Destination: Landscape

Nurturing visitor interest through creative park design

By Kelli Anderson

When Millennium Park opened in Chicago in the summer of 2004, few predicted the overwhelming success of its $475-million landscaping features and recreational attractions. From its iconic structures like the magically reflective "Cloud Gate" sculpture to dramatic water features like the high-tech video-towered Crown Fountain, people are flocking to the new city park at the estimated rate of 10,000 visitors a day. They are not just strolling by but spending hours near their favorite features, watching, laughing, touching, playing—in short, interacting—with the Windy City's newest playground-like park.

"We never expected the crowds," says Ed Uhlir, the park's director of design. "We're up to three million a year."

People are coming for a variety of park-related amenities—the acclaimed gardens, the interactive sculptures and water features, the world-class music pavilion, and comfortable spaces creatively carved into a formerly tattered, abandoned rail yard. Since its opening, local businesses have been happy too.

"It's doing great things for businesses nearby," Uhlir says of recent economic impact studies. "Creating a good, interesting park creates money."

Landscape architecture and design can do so much more than add color to an entrance or accent a pathway. Landscapes can be destination features in-and-of themselves, drawing people of all ages to a site, enhancing the quality of local life and even creating some economic growth in the process.

Transforming landscape elements from mere flowerbox fillers to fanfared feature takes good planning, creative and fun design, and an emphasis—above all—on interactivity.

Better by design

Uhlir attributes much of their park's success to an essential first-step: good designers.

"Hire the most creative landscape architect you can have for a project," Uhlir says. "Park districts have difficulty with this, but the way we did it was we got private donors to underwrite the fees. We couldn't have done it without private partnership to hire the architect."

It's a win-win scenario when projects receive their funding and donors receive the joys of altruism and the occasional naming of a park or park feature in honor of their generosity.

For many facilities on tightrope budgets, private donors are the key to underwriting fees and providing honorariums to attract only the best professionals. To reduce what can otherwise be an outpouring of hundreds of responses, Uhlir recommends inviting only a select few to compete for the project. Some facilities have found that collaborating with the art community, schools and recreation groups also can provide some outstanding creative ideas for a landscape project.

Regardless of the method, a good design should go beyond the predictable, be built with a purpose—often to celebrate the distinctive qualities of the location or community—and provide some unique play factor.

Growing Money on Trees

When landscape architecture and designs transition from facility prop to center attraction, money to fund that project is needed as well as money to keep it going and growing. Here are some ideas for raising the finances to get a project off the ground as well as to keep it thriving:

  • Get private donors or companies to underwrite a project.
  • Offer honorariums in a competition for the best designs.
  • Raise money by selling customized pavers (or other inscribable elements) to donors in the community at large.
  • Collaborate with the art community, schools and recreation groups.
  • Fund and build the project in stages if it cannot be done at one time.
  • Include revenue-creating amenities like concessions, ice rinks, mini golf, rental areas (stages, pavilions and grounds), restaurants, music venues, and outdoor and indoor theaters.
  • After a temporary display of themed park figures, auction them off to raise funds for the upkeep of the landscaped area.

Sheer beauty

Landscapes done well also share one thing in common: They're beautiful.

For Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., beautiful landscaping has earned them the title of "World's Most Beautiful Theme

Park" by the National Amusement Park Historical Association for 15 consecutive years.

Visitors to the park's European themes will find their experience enhanced by plants and structures that suggest their particular location.

"In the Italy area, landscaped gardens are dotted with Romanesque statues," says Diane Centeno, communications manager at the park. "They give guests the impression that they are walking through formal Italian gardens."

The park's use of large mass plantings create impressive displays, while hundreds of container gardens and hanging baskets, water features, and carefully preserved 100-plus-year-old oaks, beech, pine and other trees add to the visitor's experience. All the landscaped elements work together echo their intended European charm.

Be unpredictable

A common mistake in many designs, however, is boring uniformity. Trees—often all the same species—are frequently part of a formal, monotonous layout. As one architect and syndicated columnist Arrol Gellner of Emeryville, Calif., describes, "trees are spaced exactly the same distance apart, seemingly poked into the ground like so many Tootsie Pops."

Gellner attributes much of this cookie-cutter approach to habit, hurry and lack of forethought.

"In principle, it has to be a gathering place—not formal, not arranged," Gellner says. "It must have a natural appeal. There is an element of serendipity or accident."

Appearing natural, however, takes effort and careful planning that goes beyond the mechanical output of a computer drafting program. To help avoid the stiffness of symmetry, Gellner suggests varying the distance between a variety of trees and allowing the design to be, as in nature, off-center, imprecise and unpredictable.

