Feature Article - October 2014
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Go Natural, Get Creative

The Latest Trends in Park Landscape Design

By Chris Gelbach

Multi-Use for Multiple Audiences

Another growing focus in new urban projects is on creating open spaces that have the flexibility to be used for a multitude of events, venues and activities. "People are seeking social interactions," said Cowan. "Urban parks can allow for socio-economic and multi-generational communities to come together to socialize."

In his firm's recent work in urban parks, some of the amenities supporting that include areas for food trucks, concessions and food carts; dog parks; and areas designed for movie nights, concerts and fitness programming. "Urban parks are being used more as catalysts to increase real estate values," Cowan said.

According to Focht, this has been an important goal of Philadelphia's greening effort. "You can imagine living in a row home and you look across to a rec center across the street and it's all asphalt and chain-link fence," he said. "It's not visually appealing and it doesn't help with heat mitigation. If it's greened, and it's nicer, and it's programmed, that's going to increase your property values." In turn, the city benefits from a long-term increase in property tax revenue as a result of the park investment.

Trails Continue On

A final trend that is ongoing in landscape design, if not new, is the construction of more and more trails to enhance unused spaces such as those near power lines and gas easements. These can also create linkage opportunities between parks. Trails can be a low-maintenance element that can provide access to spaces and experiences for a wide range of users, from walking seniors to runners to cyclists and skaters.

Even in these investments, it's important to budget with an eye to long-term maintenance. "If a community has a push to put in 20, 30 or 40 miles of trail, one of the things they often don't do is plan out five, 10, 15 years after that to put $50,000 to $200,000 back into the capital improvement program to replace, repair and maintain that trail system," Crawford said.

Trails make a natural accompaniment to locations in linear parks along creeks, rivers and stream corridors. Landscape design firms are also going a step further to try to make that trail experience unique through educational opportunities that explore the area's cultural significance. "You can make that experience more than biking 60 or 70 miles on a trail," said Crawford. "You may go through five or six communities that each have their own unique history you can learn about through that journey."

These longer trail routes also provide an alternative transit option for commuters. In the end, they are part of the larger movement that many of these landscape design trends support. Together, they aim to provide more options for recreation, respite and reflection in environments that give visitors greater exposure to nature and its health and community benefits.