Landscape design brings in visitors
By Jessica Royer Ocken
Although it's easy to get creative where landscape design is concerned, it's best to remain rooted in practicality. Many of the most beautiful and successful outdoor landscapes continue to draw on the philosophy and ideas of one of our country's first landscape designers, Frederick Law Olmsted.
A native of Connecticut, Olmsted is credited with the original design of New York City's Central Park, as well as the 1893 Chicago World's Fair grounds, the landscaping around the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and a series of connected parks in the Boston area known as the "Emerald Necklace." He believed parks were especially important in urban atmospheres, where their scenery could "refresh and delight the eye, and through the eye, the mind and spirit."
Brian Dold, a landscape architect with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy (Olmsted designed another series of parks in and around Buffalo, N.Y.), explained this further: "Olmsted really looked to naturalistic, picturesque landscapes to allow people to escape the city—very simple meadows and woodlands and water features. The Olmsted philosophy was less floral and high-maintenance and more using natural, native plants to give texture."
In other words, there's no need to plant an acre of temperamental ornamentals. Instead, by planning ahead and working with (not against) your local environment, you can create a lush setting that requires less rigorous maintenance, which may leave you enough energy to tend a beloved (and manageably sized) floral garden.
In addition to assorted greenery, Olmsted's designs often included "a sense of mystery and exploration," Dold added. "Not everything is visible from one point, and people wonder what's around the corner."
This same idea can work to intrigue and engage visitors to modern parks and outdoor landscapes, but it may also raise safety concerns, Dold noted. Adequate oversight and a security presence will help visitors feel safe and comfortable in the environment, but even this must strike a careful balance. You want park visitors to feel safe, but not excluded or intimidated by a giant security wall.
"It's not the greatest message to see a huge fence," said Mike Fraze, a landscape designer with Mesa Design Group in Dallas. "Think about hiding it behind the landscape or routing people into the site in a way that minimizes gates and fences."
Consider having one main entrance instead of three or four.
Mesa recently put this approach into action in its work on Collin County Adventure Camp, a facility for teens in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
"When the kids arrive on buses, they turn onto the property, and instead of an immediate gate, they travel a good distance—an eighth or a quarter of a mile into the woods—before they actually hit a gate," Fraze said. "The gate meets functional security parameters, but it looks like more of a marker and a celebration of coming to camp than a barrier to protect. That's done through materials and enhanced shapes. [The bus drives] under a covered roof structure. It's like a portal."
A more welcoming appearance may help attract visitors to your outdoor grounds, but your job does not end there. Ensuring that people will stay and enjoy the green space you've created requires further effort.
"If you give people places to sit, they'll sit on them, but if not, they won't stay in the area," Dold said. "Place benches along pathways, and give people places to be secluded, as well as places to rest and watch other people."
Allowing for an assortment of perspectives makes the space more interesting and accommodates the needs of more visitors. So don't stop with benches.
At Collin County Adventure Camp, Mesa also created a variety of programming structures for campers.
"Some campers experience nature in an elevated program shelter that puts them in a position where man is dominant over the environment," Fraze explained. "In other areas, the program shelter is at grade (symbolizing a symbiotic relationship with nature), and in other situations the shelters are lowered into the grade, creating a humbling view between man and nature."
These assorted perspectives help campers see the environment in a variety of ways and offer opportunities for discussion and learning.
It's also important to consider the accessibility of your outdoor wonderland to those with disabilities. Smooth concrete paths are pleasant for everyone, and making walkways a bit wider allows more to enjoy them. These sorts of adjustments may have unexpected benefits as well.
As Madison, Wisconsin's JJR has worked to develop and implement an award-winning plan for revitalizing the riverfront in Oshkosh, Wis., they've found that the ramped boardwalks and concrete fishing piers make a shady haven for fish, as well as allowing those with disabilities closer access to the water.
"Fish habitats flourish in the cooler water," noted Dan Williams, the project's designer and an associate with JJR. "As we move into construction, the city [of Oshkosh] and JJR will work with the Department of Natural Resources to create better habitats than what exist along the river now."
