“Horticulture can convey many hidden aspects of the soil—it’s a powerful vehicle for narrative,” says landscape architect Thomas Woltz. As a principal and owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz, he’s perfected the art of telling stories that quite literally spring from the earth. With a portfolio that includes a 3,000-acre New Zealand sheep ranch, a meadow at the Naval Cemetery in Brooklyn, and the somber Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the 45-person practice (which has offices in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia) has become the natural choice for major public projects meant to send a forceful message that’s both beautiful and environmental.
In March, NBW is set to unveil one of its most challenging projects to date: a five-acre public plaza at Hudson Yards, the new mixed-use development on Manhattan’s West Side. “We had to create a human-scaled public space adjacent to 1,000-foot-tall skyscrapers, design for shade cast by the buildings, provide nutrient-rich soil for plants to grow, and insulate the plant beds from the 150-degree heat blasting from the trains below,” he explains. Ever the alchemist, Woltz took those constraints in stride, conjuring a beautiful centerpiece for the neighborhood that will not only recycle some 80 percent of the site’s rainwater but also flourish throughout the year with over 28,000 plants, including winterberry, spicebush, and echinacea.
Also nearing completion are Memorial Park in Houston and Nashville’s Centennial Park, two beloved green spaces with deep historical roots in their respective cities. “When all is said and done, more than 36 million people annually will interact with an NBW park,” says Woltz. “So many lessons can be found in working with plants. I don’t think there is ever a final realization, but a continuous learning.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2019 Spring Issue under the headline Creative Minds. Subscribe to the magazine.