Feature Article - May 2022
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Parks for People & the Planet

Landscape Design Aligns Community Wants With Nature's Needs

By Dave Ramont


Riding a bicycle on a shadowy woodland trail; a chorus of frogs in a marshy wetland; kids laughing at a picnic shelter birthday party; lying on the lawn while listening to live bluegrass; sharing a park bench lunch with the birds; grandparents battling for pickleball dominance. These scenes all unfold in parks and outdoor public spaces, whether in urban centers or smaller communities, and they highlight the importance of planning and maintaining these spaces for all of us to recreate in and enjoy nature. Those who design public landscapes—with input from potential users—are always seeking ways to blend function, comfort and safety with bolstering and preserving our natural resources.

Design Principal Andy Howard with landscape planning and architecture firm Hitchcock Design Group noted that since the pandemic started and indoor recreation was shuttered, they're continuing to see increased value placed in outdoor parks and multi-use trail systems and corridors. Exploring unique ways to get users outside to exercise seems to be a trend, explaining why amenities like challenge fitness courses continue to increase in popularity. "Other trends include converting underutilized outdoor spaces into viable community hubs that may include community gardening, gathering spaces and outdoor learning spaces," said Howard.

Restoring & Respecting Ecosystems

Howard listed some challenges with restoring these underutilized, neglected spaces, such as clearing overgrown and invasive plant species. Also, handling "unsuitable debris" and other unforeseen conditions such as buried storage tanks or concrete foundations that were unknown until excavation occurred. These surprises can cause unanticipated change-order costs, upsetting budgets. "That's why having prior history and institutional knowledge of the site is invaluable to avoid potential unforeseen conditions, and look into obtaining soil borings and geotechnical investigations to know as much about the site as possible before construction."

Whether it's prairie, wetland, woodland or shoreline, it's becoming increasingly common to restore ecosystems as part of public design projects. "Several of our park projects are adjacent to a specific ecosystem, so our planting plans will specify native prairie plantings or woodland plantings with woodland understory wildflowers, depending on the degraded ecosystem or amount of disturbance adjacent to the existing ecosystem," said Howard. These native plants typically adapt better to existing soil and site conditions.

"Years ago, when we proposed native plantings, it wasn't standard for parks departments to understand how to maintain them," said Gretchen Wilson, principal partner at Dig Studio, a landscape planning and architecture firm. "But with education and development of a different type of maintenance team within our municipalities, we're able to plan and install these types of native landscapes."

She said they work closely with ecologists to analyze what's on site from an ecological standpoint and examine how their design can preserve, restore and enhance those ecological components. "We're seeing a lot more interest in restoring a site's natural ecosystem as people start to understand the importance of habitat, biodiversity, the effects of climate change, etc."

"Ecosystem restoration is a common component of our designs," said Ryan Healan, senior landscape architect with HDR, a firm specializing in engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services. "Sometimes, it's the primary focus of our projects, such as stream restoration or wetland creations, but more often it's a smaller component worked into the overall design of a project."

He offered Historic Fourth Ward Park in Atlanta as an example, where native flood plain and littoral plant communities were designed around the park's centerpiece pond. "Within days of the plantings, dragonflies, songbirds, ducks and a Great Blue Heron found their way to this native plant community in the heart of the city."

David West, also a senior landscape architect at HDR, explained how environmental restoration can sometimes be a result of recognizing the opportunity to incorporate it into the scope of a job. He described a project where a lift station had to be installed on a hillside trail along a stream bank. Construction and maintenance access required the trail's alignment and natural character to be severely altered, and trees and vegetation were greatly impacted between the realigned trail and preserved stream buffer. "Significant effort was made to restore the natural character of the corridor, and by incorporating a variety of native trees and plants to mitigate the impact of the riparian zone."

"We love working on projects that are in that fringe zone between what is urban and what is natural, and one that comes to mind is Pracht Wetlands Park in Wichita, Kan.," said Colt McDermott, landscape architect and Parks Studio leader at RDG Planning & Design, an architecture and design firm. He described the large wetlands as a buffer between a commercial area and a residential area. "It was a major restoration effort of those wetlands, trying to protect what was there, enhance it along the way and also find creative ways to allow people to interact with it."

This was accomplished with a trail system and series of boardwalks and overlooks with metal enclosures. "Allowing people to engage with it at a sensory level is really impactful for education and allowing people to see what all the benefits of those types of planting zones can be."

Howard discussed a project in Crystal Lake, Ill.—the Three Oaks Recreation Area—where they collaborated with the city to convert a former stone quarry into a recreational amenity complete with a swimming beach, fishing and boating, a playground, picnic shelters and a 2,000-square-foot pavilion. A three-mile, multi-use trail with an interpretive boardwalk that leads to a peninsula ties the entire system together. To complement rain gardens, bioswales and other unique ecosystem features, approximately 28 acres of restorative native plantings were added. Following a storm event, stormwater drains directly into the bioswales. Contractors reused existing site materials, and excess fill was constructed into a sledding hill.