Parks for People & the Planet
Landscape Design Aligns Community Wants With Nature's Needs
Riding a bicycle on a shadowy woodland trail; a chorus of frogs in a marshy wetland; kids laughing at a picnic shelter birthday party; lying on the lawn while listening to live bluegrass; sharing a park bench lunch with the birds; grandparents battling for pickleball dominance. These scenes all unfold in parks and outdoor public spaces, whether in urban centers or smaller communities, and they highlight the importance of planning and maintaining these spaces for all of us to recreate in and enjoy nature. Those who design public landscapes—with input from potential users—are always seeking ways to blend function, comfort and safety with bolstering and preserving our natural resources.
Design Principal Andy Howard with landscape planning and architecture firm Hitchcock Design Group noted that since the pandemic started and indoor recreation was shuttered, they're continuing to see increased value placed in outdoor parks and multi-use trail systems and corridors. Exploring unique ways to get users outside to exercise seems to be a trend, explaining why amenities like challenge fitness courses continue to increase in popularity. "Other trends include converting underutilized outdoor spaces into viable community hubs that may include community gardening, gathering spaces and outdoor learning spaces," said Howard.
Restoring & Respecting Ecosystems
Howard listed some challenges with restoring these underutilized, neglected spaces, such as clearing overgrown and invasive plant species. Also, handling "unsuitable debris" and other unforeseen conditions such as buried storage tanks or concrete foundations that were unknown until excavation occurred. These surprises can cause unanticipated change-order costs, upsetting budgets. "That's why having prior history and institutional knowledge of the site is invaluable to avoid potential unforeseen conditions, and look into obtaining soil borings and geotechnical investigations to know as much about the site as possible before construction."
Whether it's prairie, wetland, woodland or shoreline, it's becoming increasingly common to restore ecosystems as part of public design projects. "Several of our park projects are adjacent to a specific ecosystem, so our planting plans will specify native prairie plantings or woodland plantings with woodland understory wildflowers, depending on the degraded ecosystem or amount of disturbance adjacent to the existing ecosystem," said Howard. These native plants typically adapt better to existing soil and site conditions.
"Years ago, when we proposed native plantings, it wasn't standard for parks departments to understand how to maintain them," said Gretchen Wilson, principal partner at Dig Studio, a landscape planning and architecture firm. "But with education and development of a different type of maintenance team within our municipalities, we're able to plan and install these types of native landscapes."
She said they work closely with ecologists to analyze what's on site from an ecological standpoint and examine how their design can preserve, restore and enhance those ecological components. "We're seeing a lot more interest in restoring a site's natural ecosystem as people start to understand the importance of habitat, biodiversity, the effects of climate change, etc."
"Ecosystem restoration is a common component of our designs," said Ryan Healan, senior landscape architect with HDR, a firm specializing in engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services. "Sometimes, it's the primary focus of our projects, such as stream restoration or wetland creations, but more often it's a smaller component worked into the overall design of a project."
He offered Historic Fourth Ward Park in Atlanta as an example, where native flood plain and littoral plant communities were designed around the park's centerpiece pond. "Within days of the plantings, dragonflies, songbirds, ducks and a Great Blue Heron found their way to this native plant community in the heart of the city."
David West, also a senior landscape architect at HDR, explained how environmental restoration can sometimes be a result of recognizing the opportunity to incorporate it into the scope of a job. He described a project where a lift station had to be installed on a hillside trail along a stream bank. Construction and maintenance access required the trail's alignment and natural character to be severely altered, and trees and vegetation were greatly impacted between the realigned trail and preserved stream buffer. "Significant effort was made to restore the natural character of the corridor, and by incorporating a variety of native trees and plants to mitigate the impact of the riparian zone."
"We love working on projects that are in that fringe zone between what is urban and what is natural, and one that comes to mind is Pracht Wetlands Park in Wichita, Kan.," said Colt McDermott, Parks Studio leader at RDG Planning & Design, an architecture and design firm. He described the large wetlands as a buffer between a commercial area and a residential area. "It was a major restoration effort of those wetlands, trying to protect what was there, enhance it along the way and also find creative ways to allow people to interact with it."
