Feature Article - October 2011
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A Born Natural

Nature Takes Its Place in Recreational Experience

By Kelly Anderson

Once upon a time, experiencing nature was reserved for hard-working farmers, adventurous hikers and long-traveled tourists. But not anymore.

As studies confirm the stress-reliving benefits of natural surroundings, and as projects like Chicago's Millennium Park demonstrate the powerful economic and social impact of landscape designs on derelict space, there is only one conclusion to be drawn. As a culture, we are getting back to our roots and using smart landscaping strategies and applications to do it.

Equally smart are those who are applying their knowledge of design and landscaping dos and don'ts in partnership with communities and public and private organizations to create recreational experiences that are breathtaking in vision, savvy in technology and mindful of economic reality.

"Rather than controlling nature, people are willing to be friends with it and live as a part of it," said James Burnett, FASLA, president of The Office of James Burnett of Solana Beach, Calif., and a recent ASLA award winner. "In a residential community in Glenview, Ill., they have clusters of housing in a giant nature prairie preserve. We are hearing from urban environments that people want ponds and water features more like a creek; people are interested in getting closer to nature."

And what could be closer to nature than your own back yard? Projects like the recently opened first phase of the ambitious Parklands of Floyds Fork in Louisville, Ky., a new 4,000-acre park system located on the outskirts of the city, are resurrecting an Olmsted-like vision to create beautiful, natural spaces for generations within an urban community.

With an innovative design and system that will ultimately contain four large community parks, complete with spray park, dog park and educational nature center, its 115 miles of hiking and biking trails, waterways and roads will traverse natural woodlands, savannahs and even working farmland, allowing residents and visitors to experience nature in the city's own back yard.

"The philosophy is to provide a high-quality outdoor experience despite your age or fitness level," said Scott Martin, park director with 21-Century Parks, the nonprofit organization responsible for the park that will oversee construction, long-term operations and maintenance. "We want to inspire a simple love of nature, showcasing the past, working with the present, offering an authentic experience to provide for the future."

Plan on It

But while a new generation of Americans is eager for more nature-centered recreational experiences, creating a natural landscape to serve them is anything but natural. "It doesn't just happen; things don't just fall out of the sky," Burnett explained. "You have to have strong design in order to make something feel right. It takes a lot of planning."

Apparently, a little bit of fortune-telling doesn't hurt either, as many of today's landscape architects are being asked to design for multiple scenarios and for multiple possibilities far into the future.

"Flexibility needs to be built in," Burnett said. "On almost all projects, we are being asked to show what it looks like, say, with a farmers market, or with a performance for 3,000 people, or to set up for an arts festival, or for a fireworks show on the 4th of July. It was more subjective before, and people usually just hired you because they like you and if it works, it works."

With fewer communities able to afford to risk the unknown, however, clients now want architects and designers to create visual designs for every conceivable scenario, ensuring that such details as plantings, walkways, lighting, power outlets, safety and even anticipated maintenance costs are all part of the planning process.

Bringing architects into the planning process early is key to creating a successful landscaped recreational area. It helps create a broader vision that enables projects to stay viable for years by including plans for maintenance, revenue and thinking about how phases can bring that about.

This was certainly true for the recently completed phase one of the Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, where architects were invited to offer their ideas early in the planning process.

"We were responsible for directing all aspects of the project, including overseeing the type, location and size of development that would create the revenue to support the park," said Paul Seck, senior associate and operating director for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., of Brooklyn, N.Y. "The design flexibility during the master-planning phases meant that we were able to put the concerns of the park first, making development decisions that would support the success of the park in addition to generating the right level of revenue to support anticipated maintenance."