Supplement Feature - April 2017
Find a printable version here

Fun for All

The Latest in Park Planning and Design

By Rick Dandes

Neighborhoods want sustainable green space and recreation opportunities that appeal to multiple generations. As public parks become increasingly integral to their neighborhoods' identity, architectural designers and planners have learned to collaborate with residents, stakeholders and the broader community to help create and verify park concept plans, and to identify priority projects that can accommodate multi-generational interests.

"That's one of the key trends I've noticed over the past 10 years," said Tom McGilloway, principal, Mahan Rykiel Associates Inc., Baltimore, Md. "Developing partnerships and getting more community and stakeholders involved in the plan, design and visualization of the park is critical to its success. You'll also want to involve private partnerships working with more public agencies, not only the parks department and the parks professionals."

What communities are asking for these days, suggested Charlie McCabe, director for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, Boston office, "… is creativity. The TPL is largely focused on city parks, and the leading trend we are seeing is for a lot more innovations, in terms of mixed uses in a given space. Where we used to see a neighborhood park that would have a classic playground, maybe a sports field and a few basketball hoops, now there is a lot more of thinking through what the local community needs and adjusting based on that."

As an example, McCabe explained, there could be a building, an actual recreation center that is part of a park's design or re-design. The center could have multiple uses besides the traditional classes and after-school programs. It could be a health clinic, provide local nonprofit wellness classes, or even house a free lunch program for seniors. "There is," McCabe said, "a lot more creativity in thinking about how you can utilize the spaces you create within a park throughout the day, during school time as well as after school time, or evenings as well as weekends, and how you can get more connect for the buck out of the investments that cities are putting into those specific areas."

Outdoor facilities are increasingly providing "… big things for underserved populations," McCabe said. "Building skateparks are big ones on a wish list that continues to grow. There is a big push in the western United States to reuse tennis courts for a sport that was developed after the second World War, but is really gaining in the over-50 set, called pickleball, and there is always the need for more dog parks."

But those parks are also becoming more flexible, integrating their active recreational spaces with passive areas. There might be a part of the park devoted to more active racquet sports or ballfields, woven with spaces that are more natural and passive with trail systems, so even if you are there as a more active user, you are exposed to the more natural and ecological aspects of the space. If you are there for the environmental aspect of a park, you are pulled into and exposed to some of the more active features. Integrating the natural features of a park space with its more active areas is a trend.

Sustainability, once a trend, is now a given at most parks, but the term means different things to different people, McCabe said. "Take Austin, Texas, where the big challenge is always water because you have very hot summers. I've heard it said that Texas is a state of drought punctuated by periods of flood. When we did tree plantings or thought about turf fields we would have to think not only about how to fund irrigation to keep things alive, but also about surfacing, and how long it would last. Do you go for packed mulch or crushed stone for a dog park? The other thing we were good at was water, when it did come, and how to manage it through rain gardens and other devices that allowed us to capture more water coming off the streets and then funnel it to trees and plants."

Community gardens continue to grow and expand everywhere. "Where we've seen them pop up the most is in unutilized spaces in cities," McCabe said. "Empty lots may be owned by one city department and they'll transfer it to the parks department, which allows a city garden to be planted there. Again, water is a big thing and getting water service to that area could be the big expense."