The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we look at outdoor spaces. No longer simple amenities, they have become essential as people gather more outdoors for work, school and leisure.
Casey Case, a longtime landscape architect and president of Walnut Creek’s Gates & Associates, has always felt that way. Her firm’s mission is simple: “to get people outside.”
“Especially in California, there’s all this square footage that we don’t always take advantage of,” she said. “When we work with a school campus, or even a corporate campus, one of the first things we ask is ‘What’s some of the programming that happens inside that you might be able to do outside?’ “
Case said her firm, which has designed a wide range of projects throughout the Bay Area, aims to “pull people outside” and nourish their connection to nature while considering the user’s needs and the space itself. That includes at corporate campuses where some conference rooms are moving outside, and schools, which have expanded their outdoor spaces for learning. “We really like expanding that footprint of usable space,” she said.
The 25-member firm specializes in urban design, landscape architecture, master planning and place-making, working for public agencies and private businesses as well as developers.
We caught up with Case recently to talk about how landscape architecture has changed, how she approaches her work, what projects she is working on and more. The answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Have you always been interested in landscape architecture?
A: Gates & Associates was founded by my parents in 1977. I majored in landscape design and minored in horticulture at UC Davis. I was really interested, not only in design and how humans experience space, but also in the trees and plants – how do you bring these plants into a design setting or something that’s maybe a little more urban? I was interested in urban canopy and ornamental plants and what’s their relationship with natives and how they can work together.
Q: What was your first job and why did you later join your parents’ firm?
A: I wanted people to know I’m not only here because of growing up in the business, I’m also qualified to be a professional elsewhere. And ultimately, I’m so glad that I did first work at HLA Group because I got to see the way another business ran and was exposed to their design style — and it’s also where I met my husband.
Q: How did the pandemic change the way we look at outdoor spaces?
A: Habits have changed. I think our relationships with outdoor spaces have changed. There was so much more emphasis on using community outdoor spaces, and probably because we’re all working from our living rooms or dining room tables, we needed to have somewhere else to go. … There have always been people walking and using parks, but it felt like this need to be outside of our home was really intensified. I think people were refocusing their energy on some of our outdoor amenities. It’s incredible because they’re an extension of what we have; we should be using them to their fullest and make sure that they are well-maintained and safe. We’re working with Palo Alto, which is doing several studies of their downtown, but the one we’re participating in is a feasibility study for different treatments of University Avenue. …They want to make sure that they’re adapting and continuing to give it the best environment for their community.
Q: How do you energize a space?
A: It’s with people, so can you give them something to do — that might be drinking coffee, that might be doing an exercise class. Whatever it is, the people are theater.
Q: What changes came out of the pandemic for your business?
A: The awesome thing that came out of it was suddenly, this profession that I’ve known about — and obviously being so involved in forever — is now something people know about. And for us, our recruiting was impacted by people needing to live in a more immediate proximity (to work). By moving to Walnut Creek, it allowed us some accessibility via BART.
Q: How do you approach a project?
A: I think where we start off is just a lot of listening. We want to understand what’s the problem we’re trying to solve. What is something we’re trying to make better? We really like to think of ourselves as problem-solvers. One of the things that I think is really cool about Gates is because we do streetscapes and schools and planning and multifamily common spaces, I think they really inform each other and allow us to approach the design portion or the solution portion with a lot of ideas. So that’s when we come in and say here are some creative ways we think we can do it, and we’re not just like throwing spaghetti at a wall. We’re being really thoughtful, based on what we’ve heard from the community. It’s this opportunity for us to balance our design expertise and our project experience with what I like to think of as the end user. So it’s not necessarily just our client, because our client might be the developer, but the end user is the person who’s going to live in that space or the teacher who’s using that school.
Q: Do you have a certain style in your designs?
A: I think what’s cool is we don’t necessarily have a style, because it’s so important for us to be that valued member of the team and to be really responsive to what the project needs to be. We’re not going to take our look and feel and plop it on something and force that. For example, Stoneridge Creek (a retirement community in Pleasanton), which was just very intricate and detailed and cool and a little bit fussy because we had found from our conversations with the community and some of the clients that they want it to feel like their garden. So, tea roses and koi ponds, and that’s not something we might typically do in a commercial setting.
Q: What are some other projects you have worked on?
A: We are working with Pittsburg to create a new skatepark and pump track at City Park, and also on the Railroad Avenue Beautification Project, which includes gateway signage, creating pedestrian-friendly spaces, and on the Frontage Road Living Green Trail Project to create a multi-use trail with many amenities. San Leandro has a waterfront project that we have been working on for them for quite some time. They have property that’s an existing marina and they want to decommission that and reprogram that space to provide more park amenities. It’s really cool because it brings in new conversations about connections to nature, integrating education into a space so it can be a destination where in the future schools could take field trips there and learn about oyster beds or whatever might be uniquely happening there. In Walnut Creek, we worked on a multifamily housing development that is right downtown a few blocks from our office at 130 N. California Blvd. They (the developer) took an old McDonald’s drive-thru site and for this high, vertical multifamily element that’s a block off of what’s the downtown core. It’s really playing up this opportunity to have more higher-density living. It has a roof deck element and a (raised) courtyard podium that’s about halfway up the building structure.
Q: Will outdoor spaces continue to remain important?
A: I do think that outdoor spaces will remain important. … (Because of the pandemic) our relationships with outdoor spaces changed to the point where we care and we feel more informed about what they could be and what they should be.
“I think what we’ll continue to see is just more thoughtfulness on making sure we’re integrating plants and trees and more natural processes into our like manmade landscapes. I think that there are more trends like pushing toward permaculture or celebrating some of these stormwater treatment things as opposed to putting them underground and hidden. It’s to really understand that we exist here with these natural processes, not in spite of them.
CASEY CASEAge: 36Job title: president of Gates & AssociatesResidence: Walnut CreekHometown: Danville
5 FUN FACTS ABOUT CASEY CASE1. She has chickens, two dogs and a newt.2. She’s obsessed with houseplants. “We’re slowly being taken over by plants.”3. She loves to sing.4. She is married with two daughters, 5 and 8, who have also “caught the singing bug.”5. Case said she tries to be “thoughtful in everything I do, and pay attention to what I’m doing.”
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