Feature Article - January 2020
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The Spaces We Share

Landscape Design Pros on Park Design

By Dave Ramont


An Award-Winning Place to Gather

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)—founded in 1899—currently represents more than 15,000 members, with a mission to "advance landscape architecture through advocacy, communication, education and fellowship." Sustainability has also been a part of the organization's mission from the beginning, and it informs all of its programs and operations. ASLA encourages communities to create or improve access to parks, paths, trails and other spaces that encourage physical activity.

ASLA tends a robust awards program, and one of the 2019 Professional Awards went to Virginia-based Michael Vergason Landscape Architects Ltd., which received an Honor Award for the Sundance Square Plaza project located in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. The site—formerly a pair of parking lots—has been transformed into a vibrant gathering space where thousands of visitors gather weekly to relax or partake in a multitude of entertainment offerings.

Michael Vergason, principal at the firm, explained that the project was a public/private effort, since the parking lots were privately owned, but Main Street ran between them, so the project ultimately incorporated the street. "The street can be opened at any time—and is for parades and special events—but the normal day-to-day now includes the closure of the street. All of it was done in close concert with the city, but it was really a project initiated by the private sector."

In the planning stages, Vergason described how they were given a graph with the weeks and months of the year, the types of various programs and events that might take place—ranked by anticipated size—and possible amenities required, including tents and booths, tables and chairs, stages and projection screens. These programs included art shows, boxing matches, yoga classes, farmers markets, Dallas Mavericks watch parties, symphony concerts, a puppy parade, car show, chili cook-off, wine tasting events and more. "It was our first look at understanding the programs and the capacity for the site to accommodate those programs."

The design was driven by the range and scale of events on the square, according to Vergason. "Having a minimum number of permanent verticals that they'd have to work around, that really drove the design of a very simple layout, surrounded by occupy-able edges with a minimum number of fixed elements in the middle to maximize the flexibility of the way the space could be used." Vergason said that this worked for when the square was full of people attending events, but also created a space that was comfortable and pleasant when few people were there.

Circulation flow and seating options were major considerations, and Sundance Square Plaza has 300 moveable chairs, 24 seven-foot benches and nearly 400 linear feet of seat walls. Hundreds of additional seats for al fresco dining are available at the cafés and pubs along the plaza's edges. A pavilion and stage occupy the site, equipped with permanent audio and visual equipment.

Climate was another big driver of the design, according to Vergason, as it gets quite hot during a Texas summer. One landmark feature for combating the heat is a group of operable umbrellas that reach 32-feet high and span 40 by 40 feet. Collectively, they create 6,400 square feet of shade, reducing midday pavement surface temperatures by 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

Vergason explained how the umbrellas open each morning and close each night when the plaza shuts down. "They become a symbol for the rhythm of the day and the opening of the square. They still draw stares when they open up and close down—it's a beautiful thing." At night they're illuminated by color-changing LED lamps. The umbrellas can be closed at any time depending on the weather, such as in the winter, when it's preferable to take advantage of the warming sun.

A 65-foot wave fountain at the plaza emits cascades of water in ever-changing patterns. And a 3,120-square-foot interactive fountain provides families with cooling fun, featuring 216 variable jets that shoot water up to 12 feet high. The jets, drains and lights are housed in steel grates, so that the fountain can be turned off, providing extra gathering space for large events.

Vergason said that the intention of Sundance Square Plaza was to draw a broad cross-section of people—not just from surrounding blocks but from the entire metropolitan area—and it's accomplished just that, providing numerous social and fiscal benefits. "It's been very successful in establishing what never existed before in Fort Worth, which is a real public destination in the middle of downtown."

A Sustainable Plan

Sustainable practices are paramount in landscape designs these days, and Ishikawa said that there are many projects that are about ecology. "We keep draining our aquifers without refilling them. Deforesting without allowing young trees to grow up. All of our projects need to help—even in a small way—with overall climate change."

Hornig discusses lessons learned in northern Illinois, where the Emerald Ash Borer has devastated a huge percentage of Ash trees. "These were heavily planted as durable street and parkways trees in the past, and have left holes in the landscape fabric that are difficult to replace all at once. Communities are much more aware of the need for diverse tree collections and are developing ordinances to require such."

Back at Sundance Square Plaza, Vergason said they used native plantings, which are highly resilient to local climate, including live oaks and cedar elms that provide perimeter shade. And stormwater management includes having the majority of the plaza drain into a permeable zone that detains the stormwater within Silva cells.

Another ASLA 2019 Honor Award was presented to SWA/Balsley, a New York-based design firm, for the Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park Phase ll project in Long Island City, N.Y., which opened to the public in 2018. The park was transformed from a contaminated former rail site, and design principal Thomas Balsley said it's now a global model of urban waterfront resiliency, demonstrating the collaborative approach needed to address the urgent issues of climate change. "An innovative system of tidal marshes, grassland berms, bioswales and catchment zones proved its worth with Hurricane Sandy and demonstrated that an environmentally performative urban park designed to protect can also serve the social, cultural and recreational needs of its community."

An earlier phase of the park is already a vibrant community gathering space, featuring a ferry pavilion, pier, play areas, dog runs, bikeways, beach and a multipurpose lawn. The newly completed phase features intimate overlooks, interpretive trails, custom furnishings, a shaded promontory slope with banquette seating and embedded family rafts, exercise and picnic areas, a kayak launch and a collection of native and salt-tolerant grasses and trees. An island sanctuary hosts intimate gatherings and a public art installation.

"It's no longer enough to just point to a green space with lawns, paths, benches and trees as our parks," said Balsley. "A growing constituency of immigrants, their families, young urban professionals and empty nesters, to mention a few, are demanding a broad range of parks that resonate with the 21st century culture of urban park recreation."

He said these may range from smaller spaces close to our jobs or homes to larger destination parks where we connect with nature or each other for events. "We're designing these parks to the highest levels of economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability and resiliency."