James Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations

Building Parks for People Watching

By Jessie Scanlon, April 11, 2016

Photographs by Kevin Perkins for Bloomberg Businessweek

Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica

When James Corner talks about landscape architecture, he doesn’t talk about pathways or rose bushes. He talks about people coming together to observe other people. “Public spaces can be colonized in time—not by natural processes, but by people,” he says. “So understanding what it takes to create an inviting space is a different design practice from just doing cool things with form.”

Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica

Corner is the founder of James Corner Field Operations, the firm responsible for New York’s High Line, the much-praised park occupying a formerly derelict elevated railway on Manhattan’s far West Side. He approaches his work with the belief that good design in public spaces makes a city more appealing, draws both new residents and the companies that want to employ them, and enhances the economic value of everything around it—a theory that’s been more than borne out in practice. The High Line, Corner’s most successful work, has thoroughly revitalized its surrounding area, transforming it into a lively tourist attraction that drew 7 million visitors last year and spurred billions of dollars in nearby development.

Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica

With the help of his 60 employees spread out among three offices around the world, Corner has given similar treatments to Santa Monica’s Tongva Park in California, San Francisco’s Presidio Parklands, Cleveland’s historic main square, and waterfronts in London, Seattle, and Philadelphia. He’s also designed entire new cities in China.

Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica

While Corner is recognized for turning polluted or abandoned postindustrial wastelands into thriving public spaces, the idea of scenography is just as prevalent in his work. As he puts it, every site is different, yet each has to serve as “the stage setting of everyday life.” At Tongva Park, woven steel cabanas simultaneously afford park visitors views out to the Santa Monica Pier and put those visitors on display for drivers on Ocean Avenue below. “People actually get married in those pods,” he says with mild amazement.

Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica

Corner is well aware that, at the start of any project, many locals assume that “some designer is going to come in here and f--- it up, some ego is going to come in and drop something that doesn’t belong.” So he seeks to design landscapes that seem so natural they look as though they’d always been there. “These overdesigned places are trying too hard to look good,” he says, “but they don’t invite use.” His do.

Scenes from Tongva Park in Santa Monica
Editor: Jillian Goodman