And because much of the riverfront area is formerly industrial, this shouldn't be hard to do.
"There's all kinds of potential for planting trees and shrubs to create shaded zones," Williams explained.
Another way to ensure visitors enjoy your landscaping is to incorporate some recreation. Create a walking path for exercise or contemplation among the greenery, or give your grounds some extra oomph by using plants and natural materials to create a maze or labyrinth. (See sidebar for more on this.) A hole or two of golf might even blend nicely into your grounds, and if you're worried about maintaining the grass at a links-worthy level, consider some faux turf instead. Last summer The Summit at Las Colinas, a 19-story Dallas-area office building, enhanced its outdoor grounds (and the experience of those who work there) by installing a five-hole putting course that mixes ornamental garden plants with a specially designed nylon putting surface and Zoysia-like synthetic grass.
With all these ideas swirling about, it's natural to want to grab a shovel and some potting soil and jump right in. But the landscape designers we consulted are certain this is not the right first step.
"Start with a serious analysis of the existing facility in terms of what's working and what isn't," Fraze advised. Do you have a blank canvas of open field or a series of past planting efforts that haven't quite worked out? Are your grounds overgrown and underused or so well loved that the greenery can't keep up?
"You can easily freshen a facility by changing the [landscaping] material, but other things can have a bigger impact, [such as adjustments to] parking lots and traffic flow, both vehicular and pedestrian," he said.
For example, rather than the usual system of sewer ducts and drains to collect and dispose of rainwater runoff from a parking lot, Fraze is a fan of the bio-filter. A basic bio-filter includes a ditch to collect the water, which is planted with a variety of vegetation to slow the water's flow, as well as extract debris. Then at the lowest point, the water is absorbed into the ground, or it may be carried via a small pipe to drain elsewhere, Fraze explained. At Arbor Hills Nature Preserve in Plano, Texas, a huge, spiraling bio-filter transports excess water to a nearby creek and also makes the parking lot more attractive with a central island.
"We're teaching people the moment they come into the parking lot how to be good stewards of the land," Fraze said. And, he noted, as an extra bonus, kids really like to play on it, too.
As you analyze and identify problem areas, specific needs and opportunities for improvement, it's also a good idea to talk with other facilities in climates and cities similar to yours to get a sense of what sorts of landscape design projects have worked well for them and what consultants they've used, Fraze suggested. Surveying the surrounding area for other parks may allow you to enhance your facility by linking it to other nature spots via existing trails or something you could create.
When completed, the Oshkosh Riverfront project will link with the Wiouwash Trail, a multiuse path that connects to Wisconsin's state trail system and will likely bring many a hiker and traveler in to see what Oshkosh has to offer, Williams said.
In Orange County, Calif., the Great Park Design Team, led by landscape architect Ken Smith, is crafting a master plan to revitalize the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a world-class park that will be linked to existing green space and nature preserves to create a "wildlife corridor" comprised of national forest as well as state and local parks that stretches from the Cleveland National Forest to the Pacific Ocean.
This is also a good time to get the community—those who actually will use this green Shangri-La—involved. In addition to making sure you include the elements they want (within reason, of course—the Willy Wonka-style chocolate river may not work out no matter how many kids think it would be great), community involvement benefits you in the long run as well.
"Those who will use the park or garden need to be involved in the planning so they will feel ownership and responsibility," explained Lucia Droby, executive director of the Community Outreach Group for Landscape Design (COGdesign) in Waltham, Mass. "Then one would hope they become the stewards of the park, helping to keep it safe and clean and maintained."
Jay Goulde, executive director of the Outdoor Arts Foundation, a Tampa Bay-area organization that adds artistic elements to all sorts of outside areas, takes an even broader view: "If we can incorporate kids into a project, we always try to do that. Our goal is that someday some 40-year-old will say, 'Hey, when I was 12 I worked on this mural.'A vested interest [in a park] increases civic pride, and if every community felt pride, we wouldn't have problems with vandalism, littering and crime in some cases."
