Feature Article - May 2017
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From Land to Landscape

Effective Approaches to Park Design

By Joe Bush

There's much more to planning and designing parks today than simply using vacant land to provide a place for people to get some fresh air.

Cities and landscape architects must consider demographics, community input, sustainability, gentrification, transportation systems, five- and 10-year master plans, funding sources, pet populations and revenue streams when collaborating on either starting or refreshing a park.

There's too much at stake with the price of park construction or remodeling to wing it. Parks must fit thematically with the rest of the town or neighborhood, respond to citizen requests and needs, and perhaps provide tourism opportunities—all while benefiting or at least not harming the environment. How do town officials and their park-building partners balance all this?

"A lot of the current thinking on parks and open spaces is much more systematic than it's been in the past," said Mark Naylor, a project director at Denver landscape design firm Civitas. "The historic notion of a park has been a place where people go and recreate and decompress. The idea of having a park being a part of an interconnected system—greenways, green streets, pedestrian and bike connections, making it really a connected part of the city—is an important part of open space design these days."

Naylor has been intimately involved with several Denver parks and is currently working on a project in Tampa. An excerpt from his bio on the Civitas website opens a window to what inspires landscape architects as they work with cities and the contractors that make the plans and drawings real: "Passionate about the spatial qualities of music and design, Mark looks for the rhythm of a place—its cadence, continuity, contrast and how people move through space. He brings this sense of place to the forefront of his design, where landscape and city meets, creating spaces where people love to go, where urban life is at its best."

It's science and it's art and it's politics.

Scott Crawford, senior partner at RDG Planning & Design, said his firm breaks the parks process into capitals: human capital, natural capital, cultural capital, built capital—and last but far from least: "The last piece is one that can make or break, and that's political considerations, elected officials, getting them engaged in the process and the benefits that can bring," Crawford said. "Without them, a lot of times you can't achieve what you want to do."

According to American Planning Association research, what municipalities should want to do includes:

  • Creating an interconnected system of parks and open space because it is more beneficial than creating parks in isolation.
  • Using parks to help preserve essential ecological functions and to protect biodiversity.
  • Helping to shape urban form and buffer incompatible uses.
  • Using parks to reduce public costs for stormwater management, flood control, transportation and other forms of built infrastructure.

All that can be satisfied while providing play spaces, exercise areas, meeting locations, dog walking sites, fishing and boating access, or simply seating for pausing and reflecting.

Urban Expansion

Naylor said one important population shift is driving city park design: growth in downtown areas by the millennial generation.

"Here in Denver there's a huge influx of folks who want to live downtown—some don't have cars, using rideshare and bikes and public transportation," Naylor said. "As cities densify you need to have that counterpoint of open space, and you need to have the ability for people to get to these parks. You're seeing a lot of study, a lot of interest, in these urban connections."

Parks must fit thematically with the rest of the town or neighborhood, respond to citizen requests and needs, and perhaps provide tourism opportunities—all while benefiting or at least not harming the environment.

Urban "green loops" are trending in cities across the country, he said, tying the city together using multimodal transportation, pedestrian, bike, public transportation and rideshare.

"Things are changing, and Denver is reflective," Naylor said. "You have a group of millennials that has a different set of values, that really values the urban lifestyle and everything that comes with it."

Susan Veres is a senior vice president of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), a for-profit entity that partnered with Civitas on park development for a portion of nearly 500 acres by the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Riverwalks have become popular in cities with waterways, as parks unto themselves as well as connectors to other aspects of park systems, and parks have proven essential to making the CMLC residential and commercial development attractive and bountiful for the developers.

Veres said the CMLC had experience creating a 4-kilometer Riverwalk, but when it came time to revitalize an island that once drew Boy Scout and Girl Scout activity and RV camping, it needed Civitas and waterway engineers. Opened in 2015, the St. Patrick Island project and the Riverwalk attract 100,000 visitors annually, said Veres. The CMLC was careful to listen to Calgarians when beginning the island park re-do.

"Our desire was to make it a usable park, a recreational oasis," Veres said. "We went through two years of public engagement, and we heard very clearly from citizens that they didn't want a heavy touch to the landscape. They wanted a very natural biophilic approach to the design and they wanted no development, just a recreational, serene setting. They also wanted to have places to ride their bikes and run the running trails and to fish and to kayak. The Bow River is an aggressive river and we made those activities possible.

"From day one the park was absolutely filled with people; the entire program was to allow Calgarians to recreate in the center of the city and I think we achieved that. They told us what they wanted to do and they showed up and they did it."