Feature Article - November 2005
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Destination: Landscape

Nurturing visitor interest through creative park design

By Kelli Anderson

Wherever you go, there you are

Not only is repetition uninteresting, but repetition with the same species also can be dangerous. A single disease can wipe out an entire landscape. A variety of species—especially native ones—offer many more benefits. Native plantings require much less maintenance, add seasonal interest and, perhaps most importantly, reflect the authenticity of the area. It lets people know where they are.

"Native landscapes offer color that's more organic—they're more interesting and give a sense of place," says Peggy Pelkonen, assistant landscape architect of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. "Landscapes tell you where you are. That's what draws people in. In New Orleans you don't want to see petunias but oaks. In the Midwest you want to see prairie grasses."

Capitalizing on that idea, some park districts, like the park district in Memphis, Tenn., have designed their landscapes around local natural landmarks. The Mud Island River Walk in Memphis mimics the actual path of the Mississippi River. The River Walk's pedestrian area features a half-mile, water-filled scale model of the lower Mississippi's winding pathways. The shallow waters invite visitors to wade and splash in the "big muddy," while colorful banners and text panels tell the story of local history and explain geological formations as they happen in relationship to the location depicted in the model.

"There's got to be a story to tell and a reason for your project," says Trey Giuntini, general manager of the park. "Look for things that are going to draw attention to visitors with information—they need to know where they are and what they are looking at. Ask what's going to orient your visitor. If nothing else, I am certain that the aesthetic and look and shape of the park is responsible for repeat visitations, and people are telling others about it—people are visiting and coming back."

A walk on the wild side

There is yet another benefit to going native in your landscape design: It attracts wildlife. With "furry is your friend" as a mindset, former garden nemeses, Alvin chipmunk and Peter Rabbit can be among the many animals that transform the landscape into an attraction.

"Our visitors get excited when they get to see a Great Blue Heron take off or see a turtle in the middle of plantings," Pelkonen says. "My son's favorite activity is catching tadpoles by the ponds—that's what draws people in."

At the Morton Arboretum, ponds and water areas recently have been enhanced with stepping stones and walkways to allow visitors to interact with their surroundings and not merely walk by them. They can see natural plantings and the wildlife they attract, up close and personal.