Supplement Feature - April 2011
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Design for the Times

Stretch Your Dollars, Boost Your Impact

By Rick Dandes

Park Landscape Design Trends

The environmental imperative, or "going green," is now one of the greatest influences on commercial and public landscape design, landscape architects said.

The trend in larger landscapes, Inman added, is moving away from vast areas of lawn grass toward a more conscious planting of meadows, whether led by a purely native species approach or planting design, which includes ornamentals to achieve a new look to the local landscapes.

"In that regard, another trend we're seeing," he said, "is nature-based play. Designers are depending less on the classic modular playgrounds that equipment manufacturers continue to sell and more on natural environment."

A lot of municipalities are hooking up not only with landscape architects, but also with ecologists to inventory everything in an existing park system in order to fully understand the kind of visitor opportunities there are based on the space's natural settings.

Park providers, whether public or private, now have recognized that some of these larger open spaces contain riparian zones, greenways, wetlands—areas that have not been fully activated or used in the past. But, with users increasingly interested in the ecology, these areas can become a vital part of a nature lecture educational program.

The movement to bring children closer to nature is another trend, but not a recent one. It started in earnest a number of years ago, as playgrounds became driven by risk management, and the potential for lawsuits, Inman said.

"There are so many requirements that you must follow in order to minimize your risk," he continued. "It almost seems like attorneys have limited the creative play movement. As a result, a trend we're seeing is one in which we're trying to figure out how to bring play and safety together. The idea is to create a space where kids can get their two hands in water, in mud, climb on logs and get close to plants and enjoy themselves—a setting that promotes adventure in nature, as we inexorably move away from the playground-in-a-box kind of thinking."

Recreational opportunities also are key elements in designing a park system, explained Mike Bell, a landscape architect at RDG Planning and Design, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

"Providing great recreation to a diverse cross-section of demographics is important and so is accessibility," Bell said.

Parks are not just for parents and their children anymore, he suggested. "People like to bike. They like to hike on beautiful nature trails. They like contemplative gardens to sit in and look at," he added. "Those aspects of any public space have appeal to people of all ages, but in particular, we recognize that there is a huge, aging baby boomer demographic, so making sure that you are tapped into that mature and still active population is critical to building visitor-ship to a park."

Related to that is yet another trend cited by landscape designers: a rapid movement toward artificial turf on sports fields. People have always gone to parks to play, and to get away from their hectic daily lifestyles, and that number is growing rapidly. But, communities are not easily able to access additional land assets, even as the programs for baseball, soccer and lacrosse are rapidly increasing.

"We've never gone into a particular district that told us they had too many fields," Inman noted. "They always seem to be short of fields, so park managers wind up having to schedule activities from early in the morning until late at night. As a result, one of the things we are seeing is the movement toward lighted artificial fields. They can be played on immediately after rain and the grass obviously doesn't wear out. There is also less maintenance cost, which helps at a time when funding is tight. In short, artificial turf fields can accommodate a much larger slate of programs without the municipality having to purchase additional land."