Feature Article - May 2015
Find a printable version here

Picture Perfect Parks & Sites

Working With Landscape Architects on Park Design

By Joe Bush

When do you need a landscape architect for a recreational space or park project? For larger projects that plan to keep an area's natural features, including water and elevation changes, landscape architects are a must. Since big park blueprints are trending toward multi-experience and inclusion rather than removal of native ecosystems, getting to know your local landscape architect should be on the to-do list.

But that's not the only reason you want to work with a landscape architect on your park project. Eric Hornig, principal and part owner of Hitchcock Design Group, Naperville, Ill., said if you have any of the following questions about the physical aspects of a project, you should consult a landscape architect:

  • How do we make an outdoor space special?
  • How do we improve the experience for our guests, teams, visitors?
  • How do we make a space truly beautiful?
  • How do we increase the duration of a visitor's stay?
  • How do we instill lasting memories into the hearts and minds of our guests?
  • How do we act more sustainably or carry forward our message of stewardship?
  • How do we fit it into our context?
  • Where should we put an amenity, or what amenities should we include?

"In general, it is no longer enough to lay out some soccer fields and call it a park," Hornig said. "It needs a rich set of natural and/or manmade amenities that will welcome visitors and families, bring them together socially, and provide a platform for lasting memories of the time spent in the space."

Go Natural

"Nature-based play is continuing to trend with positive results," Hornig added. "We have been advocating this type of play for years and momentum has been gaining ground in recent years. This is simply the return to the play of our youth (35 years and up), where we were able to actually play in nature. Since that is not always available to the children of today, there is a strong desire to bring it to them. Hawks Hollow is a good example of this."

Hawks Hollow Nature Playground in Geneva, Ill., is a nature-based play environment that features a bird theme in line with the bird habitat previously created on-site by a restored prairie. The Feathered Friends entry plaza offers different shapes, textures and sizes of feathers that can be experienced and understood with interpretive keys. There's a hands-on river experience at the King-Fisher Crossing, enabling visitors to create mud art, wade in and adjust the river flow while pretending to be a beaver, and learn about the fish that serve as food for many birds.

For larger projects that plan to keep an area's natural features, including water and elevation changes, landscape architects are a must.

The Songbird Stage lets people do songbird karaoke, complete with simple orchestra instruments. Visitors can also climb to a view of the prairie at the Hawks Point Perch and learn about raptors through play experiences that interpret elements that define these birds of prey. All this on a half-acre within the larger Peck Farm Park attraction.

The limited parcel and vision for Hawks Hollow made the project a natural for a landscape architect's touch, said Geneva Park District's manager of Peck Farm Park, Trish Burns.

"We wanted to build a custom-made playground that was more about immersing children and families into nature than a traditional playground," Burns said. "The site location is on a steep hill, and we didn't want to remove too many of the trees. We also wanted to keep it close to the core area of the park so that employees were nearby. This also allowed us to keep it close to the existing facilities.

"This project work not have been the unique environment that it is without the advice and design skills that the landscape architect added."

Burns said the planning began with a foundation of "No child left inside," and that the site's native elements would be the focus of play. She said the park district has partnered with landscape architects in the past, for technical projects such as a permeable paver courtyard, a community garden and a neighborhood playground.

"The goal of the project was to get children and families outdoors and interacting with nature," she said—"playing with water, dirt, mud, parts from trees, also making noise and running around and moving. We have families and children who come to visit almost daily when the weather is good. This has become more of a regional park as a result of the nature playground."