Feature Article - May 2015
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Picture Perfect Parks & Sites

Working With Landscape Architects on Park Design

By Joe Bush

Get Collaborative

Landscape architect Bruce Dees sees another trend: park departments, school districts and other agencies with similar missions, like Boys & Girls Club, collaborating to share land and facilities. Dees, owner of Seattle-area firm Bruce Dees & Associates, cited the ongoing South End Recreation and Adventure (SERA) Campus project in Tacoma, for which his firm provided the master plan.

The 78-acre area is a partnership among Metro Parks Tacoma, the Tacoma School District, and the Boys & Girls Club, which has a facility on site. Two of three phases are complete, with the third slated for completion this summer.

Kristi Evans, project manager in the planning and development department for Metro Parks Tacoma, said the SERA work done by Dees's firm highlights not only a landscape architect's value working with a site's natural assets, but also skill at winning community acceptance of a project.

Evans said the vision for SERA Campus emerged from a community process that started with master planning in 2009. That process identified activities citizens wanted to be part of the long-range planning, including a playground and sprayground; the site also includes athletic fields and adventure activities such as climbing walls and ziplines. Features include a multi-use synthetic turf field with walkways, fencing and landscaping; event parking; field lighting; and event lawn underdrainage and irrigation.

The SERA Campus is located in an area with higher percentages of residents affected by poverty, as well as more individuals with disabilities, Evans explained. All were welcome to share their wants and needs.

"Prior to master planning, the majority of the area was previously developed as a flat, formless terrain, something we were unwilling to 'settle' for as the gathering space for this community," Evans said. "Collaboration was an integral aspect of the entire project. We have strong working relationships with our citizens. They are actively engaged in every step from master planning through grand openings. So, the collaborative process not only takes place between our agency and consultant, it's one in which the community is invested through steering committees, heavily publicized community input meetings and outreach presentations with key community stakeholders."

Dees said that yes, being able to shape land and manage stormwater and recycle onsite materials and turn community desire into reality are signature abilities of landscape architects, but when considering the services of one, don't underestimate the landscape architect's public relations and interaction.

His firm had to nimbly navigate this aspect of landscape architecture when working on a plan to convert a 114-acre marine waterfront park on Puget Sound to a day-use facility. Prior to being retained to develop the plan, Washington State Parks staff had logged a large portion of the park in order to protect the ranger residence from potential damage from a root rot that had infested trees. The public was not happy with the logging.

"State Parks staff was reticent to even discuss the issue with the general public," Dees said. "We brought to the table the ability to openly and honestly address the issues, listen to the public and develop alternative solutions to the problem. That sense of understanding and empathy for people is, I believe, unique to landscape architects."

Evans said the SERA Campus project has been an overwhelming success, and based on this project and others in the past, considers the use and expense of landscape architects mandatory, not excessive.

"We didn't consider a landscape architect to be an extra resource; instead, the landscape architect was our prime resource," she said. "When you are talking about parks and the natural environment, landscape architects have a good sense of how to restructure an area without jeopardizing the integrity of the environment. For (SERA Campus), we knew the design approaches of a landscape architect were essential to deliver the experience our community envisioned throughout the master planning process."