Supplement Feature - April 2012
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Sustaining Excellence

New & Improved Landscape Design for Today's Parks

By Kelli Anderson

Gateway to Prosperity

Landscape design doesn't just help the budget by reducing costs, however, but, as in the case of Dragonfly Landing and PrairieWalk Pond in Lisle, Ill., it also improves the budget by helping to revitalize the community. This recreational space, which includes lighted walking trails, fountains, preserved wetlands, nature-themed play areas and a splashpad, was recently awarded recognition from the state for playing a critical economic role in the city's recovery and is an example of a gateway park, a park that is used to help connect a community to its commercial downtown areas.

"The park started as a stormwater management project that turned a natural area restoration into an environmental playground with a lot of different educational elements and different experiences," said Keven Graham, ASLA and registered landscape architect and principal with Planning Resources Inc. in Wheaton, Ill. "One of the benefits of a gateway park is that it blends the downtown streetscape with a park, and those two components serve each other very well. Maybe it's a regional bike trail or river walk—some natural element or feature—that makes a lot of downtowns very desirable."

Playground and Park Design Trends

However, as studies conclusively show, sustainable design and the use of more natural elements do not only help the environment or the budget. Our exposure to nature also improves our sense of well-being. Armed with this information and recognizing the reality of nature deficit in our nation's children, communities are clamoring for more natural elements in their children's playgrounds as well as looking for more ways to connect with nature in their public parks.

From natural playgrounds to community gardens, people are seeing the benefits of and requesting more opportunities for getting back to their roots. "We've seen communities more and more interested in seeing natural playgrounds, particularly in our more outlying foothill community, who like the natural environment and are asking to incorporate it more," Norton said of the trend in his Boise area.

"It's nature play that we all did as kids, but something we're doing purposefully in a park. What we traditionally see is a prescribed play event where there is only one way to go up an apparatus or to go down a slide and run across a bridge. But in nature, you use your brains to find out how to entertain yourself, and we're seeing more playground equipment that is less prescribed and more 360-degree equipment that you can approach from any angle and interact with it."

Mixing the manufactured with the au naturel, some parks are finding a happy balance. "In our Northside Park we reconstructed a playground there and tried a 100-foot zip line that goes through it and an embankment slide," Sperl said about their natural approach. "We wanted the playground to share the same theme as our landscape and, with manufacturers taking on this nature deficit problem, we found play structures that look like tree houses kids have built themselves. We just installed it last year, and it's a very popular playground."

A further marriage of these ideas comes together in designs by DG2 that seek to make natural playgrounds also universally accessible. While the two concepts may at first glance seem mutually exclusive, DeGuire has found plenty of ways to merge the two into a play experience for all abilities.

"On one we created a boardwalk where it goes through a woodland so people with different abilities can still go out and enjoy the environment versus being on a trail made out of dirt, and it intertwines with other areas," DeGuire said of a project that hits close to home. Her husband was paralyzed two years ago from the waste down, which makes their desire to interact with their own 21-month-old son in natural play spaces a personal one. "My ADA education while good, it is nothing compared with living with a disability every day, so any design we work on, we try to visualize it from the user and how that affects life," DeGuire said.