Feature Article - May 2019
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Purposeful Places

The Latest in Landscape Design

By Joseph Bush


"Nature play systems aim to reconnect children and adults with natural materials and mini-ecosystems that mimic or give some sense of the wild otherwise not found in close proximity to the urban environment," Figurski said. "These systems often incorporate natural materials such as rock, wood, sand, water, living plant materials and the means to interact with these materials in creative and innovative means devised by the user."

As an example, Greenworks collaborated with Portland Parks & Recreation to replace an outdated playground with a nature-based play environment.

Focused on developing a context-sensitive design that would reference the specific characteristics of the site and its surrounding community, Greenworks incorporated sustainable features like water conservation, drought-tolerant planting design, efficient irrigation, native or native-adaptive plant material, sustainable stormwater management, incorporation of salvaged concrete repurposed for water play elements, and many salvaged logs for climbing features and custom benches. Nature play and sustainability are natural partners.

"Where facilities and open space are developed in and around our urban cores, these recreational spaces are also being asked to: address runoff from increased impervious surfaces; reduce heat island affects; mitigate flooding; act as fire-breaks; provide social gathering spaces; and provide greenways for the migration of birds, bees (pollinators) and other wildlife," said Figurski.

Bradley McCauley, managing principal for Chicago-based Site Design Group, said the work his company has done for the Space to Grow program, a collaboration among Chicago Public Schools, the Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands, seeks to transform Chicago schoolyards into beautiful and functional spaces to play, learn, garden and be outside.

Each of the several Space to Grow projects Site Design has done provides physical activity, opportunities for learning and exploration, and green infrastructure improvements to alleviate neighborhood flooding. They can feature stages and outdoor classrooms, stormwater runnels, artificial turf fields, basketball courts and running tracks.

McCauley said the water management aspect of the Space to Grow projects reflects that priority in the field in general, and being able to measure relevant results is important.

"Sustainability and green design is inherent to professional landscape architecture, and if it's not I don't think you'll be doing a decent project," said McCauley. "It is commonplace in most projects. How much water is taken from the sewer system, how many gallons are stored on site and permeate back into the local aquifers, how many acres are native, how much value does landscape design really add? Tracking these things is great as evidence of the value we add."

There were several challenges to the projects. For between $1 million and $2 million, mostly funded by Chicago's Water Reclamation District, each site had to clear asphalt and replace it with permeable surfaces, store 150,000 gallons of water on-site, plant pollinator areas, install play equipment and structures, and make room for green spaces.

There were meetings at three phases of each project to get feedback from teachers, students, parents and the community, McCauley said.

"Balancing all that between aesthetic and actual recreation space and the stormwater component is a great exercise to really show what you can do with open space and what landscape designers and architects can create," McCauley said. "It's been some of our most rewarding projects in our recent history."

Space to Grow Director Meg Kelly said the outreach for stakeholder input is crucial.

"Space to Grow schoolyards are more than just a playground, more than just a garden, more than just a turf field or a basketball court," she said. "Designed by and for the community they serve, it's very important that every schoolyard has a design process where parents, neighbors—even if they don't have kids at the school—staff, students, community organizations, everybody comes and has a chance to say what they want in a schoolyard."

There is no template, no one-size-fits-all, said Kelly. Some of the projects have edible gardens, some have butterfly gardens, some pollinator gardens. All are meant to be used by educators and their pupils. Students can plant, and there are informational signs with habitat and water management messaging.

"The variety has been amazing," said Kelly. "Not one looks the same. It's lovely. What I'm always impressed by is how much program they can fit into the space in a way that just looks beautiful and in a way that clearly speaks to who they're serving with the product."

Landscape designers and architects take their responsibility toward the environment seriously, citing folks like Frederick Law Olmsted, considered to be the father of landscape architecture, and Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder."

Of Olmsted's influence, Brown said, "To live up to his aspiration, we must create intentionally sustainable landscapes, ones that minimize use of non-renewable resources on-site and in manufactured products, minimize waste of water and other materials, and focus on continual reuse and viability, and consideration for future generations of all species. We must be visionaries for the planet, working with environmentalists, wildlife experts and community leaders to become sustainable."

Brown's two foundational philosophies of her craft include the prioritization and preservation of unprogrammed open spaces in park design, and designing to weather changes in climate and economy and culture. Of the former tenet, Brown said there must be areas that will not be built upon or rented out so users can relax and play, stormwater can be managed, and habitat preserved.

"And these open spaces, whether fields, wildlife habitat or stormwater green infrastructure, must be preserved and protected as much as buildings, basketball courts and golf courses are," she said.