Feature Article - October 2014
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Go Natural, Get Creative

The Latest Trends in Park Landscape Design

By Chris Gelbach

Landscape designers are helping park districts serve an increasingly diverse customer base by creating more natural, comfortable and functional spaces that can appeal to a wider range of visitors. They're even playing a growing role in helping clients secure the funds that make these projects happen.

Funding Gets Creative

One trend that has greatly affected the way landscape architecture firms operate has been the need for new creativity in project funding. Scott Crawford, a senior partner and landscape architect in RDG Planning & Design's Des Moines, Iowa, office, rarely sees public parks funded anymore solely through long-term planning from capital improvement programs.

"In the recession, parks and quality-of-life improvements were one of the first things that were reduced in funding," Crawford said. "So parks have had to take on a new approach to getting funded. They're leveraging CIP funds to apply for a variety of grants and partnerships, and then leveraging the combination of public funds and grant money to go out and seek private donations and sponsorships and naming rights."

In a growing number of cases, a large gift from a foundation can profoundly affect the feasibility of a project or even the nature of the projects that get built. One such example can be seen in Philadelphia Parks and Recreation's partnership with Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund. According to Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the fund has repurposed several underused basketball and tennis courts in the city's rec centers into skateparks around the city.

In 2013, the partnership also debuted Paine's Park, a $4.5 million facility adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "It's very large and beautiful, and it's a draw from around the city," Focht said. "So we've created this feeder system of small neighborhood skateparks at our rec centers feeding into the larger, more elaborate skatepark here in Center City."

In today's environment, landscape designers are often playing matchmaker to help connect clients with funders. "We've really made a focus on bringing money to our clients," said Bill Inman, senior vice president of Hitchcock Design Group, an Illinois-based planning and landscape architecture firm. "There's no denying that unfunded ideas don't help anybody, but funded ideas bring value. So we're working really hard as an organization to really become experts in traditional and nontraditional grant funding mechanisms."

According to Inman, these mechanisms can include traditional grants, funds from conservancies and foundations, crowdfunding techniques, special-interest grants from manufacturers or famous sports figures, and public-private partnerships. "Any way you can make a mutually beneficial scenario for two folks that might be able to bring capital to the table, we're always looking out for that," he said.

Sports Goes Big

The growing popularity of a diversifying roster of sports is putting an increased strain on fields nationwide. In Philadelphia, the city has addressed the severe wear-and-tear problem this was creating on its natural-grass fields by adopting a new policy. The fields are now rested and the field lights turned off from December 1 to March 1. "Before, the grass didn't have a chance to regenerate and there wasn't an opportunity to aerate and overseed the field," Focht said. "The new policy has been very well-received because the fields that we're now offering are in better shape."

In other communities, Inman is seeing this growing demand on fields addressed through the installation of an unprecedented amount of artificial turf—even into more play environments and dog parks.

He's also seeing an increased interest by some communities in building tournament-worthy complexes. They're doing this in hopes of attracting revenue from the captive audience of families who have children on traveling sports teams.

"We're working with some pretty big park districts that are trying to do some pretty big things and they're banking on the success of these facilities," Inman said. "They're investing millions of dollars and they're expecting a return."

Active-use parks for sports are becoming a harder sell to the general public, according to Crawford, because of the limited user base they serve. So more of these facilities are being funded by public-private partnerships or for-profit concerns. And while he sees some projects succeed with this approach, he recommends conservatism in forecasting for these tournament facilities. "We've seen too many communities have overstated economic forecasts that promise the sky," Crawford said. "When the facility is built, they're often left disappointed trying to figure out how they can cash flow the facility over time."