margolis introduces the Future Culture Initial Recommendations. Photo: Liz Ligon. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Future Culture Graphic Design Fellow John Schettino is leading a Community Working Group session. Photo courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Future Culture Participatory Art Fellow Lisa Dahl is recording feedback from a community member on the Future Culture Initial Recommendations. Photo: Liz Ligon. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space


Margie Ruddick is no stranger to big projects. She played an instrumental role in transforming Queens Plaza from an inhospitable thoroughfare into a neighborhood park, and in 2013 was honored with a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture.

Today she’s one of five Design Trust fellows envisioning how art and cultural activities might enrich the development taking place on Staten Island’s North Shore. Ruddick is working on Future Culture: Connecting Staten Island’s Waterfront alongside Lisa Dahl, a Staten Island artist; Ben Margolis, urban policy expert; John Schettino, graphic designer, and Gareth Smit, a photojournalist.

We spoke with Ruddick to learn more about Future Culture and the project’s community-led design process.

Interview conducted by Emma Ng, SVA MA Design Research, 2017 MA Candidate.


Emma Ng: How did you become involved in Future Culture?

Margie Ruddick: The Design Trust had put out a call for fellows to work on integrating the cultural community with the physical changes that are happening on Staten Island’s North Shore. I don’t normally do fellowships, but I had done the master plan for the Stapleton Waterfront and kind of fell in love with the area. It feels like a series of villages. The waterfront is incredible because you see every single boat that comes in and out of the harbor; it’s a very busy working waterfront. I had become quite attached to it, so I really wanted to see great stuff happen.

EN: In the area there are longstanding cultural communities and then these newer layers of development. Is Future Culture designed to oversee the relationship between these layers?

MR: That’s right. Quite often developers come in and just see the waterfront as a view, and don’t realize that there’s a very vibrant neighborhood right there. We’re trying to integrate the different aspects of the neighborhood into new projects–whether it’s events or infrastructure projects along the waterfront–we’re thinking through how the people who are already there (especially the very strong arts community) can actually play a big role.

EN: Future Culture is described as a “community-led collaboration”. How is that built into the project?

MR: Monica Valenzuela [of Staten Island Arts] is actually part of the team, and all our meetings are together. The project is community-led not only because she is an active participant on the team, but also because they have been organizing working groups and community workshops. We had six meetings with a working group of people in the community; everybody from planners, to retail merchants, to teachers. It was a great process.

The Design Trust also has Jourdan Sayers [Equitable Public Space Fellow] and his role has been to make sure that we are always thinking on a community level and integrating them in real ways. For instance we’ve been thinking about Tappen Park and Tompkinsville Park, which both have homeless people. We’re talking about understanding the homeless community not just as an issue or problem, but as part of the community. We have to look at the community as many, many, many different communities. Having people who are embedded in the different communities is really essential.

EN: Lisa Dahl, one of the Future Culture fellows, is a Staten Island artist. What can artists contribute to the design process?

MR: It’s not just about plonking things down and doing murals. I think that it’s a lot deeper and more profound than that. Almost every project I’ve worked on with an artist involved has included them from the outset as an equal collaborator. Artists have been so instrumental in bringing attention to landscape in particular. We’re really just now seeing the legacy of the land artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Those are very big ideas, much bigger than just placing art. Seeing that now, in the culture, is fantastic.

EN: We often frame design in terms of change: changing processes and changing principles. But are there landscape influences in New York–from 50 or 100 years ago–that have worthy lessons for us today?

MR: The influence of Olmsted is so deep and far reaching. When I was in graduate school, Olmsted was kind of uncool, because it was so pastoral, and not edgy. What I think was uncool was actually the people who had just copied the whole pastoral idea badly. I think every landscape designer whom I respect and know, would cite Olmsted as a huge influence on their work. Not just in terms of landscape architecture, but also the way cities are planned. The idea that you can plan the expansion of a city based on parkland development is something that’s being threatened these days. It was so visionary.

EN: Is part of Olmsted’s legacy that he showed just how much green spaces can shape the psyche of a city?

MR: Yes; shape the psyche, improve health, and attract money (because all the development that happened along the park was very high end). The environmental, cultural and economic are all there. You can see the impact on every one of those spheres.

EN: In a project like Future Culture, is it a challenge to serve all those spheres? Or do they tend to be mutually beneficial, in that if you work towards one, you’ll be working towards another?

MR: It’s always a challenge, and it’s always mutually beneficial. It’s always harder to do than just doing something with one aim or purpose. But the most successful spaces function on many different levels–not only in terms of people visiting them, but also in terms of being able to maintain them, and being able to service them. The idea of a place having many different users, and different kinds of uses, is actually a model of sustainability.

EN: The outcomes of Future Culture will unfold over many years. How far along are you in the process?

MR: We’re far enough along to say what the general vision is, and have recommendations for different projects. [Staten Island Arts] is going to run one pilot, and then they’ll assess how to set up future projects. There will be an exhibit of some of the possible pilot projects in the fall. People have to know what kind of ideas are feasible–I think that the exhibit will start to get people thinking and excited, and they’ll want to do more.

Read more about Future Culture.

See more of Margie Ruddick’s work on her website.