Supplement Feature - April 2009
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Site Solutions

Designing & Outfitting Your Park

By Sue Marquette Poremba



Going to the Dogs

Dog parks are becoming ever more popular across the United States. If you're considering a place for pooches, don't forget:

  • Dog-waste receptacles (preferably with baggies provided).
  • Water fountains for dogs and for humans.
  • Enclosed fencing to provide for off-leash play, with a separate enclosed entryway.
  • Wheelchair accessibility, with paths and seating that allow for the disabled to use the park too.
  • Signage announcing the rules, etiquette and schedules. This can also include a message center.
  • Lighting, if you plan to offer after-dark hours.
  • Benches and picnic tables.
  • Sheltered seating in case of bad weather.

BUILDING BLOCKS

Once the committees are organized, the budgets set, and the conflicts ironed out, there is one major piece of advice left.

"Build the park and they shall come," said Cosmos, riffing on the famous line from Field of Dreams.

That's exactly what happened in the city of Houston. A convention center was built in downtown Houston in the 1980s, and while it brought visitors to the area, the convention center didn't attract new business, according to Guy Hagstette, park director. In 2004, the city owned 11.78 acres across from the center, and the plan was to turn it into a park.

Site planning began in 2005 to develop a public park for residents of Houston, as well as provide an outdoor gathering space for those attending events at the convention center.

"The mayor decreed the park had to be open in three years," Hagstette said. Working with Project for Public Spaces, Hagstette's team created a park with very distinct areas and programming plans.

"There were a lot of concerns about cramming too much stuff into the space," Hagstette said. Yet there needed to be enough programming planned to attract people. While conventioneers and hotel guests might see the park as a place to unwind, "having locals come to the park was not a given."

But the park was built, and people are coming. A quarter-acre lake attracts families who enjoy driving radio-controlled boats. There are stage areas for concerts and other events. One section is a neighborhood park, with dog areas and an interactive waterpark. There is a garden near the convention center that Hagstette called an "outdoor living room."

The site planning involved more than deciding where to put a restaurant and how many dog parks were needed, of course. Hagstette explained that, because they planned to have a stage, sound and lighting systems also needed to be considered.

"We had to consider the amount of power needed for concerts, but still try to keep the costs low," he said. "If we wanted to be able to put up tents, we had to plan the various configurations in advance. Active spaces have a lot of infrastructure, and we wanted to accommodate activities without a high cost."

Another issue in site planning is whether or not to "green build" the park. It almost sounds like an oxymoron to make green spaces more eco-friendly, but the experts say there are a number of ways to design parks that use sustainable building practices.

"Park design and construction should consider recycling local building materials," Steven Cosmos suggested. "I have reused granite curbing to create walls and mark linear walkways in parks."

In West Des Moines, Gary Scott said his department is looking at sustainable site initiatives, such as permeable parking areas and rain guards. To help reduce maintenance, as well as be more environmentally aware, West Des Moines is planting prairie grasses and other native plants and only irrigates the athletic fields.

"We're looking more at environmental impact through the park's design," Scott explained.

Site planning and design of parks can be incredibly challenging because the expectations of everyone are often so high at the outset.

"What we almost always forget," Cecil said, "is that great parks don't emerge all at once. It takes some time for the landscape to mature, and for people to find the best way to use a park. It is interesting to look at photos of Central Park in New York just after it was 'finished.' In fact, it took several decades for the trees to mature and the quality of the park to fully emerge. We all need to approach the site planning and design with a little bit of patience, lots of listening, and provide park plans that can flexibly absorb different uses and experiences."