Feature Article - May 2017
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From Land to Landscape

Effective Approaches to Park Design

By Joe Bush


Environmental Concerns

Prince said concern for residents is side-by-side with concern for the environment. There is stormwater management using not piping, but green infrastructure.

"Take the stormwater from a rain event and try to manage some of it onsite and get it to soak into the ground before it overflows into the storm pipes in order to lessen the load on our sewage treatment plants," said Prince. "We're working with department of environmental protection for innovation on this."

For example, the city does not use rainforest woods in public spaces, benches are typically made with recycled plastic slats, and splash pads use low-flow equipment.

To be sure, contemporary park design emphasizes sustainability as much as usability. Take for instance this project from Site Design Group, Stearns Quarry Environmental Park, also known as Henry Palmisano Park.

The 27-acre park is located in the historic Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, and is on a site rich with historic significance. Its history includes a stint as one of the city's most important quarries, and became a forgotten dumping ground of construction waste.

Site Design Group transformed it into an urban oasis that boasts high-quality native prairie and wetland re-creations. Design Principal Hana Ishikawa said one of the early project goals was to leave as small a footprint and contribute as few carbon emissions as possible through two primary means—keeping all existing materials on site, and managing all rainfall through natural systems.

Featured are angular metal catwalks, recycled concrete steps and zigzagging paths, contrasting the surrounding prairie grasses and celebrating the site's industrial past.

"This much-loved park has set the bar for a new kind of urban park, one that can be made of mostly what it used to be, and embraces surreal natural beauty, diversity and the celebration of a site's unique past," said Ishikawa. "The end result is a park that exhibits the natural processes of rainwater collection and filtration, as well as a park that is historically and culturally unique to the neighborhood and finally, provides recreational capacities that nearby parks do not."

Ishikawa said Palmisano Park is adjacent to a park with typical recreational facilities, like playgrounds, baseball fields and a fieldhouse, so it can be enjoyed for more sentimental reasons.

"With its historical significance to current and past residents, many (residents) mentioned that they had played in the quarry when they were children and were excited once again to enjoy the space in a new capacity," Ishikawa said. "The park supports educational and environmental awareness, and also provides unique recreational opportunities, such as exercising up and down hills, yoga and tai chi, fishing in a stocked pond, or sledding in the winter, something that is harder to come by due to the topography of Chicago."

She said it's a great example of today's park philosophy. Parks in general have more of a role in society, not only providing a place of recreation, respite and appreciation of nature, but also serving as key drivers for social and sustainable change.

"We are currently working on several high-level conceptual design projects where rivers are serving not only an industrial transportation corridor, but a filtration system for water pollutants, exceeding retention and detention requirements of the city by approximately threefold, as well as becoming a recreational amenity," she said.

Naylor said use of waterways and water itself are keys to modern park design. Water is fun and pretty, but getting those benefits requires giving back as well.

"More and more parks are expected to contribute to the health and livelihood of the city," he said. "There's a restorative aspect to parks, but there's a more pragmatic aspect. Parks can help with air quality, be the lungs of the city. They can be the kidneys, too, when water running through the city can be purified. We run water from nearby streets through native grass ditches before they get to (Denver's) South Platte River and the water gets purified by doing that."

In the end, while park design philosophy and priorities have evolved, there are foundations that stand the test of time, like safety and cost-effectiveness, and ensuring the spaces will be popular.

"If we create a park that doesn't resonate," said Naylor, "we've failed."