Laurel Raines seems an ideal name for a landscape architect.
“My sisters are Heather and Holly,” says Raines, a landscape architect and the founding principal at Dig Studio. “My mother loved plants. In college, I wanted to be Jane Goodall. But landscape architecture combines art and science; and I always loved art and science, the outdoors and flowers and plants—I learned through her.”
Raines studied plants and soil as an undergraduate, designed her first landscapes in 1977, then earned her landscape architecture degree from Harvard University. She is, in effect, the mother plant of Dig Studio, with offices in Denver and Phoenix and a total of 32 employees. The firm coined the term “humanature.”
“We see design of environment being about humans and nature simultaneously—that’s tied together for us and a very important mission we keep in our minds,” Raines says. “We’re working with the health of people and improving the environment with comfort, shade, way-finding and what we see visually. Our goal is to get people outside and socializing to help physical, social, mental and spiritual health.”
LaDonna Baertlein, Dig Studio’s director of business development, has worked with Raines for the past 25 years. She says the company is in the process of registering “humanature” as a trademark. “We’re rebranding, and this is how we can easily describe our firm.”
“‘Place-making’ captures so much of we’re designing: places for people to use, to interact with each other,” Baertlein says. “It’s so important to social health in this age of loneliness. We design places that inspire people to meet and talk to one another, total strangers, because the place causes social collisions of a positive kind.”
Raines emphasizes the international landscape architect community’s devotion to alleviating climate change. Dig Studio often opts for native plants and xeriscapes. “Water is very important,” she says. “We use plants without lots of water. We only use lawn where it’s really going to be used. We maintain existing trees and plant new trees. We create habitat for animals even in residential situations.”
Dig Studio’s prestigious public landscape architecture projects include Denver parks, City Park Golf Course, Denver Country Club, and multi-use redevelopment around Union Station and RiNo. The firm also has designed landscape architecture for high-end residences.
The company’s recently finished first phase of Paco Sanchez Park near Federal Boulevard and West Colfax Avenue in Denver demonstrates a focus on health and wellness. A Colorado Health Foundation grant helped underwrite development of the park located in an underserved neighborhood with a high incidence of child obesity.
“Play was not big in the park,” Raines said. “We always try to have a design concept. Paco Sanchez had Denver’s first Spanish-speaking radio station in 1954 at his house. He was a community leader, a state representative, and we wanted to celebrate him with a broadcast theme. We designed a gramophone slide, a microphone tower, guitar pick climbers, a record stage and three sound waves pods. We dig in deeper to find layers of meaning. It makes our designs rich.”
Another case in point: Dig Studio’s collaboration with Denver Parks and Recreation and the Downtown Denver Partnership for the Square on 21st pop-up park in downtown Denver.
“We designed a space that brought people together. They had no place to go, no park. We added a dog park, too. Programming brought people together so they were meeting and knowing people, which is healthier and safer,” Raines says. “Stapleton is another really good example of our exterior spaces that promote connectivity and activity that brings people together and creates environmental health and habitat.”
Raines and Baertlein credit the city of Denver for upholding the Mile High standard for plenty of parks and for supporting a national goal to have a park within a 10-minute walk of all citizens.
“They’re very cognizant of ways to add more exterior spaces,” Raines says. “It could be an alley developed not just with greenery, but so it feels safe, has good lighting, places to sit, a place to take dogs and interact instead of being inside on machines. We’re looking for ways to pick small parcels to add open spaces or plazas—not always big, but a welcoming place for people to be together.”
Dig Studio does not design and build. It only designs, creating comprehensive drawings submitted for approval, providing guidance for all construction, laying out plantings for landscapes, designating materials and installation, conducting grading, specifying irrigation systems and detailing.
“When you install what we design, you can price accurately, not running into unknowns,” Raines says. “We represent a lot of work in 3-D renderings modeled to scale. We even can now do models so clients can use headsets with an Oculus and move around inside the space as if already built around them.”
Landscape architecture demands different designs for each job. “Every project is unique. It’s a bigger picture than just planting design,” Raines says. “We’re designing specifically to the site, responding to grade, soil conditions, exposure, light and at the same time wanting things to be beautiful and comfortable and so you can find your way around. With residences, we’re working with architecture and the siting of the building and the clients’ desires.”
For Dig Studio, the rewards run deep. Raines recalls an anecdote. “At Paco Sanchez Park, I was showing some students around, and two boys went down the slide after me. They were ooohing and aaahing, and I said, ‘I designed this.’ One boy said, ‘No, you didn’t.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ And the other boy said, ‘Thank you.’ This is enormously gratifying work,” Raines says. “We feel we’re doing work for the greater good.”
Dig Studio principals describe their landscape architecture firm as “a 30-year-old start-up,” and “a young company of seasoned professionals” with “a good studio culture.”
1521 15th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Colleen Smith is an award-winning writer in Denver. She has published garden articles in magazines such as Sunset, Coastal Living, Architecture and Design of the West and Enchanted Living and is a longtime regular contributor to the Grow section of The Denver Post.
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