Supplement Feature - April 2021
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Going Green, Sustaining Momentum

Park Designs Focus on Sustainability, Equity

By Chris Gelbach

Flexibility Paramount

Accompanying the principle of inclusion is the desire to create the most flexible spaces possible. In terms of sports, designers are seeing more new parks incorporating multiuse amenities. When it comes to racquet sports, this might mean outdoor courts that can accommodate both tennis and pickleball. For sports fields, it's often laying out fields suitable for multiple sports.

"Most of our clients don't want to overlay baseball and soccer if they're trying to save money on an artificial turf field," Hornig said. "They tend to not overlay that different of a sport. But if they have a soccer field, it's striped for football, it's striped for flag football, it's striped for lacrosse."

And lacrosse is becoming huge. "In the Midwest particularly, lacrosse and soccer are becoming extremely popular," McDermott said. "So this is impacting track layouts and turf field sizes to accommodate those sports."

More broadly, many designs are focusing less on specific activities and more toward flexible use with equity, inclusion and meeting the needs of all demographics in the local community.

Sustainability Here to Stay

Sustainability is another consideration that is becoming paramount in new park designs, even if it has been a consideration already for some time. For example, Compton noted that the stormwater management and flood-resilience benefits of parks have been an area of focus for some time.

"Look at Buffalo Bayou in Houston — you can design parks to be these amazing community assets, but they can also withstand flooding in a way that housing or other infrastructure can't," Compton said. The Staten Island Bluebelt system of wetland areas that has been expanded significantly since Hurricane Sandy stands as another notable example.

But Compton thinks that the heat management benefits of parks is something that warrants more focus moving forward. "Flooding and your superstorms get a lot of attention, but heat is annually a bigger killer of people than any other type of natural disaster," Compton said. "A park system that is distributed across an entire city really has a role to play. If you look at heat maps of any city, they're essentially an overlay of where the parks are."

TPL has done some analysis of surface temperatures and has found that areas within a 10-minute walk of a park can be as high as six degrees cooler than areas beyond that range. So choices in park locations, materials and in creating the most beneficial tree canopy can make a huge difference.

"There's so much research that's gone into the life of an urban tree, and how do you set up an urban tree to succeed," Compton said. "If you look at the average life of a street tree, it's a pretty low number. And you're never going to get those long-term benefits if the tree doesn't last."

Compton is seeing more emphasis in new park projects on doing things like creating continuous tree pits to maximize soil volume, using porous pavement that creates usable paved spaces while still getting water to trees, and the use of structural soils.

Pamela Conrad, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture, founded Climate Positive Design ( to help designers and communities contribute to climate change solutions by making better choices that contribute to better-performing spaces in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change.

Some of the more eco-conscious building and design choices Conrad recommends include:

  • Planting more and paving less.
  • Selecting native and adaptive species for higher carbon performance, increased biodiversity, reduced water use and healthier soil.
  • Using high-maintenance lawn only in areas like sports fields and picnic meadows that really require it.
  • Considering meadow grasses as a substitute for turf.
  • Investing in electric maintenance equipment and retiring gas-powered equipment.
  • Selecting trees for new plantings that will grow the biggest, live the longest and require the least supplemental care in your region.
  • Considering rammed earth walls instead of concrete for a lower carbon footprint.
  • Using organic fertilizers when possible instead of fertilizers containing the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
  • Opting for maintenance plans that avoid over-pruning or over-mowing.

When renovating an existing space, Conrad recommends also being thoughtful about the use of materials that already exist onsite. "That's something that we have been really creative with recently," Conrad said. "If a tree goes down, we work with local craftsmen to redesign it into site furnishings or site features like stairs or fenceposts."

These considerations help reduce the carbon expended in removing materials from the site and can also help to make the site unique. For a new project on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, CMG incorporated a few hundred existing onsite boulders into the design, some of them in the dog park area. Several eucalyptus trees that were cut down for habitat-management reasons have been turned into benches and other site furnishings.

Another new CMG project, DePave Park, is transforming a bayside former concrete-paved naval tarmac in Alameda, Calif., into an ecological park. "We're going to be digging up the asphalt from the site and reusing that into jetties that are going to allow for coastal habitat creation," Conrad said. The final project will be an ecological park that can adapt to sea level rise and that will feature a constructed wetland habitat, trails and other recreational and educational opportunities.