This was accomplished with a trail system and series of boardwalks and overlooks with metal enclosures. "Allowing people to engage with it at a sensory level is really impactful for education and allowing people to see what all the benefits of those types of planting zones can be."
Howard discussed a project in Crystal Lake, Ill.—the Three Oaks Recreation Area—where they collaborated with the city to convert a former stone quarry into a recreational amenity complete with a swimming beach, fishing and boating, a playground, picnic shelters and a 2,000-square-foot pavilion. A three-mile, multi-use trail with an interpretive boardwalk that leads to a peninsula ties the entire system together. To complement rain gardens, bioswales and other unique ecosystem features, approximately 28 acres of restorative native plantings were added. Following a storm event, stormwater drains directly into the bioswales. Contractors reused existing site materials, and excess fill was constructed into a sledding hill.
Stormwater Management & Resilient Design
Stormwater management has long been a major consideration in parks and public landscapes, but West said it's more recently become a primary consideration and reason for a project's inception. He explained that more cities are addressing overburdened capacity, which can cause flooded neighborhoods, resulting in creative solutions that are well-engineered and aesthetically designed. "More dollars are going toward amenities as opposed to being buried as underground infrastructure. The dire need to manage stormwater on a larger scale has presented the challenge and opportunity to transform stormwater back into a celebrated amenity and no longer an eyesore taking up valuable space."
"From small-scale to large-scale green infrastructure, we're seeing more emphasis on stormwater as an essential element in a streetscape, park or development," said Wilson, who pointed out that there are more impervious surfaces in urban environments and space is more constrained. But she sees the public realm as an opportunity to treat and manage stormwater, and create spaces for the public to learn about it in fun and engaging ways. She mentioned their project at Heron Pond in Denver, a SITES-certified park, where visitors can "sit in a culvert pipe in the shade and listen to the water flowing into a nearby forebay, providing both a moment of Zen and an appreciation for this critical resource." The grasscrete forebays are "designed more artfully" and "have a bridge and a weir, designed to allow water to cascade down a series of stacked RCP pipes."
McDermott agreed that stormwater management provides an opportunity for education. "We like to interact with these spaces and make sure that they're utilized not only for their capabilities of water, but also from a programming standpoint. Is it something where we can get people in and around these spaces to understand more of how these systems work, whether it's via boardwalks or trail networks? I think it's beneficial for folks to see."
Everyone agreed that eco-friendliness continues to steer most projects. "Sustainable design is more important now than ever", said Wilson. She referred to it as "designing for resiliency," and said "the goal is to create places that will be lower-maintenance, drought-tolerant and able to withstand the effects of a changing climate."
Added Howard, "We always look at creating sustainable designs such as incorporating bioswales in parking areas, rain gardens to filter water and slow stormwater runoff as opposed to piping all the water, specifying native plantings, using recycled materials for site furnishings and other manufactured products, and sourcing locally when possible to reduce the carbon footprint of trucking materials from long distances."
Structures & Shelters
Buildings and shelters provide function as well as aesthetics, and West believes they help establish the identity and character of the designed space as "a spatial defining element along with other vertical elements such as trees and lighting." He said that scale, mass, proportion, color and detailing must be well considered in order for the shelter to be part of the overall design and not out of place. "Typically, the structure is conceptualized in response to specific needs and in support of the park design and requires a customized approach."
West explained how the physical features of a site—along with the unique needs of a project—can drive building design. He mentioned how the recently opened Cook Park in Atlanta listed the need for a restroom building, and designers recognized the need to associate the building in conjunction with the playground, splash pad and outdoor classroom. "In response to the sloping topography of the site, the placement and orientation of the building presented the opportunity to partially place it underground so that the roof could be easily accessed for it to serve as an overlook of the playground and park beyond."
"We like our site structures to spark curiosity and exploration for a user," said Wilson, "while paying attention to context, contrast and juxtaposition, so the form it takes really depends on the community we're working in. Sometimes, the contrast can be beautiful; sometimes an industrial, gritty look at one park makes sense, and sometimes a tiled, colorful look is more reflective."
"We always incorporate open-air shelters into our park designs to provide shade," said Howard. "We also include restrooms and concessions for larger community parks, which may have sports complexes and competitive tournaments. We often incorporate bandshells and amphitheaters for special events and concerts."
