Preserving Prairie History
By Rob Layton, Kurt Munding and Ivy Dunlap
On any given day the new $2 million Whitetail Park in Lafayette, Colo., is a lively scene for multiple generations and interests. An older gentleman walking the park's perimeter path greets a younger neighbor walking her dog. Young parents keep an eye on their little ones at the tot lot and splash play area, while older children try out the mini skatepark and climbing structure resembling a buffalo. Middle-schoolers play pick-up basketball, while their parents volley on the tennis courts.
Given the challenge of creating a park that was all things to all people, Design Concepts, a community and landscape architecture firm in Lafayette, planned Whitetail Park as a hybrid that meets the various needs of the community. The 12-acre site can't be classified strictly as a neighborhood or city park because it has elements of both.
Early in 2004, Whitetail Park was master-planned with community involvement, ground was broken in October 2004, and the project was completed in June 2005. Through this collaboration, planners worked to accommodate a long wish list for the site—everything from picnic shelters to multipurpose fields to an interactive art maze.
Located in a fast-growing subdivision, the site sat vacant for years while new neighborhoods filled out around it with families, retirees and single professionals. Meanwhile, the City of Lafayette's need for multipurpose playing fields, group picnic facilities and other park amenities also was expanding. Lafayette's City Council wanted to address all of these needs on the site.
Some neighbors opposed building an active park near homes. By involving the community, designers arrived at a plan that gave everyone a sense of ownership. More than 100 people attended each of the three public meetings at which planners listened to concerns, presented concept plans and collaborated on a final design for the park.
The park was created around the theme of traveling through the prairie over time. Through research, planners discovered that several historical trails and a stage-coach route were within hundreds of feet of the park site. The Overland Stage Trail, originally known as the Cherokee Trail, once served as a thoroughfare through Lafayette on the site. It also historically was a crossroads for wildlife corridors.
Visitors enter the park through a 100-foot-wide traveler's maze of paths and inscribed stone markers that suggest traveling by foot, stagecoach and railroad to places such as Denver; Laramie, Wy.; and Cheyenne, Wy. Wandering trails, for example, recall historic stagecoach lines. Visitors may find animal footprints, railroad tracks, tumbleweed and a dead-end marked by a tornado sandblasted on the ground. Quotes from newspapers etched in stone tell the story, such as The Omaha Herald, circa 1877: "Don't keep the stage waiting. Many a virtuous man has lost his character by doing so."
Designers interpreted the theme of prairie travel in plaza structures, such as two group picnic shelters with curved roofs that recall Conestoga wagons. The restroom building was designed to suggest an old stagecoach stop.
The "watering hole" is an 18-foot-diameter interactive water feature encircled by seating walls. On hot summer days, kids of all ages can activate the splash play area's low-pressure misters.
Prairie wildlife is represented by the playground's custom-designed, eight-foot-tall buffalo climbing rock structure made of styrofoam and shot-crete. Elements representing various geological features are evident in boulders called Owl Canyon and Signature Rock, both referring to historic places along the route between Denver and Wyoming. Lafayette's mining history is suggested by a dark "coal seam" in the playground walls. A teepee shade shelter features copper panels with cutouts of animals and animal tracks that cast interesting shadows.
The once-flat site was contoured to make berms that separate the parking lot and help provide a softer, more secure setting for the playground and plaza. A turf-covered berm on the park's south side makes a great place for sledding and rolling down the hill. An 8-foot-wide raised concrete ramp bisects the playground and tot lot, providing an overlook and wheelchair access to play structures.
Another area with low walls edged with metal "grinding" rails welcomes beginning skateboarders and inline skaters. Nearby is the basketball court, and beyond are two multiuse fields and two tennis courts. A half-mile-perimeter walking path links all these elements. Throughout the park are boulders, ornamental grasses and other natural elements that complement the regional landscape.
"We're pretty excited about the theme of this park, of travel through time in this area," says Monte Stevenson, director of Parks, Open Space and Golf for the City of Lafayette. "It's a reminder of our heritage, especially for the next generation."