SHIFT: alumni // Élise Cormier, ASLA, PLA, CPSI

This is the first in a series of guest posts from NCSU alumni, who have been asked to speculate on and respond to the questions raised by SHIFT: navigation from the place of their individual experience and practice. 

Our first response comes from Élise Cormier, ASLA, PLA, CPSI and MLA/MNR 2006. Élise is a conservation landscape architect and principal of Smart Landscapes, an Atlanta-based microfirm specializing in connecting people with nature through sustainable design, resource management, and community engagement. Élise has more than ten years’ experience designing gardens, parks, trails, playgrounds, and streets with intent to bring people together outdoors with an enhanced quality of life. Élise facilitates successful collaboration within civic organizations, building trust among diverse interests to secure support for stewardship of gardens, recreation resources, and natural areas. Élise holds a B.A. in Geology from Smith College and dual masters in Landscape Architecture and Natural Resources from North Carolina State University. Élise volunteers with the Therapeutic Landscapes Network and is adjunct faculty at Auburn University. Learn more about her practice here

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The built form of a greenway is simple: some kind of pavement with cleared areas on either side, maybe a stripe down the middle, and a few signs to point the way.  Yet this simple form sets the stage for complex community interactions.  A greenway brings people in proximity to each other, offering an opportunity for incidental and direct human-to-human interaction.  Being incidental in nature, these interactions are non-threatening and comfortable, building tiny connections that grow into more complex relationships.  In essence, a greenway’s simple form has the capacity to shift how people view their lives, each other, and their community.

If a greenway serves as vehicle for interaction, navigation sets the tone for that interaction.  Navigation gives people confidence to enter and explore a space.  Signage is an obvious starting place and does promote confidence to explore, yet signage has its limits.  The subconscious cues to navigation – shadow and light, color schemes, quality of vegetation, views in and out, wide and narrow places, groundplane materials – ultimately guide behavior.  As a landscape architect, I make initial strides towards designing a positive navigation experience, yet a fully successful design requires input from the intended user groups, responding to their identified priorities and values, and needs the perspectives of non-design professionals (such as interpretive planners) to deliver a complex functional space.

I’ll mention a real-world example of the power of a greenway, which I witnessed last week with my landscape architecture students from Auburn University.  Described by locals as “just a sidewalk”, the Swamp Rabbit Trail connects downtown Greenville to Travelers Rest, South Carolina and offers a space for families, teenagers, office workers, business owners, friends, and strangers to interact, talk, make eye contact, and be in proximity.  Measurable outcomes from the trail’s construction include over 25% increase in trailside property values and over a half million people a year moving through the corridor.  Sure, the trail exhibits well-considered branding and signage, but it’s the way the navigational cues nestle into cultural context that elevates this simple corridor into a transformative community feature.

Ultimately, well-designed navigation is about building confidence for risk-taking by setting expectations and then shaping behaviors to deliver on those expectations.  When people take the risk of going outside, making eye contact with their neighbors, and exploring a public space such as a greenway, these simple interactions can shift entire communities for good.

We are extremely grateful to Élise for her time, and welcome all NCSU alumni to contribute their thoughts on SHIFT: navigation. Stay tuned for more guest posts in the coming weeks!

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