McDermott said they've worked on a number of amphitheaters recently, "in a number of different scales, depending on community size, what the goal is, how large the events might be."
He mentioned three amphitheater projects in Iowa alone; the smaller Klopfenstein Amphitheater in Marion is patterned after a series of oak leaves, while the Lauridsen Amphitheater at Water Works Park in Des Moines can accommodate more than 20,000 spectators.
The Right Furnishings
Park furnishings are a necessity, which Howard termed "creature comforts," and studies show that park users will lengthen stays when these are provided. "Providing a variety of seating types such as seatwalls and benches with backs and armrests, access to drinking water, bike racks to encourage alternative transportation, and places to gather such as fire pits and council rings should be explored in each park design."
Sometimes function and art blend, and Wilson mentioned the nature play area at City Park in Denver, where they're working with a local artist to create benches that also serve as "moments of delight." "They're beautiful works of art evocative of each habitat zone of Colorado that double as a place to rest. Ultimately, they contribute to the larger design narrative of the site instead of being an afterthought."
Healan explained how furnishings can be a useful tool in the development of a space and critical in creating character and a positive user experience. "Materiality, finish and form are all important considerations for establishing character." He pointed out that tropical hardwoods, once a primary choice for wood furnishings, are now associated with forest degradation and high transportation costs, so he's excited to see more alternatives being offered, including thermally modified ash.
All of our contributors found exercise offerings to still be on the upswing. "Exercise and fitness opportunities within parks, beyond fields and courts associated with team sports or organized activities, are popular amenities with many communities," said West. "In response to the pandemic, an increase in opportunities to move indoor activities outside is to be expected."
These opportunities include hike and bike trails, playgrounds and splash pads, climbing boulders, challenge courses, exercise equipment and workout stations.
According to McDermott, sometimes these exercise offerings are folded within a larger park context and sometimes they're in more sport-specific complexes. "We love when there are trail systems that connect into these and go back out into the community from a connectivity standpoint. This allows people of all ages to traverse in between where they live and these park spaces, whether it's by bike or walking."
Since programming is a huge driver of public space design decisions, McDermott said they always ask their clients, stakeholders and community members early on what success looks like to them. "We like to start with the end in mind and understand what it is that they're excited about, what will make their lives better on a daily basis and that ends up coming down to programming."
He said this might simply mean filling a programming gap or focusing on multigenerational aspects. Specifically, it could be sports-related like pickleball or tennis courts, water access areas or event space for art shows or concerts. "It's really all over the board, distinct to different project areas."
"We always want to make sure we're arranging a site so the adjacency of programs and uses enhances and complements one another," said Wilson, as these spaces truly activate a park. And she pointed out that it's wise to create flexible spaces that allow for different types of programming to evolve throughout the year and to be able to respond to changing needs. She mentioned the Conservatory Green project in Denver, "where farmers markets and tents can be assembled around the plaza edge while the large performance green creates a backdrop to amphitheater."
All were in agreement that engaging communities and potential users was critical to determining programming wish lists, and some of the engagement tools listed included open houses and public meetings, virtual townhalls, online surveys, social media platforms, radio and mailers. "You can't design a project without first understanding the needs of the users," said Healan. "For parks, you not only need to engage the public, but also the staff that operate and maintain the parks."
Wilson pointed out that through public engagement, people become better stewards of the environment because they've been included in the process and "can imagine themselves in the outcome." She said the emphasis on this engagement has dramatically increased in recent years as people are becoming more aware of their towns being gentrified and so they want to get involved and be heard, and added that it's important to include appropriate language translation and ADA-compliant channels. "Our responsibility is to let people know these projects are happening and invite them to participate as much as possible."
Wilson listed nature play and universal access—creatively designing for people with different levels of ability—as other trends. And she said the wildland-urban interface (WUI) is a consideration when planning parks, especially with the increase in wildfires in the western U.S., including the Boulder County fires last year. "Defensible space is top-of-mind; that's the buffer between a community and vegetated space where fire is less likely to jump over to residential neighborhoods."
Healan said that simple, good design is always trending. "You have to consider how people use the space, how it functions, how it feels, how it impacts the surrounding ecosystem, and how resilient it will be. If you do those things, your design will always be on trend." RM