OK, but back to the present. Now you've analyzed, talked with the community and have a sense of what you need, but it's still not time for the grounds crew to get to work. Before the planting starts, you'll likely want at least a little professional help. If you're extremely fortunate, there will be resources in your area like COGdesign. This not-for-profit group works with community organizations throughout New England on landscaping projects.
"So often a client comes to us with ideas in mind, some sort of vision already, but they just can't get started, they can't pull it together to move forward," Droby said. This is just where COGdesign can be of assistance. "We can help them clarify what they need and what they want," she explained. "We can bring multiple constituencies together through a review process or a community planning event, and we can provide tools for them—a design, a cost estimate, a maintenance plan."
If your outdoor grounds are outside the New England area, you may have some luck finding help via a local landscape design school or university, and there's also likely a professional landscape design firm somewhere in your area. Just be sure you interview them thoroughly, suggested Mesa's Fraze. Check out their portfolios and resumés, as well as their design philosophies and approaches.
"Quiz them on how they'll realize your goals," Fraze said. "A good consultant should be asking you about your goals way before they get the job.
It should be a collaborative process."
Only after you've consulted, collaborated and developed a master plan are you finally ready to focus on the tangible.
"Clients tell us it's easier to find money for plant material and physical components of a project than to get funding for planning," Droby said. Seems it's more fun to donate a tree than to throw money at the idea of having trees. With a plan in place, your organization will know what to ask for, whether it's donated contractor services, an assortment of bulbs or a ton of crushed gravel for a walkway.
A plan can also help you keep the big picture—and final outcome—in mind, even if you complete your reinvigorated grounds in stages. The city of Waunakee, Wis., has worked with Williams at JJR for years in just this fashion.
"When [Community Services Director Sue McDade] has a little bit of funding to hire a designer, she has us look at a park," Williams explained. "We've done six or eight in the community over the last three or four years. We do a quick master plan, and then she uses her staff and the city to implement the suggestions. They've been very successful doing things internally."
With a plan in place, donated trees can be designated to an appropriate spot, not haphazardly stuck in the ground. And don't worry, a master plan is far from inflexible. Six years ago, Williams worked with representatives from the community in Milton, Wis., to plan a park on the south side of town.
"They have been implementing the plan since then on their own," he said. "Thirty trees here, asphalt there… We also had a pond on the master plan."
However, not long ago, Williams got a call from Milton asking if the yet-to-be-created pond could be reconfigured as a dog park. No problem.
"We redid the plan for that, and last I talked to them, they had the fence in place and dogs were coming," Williams said.
Oh, one other thing. Be sure you make plans for maintenance as you put your master strategy in place. What a tragedy to create a perfect paradise of plants and recreation, only to have it turn brown and crispy a few weeks or months later because its maintenance proves too much for your staff or budget to handle.
The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, the first not-for-profit organization in the country to manage a park system, modeled their maintenance program on the one used in New York's Central Park. Rather than assigning various gardeners to specific tasks, the parks are broken into "small, manageable zones for one gardener to take on and take ownership of," Dold explained. "In this way, they're held accountable for a small area. If there's a problem in an area, we know who to talk to, and there's also the benefit of having a person there all day long. That adds to the level of safety."
Dold also suggests including "endowed maintenance" in your budget for a particular project because "plants look great at the nursery, but if you don't care for them, they're going to die or look terrible, and that can be worse than if you didn't do anything."
With all this greenery grooming you're doing, why not go the extra mile and ensure that your new-and-improved outdoor extravaganza functions in an educational, as well as recreational, capacity? The more reasons there are for folks to visit your facility, the more likely they'll be to stop by. Professionals from landscape architects to park managers to outdoor artists suggest including informative features as part of the terrain you're sculpting and shaping.
The plans for Orange County, California's Great Park include assorted "climates and biological zones," explained Great Park Conservancy Director Rick Hume. "One of our themes is education and lifelong learning, so informing the public about different microclimates will be very important."
