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Supplement Feature - April 2019
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Intelligent Design

Reimagining Parks & Play Spaces

By Rick Dandes


Amenities in the Park

One of the biggest and most significant shifts in park planning is not just the equitable distribution of where parks are located in communities, noted Crawford. Today, planning goes beyond aiming to ensure that geographically, everybody has access to open space near their residence.

"Now we talk about social equity within those parks," Crawford said, "meaning it is not good enough to have a park within a quarter mile of where everyone lives, you have to make sure there are amenities within that park from the east side of town, to the west side of town, to downtown to ensure that everybody is getting equal access to amenities in the parks."

In the past, you'd measure the success of a park system by access to open space, but this was before the current focus on equitable distribution of amenities. That focus on amenities is much stronger today than it was 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, Howard said, choosing the amenities that will be offered to the community users "begins when we look at how to plan for the long term. We believe in coming in and doing a comprehensive master plan for a park system at least every five years, a roadmap to help guide that park system into the future. These plans are not set in stone, but give an authority a roadmap to refer to throughout the process."

Part of the process when putting together a comprehensive master plan for parks is to evaluate the existing park system to understand the amenities that already are offered. You have to start globally and understand: What are the land holdings? Are they land-locked? Do they need to acquire additional property? And the other side of it is to understand any inefficiencies that exist within those parks. You also need to factor in the demographic populations, their needs and desires.

Once you recognize a park's deficiencies, Howard said, and you have an idea of the overall park system, you then must engage with the community, and this is done throughout the process. "We do community-wide surveys," he said. "We look at the demographics and understand what the demands are because different cultures and demographics could have higher recreational demands. We also look at recreational trends. We see that challenge courses, inclusive playgrounds, adventure play, providing access to nature, continuing to make connections through trail systems to increase access to parks is continuing to grow. You want to look at those trends as well as deficiencies that currently exist in your own parks."

One trend in modern park design, Howard said, is grouping amenities into zones. "That is looking at a park and saying, OK, what is the infrastructure there? Are there passive and active zones? And that all helps in determining what kind of amenities fold into the site context. If the site is in a more natural setting that includes a wetland and a woodland, you might not want to build a soccer field right there. The site itself is something that needs to be considered when planning on the amenities to be included. And then you try to group high-activity and low-activity zones. High activities might include playgrounds and spray pads and sports. Low activity might have picnicking, shelters and more natural areas, and interpretation of those natural areas may lend itself to different park types."

Zones of universal access is another growing trend in park design, Howard said. "It is not a new trend, but it's one that is becoming increasingly more important. Here we have the diversity of activities within the zone. You appeal to the large surge of retiring baby boomers, with kids, grandkids and great-grandkids; all of them wanting to be active in parks. Having activities that 60-, 70- and 80-year-old citizens can participate in, while their 2- or 3-year-old grandchild is active in an activity right next to them is becoming very important."

Bison's Bluff in Schaumburg, Ill., is part of the Spring Valley Nature Center, and a park that Howard points to as offering diverse amenities. The park is a nature-based play space that lends itself well to the nature center side of things, he said. "Bison's Bluff is one of those parks where they already had a nature center and some trails. But they wanted to draw people into that space and they were targeting a younger age group, 2 to 12 and even lower 3-to-8 age range. In this case, we tied into the prairie savannah wetland ecosystems that existed on the site."

There is a series of adventure treehouses. "We went into the savannah with the treehouses and built treetop towers. There is a waterfall and stream that meanders down toward the wetland ecosystem. And in that area there are stone steppers where kids can access and look for tadpoles and frogs and understand what the wetlands ecosystem is all about."

Valley View Park, in West Des Moines, Iowa, is another example of designing around already existing natural resources within the space. "It's a 90-acre park," Crawford said, "that we master planned almost 10 years ago and now we are on a implementation stage of a $30 million project. It was a park that was designed around restoring the natural ecological system that existed on the property pre-European settlement. But we also needed recreational amenities around those natural systems. So there are restored wetlands, restored native wooded areas that are all weaved in to active recreation zones. It is a non-traditional approach to planning a new park that is surrounded by residential development."