Monday, April 5, 2010

Postcards from the Hedge: Darien Train Station

In the fall of 2009 The Beautification Commission of Darien, Connecticut very kindly asked me to redesign the berm at the Darien Train Station. The existing conditions of the site included the Metro North railway tracks, two large staircases from ground level to the train, large coniferous plantings, good lighting, and a small water feature with a culvert. The slender parcel of land made it a perfect candidate to become a linear park dressed for the needs of commuters and to act as a connection point from nearby retail outlets.

The site creates a unique situation as the occupier of the space has most likely arrived from the bustle of New York City streets and commotion of Grand Central Station. When the commuter exists the train they will begin to see the sunken garden below and learn what Darien is about through the linear park’s design features. It will be a snapshot of the story of our town as a coastal and historic community with its own vernacular language.

The conception of the design process began with research into the tidal fluctuation of the water at the beaches in Darien. When charted, I noticed that the constantly fluctuating tide of 6- 8 feet created an undulating necklace. This tidal fluctuation started the skeletal system for the linear park. I extended this gesture onto the landscape at the berm.

This became the structure for placing the plantings, circulation and seating. The shape of the curve begins as the tidal wave does and then begins to relax as it travels across the site. This lends a graceful curve to the landscape in contrast to the linear environment of the tracks above. I refer to the structure as a gunwale, the channel along the side of a boat that carries water.

On the east side of the berm the gunwale becomes home to the daffodils and then meets the existing waterway. At the culvert, the gunwale takes to the ground and engages the occupier of the space by creating outdoor rooms with seating areas and shade created by boulders and maple plantings. At the end of each stair case, the gunwales begin to blend back into the landscape. The concept of the gunwale blends the existing landscape of the berm with the remaining untouched section. A kinder and more intimate scale is also introduced using this skeletal system.

Stage One:

Boulders are iconic in this area with our collection of old stone walls and rock outcroppings at our beaches. Used on site, they will perform as seating fixtures for the space, create rooms and delineate the open space. I placed boulders along the gunwale, on both sides of the culvert and at both staircases. The boulders also act to stitch the site in with the local landscape as they are also found throughout the downtown core.

In March the town was hit by a Nor'easter that uprooted many conifer trees in the town. Sadly, the site suffered from this herculean storm and 8 trees fell like dominoes. One light fixture was crushed and I hope to keep it on site for historical significance.

Stage Two:
The curves created by the gunwales on the east end of the sloped area of the berm are home for the plantings of the daffodils. A small planting was also placed to the left of the west staircase. Four species of daffodils were planted in the fall of 2009, 6” on center for a total of 1000 bulbs. Come spring, the gunwale will come to life creating a vibrant strip of color to the site. We can add to them over the years and naturalize them. Again, their small scale is excellent in grounding the space for the occupier.

Stage Three: With the arrival of Spring, project construction will continue on as follows. Check back for photo updates.

I selected hedera helix because it's an attractive groundcover that would extend the 9000 square feet of the berm, is evergreen, deer resistant, low maintenance, fast growing and tolerant of both shade and sun. The ivy will also secure the slope of the berm with it's root system and the tendrils can be trained to conceal the unsightly infrastructure of the train platform. It's fine texture also minimizes the large scale of the site, grounding the occupier of the space and creates a beautiful green carpet to connect the length of the site. Cost also played a role as ivy was the most cost effective and stayed within our budget. I suggested the ivy to be planted one per square foot on the slope of the berm.

Red Maple ‘Sunset’:
They are iconic transition markers. A number of years ago when I was drafting a Master Tree Plan for Darien I recommended Red Maples as the gateway trees into our town. They are native, deer resistant and pose as excellent beacons for welcoming arrivals into our town. Their full fall color display is unbelievable and enjoyed by all. It was also on the list from Planning and Zoning of approved plantings in the town’s rights of ways. I planted 4 Red Maples on the site. Three on the west of the culvert and one at the east staircase to balance the site and act a wayfinder when seen from Day Street and Post Road. They also serve as screens to obscure the hardware of the train and over head utilities. Tucked into the remaining conifers, they will be an awesome spectacle for the occupier of the space. When seated by the trees, their leaves will shake as the trains pass through town.

I chose to engage this species as it was preexisting on the site and posed as a great opportunity to tie the site together. The current species are found to the far right of the last staircase. I planted 22 spiraea along the gunwale on the berm to demarcate it when the daffodils are not in bloom and then threaded 2 more at the west staircase for continuity. Spiraea are cost effective, low maintenance, deer resistant, native and have fall color and spring flowers. A nurseryman assured me that they would do well with the slope of the berm and again would stabilize the soil with it's root system. Their spring flowers and fall color will stitch the site together.


I selected three different types of perennial flowers that reseed using the wind and are to be planted strategically to the right of the west staircase. I wanted to harness the power of the train to breathe new life into the site by using the wind it creates to reseed the flowers in the landscape. In return, the plants would be tall enough to bow to the passing of the trains in the wind. Each plant is at least 12” to 24” tall and will stand above the ivy. In this way, the eye sore of the site will actually be used to improve it’s appearance and enjoyment. The garden will come to life when the train passes through. The seating areas along the gunwale will allow the occupier of the space to watch this relationship and also watch as the garden become filled with more flowers as the years pass.

Ya Dig?

Many thanks to Suzanne Schutte and John Schlatenhaufen for acting as project coordinators extraordinaire,to the fine gents at the Public Works Department for their installation assistance and to Whole Foods Market for donating our boulders.