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Feature Article - May 2019
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Purposeful Places

The Latest in Landscape Design

By Joseph Bush


The role of landscape design and architecture in recreational spaces has evolved to include ADA requirements, sustainability trends and multi-use areas flexible enough to draw as many people as possible and to increase revenue through maximum usage.

There's engineering and creativity that address the needs of clients who often have more than merely a place to play in mind when using a design firm. In addition to the basics like maintenance and community needs, designers today have to consider education, fitness, assimilation with culture and physical surroundings, and new ways for kids to be active, such as incorporating nature in play spaces. All these elements are not always included in the same project, but most projects have some.

"Parks have long been considered facilities with recreation purposes only," said Dana Brown, president of New Orleans firm Dana Brown & Associates. "Now they are the landmark centers of neighborhoods, provide a community center, educate visitors about the environment, inform visitors about history, reduce the urban heat island effect, provide habitat for wildlife, and manage stormwater.

"Both clients and landscape architects are insisting upon designing facilities based on principles of universal design, whereby people of all ages and abilities are intentionally accommodated. In the future, access to and within recreation facilities will not bifurcate into Americans with Disabilities access and all others, but rather will be universal access."

When Grinnell, Iowa, wanted to increase nighttime use of an urban area, it didn't have to search long for the firm to help. RDG Planning & Design, based in Des Moines, Iowa, had done work for the local college among other projects, and its familiarity with the area and people gave it a head start on solving the downtown dilemma.

The upgrade of Central Park was the last phase of a master plan to improve all of Grinnell's parks, and aligned with other downtown projects, including the transformation of a school to a hotel, building façade renovations, and improvements to downtown area buildings owned by Grinnell College, said City Manager Russ Behrens.

Behrens said the goals for the park were: better access to the park for people of all abilities, better utilization of space, and improved vitality, especially in the late afternoon and early evening hours. Improved lighting to allow for evening access, and better security and safety was a high priority as well, he said.

"There had always been a desire to either re-create or honor the Clark Memorial Fountain that had been removed from the park nearly 50 years ago," said Behrens. "Other insisted that there be a feature in the park that creates activity that pulls people into the park. Both of these were addressed with a splash pad construction, which has been wildly successful. We wanted to create a vital and vibrant space for people to gather."

The park is indeed used much more in the early evening than it had been in the past, said Behrens, and is being used extensively for a number of performances and social events, weddings in particular. The splash pad is the most obvious success, he said.

Scott Crawford, a principal at RDG, said the first step in projects is identifying what's important to the client or the community. Other than the results Grinnell expected from the Central Park project, there were aesthetic concerns.

"It may be site-specific to the area, in the context of where the venue sits," Crawford said, "to try to draw meaning from that, whether it's cultural history of the area or a significant industry that's been foundational to the area, and try to draw design inspiration from that and try to theme or emulate some of those characteristics in the design of the actual facility."

With the Central Park project, RDG added to its knowledge of the town and college from past experience with extra research: feedback from community engagement, coordination with the historical society and chamber of commerce, and interviews with families who had lived in Grinnell for generations. The connection to the past was important to the community in part because the land the park sits on was donated by one of the town founders.

"We put together a document of discovery on the front end of the project to say, 'This is what we know about the park and the history of the park,' and the advisory committee that was giving feedback to our team during the whole design process was able to pull out of that the things they thought were important to try to integrate into the design of the park in some way," Crawford said.

The project, which also included a performance stage and amphitheater, open space, and playgrounds, got funding from the city, donors and a grant.

Behrens said the positive results are due in part to the decade of planning.

"Process matters," he said. "Engage people early and often about their vision for a particular project. Be patient and persistent. Let the project develop at its own pace, but keep moving forward. I believe it is easier to find funding for a large, well-thought-out project than a smaller project that lacks vision. Initially, people questioned our ability to finance such a significant project, but great projects have a way of finding resources."

Jim Figurski, senior associate/landscape architect with Greenworks, a sustainability-focused firm based in Oregon, said the wealth of visual and digital entertainment today as well as the movement of younger people to the city has increased the value of incorporating interaction with nature—nature play—into landscape design.