Feature Article - October 2013
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Art in the Park

Innovative Designs Add Aesthetic Interest to Your Green Space

By Jessica Royer Ocken

"Public art is important," announced landscape architect Susan Weiler of the Olin Studio during a talk at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Society of Landscape Architects. And there may or may not have been a few eye-rolls in the audience. (There may or may not be a few eye-rolls going on now as you read this, eh?) Then she introduced Penny Balkin Bach of the Fairmount Park Art Association, which is in the Philadelphia area and has been in existence since 1872.

Unlike art in a museum or gallery, no one needs a ticket to see public art, Bach noted. You don't even have to dress up. And more than that, public art does a lot to help people feel connected to their community. In a 2008 study by the Knight Foundation, a community's "art, parks and green spaces" ranked higher than education, safety and the local economy in creating attachment, she reported.

And while it might seem like a newfangled concept, "art has been linked to recreation and general cultural well-being since people first organized into communities," noted Zakery Steele, ASLA, a project manager with Bayer Landscape Architecture in Rochester, N.Y. Think Roman bathhouses and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

"Art gets a bad reputation for being something for the rich to enjoy," he added. "Public art allows that cultural experience to be enjoyed by everyone—for free, and you can visit any time."

Including art makes a space unique and engaging, and perhaps even more fun. When that space is a park or recreation complex, it can mean more excitement about everything going on there and more people visiting—which is just what you want for public parks, right? What's more, adding some artistic elements into an existing green space or into the new park you're currently planning won't be as hard as you think.

What Is Public Art?

Historically, public art has been a sculpture of some kind that's created by an artist and installed in a public location, explained Scott Crawford PLA, ASLA, LEED AP, a senior partner with RDG Planning & Design in Iowa. But RDG—and many other landscape architects working today—takes a different view. RDG has an in-house art studio, and they try to integrate art into their projects, rather than just placing it in a public spot. "I like to think of it more as creating cultural parks or parks with historic meaning. Everything we do is about creating a place people want to be," Crawford said. "We want them to have a good experience and be left with a positive memory."

And this doesn't have to be a 12-foot orange bird nest placed in a public field (although it could be). "Our firm doesn't just look at art as a physical piece commissioned by an artist," said Stan Cowan, ASLA, a principal at MESA in Dallas. "We promote an artful approach to contents of the site."

And this can be as simple as customizing the elements a park needs anyway. "Rather than a generic shelter, think about what's unique about the community or the space," Crawford suggested. "What's its history or heritage?" Then use those ideas to make something more interesting in terms of form, materials, colors or lighting.

In terms of the final product, there's not necessarily a strong boundary between landscape architecture and public art, added Shauna GilliesSmith, MAUD, BArch, ASLA, LEED AP, founding principal of Ground in Somerville, Mass. Her firm works hard to add an element of imagination, narrative, playfulness and visual interest to both landscape and public art projects. So rather than adding a sculpture, perhaps you include sculpturally shaped bushes or flower beds in your park. Artfully rolling hills. An elegant walking path through the trees.