Feature Article - October 2014
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Go Natural, Get Creative

The Latest Trends in Park Landscape Design

By Chris Gelbach

Nature Takes Center Stage

Landscape designers are also addressing an increasing interest by parks and rec agencies in more sustainable spaces. "We're seeing a lot more of a trend away from active use and more toward passive-use parks and restoration of natural systems, whether it's woodlands or prairies or repairing zones along creek corridors," Crawford said.

In many cases, this extends to nature-based play and design using natural materials, something the Hitchcock Design Group is focused on through its participation in the Leave No Child Inside campaign by Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance that connects people and nature.

"Conceptually, it involves moving away from standardized play into more unstructured play and immersing kids in something that resembles more of a natural environment, while still following all of the park safety guidelines," said Inman.

One example can be found in Hawks Hollow Nature Playground in Geneva, Ill., which was named the 2014 Outstanding Facility by the Illinois Park and Recreation Association. The park engages kids in environmental learning using eight interactive stations that feature native bird, tree and bug species.

According to Inman, the project also incorporates running water, a chance for kids to get muddy and a place where kids can construct things out of willow twigs that they can climb on. The design incorporates ash trees reclaimed from the ash borer infestation, which were used to build benches and retaining walls.

In addition to getting kids closer to nature, the play environments were also designed to be interactive and cooperative. "One of the things we're trying to combat in our play environment and park designs is static play environments that kids get bored with quickly," Inman said. "Why spend the money if we're not going to encourage repeat visits?"

Other physical features Inman is seeing used more often in parks to sustain this interest include musical elements, sensory gardens and features that attract certain types of animals and insects. Likewise, Crawford is seeing more general restoration efforts relating to native ecosystems.

These more natural passive-use zones are also being incorporated even into traditional sports complexes to provide broader appeal to all citizens. "If a family is bringing their two sons or daughters to play soccer, they may have two other kids that aren't old enough to play it and they want to go play in the playground or in the creek or mess around in the woodland," said Crawford. "Being able to do those in the same park is of great benefit to the users."

According to Inman, these spaces offer comfort in the form of shade while also doing a better job of screening noise and undesirable views. They offer colorful, seasonal, pleasing aesthetics. And they offer functional benefits by cleaning storm water and bolstering local wildlife and insect populations. "Because park districts own so much land, it's critical that that land contributes back to the neighborhood in a way that goes beyond the edges of the park," Inman said.

In creating these spaces, these natural elements are getting closer to the action than ever before. "We're not seeing trees in the middle of soccer fields," said Inman. "But we are seeing landscapes that are run up to the edge and closer to sports than they ever have been before."

Urban Parks Go Green, Too

Likewise, urban parks are also trying to increase the natural appeal of their parks and recreation centers, building greenery where once there was only asphalt. This can be seen in Dallas, where the city's Downtown Parks Master Plan includes several urban blocks throughout the Central Business District that will be converted into park spaces.

In Philadelphia, the city is focused on greening many of its recreation centers and smaller neighborhood parks through a partnership between the city, the Philadelphia Water Department and the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which recently opened an office in the city to oversee the effort.

According to Focht, this effort is focused on green infrastructure and storm water management. It includes the removal of traditional asphalt to introduce permeable surfaces such as pervious asphalt and pervious safety surfaces under play equipment.

One such example can be seen in South Philadelphia's Herron Playground. Previously 100 percent asphalt, the park is now a beautiful oasis with a spray park, play equipment, a pervious basketball court and improvements that manage storm water on the site and an adjacent street. "It went from being kind of a desolate site to being a beautiful oasis that's much more inviting to neighborhood kids and parents," said Focht.

In addition to managing storm water better, the new surface being installed on new basketball courts around the city has also cut down on noise complaints. "The pervious pavement has a whole series of voids in it," said Focht. "So instead of the sound of the basketball reflecting back up into the air, it's absorbed down into the asphalt. They're really quiet basketball courts, and the neighbors appreciate that."

According to Stan Cowan, principal and owner of Dallas-based MESA Design Group, even parking lots are being designed in a more sensitive, environmentally pleasing way. This is achieved through the use of small pods instead of shopping center-style lots. "Parking lots can take on a park-like quality," Cowan said. "They can be designed in an artful way with tree massing and watersheds to minimize impact."

When greening sites in urban areas, Inman stressed the importance of selecting plants and other elements hardy enough to survive, something that's a big focus for his firm's Chicago projects. Likewise, it's important to fully understand every client's maintenance capabilities before the design is created. "The worst thing you can do is overdesign something they can't take care of," Inman said.

Many park agencies are now requesting the inclusion of more native landscapes. But these areas do still require some labor and expertise to maintain. "If you put five acres of prairie in your park, you have to come back and burn that, and there might be some mowing, especially in the first few establishment years," said Crawford. "There's not a magic program that requires no maintenance, but there may be some that require less maintenance."