Feature Article - November 2009
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Parks Are People & Place

The Intersection of Culture & Ecology in Landscape Design

By Emily Tipping


A Paradigm Shift

Great Park
Irvine, Calif.

The team of landscape architects working on this "paradigm-changing" park project has been recognized with multiple awards from the ASLA and other organizations. Designed by a team led by Ken Smith Landscape Architect of Irvine on behalf of the Orange County Great Park Corp., this park is a huge undertaking.

Just consider these numbers: It will take 10 to 20 years to develop the park, at a cost of $1.5 billion. Millions of cubic yards of earth will be moved to create a canyon where there was flat space before. The Agua Chinon stream, now underground, will be brought to daylight for the enjoyment of visitors. More than 3.5 million tons of concrete and steel at the site will be reused, contributing to the site's sustainability. With its easy accessibility via nearby interstate roads, highways and trails, the park will be easily visited by more than 10 million southern California residents.

Ultimately, the park, which is located on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, closed since 1999, will cover 1,347 acres and will feature a constructed 2 1/2-mile canyon, the daylighted stream, a lake, a cultural terrace, a great lawn, aviation museum, conservatory and botanical garden, a promenade and a sports park.

The plans for the park were conceived during the economic boom times, and Ken Smith acknowledged during a session at the recent ASLA conference in Chicago that the economic downturn has slowed down the approach the team has taken, by necessity. But that doesn't mean work has stopped. In April 2009, the board approved a 500-acre development plan.

"Despite the financial hiccups around the world and here, there is a force and an energy behind this project," Smith said.

With the award-winning master plan approved in September 2007, work began on the Preview Park, which also won an ASLA award. The Preview Park features a visitor's center, a timeline and a balloon ride that can carry more than two dozen people up to 500 feet to get an overview of the park as it is now and to check out the construction as it progresses.

The clever phasing of the project serves to connect the community closely with its progress. Opened in Summer 2007, Preview Park hosts events like concerts, dances and more, and also provides a venue for community members to learn more about what's to come, building support in the region and ensuring neighbors can contribute their thoughts and desires to the design process. In addition to providing interested visitors with a bird's-eye view of the park, this initial phase also includes prototypes of features such as orange groves, stonework and plantings that will be expanded as the park construction progresses.

And in fact, the public played a major role in creating the master plan, attending intensive sessions with the project team to ensure the end result would be a park that reflected the needs and backgrounds of all of Orange County's citizens, from veterans and environmental groups to artists and families.

The park design is carefully cognizant of the needs of the humans in the surrounding community, as well as the needs of the global community. The design team considered the park an opportunity to explore health from three perspectives: personal health, regional health and global health.

"Part of the challenge is to transform the landscape to make it comfortable for people and sustainable for vegetation," Smith stated. He added, "Our approach to sustainability has been through health."

The park represents a paradigm shift that coincides with the shifting nature of work and life. Just as these have been turned on their head from the industrial age to the information age, the goals of parks have shifted as well—from the leisurely relaxing strolls associated with New York's Central Park's original design by Frederick Law Olmsted to the active, get-off-your-butt and get-active approach of more modern designs.

The park's Comprehensive Master Plan celebrates this paradigm shift and uses personal health as a path to greater understanding of the importance of social and ecological health in the region. The park unites personal health with environmental health by using sustainable design methods to provide a place for people to be active and interact with the environment. Tools like solar power and biomass crops will provide energy, while water will be carefully conserved and recycled through wetlands.

The finished park aims to include The Canyon, as well as a Habitat Park, which will serve as an ecological backbone to ensure continuity from the national forest to the north and state park to the south. Finally, Fields and Memorial Park give a nod to the site's history and the culture of the region, and provide places for cultural events and more active recreation.