Feature Article - November 2005
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Destination: Landscape

Nurturing visitor interest through creative park design

By Kelli Anderson

When Millennium Park opened in Chicago in the summer of 2004, few predicted the overwhelming success of its $475-million landscaping features and recreational attractions. From its iconic structures like the magically reflective "Cloud Gate" sculpture to dramatic water features like the high-tech video-towered Crown Fountain, people are flocking to the new city park at the estimated rate of 10,000 visitors a day. They are not just strolling by but spending hours near their favorite features, watching, laughing, touching, playing—in short, interacting—with the Windy City's newest playground-like park.

"We never expected the crowds," says Ed Uhlir, the park's director of design. "We're up to three million a year."

People are coming for a variety of park-related amenities—the acclaimed gardens, the interactive sculptures and water features, the world-class music pavilion, and comfortable spaces creatively carved into a formerly tattered, abandoned rail yard. Since its opening, local businesses have been happy too.

"It's doing great things for businesses nearby," Uhlir says of recent economic impact studies. "Creating a good, interesting park creates money."

Landscape architecture and design can do so much more than add color to an entrance or accent a pathway. Landscapes can be destination features in-and-of themselves, drawing people of all ages to a site, enhancing the quality of local life and even creating some economic growth in the process.

Transforming landscape elements from mere flowerbox fillers to fanfared feature takes good planning, creative and fun design, and an emphasis—above all—on interactivity.

Better by design

Uhlir attributes much of their park's success to an essential first-step: good designers.

"Hire the most creative landscape architect you can have for a project," Uhlir says. "Park districts have difficulty with this, but the way we did it was we got private donors to underwrite the fees. We couldn't have done it without private partnership to hire the architect."

It's a win-win scenario when projects receive their funding and donors receive the joys of altruism and the occasional naming of a park or park feature in honor of their generosity.

For many facilities on tightrope budgets, private donors are the key to underwriting fees and providing honorariums to attract only the best professionals. To reduce what can otherwise be an outpouring of hundreds of responses, Uhlir recommends inviting only a select few to compete for the project. Some facilities have found that collaborating with the art community, schools and recreation groups also can provide some outstanding creative ideas for a landscape project.

Regardless of the method, a good design should go beyond the predictable, be built with a purpose—often to celebrate the distinctive qualities of the location or community—and provide some unique play factor.