Feature Article - May 2018
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The Landscape View

Bringing the Many Benefits of Parks to the Forefront

By Dave Ramont

Parks and other outdoor public spaces serve many functions for communities, including rejuvenating neighborhoods and connecting people, providing economic and cultural value, contributing to clean air initiatives, preserving history and habitat, or simply creating opportunities for users to exercise or unwind. But while you may be daydreaming on a park bench, landscape designers and architects are considering every detail of that space, from traffic flow and stormwater management to every plant and where exactly to situate that bench. And as technologies, tastes and the very reasons these spaces exist continue to evolve, so do the designs.

Hana Ishikawa is an architect and design principal, and Bradley McCauley a landscape architect and managing principal at Site Design Group Ltd., a Chicago-based landscape architecture, urban design and architecture firm. Ishikawa said the uses of public spaces are changing rapidly as millennials gain spending power and influence, and she's noticed a larger focus on creating flexible spaces. "Former industrial brownstone sites are now being turned into public spaces as municipalities are realizing that transforming these dilapidated, unused, vacant city-owned lands into public amenities increases the livability of their communities and is less costly than finding a developer to do the same."

Fitness and health benefits are major reasons for spending time outdoors, and Diane Lipovsky said they're major considerations when designing outdoor spaces. Lipovsky is a landscape architect for Civitas, a Denver-based practice of designers and architects engaged in strategic planning for urban change and project design for built works. She said she prefers parks that weave a health ethos into the fabric of the design itself, as opposed to relegating "health" to a specific location in a park that may have fitness machines or pull-up bars. "Rather, if the circulation, the amenities and the program areas can all be thought of as components that enhance and promote health and wellness, it creates more meaningful space that visitors will return to, share with their friends and use in different ways."

She mentioned the New York Restoration Project in the South Bronx, which her firm is involved with, which leverages the collaboration of designers, hospital partners, community health researchers and geospatial analysts to develop a master plan that can demonstrate measurable health improvements in the area.

The uses of public spaces are changing rapidly as millennials gain spending power and influence.

With regard to health and wellness, children are certainly an important consideration as well, and McCauley said a current trend is the incorporation of nature into play spaces. He believes there are two reasons for this, the first being to simply connect kids to nature, particularly in urban settings. "The other reason is often the desire to save up-front costs in the establishment of a garden or play space. The complicated part is ensuring all stakeholders understand the long-term costs and how to maintain the final product."

Ishikawa agrees that nature-inspired play is becoming very popular, as parents and teachers realize that children are becoming less aware of natural processes. "There are very limited places, including our public parks, where children are allowed to climb trees, pick plants or even get close to dirt."

She explained that in addition to nature-play spaces, they've designed parks with measured running tracks, exercise areas and unique play equipment custom-designed for a particular space, including a treehouse. "We're trying to create spaces that have more diverse outdoor activities in mind, both for children and adults."

The nonprofit Balboa Park Conservancy was formed in 2011 to raise funds, develop public-private relationships and collaborate with stakeholders to address sustainability and accessibility needs in San Diego's Balboa Park, a trend becoming more common as city and park resources become more limited. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the 1,200-acre park is home to the San Diego Zoo, 17 museums and cultural institutions, 19 gardens, playgrounds, dog parks, trails, food vendors and more than 10 dedicated performance spaces featuring music, comedy, theater and dance.

Tomas Herrera-Mishler is a landscape architect and president and CEO of the Balboa Park Conservancy. A trend he's been seeing across the nation is to look at parks as a resource for cultural tourism and an economic engine. He said they recently completed an economic impact study at Balboa Park where they examined things like tourism impact of the site as well as the effect of the park on adjacent real estate values. In their case, due to their extraordinary amenities, it was more than $350 million. But he described a similar study conducted in Buffalo, N.Y., when he worked with the parks system there, which saw a profound impact on the surrounding real estate as the quality of the landscape maintenance was enhanced. "As park professionals, the trend has shown two things: one, that the parks can be this economic engine for a city, a region, a neighborhood. But we're also showing that the secret ingredient to making parks that beneficial is high-quality maintenance and high-quality design."