Feature Article - October 2011
Find a printable version here

A Born Natural

Nature Takes Its Place in Recreational Experience

By Kelly Anderson

Growing Money on Trees

But for all the partnerships and creative funding, many parks and outdoor recreation projects still must become financially sustainable. To that end, landscaping with water conservation in mind (using native species, implementing smart water-saving technology like underground irrigation or recycling captured water) and selecting low-maintenance plantings are certainly popular ways to lower costs.

The good news is that well-designed areas can become revenue generators themselves, making financial sustainability a much-needed reality. Even the Parklands of Floyd Fork, for all its donations and endowments, recognizes that the park must eventually pull its own financial weight and is being designed with that purpose in mind.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, too, has been very mindful of creating revenue-generating space, with the New York City and the state requiring that 20 percent of the 85-acre park be used to support revenue-generating development for the long-term maintenance and upkeep of the park.

These days it also pays to be savvy about the location of landscaped recreational areas with bargain prices and bargain deals to be made by taking on disused, discarded and abandoned urban plots. "A larger trend which we are seeing in other cities as well, is to open up underutilized portions of waterfronts to recreational uses," Seck observed. "Sometimes these are the most beautiful spots in a city, and they are only now becoming accessible to the public."

In the case of Millennium Park in Chicago (originally an unsightly shorefront area, congested with train tracks and parking lots and considered one of the worst addresses in town), it has become a world-class attraction, and a jewel in Chicago's crown, drawing millions of people each year.

But transforming unused space isn't just for big cities. Smaller communities, too, are seeing the financial and social benefits of taking derelict spaces and turning them into landscaped community space. "We're taking spaces that have been vacant for years and reclaiming them and planting trees," Maynard explained of Sacramento's acceptance of this idea. "One of our community gardens used to be an old gas station and we approached the parks to revitalize it. Half of our stand-alone gardens are from unused green space that we convert into gardens. We go to a housing redevelopment agency, who buys lower-income neighborhood property, and we improve the streetscape, planting native flowers on the outside, adding beauty to what was a barren four corners."

Transforming such spaces not only adds property value, but also revives a sense of community. Community gardens are especially popular and bring whole neighborhoods and cities together. It also brings in positive press.

"I think because of the outreach nature of community gardening, we get a lot of positive media, and that helps a lot when the media buys into it," Maynard added. "A few years ago was the start of the food movement with Michelle Obama and Maria Shriver, so it's getting a lot of positive attention. There's been a huge outpouring of interest—it's been pretty amazing."

In Sacramento, community gardening has doubled in size in the past two years. Cities all over the country, such as New York and its gardening program called GreenThumb, are finding that urban communities are eager for more, and no wonder, as gardening is now the nation's number-one hobby. (For more information, see the American Community Gardening Association's Web site, www.communitygardening.org.)

Growing Community

Whether it's garden plots that bring urban green thumbs together in farming solidarity, or dog parks that bring together lovers of all-things-canine, landscaping a space well can make a good thing even better. It can help grow community.

Providing shade trees for passive recreation and seating is a landscaping "do" for any outdoor space, but for some, it can elevate shade into a destination.

For the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas, well-designed landscaping has transformed a simple, open square near the campus library into an ASLA award-winning social hub, and a popular destination for the student community. The Brochstein Pavilion, an elegantly transparent glass structure with its café, bar and restrooms, invites students to lounge, study and socialize under a grove of neatly rowed shade trees in the pavilion's adjacent quadrangle.

With the soothing sounds of water spilling over the edges of a long, monolithic raised fountain topped with smooth river stones, and with European-style moveable café chairs and tables, the space provides cooling shade from the hot Texas sun, refreshing sounds from the fountain and landscaped four-season interest. In a word, it is beautiful.

And in another word, it is also communal, thanks to one of its key elements: moveable chairs.

"Moveable chairs are still catching on," Burnett said of the landscaped area's most surprisingly successful features. "But it's been happening all over Europe for a very long time in public parks, and it says, 'Here you go, take your two-pound chair, sit with a friend, face the sun, have total control.' It elevates people. And the satisfaction rate is so much higher when you let people do what they want to do. "

And contrary to initial concerns that moveable chairs would invite vandalism and theft, the very opposite has been true. Students take pride in this space, value its care and seem to be responding well to the unspoken message that they are trusted to use it wisely. In New York's Bryant Park, where moveable chairs have been used for several years, park managers couldn't be happier with the results.

For those watching their pennies, moveable chairs also make financial sense. They cost only $40 each, are seldom damaged, and are easy to replace.