Feature Article - November 2009
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Parks Are People & Place

The Intersection of Culture & Ecology in Landscape Design

By Emily Tipping

An Urban Wilderness

Teardrop Park
New York City

In Battery Park City, a mixed-use neighborhood on the southwest side of lower Manhattan, tucked into a 1.8-acre site surrounded by tall apartment buildings, children, families and residents can find an oasis of wild play.

Designed by Michael van Valkenburgh Associates in New York for the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority, this park was also recognized with an award by the ASLA. The site was created in the 1980s when a portion of Hudson River shoreline was filled, creating a flat area with a high water table. This meant the depth of the site program had to be limited. Another limiting factor was the surrounding residential towers, which create a very shady space. Finally, studies indicated that the east-west corridor through the park would experience strong, cold winds off the Hudson River, while areas between the buildings would be more protected.

The design team worked within these limiting factors to carefully position the features of the park as well as the types of plantings and ecological communities within the park.

The children's play areas were placed in shaded and wind-protected areas. Close by, Rockefeller Park offers a large traditional playground, so the design team aimed to provide an alternative by creating a natural play area. The Natural Learning Initiative out of North Carolina State University advised the design team, leading to site topography, interactive water fountains, natural stone and intimately scaled plantings to create a child's-eye view of the natural world.

"Our contribution was to persuade them that the whole park was a playground for everyone," explained Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture and director of the Natural Learning Initiative, in a session on natural play at the recent NRPA Congress & Exposition. "[The project is] a demonstration of what a landscape architect can bring to this type of environment."

The park was designed to appeal to people of all ages, including high school students and office workers, local families and the elderly residents of a nearby assisted-care facility. There are many features you'd never expect to find deep within the confines of an urban landscape, including a 27-foot-high, 168-foot long blue stone Ice-Water Wall, a Marsh with an access path scaled to children, sloped planted areas, groves, Water Play rocks and a stone Reading Circle that provides a view to the Hudson River.

The park was perfectly designed to fit its exact environment. The microclimate of the site was carefully studied. Even the soil brought to the site was carefully calibrated to create an optimum support for the plant life being brought in.

The site aims to be as sustainable as possible, with a maintenance regime that minimizes use of chemicals and irrigation provided by graywater from a nearby LEED-certified building in addition to stormwater runoff. Stones for the Ice-Water wall were quarried within 500 miles of the site, and the plants chosen for the site are largely native species.