The Spaces We Share

Landscape Design Pros on Park Design

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.

An Award-Winning Place to Gather

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)—founded in 1899—currently represents more than 15,000 members, with a mission to "advance landscape architecture through advocacy, communication, education and fellowship." Sustainability has also been a part of the organization's mission from the beginning, and it informs all of its programs and operations. ASLA encourages communities to create or improve access to parks, paths, trails and other spaces that encourage physical activity.

ASLA tends a robust awards program, and one of the 2019 Professional Awards went to Virginia-based Michael Vergason Landscape Architects Ltd., which received an Honor Award for the Sundance Square Plaza project located in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The site—formerly a pair of parking lots—has been transformed into a vibrant gathering space where thousands of visitors gather weekly to relax or partake in a multitude of entertainment offerings.

Michael Vergason, principal at the firm, explained that the project was a public/private effort, since the parking lots were privately owned, but Main Street ran between them, so the project ultimately incorporated the street. "The street can be opened at any time—and is for parades and special events—but the normal day-to-day now includes the closure of the street. All of it was done in close concert with the city, but it was really a project initiated by the private sector."


In the planning stages, Vergason described how they were given a graph with the weeks and months of the year, the types of various programs and events that might take place—ranked by anticipated size—and possible amenities required, including tents and booths, tables and chairs, stages and projection screens. These programs included art shows, boxing matches, yoga classes, farmers markets, Dallas Mavericks watch parties, symphony concerts, a puppy parade, car show, chili cook-off, wine tasting events and more. "It was our first look at understanding the programs and the capacity for the site to accommodate those programs."

The design was driven by the range and scale of events on the square, according to Vergason. "Having a minimum number of permanent verticals that they'd have to work around, that really drove the design of a very simple layout, surrounded by occupy-able edges with a minimum number of fixed elements in the middle to maximize the flexibility of the way the space could be used." Vergason said that this worked for when the square was full of people attending events, but also created a space that was comfortable and pleasant when few people were there.

Circulation flow and seating options were major considerations, and Sundance Square Plaza has 300 moveable chairs, 24 seven-foot benches and nearly 400 linear feet of seat walls. Hundreds of additional seats for al fresco dining are available at the cafés and pubs along the plaza's edges. A pavilion and stage occupy the site, equipped with permanent audio and visual equipment.

Climate was another big driver of the design, according to Vergason, as it gets quite hot during a Texas summer. One landmark feature for combating the heat is a group of operable umbrellas that reach 32-feet high and span 40 by 40 feet. Collectively, they create 6,400 square feet of shade, reducing midday pavement surface temperatures by 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

Vergason explained how the umbrellas open each morning and close each night when the plaza shuts down. "They become a symbol for the rhythm of the day and the opening of the square. They still draw stares when they open up and close down—it's a beautiful thing." At night they're illuminated by color-changing LED lamps. The umbrellas can be closed at any time depending on the weather, such as in the winter, when it's preferable to take advantage of the warming sun.

A 65-foot wave fountain at the plaza emits cascades of water in ever-changing patterns. And a 3,120-square-foot interactive fountain provides families with cooling fun, featuring 216 variable jets that shoot water up to 12 feet high. The jets, drains and lights are housed in steel grates, so that the fountain can be turned off, providing extra gathering space for large events.

Vergason said that the intention of Sundance Square Plaza was to draw a broad cross-section of people—not just from surrounding blocks but from the entire metropolitan area—and it's accomplished just that, providing numerous social and fiscal benefits. "It's been very successful in establishing what never existed before in Fort Worth, which is a real public destination in the middle of downtown."

A Sustainable Plan

Sustainable practices are paramount in landscape designs these days, and Ishikawa said that there are many projects that are about ecology. "We keep draining our aquifers without refilling them. Deforesting without allowing young trees to grow up. All of our projects need to help—even in a small way—with overall climate change."

Hornig discusses lessons learned in northern Illinois, where the Emerald Ash Borer has devastated a huge percentage of Ash trees. "These were heavily planted as durable street and parkways trees in the past, and have left holes in the landscape fabric that are difficult to replace all at once. Communities are much more aware of the need for diverse tree collections and are developing ordinances to require such."

Back at Sundance Square Plaza, Vergason said they used native plantings, which are highly resilient to local climate, including live oaks and cedar elms that provide perimeter shade. And stormwater management includes having the majority of the plaza drain into a permeable zone that detains the stormwater within Silva cells.

Another ASLA 2019 Honor Award was presented to SWA/Balsley, a New York-based design firm, for the Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park Phase ll project in Long Island City, N.Y., which opened to the public in 2018. The park was transformed from a contaminated former rail site, and design principal Thomas Balsley said it's now a global model of urban waterfront resiliency, demonstrating the collaborative approach needed to address the urgent issues of climate change. "An innovative system of tidal marshes, grassland berms, bioswales and catchment zones proved its worth with Hurricane Sandy and demonstrated that an environmentally performative urban park designed to protect can also serve the social, cultural and recreational needs of its community."


An earlier phase of the park is already a vibrant community gathering space, featuring a ferry pavilion, pier, play areas, dog runs, bikeways, beach and a multipurpose lawn. The newly completed phase features intimate overlooks, interpretive trails, custom furnishings, a shaded promontory slope with banquette seating and embedded family rafts, exercise and picnic areas, a kayak launch and a collection of native and salt-tolerant grasses and trees. An island sanctuary hosts intimate gatherings and a public art installation.

"It's no longer enough to just point to a green space with lawns, paths, benches and trees as our parks," said Balsley. "A growing constituency of immigrants, their families, young urban professionals and empty nesters, to mention a few, are demanding a broad range of parks that resonate with the 21st century culture of urban park recreation."

He said these may range from smaller spaces close to our jobs or homes to larger destination parks where we connect with nature or each other for events. "We're designing these parks to the highest levels of economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability and resiliency."

Meeting the Community's Needs

Site furnishings are a major consideration, according to Ishikawa, including lighting, seating, recycling bins and trash receptacles.

Hornig agrees, and said that creature comforts are critical. "With destination spaces we're trying to encourage the visitors to have fun, which will create memories which will encourage them to return." To accomplish this, he said everything needs to work together, from signage and parking to the actual experience (sports, play, nature, etc.), to the availability of shade, drinking water, restrooms, etc.

And what about the users themselves—are they often engaged in planning processes for new park spaces? "It's common for us to have multiple points of public contact during the early design stages to gauge interest, preferences, goals and needs before formulating a plan," said Hornig. "The desires typically grow based on what the community has seen, so they're continually elevating their wants based on their travels near and far."

Ishikawa explained that designing for and engaging with a community or client is definitely a part of the process. "As parks and public spaces are perceived as more than just a bench and lawn nowadays, community members are more aware of what's possible outdoors and have really unique interests! One very common request is for flexible spaces that can be used for a myriad of uses."

Besides being stewards of the environment, Balsley points out that they're also people-centric designers. "As one example, all of our urban parks include compact dog runs that bring urban dog owners of all ages to the park 24/7, 365 days a year. Our design commitment to offering a broad appeal is supplemented with strategic space planning that reserves open, flexible areas for impromptu or programmed events that foster social and cultural exchanges."

Balsley adds that the success of our public spaces is a reflection of the emphasis placed on the public process and consensus building. "Our well-earned reputation as listeners and 'sponges' is often rewarded with the artistic license to put form to input and spark the public's landscape imagination." RM