A-maze-ing Landscapes

Mazes are a perennial favorite of landscape attractions, dating back to ancient times. Although few park districts and recreational sites could boast mazes of the caliber of Hampton Court in London, created for Henry VIII's amusement, many in the United States are finding that whether made of cornfields or woody shrubbery, mazes still hold a fascination for people of all ages.

"Mazes attract all age groups," says Peggy Pelkonen, assistant landscape architect of Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., of her recent research of mazes in the United States and Europe. "They interest 8-year-old boys and girls as well as that hard-to-reach teenager demographic and grandmas and grandpas."

Morton Arboretum has enjoyed a wide variety of interest in its newly opened shrubbery maze which, unlike traditional mazes, offers clues to each of its seven "rooms" instead of a design intended to reach one central point. Each "room" of the maze highlights a particular species of plant while participants work through the clues of the maze structure. Highlights include a lookout point over which the entire one-acre maze can be viewed.

Although the maze will take about five years to mature, some mazes take only a few months to reach their full potential. Corn mazes are another seasonal favorite growing in popularity in agricultural regions.

At Cherry Crest Farms in Paradise, Pa., a corn maze—dubbed an Amazing Maize Maze—is the star attraction. Patterned designs, which change every year depending on the theme, are part of an entire "agri-tainment" enterprise, which has spawned corn mazes around the country created by companies like the American Maze Company ("Getting People Lost Since 1993") and Adrian Fisher Maze Design (with six Guiness Book world records).

Although mazes of this quality—some taking hours to navigate and boasting award-winning designs by the likes of English maze designer Adrian Fisher—towns and park districts are not beyond trying their hands at the amazing attraction of mazes.

Park districts, like the one overseeing Mill Creek Metro Parks in Canfield, Ohio, can offer their own simpler versions of corn mazes, along with hayrides, campfire activities and special events every fall season as part of their autumnal programs.

For more information on mazes and creative maze designs, visit and

Wherever you go, there you are

Not only is repetition uninteresting, but repetition with the same species also can be dangerous. A single disease can wipe out an entire landscape. A variety of species—especially native ones—offer many more benefits. Native plantings require much less maintenance, add seasonal interest and, perhaps most importantly, reflect the authenticity of the area. It lets people know where they are.

"Native landscapes offer color that's more organic—they're more interesting and give a sense of place," says Peggy Pelkonen, assistant landscape architect of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. "Landscapes tell you where you are. That's what draws people in. In New Orleans you don't want to see petunias but oaks. In the Midwest you want to see prairie grasses."

Capitalizing on that idea, some park districts, like the park district in Memphis, Tenn., have designed their landscapes around local natural landmarks. The Mud Island River Walk in Memphis mimics the actual path of the Mississippi River. The River Walk's pedestrian area features a half-mile, water-filled scale model of the lower Mississippi's winding pathways. The shallow waters invite visitors to wade and splash in the "big muddy," while colorful banners and text panels tell the story of local history and explain geological formations as they happen in relationship to the location depicted in the model.

"There's got to be a story to tell and a reason for your project," says Trey Giuntini, general manager of the park. "Look for things that are going to draw attention to visitors with information—they need to know where they are and what they are looking at. Ask what's going to orient your visitor. If nothing else, I am certain that the aesthetic and look and shape of the park is responsible for repeat visitations, and people are telling others about it—people are visiting and coming back."

A walk on the wild side

There is yet another benefit to going native in your landscape design: It attracts wildlife. With "furry is your friend" as a mindset, former garden nemeses, Alvin chipmunk and Peter Rabbit can be among the many animals that transform the landscape into an attraction.

"Our visitors get excited when they get to see a Great Blue Heron take off or see a turtle in the middle of plantings," Pelkonen says. "My son's favorite activity is catching tadpoles by the ponds—that's what draws people in."

At the Morton Arboretum, ponds and water areas recently have been enhanced with stepping stones and walkways to allow visitors to interact with their surroundings and not merely walk by them. They can see natural plantings and the wildlife they attract, up close and personal.

Wet attractions

Perhaps nothing is so enticing to a landscaped space, however, as the magic of water.

"A space is not alive until there is some water in it," Gellner says, describing the draw of hundreds of people a day to Levi Plaza Fountain in San Francisco. The time-tested fountain, built in 1978, is a fantastic array of waterfalls, water walls, paddle streams and watery stairways that continue to attract lunchtime workers for a soothing break from their days' activities.

Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park features towering video screens that flash images of faces from which streams of water spray unpredictably from the images' mouths. The fountain's watery show is an obvious delight to watchers who squeal at the opportunity to get wet, while others splash in the fountain's shallow base and play in its additional spray features.

All over the country, water fountains are breaking free of their formal, quiet confines. They now dance to music, include light shows, and incorporate spray and splash features with stepping stones, inviting shallows and watery trails. And people of all ages are coming to experience them.

Fun factor

Sculptures, statues and structures are another way to add to your interactive landscape. The Cloud Gate in Millennium Park invites interaction.

"You see people looking in wonder," says Kim Reeve, a resident of Wheaton, Ill., visiting the park. "It was fun to see people interact with it—you go inside it and look up and see that it mirrors the city upside down. People are taking pictures of themselves taking pictures and others are touching it. It's so whimsical."

Temporary attractions also can be tempting to crowds. Although we tend to think of sculptures as fixed features, they aren't always permanent. They can move and change. By offering competitions to decorate and display everything from statuesque concrete or fiberglass cows, couches, giant mushrooms and faux people, communities have taken sculptures and created something akin to performance art as patrons sit on and next to quirky creations-on-display. Parks take on new life and new visitors as these temporary displays appear in fun and unlikely places. Besides hoping to draw curious visitors (often to pump up downtown locales), some communities even have found that such sculptural seasonal events can help raise money for a charity or pad the community chest.

Got focus?

Whatever your landscape attraction, a focal point is a key element in good design. Water features and sculptures are certainly a great focal point that help to anchor a space. Delineating the space with trees, shrubbery and creating "rooms" for activity to take place will help make your landscaped spaces feel purposeful and welcoming.

Simple pleasures

Be sure to allow for some freedom within that intended purpose, however.

Over-designing can backfire as was the case described by Gellner about a well-meaning designer who observed chess play in a park as a popular pastime and decided to incorporate fixed stone chess tables and benches into the park space.

Much to the designer's surprise, chess playing suddenly ceased.

"Too much arm-twisting," Gellner concludes of the story. "People make it their own—they don't want to be told where to sit and eat."

Instead, like a child preferring to play with an empty box rather than the overly designed gee-whiz toy inside it, parks need to find designs that invite and entice and suggest.

More flexible designs feature cozy lawn areas, comfort zones (think concessions, restrooms and grass-scapes), surprising focal points in every "room," and beckoning paths and bridges to allow visitors to enjoy and play in these spaces on their own terms.

As a recent boom in the creations of rooftop gardens in urban areas suggest, people are craving landscaped spaces to relax, socialize and play. They are seeking the simple pleasures to combat the stresses of daily life.

Native landscapes offer color that's more organic—they're more interesting and give a sense of place. Landscapes tell you where you are. That's what draws people in. In New Orleans you don't want to see petunias but oaks. In the Midwest you want to see prairie grasses.

Peggy Pelkonen,     
Morton Arboretum     

Into the woods

Explorers at heart, creative landscapes can bring out the Magellan in all of us, and what better to capitalize on that than the creation of specialty gardens—mazes, children's gardens and idea gardens, to name a few.

Park districts, like the one overseeing Mill Creek Metro Park in Canfield, Ohio, create seasonal corn mazes as part of their fall activities, which draw in the district's school children and local families. Celebrating a farming heritage, these park districts pull out all the stops with hayrides, bonfires and mazes, which, although very simple in their design, are enough to entice the youngest explorers and still challenge the older ones.

Children's gardens, too, demonstrate the powerful draw of interactive elements: winding bamboo-fashioned tunnels shrouded with thick vines; giant bugs and fanciful fairies formed out of mossy topiaries; and irresistible water tables, streams and gurgling fountains. Children's gardens are the embodiment of all things interactive with their emphasis on exploring, touching, smelling and listening.

And topiary fairies aren't just for the young but also the young at heart. Idea gardens can attract the would-be-gardener as well as the garden veteran. Idea gardens can be fun and impressive showcases of everything from container gardening and herb and vegetable gardening to rose gardens. Demonstrations of techniques and workshops make these displays not just beautiful to look at but practical as well. In a time when gardening enthusiasts are on the rise, these attractions have gone from green-thumbed-fringe to mainstream.

Many established facilities are seeing the benefits of incorporating landscaping elements that invite exploration. Last year's tree house display at Morton Arboretum is

just one example of a shift in landscape ideas from passive to interactive.

"We are moving more in that direction," Pelkonen says. "We are becoming very interactive and have seen that projects like the tree houses helped get people out of the main areas and into the woods."

© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.