Supplement Feature - April 2021
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Going Green, Sustaining Momentum

Park Designs Focus on Sustainability, Equity

By Chris Gelbach



In response to COVID-19, PARKS have become more critical than ever to people wanting to maintain social distancing, go outside, get a workout in, or just spend some time in nature.


If the past year has solidified anything, it is the critical role parks play in supporting healthy activity, peace of mind and opportunities for beneficial social contact even amid a global pandemic. At the same time, the crisis has put a crunch on local budgets that may have long-term consequences for parks departments.

In this environment, parks departments have an opportunity to step up and contribute even more to the health and success of their communities. Through new park approaches that adapt to the needs and realities of a post-COVID world and emphasize sustainability and inclusion, park designers are creating spaces that will serve more people, more effectively, well into the future.

A Time for New Approaches

In response to COVID-19, parks have become more critical than ever to people wanting to maintain social distancing, go outside, get a workout in, or just spend some time in nature. And to meet this increased demand, many communities have taken innovative approaches by transforming existing spaces into popup restaurants, turning city streets into priority zones for walkers and cyclists, and expanding park spaces out beyond their traditional limits.

"As parks and rec professionals, we're trying to balance responsiveness and innovation, but part of what makes that successful is listening and changing and revising," said Nette Compton, AVP and director of strategy for The Trust for Public Land. "And that's going to continue to be the case as we keep trying new things. And I think that there's a real opportunity to learn from that kind of rapid innovation."

One of the things to consider is which of the new approaches might be preferred long-term solutions, as opposed to just pandemic necessities. "I think we have the opportunity to say, do we want to go back to the way things were and give up this space back to cars? Or do we really like how we've been using the space and do we want to continue doing something differently?" Compton said.

Compton also recommended considering new activities people have taken up in large numbers during the pandemic—be it working out outdoors, cycling or gardening—and figuring out ways to keep that momentum going. Parks professionals can assist by doing things like providing things like more outdoor workout equipment, more bike trails and more community gardens.

"There are some habits and lifestyle changes that people were willing to make in this past year that they might not have tried otherwise," Compton said. "And some of those are really great habits. As parks professionals, what are the opportunities we have to build on that exploration and make those permanent habits?"

Eric Hornig, a principal at Hitchcock Design Group who works on the architectural and design firm's Recreation team, expects things like touch-free fountains and other elements to be a long-term shift resulting from the pandemic. He wonders whether the layout of certain parks might shift too. "Our message and our motto for decades has been about bringing people together," Hornig said. "So it's kind of weird to think about, but I think you'll see those kind of spatial arrangements stick."

While he expects areas such as playgrounds to return to normal and anticipates that people will still want to have tactile experiences with play and nature-based play, recent events may change approaches to park layouts.

"A typical park space [today] might have a single core, where everybody goes and the shelter and the splash pad and the playground and everything is kind of there," Hornig said. "We're wondering if we might start to see multiple cores in park design just to kind of spread people out a little bit."