Feature Article - October 2012
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Sustainable Landscape Design

By Rick Dandes

One of the easiest ways to advocate for a sustainable landscape is to approach the early planning discussions from the perspective of integrating the natural outdoors with the sciences and environmental education opportunities. "Build this integration right into the design of the site," Crawford said. "Talk about it. Explain how this really won't have a cost impact on the project, but can have a huge educational benefits for students and the community."

In the urban environment, Walters said, parks are often the only "nature" people have the opportunity to experience.

An added value to sustainability is funding opportunities, Crawford said. "Many times, some of the things that would be comprised of innovative stormwater practices or the restoration of prairie areas make a jurisdiction eligible for funding from various local organizations, state Department of Natural Resources grants, or county conservation grant money."

These funding entities can provide much-needed money that will allow parks and recreation officials to do some of the things they want to do, when there isn't much money available in their budgets. After all, no one wants to raise taxes these days. So sustainability can be a win-win for everybody because not only does it lead to additional funding for the project and get it done, but they also are able to utilize those things as educational components after they are built—and more often than not, those elements are actually less costly to maintain over the long term.

Best Practices, Wise Planning

Experts agree that the trend toward environmental stewardship is a best practice. "This reconnection with nature doesn't mean just a restored prairie," Crawford said. "We're taking some high-intensity and very active parks, such as sports complexes, and integrating them with the environmental components within that space."

A good example might be a sports complex with 12 or 16 baseball and softball fields. Crawford's team might design a park so that within its boundaries, they are taking surface water from those fields and filtering them through a series of bio retention cells and restored prairie areas. The result is that most of the water is managed on site and very little runoff actually leaves the property.

"In this example," Crawford noted, "we are able to mitigate the groundwater contamination from any of the chemicals that might be used to treat the turf grass. It's not a new concept, but with the economy the way it's been over the last five years, a lot of parks departments are starting to remember and sort of reconnect with the benefits of ecologically based design versus engineering things; almost imposing human solutions on the environment rather than working with the environment. That's a big trend."

Always ask the architect and designers for a thorough site assessment and analysis, suggested Fred Walters, a principal and landscape architect with Mesa Design. "This, overlaid with the site program, will give you a successful site design."

Understanding the project program and space requirements allows the designer to properly locate various program elements on site. Integration with valuable site amenities such as tree groves, creeks and interesting topographical features gives parks their unique identity and fosters appreciation of these places by their users.

In the urban environment, Walters said, parks are often the only "nature" people have the opportunity to experience, so any interaction or immersive experience is extremely valuable, especially for children.

Family also matters. "When we design a space," Hornig said, "we're proponents of keeping the family and generations together, and we design in ways to set the family up for success. Where Johnny can go play soccer and Susie, who is five years younger, can be at another space in the playground. Meanwhile, the parent or caregiver can see both of them and engage both of them, sharing stories and passing along parental coaching tips. The point is that wherever members of the family go in the recreation space or park, they should have something to do."

Hornig and his colleagues continue to wrestle with the teen age group, ages 11 to 16. "How do we engage them?" he asked. "They need to interact socially, because that is an important aspect of their development at that age group, but how do you reach kids who spend all their time texting on their smart phones? We've toyed with and discussed the concept of bringing technology out to the park—reaching kids in that teen group in a language they can understand. Their world seems to be surrounded by smart phones, and we here go back and forth of the value of that, whether that is the right way to do it? Or maybe the whole point is to shut up the smart phone, turn it off and soak up some nature."