Supplement Feature - April 2012
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Sustaining Excellence

New & Improved Landscape Design for Today's Parks

By Kelli Anderson

Some things, like good wine, just get better and better. Take any landscaping buzzword today, such as "sustainable design" or "universal accessibility," and you may be tempted to dismiss them with a "been there, done that." But what you may not know is that whether you are designing a public park or a playground, these words, among others in the landscape design industry, are continuing to evolve into practical applications and ideas that just keep getting better and better. Better cost savings. Better community satisfaction. Better environmental and public health benefits. And even better economic impact.

Cashing In

Sustainable design, noted for its goal to make our environment and human health, well, healthier, is being applied in increasingly innovative ways that not only make life better, but also stretch shrinking budgets further than ever before. Case in point, recently installed trash receptacles by the Boise Parks and Recreation department in Boise, Idaho, have eliminated the need for daily trash removal and replacement liners (emptied only once during the past year), thanks to an innovative design that compacts accumulating trash into a large, underground chamber, invisible from the otherwise normal-looking trash containers.

"As maintenance budgets shrink, we look at creative ways to maintain our service levels as we stretch our maintenance dollars," said Toby Norton, landscape architect and project manager with the Boise Parks and Recreation Department. "We continually look at new or different materials, equipment and/or amenities that will streamline or reduce the amount of maintenance required at a site."

Another time and money saver, the practice of planting native species in place of green lawn, has been touted for many years for its favorable impact—reduction in water, chemical, mowing and related manpower expenses, to name a few. Good for the environment and good for the bottom line. But park districts like Wheaton, Ill., are learning that native plantings, especially around shorelines, offer even greater benefits.

For a public works-era, 1930s lake restoration in Wheaton's Northside Park, native plantings are key to the restoration of what had devolved into a sediment-filled version of its former self, more visited by pesky Canada Geese than the local community. "It reduced erosion, improved water quality and improved wildlife habitat," said Rob Sperl, director of planning for the city's department. "And it dramatically reduced a really bad problem we had with the Canada Geese population." With the addition of native prairie plants, the area is not only becoming more attractive, but the park is now attracting wild birds like martins and bluebirds, along with the bird watchers who follow them.

Recycling, certainly no newcomer to the lexicon of the landscape designer or the park manager, is also evolving with newer and better applications. No longer content to just recycle objects, communities are finding that recycling derelict and disused areas of land brings new life and community-revitalizing purpose.

High Line Park in New York City, for example, once a portion of abandoned rail line, has been reclaimed and revitalized into a lively hub of community activity. "I think something that has been inventive and interesting is parks where there are these remnants of cities, like an old train line, industrial site or brown field that are turned into opportunities for public space," said Paul Seck, associate principal of award-winning landscape architect company, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., of Brooklyn, N.Y. "There are a lot of opportunities made of land that has been forgotten."

There are also wonderful opportunities, both financially and historically meaningful, in repurposing abandoned materials, as in the case of hardwood harvested from an old coal storage building in the city that was milled and used to create seating in Jane's Carousel Pavilion, which won the 2012 Travel and Leisure Design Award for best pubic space. Or 1,000 large slabs of granite cladding salvaged from the Roosevelt Island Bridge that were transformed into a grand public staircase overlooking Pier 1 as part of the Brooklyn Bridge Park project. By reusing and repurposing historically significant materials, the parks are not only saving money but saving something of the community's identity, as well.