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Into the Rewilding of Rockefeller Center

By Julie Smith SchneiderMar 16 2021
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Last year, Rockefeller Center began attracting a different type of visitor. Along with locals and tourists, butterflies and bees buzzed around the Plaza, busy pollinating the native species of flowers, grasses, and trees that had popped up in wooden planters. The multi-season installation, Rewilding the American Meadow, was designed by landscape architect Julia Watson and horticulturist and landscape architect Marie Salembier, the duo behind Watson Salembier, a local, sustainability-focused landscape and urban design studio.

The Rockefeller Center installation, which debuted in July 2020, immediately drew a warm reception. “Even on the first day of installation, we saw so many butterflies and bees,” Salembier recalls, considering the bugs’ appearance as a sign of success. “When you bring the right plants, the pollinators recognize it quickly. It was great for us to see.” Humans, too, could enjoy the connection to nature. The plants were installed at eye-level and seating-level around the City Winery outdoor wine garden and the warm-weather outdoor seating area at the Rink to create the sensory experience of a meadow: the wafting scents of blooms, the waving of natural grasses, the rustle of leaves in the breeze. The installation changes hues as the light of the day and the seasons unfold, embodying the natural shifts of a landscape, even in an urban setting.

Rewilding the American Meadow also draws inspiration from history. Elgin Botanic Garden, the first public botanical gardens in the US, was located on the same land where Rockefeller Center is now. (The Elgin Botanic Garden had been abandoned for more than 100 years before Rockefeller Center was built.) In their heyday in the early 1800s, the gardens housed about 1,500 species of plants. Echoing these historical roots, Salembier and Watson’s installation at Rockefeller Center multiplied the number of plant species in the area, bringing about 50 to 60 species of plants to an area that had dwindled to about 10 varieties, according to Watson.

Rockefeller Center’s modern-day garden project also serves as a model of how increasing biodiversity in urban environments using native plants is not only possible, but can have beneficial environmental effects—for local insects, air and water quality, and the well-being of people and the planet. The duo dreams of one day taking the concept further by not only displaying native plants, but also developing a northeastern American seed bank to preserve the seeds from these regional plants for future generations.

As both parents and environmentalists, Salembier and Watson feel the urgency to innovate climate solutions that will leave the world a better place for their children. (Salembier has two children, ages 2 and 5, and Watson is pregnant with her first child.) Despite the environmental anxiety their clients commonly express, both Watson and Salembier think there’s reason to face the future with optimism. Their work and depth of expertise with ancient, nature-based methods has opened their eyes to abundant opportunities for sustainable change. “We know what we can do [to help] and we do it every single day with little steps that make a difference, whether it’s education and awareness, changing a company’s ethos, influencing a sustainability strategy, or just bringing biodiversity and flowers and experience to a public,” Watson says.

After Watson recruited Salembier as a partner, the pair started collaborating about two years ago. They formally launched their design studio on April 22, 2020, which was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a fitting occasion to solidify their joint commitment to the environment. With complementary skill sets and a shared vision for how they see the world and how they want to make it better, their partnership was a natural fit. “We both have a real deep interest and love for nature and for wanting to protect life on our earth,” Watson says.

To their studio, Salembier brings her expertise in restoring ecosystems and planting as a medium for design. She grew up in France and started gardening as a child with her grandmother, and the garden was always her “happy place,” as she puts it. But Salembier’s career didn’t start with plants; it started in fashion. She spent nearly 10 years as an international model, eventually landing in New York City. She started taking classes at the New York Botanical Garden’s horticulture school, where she found her happy place once again. She went on to earn an advanced degree in landscape architecture and work at a few firms. Eventually she quit to focus on her own consulting work devoted to the slice of landscape architecture that she loves best: plants and planting.

Salembier is currently writing a book that delves into the sensory relationship between people and plants, and the therapeutic effects of nature on mental health. Her research includes a test garden, run in collaboration with a psychiatrist in France, where patients young and old with autism, dementia, and other conditions can immerse themselves in gardening.

Watson, who grew up in Australia, brings expertise in nature-based technologies and climate-resilient design to the Watson Salembier partnership. While studying architecture in Australia, a course called Aboriginal Environments “set me off on a different trajectory,” Watson recalls. It inspired her to change the focus of her studies to landscape architecture, and immerse herself in learning about indigenous cultures and their relationships to the environment. She has travelled the world to study sacred sites and traditional, non-Western ideas of sacredness and conservation. Watson has taught design at Columbia, Harvard, Rhode Island School of Design, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and worked on an array of landscape architecture projects around the globe, including the first UNESCO world heritage site in Bali, Indonesia and designing a wastewater treatment project with an indigenous community in Iraq.

Watson’s passion for resilient, sustainable solutions came together in her book Lo—TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (Taschen, 2020) and her TED talk, How to build a resilient future using ancient wisdom, later last year. “I’m an architect, and I've been trained to seek solutions in permanence: concrete, steel, glass. These are all used to build a fortress against nature,” she says in her talk. “But my search for ancient systems and Indigenous technologies has been different. [...] We have thousands of years of ancient knowledge that we just need to listen to and allow it to expand our thinking about designing symbiotically with nature.”

This emphasis on designing with landscape, instead of against it, is at the heart of the varied projects that Watson Salembier’s studio tackles. They refer to their driving principle as “rewilding.” Though the term originated in the field of conservation to describe the restoration of land to its uncultivated state, Watson and Salembier have expanded the concept to include the world of landscape architecture and design, too. To them, rewilding is a generative, abundant concept that’s centered around restoring biodiversity to landscapes, both rural and urban. It’s about amplifying the local contexts “whether it’s plants, practices, understandings, or cultural relationships—old or newly emerging—back into our understanding of how we design social space,” Watson explains. Bringing people and nature closer together in this way makes city spaces feel more alive and liveable, Salembier adds.

Bringing their take on rewilding to Rockefeller Center has been a special opportunity for the pair to share positive, natural experiences with their fellow New Yorkers in public spaces that serve a vital role during a time when many people were restricted to their apartments more than usual and pining for nature. It was a chance to “stitch” more biodiversity into the “fabric of an iconic landscape” known more for notable skyscrapers than for, say, redbud trees and bee balm, Watson explains.

For their next project at Rockefeller Center, Watson and Salembier will be turning their attention to the indoor landscape. Working from a palette of native plant species that thrive in low-light conditions, they’ll create living “botanical pockets'' throughout the buildings, literally bringing a breath of fresh air to Rockefeller Center. These plantings may, in turn, educate and inspire passersby about plant varieties that could thrive in their own apartments and living spaces. As ever, the tendrils of Watson and Salembier’s vision will continue bringing the people and plants of New York City together, enhancing the natural beauty, inside and out.

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