Purposeful Places

The Latest in Landscape Design


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.

"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.

Landscape architects should be visionaries as well, said Brown, able to create plans with the future in mind.

"Facilities should no longer be designed as though community needs are static or that economic and environmental conditions will remain the same as when designed," she said. "Can the site accommodate changing climate conditions, such as rainfall intensities and durations, or increased temperatures? Can the facilities function and remain maintained when repair and maintenance budgets are reduced?"

Figurski has three guiding principles:

  • Not every park needs to be everything to everyone. "As designers and clients, we need to look at the physical and social context of the sites proposed for recreational purposes and prioritize those activities and components that best fit that physical and social context."
  • Do no harm. "As designers and clients, we need to do our best to ensure that developments build with the positive aspects and strengths of a site and result in the greatest benefit to the greatest number."
  • Bring people and nature together by design. "Directly and subtly at the same time, it's about providing connections between the urban and wild."


As an example of the last principle, Greenworks is working to provide nature-centric recreation for a 460-acre master-planned community in Hillsboro, Ore., including a 23-acre greenway with 12 acres of stormwater facilities, several parks, a trail system and a nature learning center. One park features an oak grove for relaxation, an open lawn and meadow for play, and a trail that connects to the rest of the community. Another park, named Discovery Park, will provide STEM programming for Hillsboro schools by way of educational stations set along the greenway. Students, residents and visitors will be able to study wetlands, forest habitat and pollinator habitat.

Figurski said the future of his discipline is anyone's guess.

"Who knows?" he said. "The evolution of recreation in the future depends a lot on a combination of population, economic, social and environmental issues. As landscape architects, it is important that we pay attention to these trends and respond appropriately in ways that address and improve environmental and social issues."

One thing is for sure, with climate change a topic at the forefront of today's and tomorrow's news, sustainability will continue to be a priority for landscape architects and designers.

Crawford said water management is at the heart of his firm's sustainability work. "It very much is top of mind, and it's an approach we take with every project regardless of the client perspective, mainly because a lot of it just makes sense from a cost standpoint and a performance standpoint," he said.

Crawford said in parks and recreation design, rainwater management is key. Managing the amount of rain that leaves a site and its quality can be done with a variety of ecological-based approaches. If a site needs irrigation—the bringing in of water—Crawford said being able to capture rainwater during large rain events and store it in a cistern or lake or pond to draw upon is a much more resilient and sustainable approach than simply piping the water offsite when it falls on the site during a rain event and then drawing from the domestic tap to irrigate.

"The water management side is a pretty intuitive way for parks to be more sustainable, and that starts with design of what actually goes into a park," he said. "We try to develop for any project what we call a water budget on the front end, meaning, 'It costs this much to build, but in order to maintain it the water budget is this. You're going to need this much water on an annual basis, and rainfall will generate this much water, so how can we capture this rainwater to offset your ongoing costs related to water consumption on the property?'"

McCauley puts it succinctly: "Sustainability and green design are inherent to professional landscape architecture. If it's not, I don't think you'll be doing a decent project."