Changing the Landscape

Natural Materials, Adventure Courses Top Design Trends


Landscape design continues to evolve, with more natural elements and adventure courses being added to offer park-goers a little bit of everything.

"In the past, a park was a park. And it included a standard set of parks that wasn't necessarily tailored to the ecology of the place. That has really changed. When we work on a park, we want to understand as much of the context, from the politics to the economy to the social situation and the place where we're designing, and, to try and really have that resonate with the people that are there," said Mark Naylor, project director at Civitas Inc., a landscape architecture firm based in Denver.

For sure, parks have become a bigger draw for people than just a simple leisurely stroll. Parks can be a place for people to experience adventure and hold special events.

What's on Trend?

A shift toward including more natural or reclaimed materials continues to be a growing trend in landscape design.

"For example, some playground manufacturers are bringing back wood material (Robinia or Black Locust) in combination with climbing ropes," said Andy Howard, a landscape architect and principal with Hitchcock Design Group, a landscape architecture firm in Naperville, Ill.

"There is a growing interest in creating play environments that provide children with connections to nature. By incorporating items, such as wood materials, manufacturers are attempting to address that need," he said. "Also, the use of wood material allows trees that may no longer be healthy to be repurposed into play structures on the same site," he added. "Climbing ropes are making a comeback because they provide children with challenges and encourage decision-making skills that typical playground equipment may not provide them with."

Incorporating an adventure or challenge course to landscapes is another popular trend.

"More recreation providers are open to providing higher-risk activities that serve the tween and teenager groups, which is an age demographic that is sometimes difficult to serve," Howard said. "Rope courses, zip lines, large net climbers, and new ways of swinging and spinning have made their way into the playground markets."


Community and school gardens are trending upward, too, "that focus on educating us [on] where our food comes from and making healthy eating choices."

Howard added that recreation providers are offering more programming and spaces for growing gardens within their communities. "School parent/teacher organizations and not-for-profit organizations are starting school gardens in small urban spaces as a way to revitalize and strengthen their local community," he said.

Other trends include the use of technology advancements to promote more sustainable, green practices. Examples include reclaiming water for irrigation or watering, capturing roof water into rain cisterns for re-use, geothermal heating and cooling, and solar and wind energy harvesting to lower energy costs are at the forefront when designing recreation facilities.

"More in-depth research during the landscape design process is a trend. Several landscape design projects are moving forward with research as the goal itself," Howard said. "Creating landscapes that can be evaluated and observed from both the user group side to the materials integrated into the landscape provides invaluable insight for future design considerations."

Naylor noted that another trend he sees is in "making cities healthier."

"We're working in the Bronx [in New York] right now. We're actually working with the metrics to see if we can measure a discernible difference in places that have open space … trails and parks and how they improve health," he said.

To expand on this example, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) is spearheading a transformative master plan to renovate a network of open spaces in Mott Haven and Port Morris in the South Bronx. The plan, called the Haven Project, was developed with the community and released in July 2015, and now NYRP is working to fund the proposed renovations and build them, according to information from the NYRP website.


"The Haven Project aims to demonstrate measurable health and social outcomes resulting from an improved physical environment at the neighborhood scale. For example, one hypothesis is that by improving access to Randall's Island, residents' physical activity will increase with a correlative decrease in health care costs. As a first step, we will capture baseline health data and quality of life indicators, which we will track as the project progresses."

A number of people are involved with the project, including Civitas landscape architects Mark Johnson and Jason Newsome, community health researchers Gina Lovasi, Ph.D., MPH, and Lori Fingerhut from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, as well as project leader Deborah Marton.

Discussing more trends and development in design, Naylor said the idea of flexibility in open spaces is important, too. "We need to build flexibility into parks. Flexibility needs to apply to open space," he said, noting that Julian B. Lane Park in Tampa is a neighborhood park.

"Civitas and W Architecture and Landscape Architecture were the co-designers for the redevelopment of the 25-acre park, which had fallen into deep disrepair. While it was once a center of community activities, including basketball tournaments, tennis and community events, the number of park visitors had decreased in the last 15 years," according to information from Civitas.

The community came together around the new InVision Tampa plan to regenerate the west Tampa Riverfront and historic African-American and Latino neighborhoods. The Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park redevelopment is the first project to be implemented as part of the InVision plan.

A series of meetings with the public had revealed the community's desires and needs for greater safety and accessibility, public access to the Hillsborough River, fitness trails, picnic sites, a great lawn for events and activities, and references to community history.

Based upon the feedback, the new design creates a public space where the community can come together. The park includes programming and activities for people of all ages to enjoy, including large areas for family picnicking along the river, a community building to include senior programming, a history walk, community performance pavilion, new events lawn, splash pad and playground, structured recreation courts and fields, and additional parking.


