My undergraduate dissertation explored how park users encounter and experience the designed spaces of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. This park, as hybrid and cyborg, integrates recreational, ecological, and hydrological approaches to riverine park design in a way that blurs the boundaries between city and park, nature and culture, land and water.
This project builds on sixteen conversations with users of the Olympic Park, my own impressions of the Olympic Park’s spaces and volumes, and design texts published about the park. It explores how people experience and encounter the park as socio-ecological hybrid across three themes: ‘affective impressions’, ‘plantings and habitats’, and ‘by the water’. These map onto the three design concerns brought together by the riverine park nexus concept: recreational, ecological, and hydrological.
Conducting interviews with park users counters an over-emphasis in existing academic literature on design intentions over how people experience highly designed spaces. It is vital to consider how park users encounter and animate the spaces and volumes of landscapes like the Olympic Park because urban parks are designed for people, as contexts for experience, practice, and being.
This dissertation argues that the Olympic Park is encountered by its users as a series of more-than spaces that are dynamic, complex, and lived-in by humans and nonhumans. The complex character of the park’s spaces and volumes, as a series of zones and levels that run into and blur into each other, creates a series of ‘parks within parks’, each with a different atmosphere and palette of latent potentialities, accommodating diverse experiences and practices within the singularity of the Olympic Park. Because the park is a hybrid landscape melting the boundaries between humans/nonhumans, city/nature, and park/city, human and nonhuman worlds collide in the park’s spaces in delightful ways, delivering a distinctive sense that there is ‘more around you’.
This dissertation demonstrates that the deployment of recreational, ecological, and hydrological design strategies to riverine urban parks, in a way that rides with the messiness of cities as hybrid and more-than-human, is not only beneficial for urban hydrology and ecology, but can also contribute to enjoyable, intriguing, and restorative experiences for human park users.
The Riverine Park Nexus
Riverine urban parks are urban parks incorporating a river as part of their design. They are hybrid socio-ecological spaces that combine, reconfigure, and metabolise nonhuman and human, living and non-living, elements through design to satisfy a multiplicity of human needs.
Taking the position that cities are hybrid spaces where the social and ecological collide and are intimately entangled, the dissertation proposes the novel conceptual framework of the riverine park nexus.
The riverine park nexus describes the spatiotemporally contingent intersection of recreational, ecological, and hydrological approaches towards the design of riverine parks:
1. recreational: riverine parks as designed to maximise enjoyable and restorative experiences as they are inhabited and used by human park users
2. ecological: riverine parks as designed to accommodate nonhuman inhabitants and to maximise pleasant nonhuman-human interactions (‘contact with nature’)
3. hydrological: riverine parks as front-line defences against urban flooding
The QEOP collapses a city/nature dualism in generative, landscape-scale, and forward-thinking ways through a more-than-human, hybrid design approach that integrates the recreational, ecological, and hydrological concerns of the riverine park nexus in novel, fluid, and striking configurations.
Affective Impressions
The complex character of the spaces and volumes of the QEOP, consisting of a series of zones and levels that run into and blur into each other, creates a series of ‘parks within parks’, each with a different atmosphere and palette of latent potentialities, accommodating contrasting experiences and practices within the singularity of the QEOP.
Park users encounter the QEOP as a hybrid landscape that melts the boundaries between not only humans/nonhumans and city/nature, but also park/city, in novel, generative, and, at times, jarring ways, as human and nonhuman worlds collide. The designed ‘blurring’ or ‘stitching’ of parks into the rest of the city, however, is not always favoured or relaxing for those who use them. Taking the QEOP as more-than, as a site where human and nonhuman lives and practices intermingle, provides a gateway into the rest of the dissertation.
Plantings and Habitats
Opportunities for contact with ‘nature’ are embedded in the ecologically-mindful designed spaces of the QEOP, and that these opportunities were frequently generative of delightful experiences for park users: ranging from enjoying the perfumes of flowers, following the life cycles of swans in the waterways, and having a sense that there is ‘more around you’. In this way, park users’ encounters with the QEOP, because of how it deploys ecological approaches to riverine park design, are distinctively more-than-human.
Designing riverine parks to have high levels of habitat complexity, as the QEOP does, is seemingly, then, a productive strategy for increasing opportunities for interactions between human and nonhuman lives in riverine parks.
By the Water
More-than-human encounters with the QEOP are also more-than-animal and more-than-plant, as water gained agency in participants’ encounters with the QEOP, designed to work with water, as nonhuman actant, through water-sensitive hydrological design strategies.
Water, in the QEOP, yields a restorative affect of ‘getting out of it’, a sense of immersion enabled by the integration of water, city, and park in the QEOP’s landscape design.
Part of this integration of water with the rest of the park’s landscaping was about creating space for the river’s dynamics to operate, and to surface. This exposure of the River Lea’s dynamics in the ‘water landscape’ of the QEOP often evoked a sense of intrigue and curiosity among park users, suggesting that spotlighting river dynamics through river rehabilitation can deliver benefits to park users beyond improvements in flood protection and habitat quality.
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