Parks with Purpose

Preserving the Past, Designing the Future

By Emily Tipping

"We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and
even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it."
—Lawrence Durrell

t is easy to take our surroundings for granted. Often, it is not until we walk into a landscape very different from what we are used to—whether it's a beach dweller traversing the Rockies, a city dweller walking in the woods or a public garden, or a Midwesterner visiting the ocean—that we begin to take a closer notice of the surroundings. Yet people often have a profound influence on the landscape, whether it's through intentional design by a landscape architect or unintentional damage through poor planning, or traffic and congestion. Proper attention and planning of park landscapes can create a new, tuned-in awareness for park visitors, educating them about the historical and cultural context of a place, entertaining them with well-placed art and music, and ultimately engaging them in their surroundings, so that when they return to the landscape of their daily experience, they do so more aware of their ability to interact with and affect their environment.

Finding balance

One issue for landscape architects and park planners is how to accommodate increasing demands for various amenities from residents with the need to preserve existing parks and open space. According to Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to increasing public awareness of the importance and irreplaceable legacy of cultural landscapes, it's not necessarily a case of adding something versus adding nothing.

"We create this false schism that somehow these things can't be accommodated," he explained. "Very often they can be accommodated, but siting is a challenge. A lot of the parks have the carrying capacity, but the question is what's appropriate. Just because you have a large, open meadow doesn't mean you put a skatepark in it."

As an example, Birnbaum cites the city of Louisville, Ky., which developed a new skatepark in its downtown area on a former brownfield site. In its Cultural Landscapes as Classrooms series, an online education module that won an honor award in the Communications category from the ASLA, TCLF describes the development of the Extreme Park as a way of expanding the original vision for Louisville's parks, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm, to meet younger generations' recreational needs. The module invites visitors to imagine what would have happened if park planners had chosen to site the skatepark on historic Cherokee Park's scenic Baringer Hill, with an image that demonstrates how this would have ruined the view.

Because the Extreme Park was sited with careful planning, a crucial Olmsted-planned vista was preserved, and "now if you go downtown at midnight, the Extreme Park is hopping," Birnbaum said. "It's become an engine to serve what was a non-neighborhood."

He contrasts this with Freeway Park in Seattle, a first-of-its-kind park built over a freeway, designed by master landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. "The park was meant to be an engine for revitalization downtown, but then the development came in and the buildings turned their backs on the park, and the park becomes unsafe," he said, referring to the influx of undesirables, including drug dealers, which resulted in the 2002 murder of a homeless woman in the park.

"Because of that, we have to create change, so they were going to remove a third of the park's inspiring central fountain to create what I call a pu-pu platter for the ADD generation, where you go into the community and say, 'what do you want?' and then splay it all out there."

This is not to say that Birnbaum is opposed to any additions to existing parks. In fact, he said, "I'm a big fan of a lot of the kinds of programmatic additions bringing people back to parks, but they shouldn't be done at the expense of significant cultural fabric."

For example, the 6.2-acre Madison Square Park, located in the heart of Manhattan's Flatiron District, underwent a $6 million renovation and revitalization, completed in 2001. "They've done so much to make that park come alive again. The Shake Shack is teeming with people on a nice evening," Birnbaum said. "They also built a new several-story children's playground in the middle of the park."

Unfortunately, Birnbaum said, the way the playground was sited disrupted a view—recorded in a classic photograph by Alfred Stieglitz—of the Flatiron Building. "Because that playground is now in the viewshed, you've destroyed that connection of these hundred-year-old trees framing the Flatiron Building. It's not to say that the tot lot is bad, but the way it was built is bad, because you destroyed a major part of that view. There are a lot more people living in Gramercy Park who need a place to take their kids. Imagine if instead, the tot lot was depressed two feet and had a perimeter seat wall built into it.

"These are design issues," he added. "It becomes a question of carrying capacity and appropriate scale. We like to create stereotypes: These people are only interested in history, and these people are only interested in program. But the challenge for designers is how do we transform program? …Any landscape of historic importance should have research done. You wouldn't go to the dentist, open your mouth and say, 'Start drilling.' You'd want to get X-rays and give your dental history. Parks are the same way. We need to understand that history to guide change."

Birnbaum decries the destruction of open space and beautifully designed landscapes envisioned by such masters as Olmsted and Halprin. "A lot of people don't realize that 70 to 80 percent of people who use parks use them for passive enjoyment," he explained. "Why are not trees and lawns sufficient?"

The Green Outdoors

Many architects and park planners have become increasingly familiar with green building standards, such as the LEED certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which measures a building's environmental impact. Now there is an equivalent for designing the great outdoors.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has teamed with the University of Texas at Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center and the U.S. Botanic Garden to announce the development of a new rating system for sustainable landscape design.

Called the Sustainable Sites Initiative, this rating system will measure the sustainability of designed landscapes, including public, commercial and residential projects. The USGBC is supporting the project and also plans to adopt the new metrics into its LEED system.

"This will provide the missing link for green building standards," said Nancy Somerville, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA in a press release announcing the initiative. "Developers, designers, owners and public officials will now have the tools at hand to significantly increase sustainability in the built environment, from interiors to landscapes."

