Rethinking the Boundaries of Urban Design

After being asked to speak at the F&ES reunion weekend, Chris Rogers M.F.S. ’91 thought back on his school application essay. The path to where he is today has been far from linear, but a kernel of his life’s work existed in the thoughts of his 26-year-old self. “It was about people,” he told me recently, “particularly in urban settings, and how we’re moving further and further away from nature. Even then it was clear to me I was going to be looking at urban ecology.”
Chris Rogers
© Point32
Chris Rogers
Rogers is the co-founder and CEO of Point32, one of a handful of community- and sustainability-oriented development firms redefining the relationship between buildings, place, and people in the contemporary American city. Their most recent large project, the Bullitt Center in Seattle, has been hailed as the greenest office building on the planet. But for Rogers, the sustainability piece of urban development is a baseline, not a benchmark. The real challenge — and no less an imperative — is the process of engaging with communities to create inclusive and lasting places.
 “Developers typically look at their site as having boundaries,” Rogers says, “but we believe it is important to rethink what the boundaries of a property mean to the people who use the neighborhood every day.” The Bullitt Center is sited at the intersection of two distinct Seattle neighborhoods – Capitol Hill and the Central District. For Rogers and Point32, it was vital that the building augment its location — to open it up, instead of bisecting it.  An underutilized traffic triangle of 80-year-old sycamores and mowed grass helped link the building to its context. The developers collaborated with neighborhood residents and a nearby university to redesign the space as a unifying presence, creating a useable gathering place and the world’s first Living Building Challenge-compliant park.
The Bullit Center
© Point32
The Bullitt Center, Seattle, WA.
“We ended up closing off a street to traffic, improving the quality and safety of the pedestrian experience,” Rogers said. “Now it’s the heart of a developing neighborhood. I just left my office a few days ago and there was a guy out there sweeping. He told me he lives in a halfway house, but that he grew up in the country, and that this was the closest he had come to finding something that felt like that. He loves it and feels compelled to care for it.”
Rogers grew up in Seattle, spending as much time in museums (his mother was a docent at the Seattle Art Museum) as in the forests and on the water. He studied art history and Italian at Bowdoin, while being sure to get away to the Maine coast as often as he could. After graduation he returned to Seattle, sensing he was bound for a career in landscape architecture. “But I knew I was a generalist. I worked at a plant nursery. I helped curate a retrospective on [the painter] Jacob Lawrence. I was definitely searching.”
As he prepared to apply for graduate schools, he realized that just about every book or article he liked was written by somebody with affiliations to F&ES. “It ended up being the only place I could imagine going.”
Between his first and second years at F&ES, he went to Puerto Rico, landing a summer internship with a small town fighting a proposed Club Med resort adjacent to the town’s most popular fishing beach and a UNESCO-designated Guanica dry forest. He helped draw up an alternative vision for the site and helped the town realize how to position itself against future development that offered little to the local community. He then moved to Baltimore, and was hired by the Trust for Public Lands [TPL] to lead a conservation project that became the Gwynns Falls Trail, a 14-mile linear park connecting protected and unprotected lands through a huge, demographically-diverse swath of the city.
“In both Puerto Rico and Baltimore, it was never just about land conservation,” Rogers says. “It was about strengthening and building community, creating a stronger connection to the natural world and the systems that support us.”
But for all the fun he had creating and realizing visions, something was missing. It wasn’t home. So when a Seattle-based position overseeing TPL’s work in Alaska and Washington became available he took it. There, Rogers was thrown into the effort to acquire land and funding for the Seattle Art Museum’s proposed sculpture park, for which he secured a nine-acre brownfield in the heart of the city. He and his employers quickly realized that a project of that scale and complexity required his complete attention, and he migrated from TPL to the Museum.
Image: M.O. Stevens
Olympic Sculpture Park
Today the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park is one of Seattle’s crown jewels, linking evergreen forest with seasonally-changing deciduous forest and a gorgeous shoreline, while providing 360-degree views of the city, Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, and Mount Rainier.
“I love parks,” says Rogers. “They really are the best expressions of democracy. If they are designed correctly, there is no barrier to admission. People come together and shed the boundaries that normally keep us apart. It’s why I love landscape architecture so much. Buildings require a handle on the market: who the client is, how they are going to use it. But with landscapes you don’t necessarily know who is going to use it, or when, or for how long.”
Working on such a huge project, and collaborating with just about every organization in the city, opened Seattle up to Rogers. Not long after the park was completed, he and a few colleagues realized they had shared interest in determining Seattle’s social and cultural future by influencing its physical development. They decided to strike out on their own, founding Point32 in 2007.
Says Rogers: “We choose our projects, partners, and sites carefully. We look to do projects that will be sustaining to the neighborhoods where they are located, and we expect our projects to contribute to those neighborhoods through collaborative design.”
Some of what Point32 wanted to do for the Bullitt Center was considered off limits according to some local and state zoning regulations, including rules that precluded on-site waste management and rainwater collection.  Point32, the Bullitt Foundation, and the city worked to develop a new pilot program to identify and remove barriers to advancing sustainability in the built environment. “There is no such thing as a standard floor height when you’re talking about natural processes,” says Rogers.
In one residential project, Point32 restored a 1931 art deco building that is now a Seattle landmark. “That project abutted a forlorn, abandoned trail. We helped fund a neighborhood-led effort to revitalize and clean it. Now it is once again a walkway and a catalyst for an extensive promenade that connects neighborhoods skirting downtown.
“We ended up taking our marketing dollars, which we would have used to position the apartment project, and giving [the money] to this community group instead. If the walkway is done well, it will have enormous upside for us. But it also it has huge upside for the community.”
That spirit pretty much sums up Rogers’s philosophy. If the community likes a project — if it thrives by using it — his job has been done right. As people increasingly move to cities, urban public space becomes more vital than ever. “We have to be sure that the commons is serving diverse interests,” Rogers says. “Conservation in both space and time is vital to me. Not just what the land is, but how its used and by whom over the course of the day, over the course of a year, over the course of ten years.”
Jason Schwartz is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he was editor-in-chief of Sage Magazine and a researcher and editor for the Environmental Performance Index. He also writes fiction, reviews books, and co-edits New Herring Press.

Living Proof - Building the Bullitt Center

Bullitt Center interior
© Point32
Bullitt Center interior view.
PUBLISHED: September 27, 2013
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.