The Landscape View

Bringing the Many Benefits of Parks to the Forefront


Parks and other outdoor public spaces serve many functions for communities, including rejuvenating neighborhoods and connecting people, providing economic and cultural value, contributing to clean air initiatives, preserving history and habitat, or simply creating opportunities for users to exercise or unwind. But while you may be daydreaming on a park bench, landscape designers and architects are considering every detail of that space, from traffic flow and stormwater management to every plant and where exactly to situate that bench. And as technologies, tastes and the very reasons these spaces exist continue to evolve, so do the designs.

Hana Ishikawa is an architect and design principal, and Bradley McCauley a landscape architect and managing principal at Site Design Group Ltd., a Chicago-based landscape architecture, urban design and architecture firm. Ishikawa said the uses of public spaces are changing rapidly as millennials gain spending power and influence, and she's noticed a larger focus on creating flexible spaces. "Former industrial brownstone sites are now being turned into public spaces as municipalities are realizing that transforming these dilapidated, unused, vacant city-owned lands into public amenities increases the livability of their communities and is less costly than finding a developer to do the same."

Fitness and health benefits are major reasons for spending time outdoors, and Diane Lipovsky said they're major considerations when designing outdoor spaces. Lipovsky is a landscape architect for Civitas, a Denver-based practice of designers and architects engaged in strategic planning for urban change and project design for built works. She said she prefers parks that weave a health ethos into the fabric of the design itself, as opposed to relegating "health" to a specific location in a park that may have fitness machines or pull-up bars. "Rather, if the circulation, the amenities and the program areas can all be thought of as components that enhance and promote health and wellness, it creates more meaningful space that visitors will return to, share with their friends and use in different ways."

She mentioned the New York Restoration Project in the South Bronx, which her firm is involved with, which leverages the collaboration of designers, hospital partners, community health researchers and geospatial analysts to develop a master plan that can demonstrate measurable health improvements in the area.

The uses of public spaces are changing rapidly as millennials gain spending power and influence.

With regard to health and wellness, children are certainly an important consideration as well, and McCauley said a current trend is the incorporation of nature into play spaces. He believes there are two reasons for this, the first being to simply connect kids to nature, particularly in urban settings. "The other reason is often the desire to save up-front costs in the establishment of a garden or play space. The complicated part is ensuring all stakeholders understand the long-term costs and how to maintain the final product."

Ishikawa agrees that nature-inspired play is becoming very popular, as parents and teachers realize that children are becoming less aware of natural processes. "There are very limited places, including our public parks, where children are allowed to climb trees, pick plants or even get close to dirt."

She explained that in addition to nature-play spaces, they've designed parks with measured running tracks, exercise areas and unique play equipment custom-designed for a particular space, including a treehouse. "We're trying to create spaces that have more diverse outdoor activities in mind, both for children and adults."


The nonprofit Balboa Park Conservancy was formed in 2011 to raise funds, develop public-private relationships and collaborate with stakeholders to address sustainability and accessibility needs in San Diego's Balboa Park, a trend becoming more common as city and park resources become more limited. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the 1,200-acre park is home to the San Diego Zoo, 17 museums and cultural institutions, 19 gardens, playgrounds, dog parks, trails, food vendors and more than 10 dedicated performance spaces featuring music, comedy, theater and dance.

Tomas Herrera-Mishler is a landscape architect and president and CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy. A trend he's been seeing across the nation is to look at parks as a resource for cultural tourism and an economic engine. He said they recently completed an economic impact study at Balboa Park where they examined things like tourism impact of the site as well as the effect of the park on adjacent real estate values. In their case, due to their extraordinary amenities, it was more than $350 million. But he described a similar study conducted in Buffalo, N.Y., when he worked with the parks system there, which saw a profound impact on the surrounding real estate as the quality of the landscape maintenance was enhanced. "As park professionals, the trend has shown two things: one, that the parks can be this economic engine for a city, a region, a neighborhood. But we're also showing that the secret ingredient to making parks that beneficial is high-quality maintenance and high-quality design."


At Balboa Park they also identified the health value, according to Herrera-Mishler, by considering the people using the park as their primary gymnasium instead of paying for it, and doing it at a certain level that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) sets. "We have 40,000 people who do their primary exercise at Balboa Park, and that's worth $40 million a year, according to the CDC."

