Feature Article - January 2020
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The Spaces We Share

Landscape Design Pros on Park Design

By Dave Ramont


Many of us are lucky enough to have a park within walking distance of our residence—a place for respite, to sit on a bench or stroll on a trail. But sometimes we desire a place with more offerings or opportunities, a place worth traveling to. Maybe it's the native plants and flowers in bloom, attracting birds and butterflies to watch. Maybe it's the awesome play space that your kids love, or the fountain to splash in on a sultry day. It could be a catalyst for exercise, or the promise of lunchtime food trucks and a live music performance.

In cities, suburbs and small towns, parks serve us in a myriad of ways, and planners are always scheming how to make the most out of a public space and attract a diverse population while also addressing issues of climate and environment. "Parks are about reconnecting—to nature, to each other and to ourselves," said Diane Lipovsky, a landscape architect at Civitas, a Denver-based design firm. "A destination park is one that really speaks to people before they even arrive, that really draws them to this particular experience of nature and culture."

She added that since parks are a public space, finding something universal in each one will hopefully encourage users to share the experience with others, through word-of-mouth, online or otherwise. "When we do this, we create a culture of shared investment in our open spaces and our community."

Through this lens, Lipovsky said they spend a lot of time during the planning stages to research a city's history and its current trajectories. She mentioned Raleigh's Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which features gardens filled with native plants, meadow and hardwood forest views, an outdoor amphitheater, a sculpture program and revolving art installations, walking and cycling trails and a manicured lawn surrounded by a 600-foot elliptical wood bench. "We tried to envision the museum of the future, one that wasn't confined to the walls of its two buildings, but really brought the museum experience outside."

Lipovsky described how they read articles about trends in museum visitor-ship and investment, researched the history and growth trends of Raleigh, analyzed art parks versus enclosed art museums, and debated the variety of outdoor events happening worldwide that could offer provocative opportunities. "Only then did we start putting pen to paper to imagine what kind of designs might foster the range of events and experiences we imagined would help the park flourish."

"Destinations need to be worthy of a visit from outside the community, which means they should not be similar to anything else found within the region," said Eric Hornig, landscape architect and principal at Hitchcock Design Group, a landscape architecture and planning firm headquartered in Naperville, Ill. "Every community has a reason for being, a history and a current context that can serve as a guide for development. Asking 'what are we good at, what do we like to do, and what can we be the best in the region at' might be a good starting point."

When creating parks as destinations, Hana Ishikawa, design principal at Chicago-based site-design group ltd., mentioned a few strategies to consider, including "Instagrammable and photogenic spots, having instant impact for landscaping, colorful furnishings, identity/brands."

She also pointed out that it's important to cater to all demographics—including some that can be overlooked, such as those with limited abilities, whether mental or physical; older generations; teens/young adults; and very young children or toddlers. For example, she mentioned a current playground project of theirs that is more focused on kids ages 2 to 5 and below.

Sustainable design practices are a major trend, according to Ishikawa, including "storm water management, designing for 100-plus year storms, native and adapted landscapes, recycled material content and cradle-to-cradle materials."

She also listed some programming considerations: "fitness, flexible spaces, flexible seating opportunities, moveable furnishings and playground equipment that isn't traditional post-and-deck platform."

Hornig said that clients are often looking for low-maintenance landscapes with native grasses, rain gardens and bioswales. "They are conscious of the potential for this to look unkempt, however, and ask for thoughtful plant selections within these areas."

The inclusion of art can attract people, and Ishikawa points out that art lends to the photogenic nature of a park. She added that "Flexibility is key in designing spaces—places where you could do music or plays but that could also become a large seating opportunity when not in use."

Hornig said they're frequently asked to provide spaces for art installations, and feels that that these are made better if local artisans can be involved in the project. "Small and large performance venues provide value to parks," he added, "but it's important to establish clear goals with these and name them appropriately. An amphitheater conjures images of a puppet show to one person but Woodstock to another."

When it comes to spaces that entice children—and therefore their parents—nature-play continues to take on new and thoughtful forms. "In most parks, you're not even allowed to climb trees," said Ishikawa. "Natural playgrounds are definitely a trend to get children closer to nature, which not only helps with gross and fine motor skills, but also with cognitive abilities and reducing stress. How food is created, how plants grow, how things grow and die—these are all important elements for a child to learn outdoors that can rarely be witnessed indoors."

Both Ishikawa and Hornig related how universal design—designing for all abilities—is a concern for many clients. "ADA access and general barrier-free principals are a baseline for designers, but universal design takes it further, thinking about a larger spectrum of disabilities—not just physical—and trying to welcome all children together in unique and stimulating environments," said Hornig.

Of course, exercise is another consideration when designing spaces to attract a variety of users. "Trails seem to be evergreen in popularity," said Hornig. "People want safe, social walking/running/riding opportunities with signs to help track their mileage. Fitness stations seem to be popular, sometimes spaced along trails and sometimes grouped in clusters."

Ishikawa agrees, and offers some additional ways to promote physical activity, including adding topography, community gardens, skateparks and ice skating rinks, as well as small interventions like water bottle fillers.