Furthermore, the design maintains "many existing mature trees while engaging the Hillsborough River by providing a waterfront promenade, a calm water harbor for people to practice boating, and a new boating center for paddle-powered crew boats, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, canoes and dragon boats."

"At the same time, it holds events of varying sizes. They want to hold large concerts to food trucks to festivals of different kinds, while being a neighborhood park. Parks [have] to do more and more," Naylor said.

"A well-designed park system has those components. Parks often try to be everything to everyone," he added. "But many times, that's not possible. We try to design to understand in what context it's fitting in the overall network."

Naylor also discussed the issue of social equity, making sure that everyone has equal access to the benefits and advantages of parks and recreation.

"Social equity is really becoming more and more to the forefront, and open space becomes more valued and used," he said. "That's a whole area entering more and more in public space design. The homeless have a right to be in the parks. How do you handle that in a way that parks have a positive influence on everybody?"

Moreover, Naylor continues to work with parks and recreation in Denver to address the huge demand for events within parks. "… Parks are the place for people to host events. In one year, parks and recreation in Denver got a huge increase in the number of special event requests."

Eco-Friendly Elements

Landscape design has been adapting over time, with the addition of more environmentally friendly elements.

Planting design, for instance, has adapted so that more native plantings are being grown and specified that adapt better to the local conditions and climate. "Native plants establish better and require less maintenance and watering due to their longer root systems and ability to compete with invasive species," Howard explained. "This is particularly important for water conservation and in areas where water is scarce and restricted."

When it comes to illuminating landscape areas, lighting design also has advanced significantly, with an increase in energy-efficient LED lighting. Parking lot, pedestrian and sports field lighting all have LED options that reduce maintenance significantly.


Besides that, recycled content within landscape products has continued to grow as well. "For example, many unit pavers, pre-cast concrete products and concrete paving include recycled content such as recycled glass," Howard said.

The selection of site furnishings and decking materials that are made with recycled wood and plastic has increased, too. "The wood composite decking and benches are easier to manage by reducing the required maintenance of sealing or staining traditional wood products," Howard said.

Another trend that's created more eco-friendly spaces with less synthetic materials is a move toward natural or reclaimed materials in play equipment and site furnishings, weaved within the landscape.

"There may be an increase in the routine inspections required within these recreational spaces, but the upside is that the initial project costs will be significantly lower, and the natural materials are a renewable resource that can be replaced when worn out or after reaching the material's lifespan," Howard explained.

Recent research "indicates that using natural materials within natural settings supports creativity and problem-solving, enhances cognitive abilities, increases physical activity, improves academic performance, reduces stress and improves social relations," he noted.

Speaking of a more natural landscape, Naylor noted an example of Commons Park, a 19-acre natural park in Denver. "Sixty to 70 percent is native, a natural landscape," he said. "We really looked at bringing in subtle beauty. It's adjacent to downtown Denver. I think reconnecting with nature is something really important."

Commons Park is described as a "green oasis that connects downtown Denver to the Platte River. The park was designed to appeal to the urban community's interest in nature and the river. Landscape forms and experiences vary from hills, overlooks and pathways to areas for informal sports, picnics, contemplation and general play. Large areas of the park were re-established as riparian zone and riverine wetland."

In addition, the park has been credited with inspiring the redevelopment of Lower Downtown Denver with more than 2,000 new high-end for sale and for rent residential units, retail, restaurants, cafes and common urban amenities that were lacking before.

In addition, the park has a pergola that was designed for shaded seating and as a river-overlook point. Civitas restored a large wetland area and designed a bridge that responds to the city's Millennium Bridge across the park. Formerly a brownfield site, Commons Park now features native plants, birds and wildlife.

Design Challenges

Sometimes landscape design can incur some challenges that need to be addressed.

"We are often challenged with high client expectations and ideas that must meet a tight project budget. Balancing the client and public's expectations with what a community or recreation provider can afford can be challenging, especially in light of recent grant funding cuts within our state," Howard said.

Naylor added that one challenge can be that parks have a 15-year window from when the original design matures.


"Many times, parks [need] some sort of refreshing in that 15- or 20-year timeframe," he said, adding that social norms in parks can change, too. For example, "A group that identifies with certain public spaces … changes the complexion of the park."

Other challenges involve coming up with new and creative ideas that meet applicable codes and regulations.

"Custom playground and park design still needs to be grounded in safety and meet the applicable AS™ and CPSC safety guidelines, while providing a unique recreational experience," Howard said.

One of the key ways he works with challenges, such as high client expectations, is to understand the client's expectations at the beginning of a project and constantly make sure that the client's vision is at the forefront of the project at all times.

"Creating a collaborative environment with the client is always the goal so that they understand that their expectations are always what we focus on throughout the entire process," Howard said.

"It is critical to develop a clear and concise project program that identifies the program elements and have the client and stakeholders review and approve the program before starting the design process," he added. "Updating this project program throughout the schematic design process is key, so that the project team understands any program changes during the design process."