Another national trend that Herrera-Mishler is noticing is a focus on preserving the history of parks. He explained how in Buffalo, there was great emphasis placed on the historic quality of the landscapes, as the entire park district was put on the national register since it was the first park system designed in America. "So this notion that the original design intent is important and should be recognized, celebrated, interpreted and preserved—I think that's an important design opportunity for landscape architects out there, because if you understand and celebrate the history of a site, you add depth to your design."

He added that this may or may not always be appropriate, depending on the will of the owners.

Herrera-Mishler described a report they've been generating involving the history and cultural landscape of Balboa Park, and pointed out that it's an important opportunity for landscape architects to do an in-depth analysis of what was added to their landscape, when it was added, by whom, why it's important and what condition it's in today. "This is a baseline report that's used to then manage and restore the historic landscape in the future. And we're discovering that there are parts of this park that are far more intact to its original 1902 master plan than anyone suspected."


Ishikawa and McCauley agree that while preserving a site's history is always a consideration, it depends on the site and the client. "The trick is performing adequate due-diligence and collaborating with the appropriate team of professionals to ensure the design process is informed from the start with information brought on by cultural impact studies, archeological surveys or simply record searches with the local municipality," McCauley said.

The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh is situated on 160 acres of land formerly used as a Civil War training camp, a prison and a prison farm. In 2015, expansion on the Museum Park began, with Lipovsky's firm developing the plan. The goal was to connect nature, art and people; to integrate art into the environment with recreation. The ongoing project includes the Wave Gardens, featuring paths, benches and more than 150,000 native plants. The Ellipse is a manicured lawn surrounded by a 600-foot elliptical ipe-wood bench. Community events take place in the various gardens, and there is an outdoor amphitheater with live music. There are serene meadow and hardwood forest views, a sculpture program and art installations, along with three miles of walking and cycling trails. As a symbol of the park's transformation, a brick smokestack from the former prison remains, re-interpreted as an art piece.

When deciding on furnishings or plants, maintenance must be considered and plantings should be designed with realistic maintenance levels.

Lipovsky said the project was a holistic collaboration with the museum, which was interested in how outdoor spaces and indoor collections could seamlessly integrate. They explored the idea of what a museum means now and historically, and what it could mean in the future. "Art, exercise, beauty, reflection; all of those facets were examined and debated thoroughly before we even put pen to paper. The ultimate design, from the big picture to the smallest detail, was very organically derived both of the site, its context and those initial brainstorming sessions we had with the client."

The different gardens and trails at NCMA were thought of as multipurpose spaces and networks providing a range of experiences for different users, according to Lipovsky, all serving to get people outside. "The Ellipse is a gathering space, a viewing space, a sitting area and a 600-foot long track for kids and adults to jog around. I see just as many kids run up and down the tilted lawn panels in the Wave Gardens as I see folks sitting on them enjoying the view," she said.

In fact, using pieces of art in public landscapes, a type of creative placemaking, is something that parks and municipalities are looking for, according to Lipovsky, where the landscape starts to inform the art and vice versa. She explained how NCMA didn't want them to simply design a surface upon which to place sculptures, they wanted a place where the landscape could stand alone or work in concert with future pieces. "Art can both inform and tell the story of a place rather than being an object that could be placed anywhere."


Ishikawa thinks that as the world becomes more globalized, designs can get anonymous, in a way where "place" and "context" can get lost within a trending landscape design. To counteract this, designers and their clients are looking to create a sense of identity using local artwork. "Rotating art is great because it will keep bringing people back to the space, and can change the character of a landscape," she said.

But McCauley pointed out that while incorporating major art pieces into spaces is often a consideration, they're not always included in the final design due to cost or coordination issues. "The art pieces that seem to make their way into our spaces are often like the murals throughout WAC (the Wabash Arts Corridor in Chicago's South Loop), added through local efforts after spaces are already created. Our goal often shifts to creating opportunities for these art installations to happen."

"Creative placemaking is at the forefront of how park managers are looking at their landscapes, and how to cross-pollinate the arts and culture with public landscape," said Herrera-Mishler, adding that temporary art installations seem to be the favored approach these days as opposed to permanent installations. "Creative placemaking can also just include a celebration of music or food or theater in the public landscape, so the impact that has on design is creating spaces that are welcoming to public events and can accommodate them in the public landscape," which includes considering access, security and safety. "Anyone working in the public realm these days has to design with security in mind."

