Parks With Purpose

Innovative Parks Hit Multiple Green Infrastructure Goals


Cities' definitions of "green infrastructure" are not going far enough. That's the broad conclusion of a January 2022 article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the peer-reviewed scientific journal of the Ecological Society of America.

For their article, "What Is Green Infrastructure? A Study of Definitions in U.S. City Planning," the authors reviewed 122 plans from 20 U.S. cities to identify what types of city plans address and define green infrastructure, including concepts associated with it, along with the types, functions and benefits of green infrastructure. The authors found that while types of green infrastructure vary widely, they most often focus on hydrology, or stormwater management, while generally excluding parks and larger urban green spaces in favor of smaller, engineered facilities. The authors suggest that a broader definition of green infrastructure should inform future research and planning, "… one that focuses on the relations between ecological and built infrastructure systems to facilitate the production of social benefits."

Parks are, in fact, green infrastructure, providing myriad benefits—social, economic, environmental, educational and more—to the communities in which they sit. And some of the most innovative park designs seek to hit all of these targets at once.

Gilbert Regional Park

It can start with one of the most essential and common park elements: a playground. When the town of Gilbert, Ariz., was looking to create a destination park with diverse amenities and spaces, it turned to the design team at DIG Studio, a landscape architecture firm in Denver, for master planning of the 272-acre site, as well as overall landscape design and Phase 1 construction services.


The 54-acre, $33 million first phase of the project includes sport courts, a lake amenity, amphitheater and event lawn, splash pad and an iconic adventure playground that maximizes topography to incorporate vertical play opportunity while maintaining full accessibility.

The design team set out to use the initial phase of the project to create a heart of the park, promoting social interaction with the playground as the attractor, said Chad Atterbury, PLA, LEED AP, ASLA, associate principal and landscape architect, DIG Studio. "We set out to go beyond just providing a play structure; we wanted our design to be a vibrant space for families and the community to interact, have fun and get active. The town loved the idea of creating a wow factor with the playground, in particular, so we looked for ways to create dynamic play experiences across a vast, cohesive play space with different levels of accessible activation that mirror what you'd experience at different elevations across Arizona."


The site presented some challenges. "When we started developing the park, there were virtually no trees," Atterbury said. "It was a big expanse of rock and dirt that sits in a giant stormwater basin looking out over the San Tan Mountains. We were working within the parameters of the flood control district, so our design not only had to provide shade and areas of respite from the Arizona sun, but a large portion of the site needed to serve as a flood control plane."

With Arizona's topography as an inspiration, the design team leaned in, creating a variety of elevations throughout the park. "However, the more topography we created, the more we had to consider the localized watersheds and how stormwater would flow downstream," Atterbury said. "As we were constructing Phase I, we tied into the reclaimed waterline being built right by the park and used it to supply the water for the 7-acre irrigation lake amenity. With the dirt we excavated for the lake amenity, we were able to create the topography we needed."


Reclaimed water in the lake now irrigates the entire park.

"From a play perspective, there are two primary advantages of the topography provided," Atterbury said. "The first is the obvious physical aspect of climbing and sliding, promoting activity and exploration—the idea that when level changes happen via topography vs. structure, we can provide access to all areas in a variety of ways. The second advantage is creating an environment that contains play elements with an assortment of features to be enjoyed. We wanted to create a space where the play structures weren't the main focus and the totality of play didn't revolve around one structure or another—we created a cohesive environment of play within the topography that goes beyond just a traditional play structure."

Using the natural topography at various elevations in the state as an inspiration for nature-based play, the design team created "… a large-scale environment that sparks imagination across all age levels, rather than just expanding a predictable concept with popularly themed structures (like barns, ships, etc.) that are more limited and prescriptive in their play opportunities. Instead, we have ramps that mimic switchback hiking trails, to climbing walls that mirror the region's canyons, hillside slides, ridgeline ziplines, river basin and mountain peak elements throughout the play environment.


"You can choose your own adventure here, and it's different every time, keeping families coming back again and again."

Atterbury added that another benefit of the topography is simply the natural views within the park. "The location provides incredible views of the lake, event lawn, future park areas, and of course, the beautiful San Tan Mountains to the south," he said. "Views into the play space also lure visitors in creating a popular gathering spot along the top railings for parents to join in the play, engage with other families and see the space around them."

The result? "An expansive playground with multiple layers of play space and several ways to navigate these layers, regardless of ability," Atterbury said. "It was extremely important for us to provide parity in the experience of the most exciting elements of the topography."

Stormwater management—that more obvious green infrastructure goal—was a vital consideration in this design. "Because the site had hardly any trees, we had to diversify our thinking in how to capture recycled stormwater and create a landscape that will be feasible to maintain over time," Atterbury said. "This strategic stormwater planning will result in a tree canopy 15 to 20 years from now that connects down through the riverway to the added lake amenity. The riverways and watersheds throughout our desert become very green naturally, so we're essentially bringing natural green vegetation back to the floodway."


