Supplement Feature - April 2021
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Going Green, Sustaining Momentum

Park Designs Focus on Sustainability, Equity

By Chris Gelbach


In general, designers are working on more waterfront and riverside projects as people want to get closer to nature and to the water-based recreation. RDG's work on the Central Iowa Water Trails project is one example that includes a multiparty public-private partnership, environmental conservation elements, economic development and copious opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The overall final project is slated to transform 150 miles of waterways into a recreational amenity. It includes projects in downtown Des Moines that would create several sites for kayakers to enter the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers to paddle throughout the city, as well as whitewater elements and other activities that could include fishing shelters, zip-lining and rock climbing.

"From a recreation standpoint, we're providing a whitewater regional destination here in the downtown Des Moines area and then also trying to connect into regional trail systems as a destination focal point there," McDermott said. "It's really thinking about reinvigorating the downtown area from a recreational standpoint and internally looking at the economic benefits it could provide for downtown Des Moines."

Small Opportunities, Big Potential

While the scope of some of these nature-based projects is grand, Conrad believes there is room to incorporate more sustainability in the form of native plantings and tiny forests in underutilized areas of virtually any park.

"We've seen through the pandemic how valuable public open spaces are to our health and sanity," Conrad said. "But you can pick out in almost any park places that don't need to just be covered in turf, that are not actually being utilized in that way, whether it's a hillside slope or perimeter landscape around a tennis court … we really need to be maximizing every square foot of our landscape."

Conrad recommended making sure that every spare square foot is used in a thoughtful way. "Because if it's not serving a program or a public need and it's not serving any kind of performance either, then we haven't done our job, honestly," Conrad said.

As communities begin to focus more on sustainability, there is an opportunity for parks professionals to play a growing role in city planning and similar efforts. "I would hope that cities can start looking to their climate action plans and that parks management is built into the climate action plans," Conrad said.

With the threat of climate change imminent and the threat of COVID still apparent, parks are proving themselves more critical than ever. As parks professionals design new spaces that address these challenges, they also have new ammunition in their battle to obtain the funding to make these transformational spaces a reality. RM