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An Urban Oasis

With a little forethought, the Charlestown courtyard was transformed into a garden sanctuary for a hot summer day

<p><em>This Old House</em> TV's Charlestown house project</p>

This Old House TV's Charlestown house project

As in many neighborhoods that surround the historically significant

cities of the country, private outdoor space in Boston is usually modest

and inconspicuous. What precious opportunities for light and air that

these spaces afford are often hard to visualize, and the restraints of

an urban setting can seem overpowering. Issues of privacy, proximity to

neighbors, orientation and security compound the challenge.

Nonetheless, I've found that with every restraint I encounter in these

lackluster courtyards, there is an equally rewarding solution. In

Charlestown, landscaped courtyards are the urban "diamond in the rough."

With a little forethought, these cramped spaces can be transformed into

intimate gardens that give sanctuary on a hot summer day.

The initial step in designing the courtyard on Bunker Hill Street was an

inventory of the existing site conditions and restraints. Sandwiched

between the house, a rear walkway and a neighboring firewall, the

courtyard is a L shaped parcel that slopes from front to back following

the steep grade of the side street. This three-foot drop along the rear

of the courtyard would dictate the construction of a retaining wall and

the location of two proposed patios, one for each apartment, at

different levels of the slope. Fencing would be required for both

privacy and security. This is a lot to consider within only 550 square

feet. The courtyard design needed to take these restraints into account

while also providing an enjoyable garden setting.

To this end, I designed the courtyard as an outdoor room. Entering from

the street, homeowners will walk through an arched arbor and continue

along meandering walkways that connect to the patios as well as to the

staircase to the second floor and the first floor entrance. The upper

patio material, sited to allow water to drain away from the house's

foundation, is made of colored impressed concrete, which comes in a

variety of surfaces and colors and can be formed to meet any patio

design. Plant pockets along the perimeter fence soften its impact,

while traditional details help reduce its scale. A retaining wall winds

around the second patio to accommodate the change in grade. The wall

serves as seating and will allow plantings to be terraced, creating a

more dramatic effect. Undulating walls and walkways in a small yard can

soften the space and provide a variety of planting areas. The walls and

walkways are made of colored, pre-cast concrete, a durable, good-looking

alternative when your budget prohibits traditional paving material. It's

available in an assortment of styles and colors and is tumbled to give

it more of a natural effect.

In an urban courtyard, planting is the ultimate weapon in adding scale

and softening walls. Mature plantings, in particular, give a sense of

permanence and tame uncomfortable proportions, such as the neighboring

three-story brick wall. I've espaliered (trained

and attached) plants and climbing vines to accent and minimize the

fence's impact. Plantings should contain a good mix of evergreens,

deciduous flowering shrubs and broadleaf evergreens. I like to blend

sizes and varieties so the garden will look beautiful throughout the

year. In this case, because of the courtyard's northern orientation, I

made sure to allow for varieties that will thrive in shaded conditions.

In a dense neighborhood like the one in Charlestown, open space is

precious. No matter how small, a well-landscaped courtyard can provide

residents with a small oasis of green in an urban ocean of brick and

concrete. It just requires a bit of imagination and forethought.