By Rituparna Simlai
From the October 2023 Issue
Nestled in the heart of bustling Miami, Coconut Grove is known for the dense, luxuriant tree canopy that embraces its streets and homes. Here, Nature is more than a mere buffer encircling the neighborhood; it’s weaved into the very fabric of the community. This network of tree foliage is the lifeblood of the Grove’s health and well-being, enriching the neighborhood’s character and connecting a landscape of rich biodiversity.
In Coconut Grove today, the commitment to preserving its urban canopy runs deep, both in the neighborhood and on a regulatory level. The city of Miami, particularly in regard to its sentinel oaks, maintains rigorous tree preservation standards. Compliance to these measures is overseen by Miami’s Environmental Resources division, which includes a tree bond system and stringent tree protection policies during construction.
At the grassroots level, vigilant residents serve as wardens, swiftly reporting any potential tree removal. Occasionally, devoted tree enthusiasts passionately rally to defend these natural treasures, with some residents hugging trees as a symbol of their commitment to preservation.
Despite these efforts, unfortunate tree-felling, often justified for safety reasons, is still prevalent. Many old trees are defenseless against affluent developers willing to pay premium prices for cutting trees and exploiting every inch of land for maximum profit. In the past few years, numerous land parcels have been cleared and bundled for sale, especially in the West Grove, raising concerns about increasing tree and vegetation loss.
The Evolving Grove Canopy
The lush greenery of the Grove was not always as protected as it is today. In the twentieth century, homesteading, agriculture, plating for city lots, and rampant development cleared most of the area’s original canopy coverage.
In the mid-19th century, homesteaders began their slow march into the Grove, and the first homes sprouted by 1887. The arrival of the railway then ignited a fervor of land speculation, agricultural ventures, and residential developments. Immigrants from the Bahamas and the American South flocked to this burgeoning oasis.
As the mid-20th century dawned the Grove experienced another wave of growth characterized by towering concrete structures and intricate racial dynamics. The 1926 hurricane and the economic Depression further ravaged the tree canopy. After the hurricane, tenacious community efforts helped the trees—and the Grove itself—to rebound.
The 21st century brought renewed vigor for redevelopment, marked by lot clearances and consolidation of vacant spaces for more densely scaled residential projects. While the tree canopy faced challenges, it also adapted with efforts to promote tree conservation in the Grove’s evolving landscape.
Shaped by this medley of factors, the Grove canopy today represents a dynamic history of resilience and adaptation. Past efforts at recognizing the value of the trees, while safeguarding them when necessary, have allowed the Grove to flourish into a respite of ecological heritage.
The Irvington Residence
In this ever-evolving negotiation between urban growth and conservation stands the Irvington Residence. This contemporary two-story dwelling, located in the southern part of Coconut Grove, is a testament to conscious design. A new construction, yes, but created with a deep respect for its surrounding environment.
Envisioned by Marcelo Fernandes of Oxford Universal and designed by distinguished architect Jaya Kader of KZ Architecture, the home is literally built around a mature oak tree, located at the center of the property. The landscape, designed by Studio Arth, evolved closely with the architectural design, serving as a bridge between the existing landscape and the new built form.
The oak tree has a majestic presence on the property. Treated as the focal point of the design, it’s adorned with lush epiphytes and ferns including staghorn fern, tillandsia, and bromeliads. A raised deck around the tree creates an outdoor living space, while also providing ample room underneath to protect the tree’s roots and flourish organically.
The landscape design stems from the philosophy that trees are a witness to the passing years, taking time to mature and establish their place in the local ecology. Thus, removing any tree is like removing a layer of time. With this intention, a conscious choice was made to save even the smallest plant material on the site. All existing trees within the construction zone were relocated to the periphery—creating a fence of towering tree trunks.
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A plethora of native plants were added to enhance the shade and serenity of the property. To further enrich the landscape and attract butterflies and hummingbirds, Plants like wild Bahama coffee, firespike, and clusia were introduced. On the boundary wall, climbers lend a graceful look, while softening the built form.
To ensure the ecology is retained in pristine condition, natural ground cover is used on the entire property. Native Boston ferns adorn the front yard, complemented by striking Philodendron gloriosum draping the base of tree trunks.
Instead of pouring concrete along the front yard, a combination of gravel and stepping stones promote natural water filtration and allow tree roots to expand deep within the earth. By creating space for roots to spread as freely as canopies, the landscape design helps ensure better storm resilience against the area’s hurricanes.
Fostering Conscious Design
As to future development in areas like Coconut Grove, it raises questions about the value we place on trees and the existing environment. When faced with redevelopment, particularly in an area of high value real estate, how should landscape designers respond? Can conscious design choices contribute to a collective commitment to conservation? Can landscape design enable people to rise above the choice between urban growth and urban greening, by embedding existing canopies into municipal master plans?
Urban trees and canopy are perhaps the most prominent symbol of Nature in a modern city. Considering the projected population growth in urban centers, the fostering of vibrant, Nature-infused land parcels, regardless of the project’s scale, is becoming increasingly crucial. Green spaces offer more than just beauty; they nurture social cohesion and fulfill essential environmental functions.
Urban development and natural green cover need not be exclusive or at odds. Instead, it’s about integrating them and enhancing green spaces through considerate development approaches.
As the Irvington Residence exemplifies, landscape can be an integral part of the built form, providing residents an intimacy with Nature’s rhythms. The property’s keystone oak, plant palette, hardscape material, and architecture, attest to what can be created when mindful choices and ecologically responsible design create a marriage between urban growth and greening.
In an ever-expanding urban core, when the interests and efforts of policy makers, developers, designers, and local communities converge, trees can become a vital contributor to the intricate urban ecosystem, enriching the well-being of the entire community.
Simlai is the founder of Studio Arth, an award-winning landscape architecture firm based in Coconut Grove, Miami. Inspired by the Sanskrit word “Arth,” the studio’s philosophy is to ‘design with purpose’, where the designs foster a sense of oneness with Nature. An advocate for emulating natural systems as design solutions, Rituparna has a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from Harvard University, and has collaborated on diverse award winning international projects spanning residential design, urban master planning, and infrastructure. She was honored with the Exceptional Emerging Professional Award by the Florida chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 2020. Driven by her commitment to environmental needs, Rituparna volunteered with the Plaza on Brickell after Hurricane Irma in 2017. With her passion for tropical planting design, the management was able to successfully save and restore heavily damaged specimen trees. This pivotal experience laid the foundation for her own design practice, rooted in strong principles and ethics.
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