Supplement Feature - April 2010
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Back to Basics

Seven Guidelines to Creative Park Design

By Daniel P. Smith


Prior to starting any project, Justin Platts, a partner and landscape architect with RDG Planning and Design in Des Moines, Iowa, begins by seeking to understand the context of the proposed site, including a study of the area's existing parks, program offerings, unique features, history and community desires.

"Before even putting pen to paper, there's a lot that needs to be studied, analyzed and discussed," Platts said.

Likewise, Bill Inman, senior vice president with Naperville, Ill.-based Hitchcock Design Group, and his colleagues begin every project with a thorough investigation of a park district's overall needs and deficiencies.

"We're looking to identify amenities that lack and then evaluate if the proposed site can accommodate those needs," Inman said.

The process, Platts and Inman agree, allows the designer an objective and careful view of the area's culture and character.

Any site design, for instance, is likely to be influenced by the existing landscape and landmarks. A lakefront property holds different criteria, including design elements and principles, than a new park inside a historic downtown. Similarly, some communities desire a series of neighborhood parks, while others want to see a larger space dedicated to widespread community use.

"Every master plan needs to be tied to a greater vision for the community and fall into compliance with the community's other plans for growth and development," said Dave Burch, a project manager with the design firm, Bonestroo in Mequon, Wis.

Scott Crawford, one of Platts' RDG colleagues, said all designers must first understand that their work sits as one piece of a greater whole. From zoning compliance to creating linkages between open spaces, such thorough comprehension of the existing community helps ensure a functional, formidable design plan.

"Park design standards have been developed over several decades, and being able to understand the area's local context is extremely important to the park's long-term success," Crawford said.

While many communities request a park to service a diverse clientele and host a number of amenities catering to the full population range, others, particularly in today's economic environment, are seeking partnerships with other agencies, such as the YMCA, health clubs or local school districts. Such relationships, which demand that designers consider different features and fill distinctive needs, help parks departments cover the project's costs and ensure a dedicated group's use of the space.

"With a premium on land, spaces have to be multi-functional," Platts said. "Money is tight and the dollar needs to be maximized."