The choice of plants, flowers and trees can certainly create a mood and define a landscape. McCauley said a big trend is the use of native plants, which have adapted to a particular region and typically out-perform ornamental plantings. "From the soil conditions, water availability, amount of sunlight and individual microclimates created by the unique site features, the correct plants will ensure the long-term success of a project."


Ishikawa agrees that using native and adaptive species is a trend. "Planting strategies that mimic local ecosystems are often requested by our clients, whereas before, planting design used to be about well-manicured, deliberate planting methods."

Herrera-Mishler said he's noticing a bigger commitment to organic land management practices in public landscapes, going beyond just green infrastructure, such as using natural ways of managing stormwater. This might mean limiting the use of chemicals, or planting perennials instead of annuals, which keep coming back and are adapted to different water conditions and climates. "I think that there's a real impact on planting design in so far as you can select plants that are best suited to your current growing conditions."

In fact, being eco-friendly is typically inherent to good design, and engrained in the design culture, according to McCauley and Ishikawa. McCauley used the expression "Green since 1899," referring to the year the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) was created, saying they've been using these practices since before it was a buzzword. The ASLA's mission is to advance landscape architecture through advocacy, communication, education and fellowship. Sustainability has been part of the association's mission since its founding. "What really fascinates me is that the sustainable approach often ends up being the most cost-effective route in the long term. In cases like Lot 'L' at US Cellular Field (home of the Chicago White Sox), the upfront costs for a permeable paved parking lot saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, which actually allowed the project to move forward," McCauley said.

Parks and public spaces will always be important to communities, and as urban areas get more crowded and resources everywhere grow thinner, the uses of these spaces and the designs of them will continue to evolve, with technology also being part of the equation.

With seemingly changing weather patterns, Ishikawa and McCauley believe that resiliency is also an integral component to a great design. "We also like to go further, and apply resiliency not only in that our landscapes would hold up to changing weather patterns or abnormal natural disasters, but can also be about physical materials that stand the test of time, including vandalism or an occupant's perception of space," said Ishikawa.

Manmade amenities can draw people into a space and are also an integral part of the design process, encompassing things like seating, lighting, shade structures and trash receptacles. McCauley pointed out that every site feature is crucial in determining park uses, and the owner's intent must be carefully considered: Will this be a pass-through space? Should the space evoke a certain feeling for visitors? Should furnishings be designed to limit comfort and the ability to linger? What impact might these decisions have on social equality or site safety? "Well-placed furnishings and plantings that create a sense of enclosure while not limiting viewsheds can help shape the site in a way that begins to answer some of these questions," McCauley said.

When deciding on furnishings or plants, maintenance must be considered as well, and Ishikawa said that plantings should be designed with realistic maintenance levels in mind, depending on the organization and location. Built elements such as fences, rails, curbs and paving can de designed to protect plantings. "Without maintenance, no landscape will last. There are too many invasive species (weeds) or manmade constructs that easily kill plantings—salt, animal waste, pedestrian cut-throughs, etc.," she said.


McCauley said they often find public sector facilities only able to maintain lawns and mulch around shrubs and trees without any irrigation. "Knowing that significantly impacts our decisions when it comes to plant selection."

A client's willingness to care for different types of landscapes should always be identified early on in the design process, said Lipovsky. "Even though it utilizes a meadow-inspired palette, well-loved parks like the High Line in New York could not function without the nurturing care of a dedicated team, so understanding maintenance capabilities is key to delivering a design that will last beyond the first few years."

Parks and public spaces will always be important to communities, and as urban areas get more crowded and resources everywhere grow thinner, the uses of these spaces and the designs of them will continue to evolve, with technology also being part of the equation. Back at Balboa Park, they're doing an in-depth tree survey, to keep track of the tree canopy. But whereas in the past this was very laborious and time-consuming, now the civil engineer will be flying the park with drones to identify every tree, parking space, fire hydrant, etc. Herrera-Mishler said this technology is transforming the way landscape architects can work. "So he'll provide us with a full 3-D-rendered model of the park that we can use for planning purposes, for design and understanding visitor experience and traffic flow and parking. It's just incredible."