Transforming Cities One Parcel at a Time: Sara Cohen, principal of ASK+

 Sarah Cohen, founder and principal of ASK+ and designer for Conservatory Lab Charter School, one of COG’s 2020 projects

After graduating from Smith College, Sara Cohen took a job with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, working on the Greenstreets initiative to plant trees and establish gardens in traffic triangles and street medians throughout the city. Working under a landscape architect, Cohen was fascinated with the idea that something as minor as the planting of a single tree could have a ripple effect that ends up having an impact on a city as a whole. It was this realization that led her to pivot towards a career in landscape architecture. 

Cohen has been working as a landscape architect for the past twenty years, focusing her career on the composition and construction of urban spaces. Partnering with COGdesign this past year, Cohen collaborated on the Conservatory Lab Charter School project. “What drew us to COG was the community driven piece,” Sara says. “And it was nice to offer our design expertise to communities that wouldn’t otherwise have that available to them.”

Sara and her colleagues worked with the Dorchester-based charter school to transform excess space into a comprehensive garden and outdoor learning area. With the goal of promoting outdoor exploration for students, the design seeks to expand and update existing paths and gardens to create a more effective outdoor learning area. The design features opportunities for students to “grow, tinker and share,” including hexagonal planters that connect to the pollinator theme, an expanded path along a pollinator garden, and several areas where children and teachers can explore nature together. 

The ASK+ design for the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Dorchester provides students
more opportunities to explore and learn in nature

In 2009, Cohen, with her husband, Anthony Sparandara, founded ASK+, an interdisciplinary firm with a range of architecture and landscape architecture projects. She joined the firm full time in 2017. The firm was recently awarded the last undeveloped parcel of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, known as Parcel 2 Park, which is located between the Bulfinch Triangle historic district and the North End. The project is a joint collaboration between Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy and Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT).

Based on feedback from Parcel 2’s neighboring community, who favored a design that “maximized nature” and showcased the site’s history, ASK+ with Unknown Studio developed a plan featuring native meadow plantings for the site that was once open water within the Charles River estuary and was then dammed to become Mill Pond. Another nod to the site’s history is the incorporation of irregular pieces of granite salvaged from 19th century seawalls and the Big Dig as seating. 

Rendering of the proposed design for Parcel 2 Park, the last parcel to be developed in the
Rose Kennedy Greenway. By ASK+ with Unknown Studio

Rather than employing a strict design philosophy, Cohen models her work based on the communities or clients she is designing for. “Our focus is on how we can create spaces that are well designed and thought through, and that meet the priorities of the client,” Sara says. “What guides [our practice]  is the client’s needs, the site and [the design] problem.”

Earlier in her career, Cohen worked with the design firm Sasaki Associates where she was the Project Landscape Architect on the Lawn on D project in the South Boston waterfront district. This project took an undeveloped site on D Street and  transformed it into a vibrant green space that now fosters community events. 

Cohen currently teaches courses in landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. For Cohen, teaching allows her to explore another side of design practice.  She enjoys working with students as they are able to push boundaries of landscape architecture in ways that are not necessarily possible in actual practice. “That’s what I love about design; I love the [iterative] process and the conversations,” she says.