Supplement Feature - April 2016
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Nature in the City

Urban Park Design Provides Access to Nature

By Dave Ramont

Design Strategies

Often in crowded urban areas, there is limited room to work with when designing green spaces. So how best to utilize this space to provide an oasis and attract visitors? Eric Hornig, principal at Hitchcock Design Group, based in Naperville, Ill., said that because small spaces tend to be up close and personal, it's important that no decision be arbitrary. Every texture, color and shape should matter and be pleasing to the visitor. "Water of any kind, shape or size is magical," he said. "Even the simplest fountains can transform a space."

Hornig points out that since we all have different perspectives and moods that affect what makes us feel comfortable, providing diverse seating choices—including movable seating if practical—is important. "We always look for seating and shade opportunities, but don't overlook the need to recline and get some sun. Particularly in urban areas where shadows chase you from tall buildings, maximizing that sunny spot can play a big role."

Scott Jordan, principal at Civitas, an urban design and landscape architecture firm based in Denver, said they use the mantra "no instructions necessary" in designing sessions. Meaning that "what we design must instill comfort, engage users, and provide them with a platform to use a space as they see fit."

Another key concept when creating interaction with nature in urban settings is authenticity, he added. "When conceptualizing new or revitalized park spaces, we spend a lot of time exploring the history of a site, how it's been used in the past when natural systems shaped the place, and how it's evolved over time. By peeling back the layers of a site's history, it provides you with a lot of clues as to how to approach the design, what natural systems should be restored, and how an intervention can instill or enhance authenticity in the place."

Working in dense, compact areas presents other challenges as well, including overuse. "Choosing materials that will go the distance like concrete, stone and steel can help, but need to be balanced to keep it from being cold and stark," Hornig said. "Plant materials are critical to this balance but likely suffer the most from overcrowding."

"In dense urban environments, land is so valuable and open spaces so precious that these spaces must provide multiple benefits and meaning for many different user groups," Jordan added. "When designing these spaces, we must create unique human experiences and interactions with nature in such a way that the natural spaces are perceived as intentional and special."

One larger project Civitas recently worked on is the 31-acre St. Patrick's Island in Calgary, Alberta—an urban island in the Bow River. Calgary's oldest park had become neglected and underutilized over the years, and had fallen prey to crime and drug trades. Jordan, the site's project manager, said, "The island had stopped evolving and functioning as an island. With this design transformation, we've reintroduced a resource that's set within one of the most beautiful rivers flowing through a downtown metropolis in North America."

The island now features picnic and playground areas, a sledding hill, an amphitheater, river access for fishing and rafting, a restored channel for wading and water play, and a wetland and forest providing an important habitat for nesting eagles, owls and songbirds.

As cities get more crowded and space becomes scarcer, planners and designers will have to become more innovative to create critical green spaces. One example of this is the Lowline on the Lower East Side of New York City. Plans are in development to use cutting-edge solar technology to illuminate a historic trolley terminal—abandoned since 1948—to create an underground park in one of the world's most dense urban environments. The technology allows sunlight into the space, and would transmit the necessary wavelengths of light to support photosynthesis, enabling plants and trees to grow. During periods of sunlight, electricity would not be necessary to light the space. In September 2012, the Lowline team built a full-scale prototype of the technology in an abandoned warehouse above the actual site, serving as proof of concept and attracting more than 11,000 visitors in two weeks. Plans are moving forward, with the hope of opening the park in 2020.

Social Equity

The National Recreation and Park Association's (NRPA) statement on social equity reads, in part, that our nation's park and recreation services should be equally accessible and available to all people regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability or age. It is a right, not just a privilege, for people nationwide to have safe, healthful access to parks and recreation. Some of the cited benefits include community connectedness, improvements of mental and physical health, measurable decreases in rates of crime and other detrimental activities, and providing economic well-being as indicated in various studies. The NRPA works to increase social equity through legislative and advocacy efforts, research and knowledge sharing, and providing practical tools to public parks and recreation agencies across the country.

Getting back to that Baltimore neighborhood, Wyatt reiterated how kids who were part of the problem with vandalism and violence were invited to be part of the creating process. And perhaps that's why the area was untouched during the rioting—they felt like the space belonged to them. "They can't escape the city, but they can walk two blocks and sit on a bench surrounded by trees and look at the sky."

She added that nature really is a necessity for all of us, and there has to be equal access to it for as many of us as possible, particularly in dense, under-served urban communities where people deal with pollution, noise and violence every day, and have higher rates of health disparities and chronic stress.

As Compton pointed out, "Green space changes our attitudes, and free public space in cities is a crucial opportunity for people from all walks of life to interact."