As COGdesign worked with the Boston Park District and area community members to revitalize a park that had fallen into disrepair, they thought it important not just to spruce up the grounds, but "to bring healthy activity in," Droby explained. "We hired a naturalist to do activities with kids in the park over several months—nature journal writing and drawing, local geography, looking for bugs, identifying leaves, talking about weather."
Teachers discussed these experiences with their students throughout the school year, and then the students returned to the park.
"It was so interesting to see their new level of comfort," Droby said. "The kids brought their families and claimed the park...meanwhile, neighbors came by and saw kids enjoying the park. Sometimes you have to change the culture [to make an area successful]."
In addition to educating visitors about the natural elements they find around them, you may want to add some unusual elements to spice things up or give the grounds a new life. Oldsmar, Fla., a Tampa Bay-area city of just nine square miles, contains three square miles of parks and preserves, making it the most green-space-laden city in the state. However, some of the sites that are now fabulous destinations had humble beginnings.
Take the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve, for example. Back in the 1970s, current Mayor Jerry Beverland was a city council member, and he recalls the old sewer tanks at the edge of Mobbly Bayou being condemned. Some 30 years later, on Beverland's mayoral watch, the land was redeveloped as a fully stocked park with playgrounds, a skatepark and a splash play area. Yet the towers remained less-than-attractive and centrally located reminders of the area's previous use. But Beverland remembered something good about them: They offer a wondrous view of the surrounding wilderness from their tops. So, rather than having them demolished, Beverland and the Outdoor Arts Foundation worked with local artists—and local children—to transform the towers into circular murals showing an array of area wildlife.
"The biggest kid who painted a blue jay was me," Beverland said. "They painted dragonflies and lizards and birds. The kids had a big time." Not only are the towers much improved in appearance, they've raised the profile of the park, the mayor explained. "People go out there just to see them, and they realize what an incredible park it is while they're seeing the towers."
Other Outdoor Arts Foundation projects have included artist-created tables and benches for a small park outside a local library and an assortment of murals—some on garbage dumpsters.
"Why not have artists paint?" asks Executive Director Goulde. "Every bit of color helps." But it's not just color Goulde is after. "I'm big on incorporating art and education," he said. "Whenever we can we do things with indigenous wildlife or historical scenes, that really helps uplift the community."
And often, with a little planning, the foundation can help a city or park district create something really special, with little or no expansion of the project's original budget.
So it seems that adding art to an outdoor situation multiplies public interest, as well as opportunities for learning, and the Olympic Sculpture Park, a new facility soon to open in Seattle, is banking on both.
"The way the park is developing so far, there's a nice connection between art and landscape," explained Michael Darling, the John and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Seattle Art Museum. "Art helps make the landscape more dynamic, and this landscape is suited to the art."
Forget the staid, static layout in which visitors move from object to object, looking at the labels as they might inside a museum.
"This is dynamic," Darling said. "Visitors will explore the park actively. They'll see native plantings on their way to find art, and the [sculptures] are sited so you experience them on a multisensory level."
At one point, those perusing the park will come upon a huge abstract sculpture nearly 40 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It's called "Eagle" and was created by sculptor Alexander Calder. Eagle Street runs near the park grounds, and eagles are also part of the local ecosystem, tying the artwork to the community.
"[The sculpture] makes a good tool for talking about abstraction," Darling said. "It works to connect with the landscape and begin a dialogue about art. ...People may come to a park who would not have come to a museum, and art fans coming to see the sculpture may have an amazing outdoor experience."
And having an amazing experience—either as a park visitor, part of the community team who plans the landscape, or a volunteer who pulls weeds or gathers trash on a regular basis—is your ultimate goal for those in your area, right? It's the reason you started this quest for more beautiful and inviting outdoor grounds in the first place.
"What better way to develop enthusiasm?" said the Great Park's Hume about these sorts of outstanding, involving experiences. "People feel it is their park, and they're concerned about keeping it maintained so they have something to pass down. I can remember as a kid going on picnics with my family, then I took my young kids there, and I'm sure I'll take my grandkids there. It's intergenerational."
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