Feature Article - September 2015
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Naturally Urban

Connecting City Dwellers to Nature Via Parks & Trails

By Emily Tipping

Pockets of play were added along the trail, themed to match their surroundings. "A butterfly pocket features a custom sculpture that highlights the metamorphosis of the Monarch butterfly," Spencer said. "The pocket also adjoins butterfly gardens and the butterfly house, offering a wonderful connection to families. A sign near the sculpture shares details of the butterfly's metamorphosis. …Other play pockets highlight mushrooms, trees, leaves and pond life, each offering signage to promote learning."

"The structures have added an element of interest to the trail and are not only great for engaging exercise activity from youth but are, to some extent, an aesthetic element to the trail," Whaley said. "While not considered 'art,' they do have a sculptural impact in some locations."

One important thing to remember when you're planning this type of pathway, Whaley added, is placement of the play sculptures. "Whether it's a tree or toadstools kids like to climb on, how do you take that manufactured element and set it into nature so it looks like it's not just plopped in there," he said. "That's something you need to take time to consider. Don't take a pine tree and put it out in the middle of a prairie. Make sure it fits with the surrounding area."

"Though many trails exist in cities and suburbs, it appears that only a minority of children and families use them," Spencer said. "Go to an urban path, and it's common to see runners, walkers, cyclists, couples, dog walkers—but families are generally underrepresented. In cities where playful pathway projects have been added, we've seen increases in family usage, health promotion, environmental literacy, and a growing community social capital."

Get the Message Across

Speaking of environmental literacy, education is almost always part of the mission of these large, well-integrated projects. If you want the overlooked natural, cultural and historical resources of your city to become more obvious, you have to tell your story. Many trails and parks incorporate interpretive signage to accomplish this mission.

For example, in Nashville's Cumberland Park, interpretive signage informs the public not only about the water-saving features of the site, but its cultural history as well.

"Part of our goal is to tell the story about the river and how it is a resource," Koster said. "It's not always apparent, but we want to explain why it's important, including some of its history, and also why it's important to keep the river clean. At one point, we were under an EPA injunction and it took a lot of years and funding to clean the river up in that area. This is the perfect opportunity to tell that story."

In addition to signage, the park itself provides an opportunity for people to interact with water. "We've got the spraypark elements and … there are rows of pavers with foggers built into the ground. And, of course, you're able to walk out over the water," Koster said. "Part of that was telling the story and having people interacting with the water and telling the story of the river."

Houston's Bayou Greenways also are incorporating signage, both for wayfinding as well as for education. "We are working with a company called Interpretive Insights, and they write interpretive signage," Butsch said. "They study the natural resources around the bayou, plants and wildlife and natural settings, and they'll write interpretive signage panels to put throughout the system. That will also include some of the cultural history because we exist the way we do because the city was built on these waterways, and some do have historical significance."