As green infrastructure, this park also goes beyond the basics to hit other important goals. "We didn't stop with the topography of play at this site," said Atterbury. "We also looked at how we could promote positive social interactions. The design layers on solutions that create a holistic program of safety, inclusivity and entertainment. Our continued evolution of the design was successful in integrating unique theming details while also creating a space that truly brings people together."

The park has been recognized with the Arizona Parks and Recreation Outstanding Facility Award, as well as the Engineering News-Record Landscape/Urban Development Best Project Award. And Gilbert is just getting started. The city is exploring public-private partnerships to attract more amenities to the site, including a rec center, shops and restaurants. Full build-out of the park is expected to take 10 to 20 years, at a cost of $100 million.

Rodney Cook Sr. Park

In Atlanta, multiple stakeholders—including the Trust for Public Land, the City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation, the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, and the community surrounding the park—collaborated to create a new 16-acre park that serves dual purposes: alleviating flooding by capturing and storing up to 10 million gallons of stormwater; and providing a vibrant community destination.


So says Robby Bryant, PLA, AICP, LEED AP, ENV SP, principal landscape architect with HDR Atlanta, brought on by the Trust for Public Land for the project. The project's goal? "To address the complex social, environmental and economic challenges of Atlanta's historic Vine City neighborhood," Bryant said.

The park seamlessly integrates functional engineering features within a programmed park that can reach visitors of all ages and abilities with its playground, splash pad, fountain, great lawn, market plaza, multipurpose courts and amphitheater.

"Once characterized by abandoned homes and vacant lots with outdated infrastructure and severe flooding, Cook Park is an example of overcoming age-old infrastructure challenges with community involvement and innovative green solutions," he added. "Modeled after Atlanta's Historic Fourth Ward Park, the goal was to both transform and re-establish the defining features of the former park and historic neighborhood, and ultimately revitalize the community."


Once upon a century ago, the neighborhood was a bustling middle-class neighborhood with a vibrant cultural and political life. "During Vine City's heyday in the 1960s, it was a sought-after address for America's most influential civil rights leaders and families, including Martin Luther King Jr."

Over the following decades, the population dwindled and the neighborhood declined. At the same time, the neighborhood saw big increases in impervious surfaces, contributing to severe flooding, culminating in 2002 when heavy rains damaged a good part of the neighborhood, Bryant said. "Unable to rebuild, many residents sold their plots, which subsequently sat empty for more than a decade and contributed to population loss and disinvestment in the community.

"Resurrecting the historic park was a significant challenge—not just to design the physical park, but to create an asset that solves the stormwater challenge, improves the livelihood of Vine City residents and honors the neighborhood's historic past," Bryant added. "What's more, Atlanta is known for its relatively consistent precipitation—3 and 4.5 inches monthly, year-round. During the project's construction from 2017 through 2020, the Atlanta area averaged 8 inches more precipitation per year, according to the National Weather Service. This included 11 months that were double the average rainfall. In fact, from January to March 2020, the city received 26 inches of precipitation—the wettest 3-month span in more than 30 years."


Now all of that rain has somewhere to go. At the heart of the new park is a two-acre pond that can capture up to 10 million gallons of stormwater, eliminate combined sewer overflows up to the 100-year storm event, reduce strain on the city's sewer system and provide relief to the 150-acre watershed, Bryant said. "Even when the park floods, it remains an asset to the community," he added. "Several areas, including the main walkways, 600-foot pedestrian bridge, fitness areas and playground, are designed to remain dry, even during the largest storms."


When it rains, the engineered aspects of the site come alive, Bryant explained. "Stormwater infrastructure brings rainwater to the park. The incoming runoff is channeled through raingardens and a recirculating fountain, which helps to remove sediment and provides aeration for the pond.

"Balancing the east side's two-acre pond is a 60,000-square-foot great lawn to the west," he added. "To parkgoers, the great lawn serves as a large multipurpose open space for activities, including impromptu sports and performance events with natural amphitheater seating.

"Designed to hold up to two feet of rainwater and underlain by three feet of engineered soils and a large, complex drain system, the lawn contributes to storage capacity during major rain events while filtering stormwater runoff. These functions allow the park and water treatment system to accommodate historic levels without flooding the surrounding neighborhood."


The park has been recognized with multiple awards, including a Regional Excellence Award, Great Place Category from the Atlanta Regional Commission, an Award of Excellence in the Analysis & Planning Category from the Georgia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, an Award of Merit Landscape/Urban Development from Engineering News-Record Southeast, and an honorable mention in the Cities category in Fast Company's Innovation by Design awards.

Asked why stormwater management, conservation measures and greenspace in general matter, Bryant emphasized myriad benefits. "Access to green space improves physical and mental health through improved air quality and the reduction of urban heat islands," he said. "The monumental greenspace features include fresh, native planting designed to withstand the Atlanta heat and submersion during storms. A rippling water feature and impressive works of stone and steel transport park visitors from the bustling city center to a peaceful oasis." RM