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Feature Article - May 2016

Changing the Landscape

Natural Materials, Adventure Courses Top Design Trends

By Deborah L. Vence


Landscape design continues to evolve, with more natural elements and adventure courses being added to offer park-goers a little bit of everything.

"In the past, a park was a park. And it included a standard set of parks that wasn't necessarily tailored to the ecology of the place. That has really changed. When we work on a park, we want to understand as much of the context, from the politics to the economy to the social situation and the place where we're designing, and, to try and really have that resonate with the people that are there," said Mark Naylor, project director at Civitas Inc., a landscape architecture firm based in Denver.

For sure, parks have become a bigger draw for people than just a simple leisurely stroll. Parks can be a place for people to experience adventure and hold special events.

What's on Trend?

A shift toward including more natural or reclaimed materials continues to be a growing trend in landscape design.

"For example, some playground manufacturers are bringing back wood material (Robinia or Black Locust) in combination with climbing ropes," said Andy Howard, a landscape architect and principal with Hitchcock Design Group, a landscape architecture firm in Naperville, Ill.

"There is a growing interest in creating play environments that provide children with connections to nature. By incorporating items, such as wood materials, manufacturers are attempting to address that need," he said. "Also, the use of wood material allows trees that may no longer be healthy to be repurposed into play structures on the same site," he added. "Climbing ropes are making a comeback because they provide children with challenges and encourage decision-making skills that typical playground equipment may not provide them with."

Incorporating an adventure or challenge course to landscapes is another popular trend.

"More recreation providers are open to providing higher-risk activities that serve the tween and teenager groups, which is an age demographic that is sometimes difficult to serve," Howard said. "Rope courses, zip lines, large net climbers, and new ways of swinging and spinning have made their way into the playground markets."

Community and school gardens are trending upward, too, "that focus on educating us [on] where our food comes from and making healthy eating choices."

Howard added that recreation providers are offering more programming and spaces for growing gardens within their communities. "School parent/teacher organizations and not-for-profit organizations are starting school gardens in small urban spaces as a way to revitalize and strengthen their local community," he said.

Other trends include the use of technology advancements to promote more sustainable, green practices. Examples include reclaiming water for irrigation or watering, capturing roof water into rain cisterns for re-use, geothermal heating and cooling, and solar and wind energy harvesting to lower energy costs are at the forefront when designing recreation facilities.

"More in-depth research during the landscape design process is a trend. Several landscape design projects are moving forward with research as the goal itself," Howard said. "Creating landscapes that can be evaluated and observed from both the user group side to the materials integrated into the landscape provides invaluable insight for future design considerations."

Naylor noted that another trend he sees is in "making cities healthier."

"We're working in the Bronx [in New York] right now. We're actually working with the metrics to see if we can measure a discernible difference in places that have open space Ö trails and parks and how they improve health," he said.

To expand on this example, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) is spearheading a transformative master plan to renovate a network of open spaces in Mott Haven and Port Morris in the South Bronx. The plan, called the Haven Project, was developed with the community and released in July 2015, and now NYRP is working to fund the proposed renovations and build them, according to information from the NYRP website.

"The Haven Project aims to demonstrate measurable health and social outcomes resulting from an improved physical environment at the neighborhood scale. For example, one hypothesis is that by improving access to Randall's Island, residents' physical activity will increase with a correlative decrease in health care costs. As a first step, we will capture baseline health data and quality of life indicators, which we will track as the project progresses."

A number of people are involved with the project, including Civitas landscape architects Mark Johnson and Jason Newsome, community health researchers Gina Lovasi, Ph.D., MPH, and Lori Fingerhut from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, as well as project leader Deborah Marton.