Often, sustainable design is plagued by the misperception that designing green is an expensive prospect. Frederick R. Steiner, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and a member of the Wildflower Center Advisory Council, acknowledged that green guidelines will not gain acceptance unless builders and landowners can see that they are also cost-effective, and pointed out the fact that long-term savings often make up for initially higher costs for construction. "Sustainable landscapes have enormous environmental benefits, and any additional costs should be easily recovered over the life of the project in energy, water and other savings."

For more information about the initiative, visit

From Gardens to Greens

At Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Ill., trees and lawns—and gardens created by landscape architect Franz Lipp in the late 1960s—are sufficient for most visitors, in addition to the dose of history they can get from the park's museums and events.

Developed on the grounds of a mansion built by Joseph Medill, who became the owner of the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 1874, Cantigny Park includes multiple museums, formal gardens, a lawn that hosts concerts and other events, a hiking trail and an award-winning golf course. It's all open to the public, thanks to Medill's grandson Robert McCormick, who took possession of the mansion, now the Robert R. McCormick museum, in 1920 and lived there until his death in 1955.

Col. McCormick instructed in his will that the 500-acre estate be used "…for the recreation, instruction and welfare of the people of the State of Illinois." Now, the Cantigny Foundation, a branch of the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, maintains the mansion as a historic house museum, and the grounds of the house became a park that incorporates beautifully designed landscapes and wilder areas. Visitors to the park can get a dose of education about military and local history, bask in beautifully designed gardens, be entertained by symphonies performed by local musicians or engage in a challenging round of golf.

It was in 1967 that Lipp, one of the country's foremost landscape architects, was hired to design the Formal Gardens at Cantigny. Now consisting of about 40 acres, the gardens showcase a wide range of plants, including annuals, perennials, groundcovers, flowering bulbs and a variety of trees and shrubs.

"This combination makes for a horticultural masterpiece," states the Cantigny Park Web site. "What Lipp designed with his use of hardy plant material is a Midwest Garden where both the amateur and professional landscape planner would have the opportunity to obtain valuable information on plant life. His purpose for the gardens was to provide a place for the testing of plants, demonstrating their growth habits, blooming periods, color qualities in composition with other plants, as well as their hardiness and life span in the climate of the Midwest."

Local gardeners can find a great deal of inspiration, as well as places to gather with others or sit alone with a good book, in the Formal Garden. Or they can visit the Idea Garden, designed specifically to provide a classroom of sorts. Visitors can "walk through the seasons" to discover plantings that show their best colors at various times of the year. The Idea Garden also highlights a selection of herbs, the most recent AAS (All American Selection) winners and food plants. In 2007, the food garden demonstration took a Southern slant, featuring collards, lima beans, sweet potatoes, melons and pumpkins, in addition to longtime favorites. The Idea Garden also features a children's section, with a gourd tunnel, a small waterfall and pond with fish and a bridge to cross, as well as a Loch Ness Monster topiary and a yellow and red smiley-face planting. A staff of volunteer master gardeners is on hand to answer visitors' questions as they wander this creative area.

The 27-hole championship golf course at Cantigny Park opened in 1989, and was named the Best New Public Course in America by Golf Digest magazine. Designed by Roger Packard, the tees, greens and fairways are bent grass accompanied by lakes, creeks, more than 70 sand bunkers and thousands of flowers, oak, ask and hardwood trees.

Interpreting the landscape

Sometimes, the landscape hides secrets—historical and cultural context are lost among the changing leaves of trees and lapping waves of lakes. Parks that want to bring interpretation to the forefront can hire consultants to help them learn more about the history—both recent and distant—of their landscape, while preserving both landscape and other cultural artifacts for future generations.

"We develop interpretive plans, delving into what makes places special," said Anne Ketz, president and technical director of The 106 Group, one such consultant. "The work is very customized to each place and helps inform design, the work of the landscape architects and architects. We also assist with the design of the exhibits. That goes beyond signage—we look for ways to interpret the stories. It involves tapping into the place through a range of research, including archaeology, archival research, ethnography and more."

Spring Lake Park Reserve in Hastings, Minn., is home to 8,000 years of rich cultural history, but visitors would never have been aware of that fact, because the unique stories lie hidden beneath the landscape.

"The park is pretty untouched. Very few visitors go there—it's kind of a hidden jewel," Ketz said. "But there's 8,000 years of history there. It's very rich in natural resources, and the history starts with American Indians and continues right through to the early European settlers, when a little town was developed that later became a ghost town. All of this is invisible in the landscape."

In 2003, the 106 Group prepared a Cultural Resources Stewardship Plan for Dakota County, and later conducted an archaeological survey to identify unknown archaeological sites in the park. Then, they focused on a comprehensive interpretive plan to inform not only specific interpretive narratives for the park, but also a broader philosophy regarding their style of implementation. Finally, the team of consultants, architects and landscape architects worked to design and develop the site's circulation patterns, as well as a new Gathering Center. Currently under construction, the 3,500-square-foot center is expected to open in spring 2008.

"We've done a range of things. Part of our work helped inform the design of the cultural center, the Gathering Center," Ketz said. "We brought in artists that emphasized an outdoor space of sitting around a hearth and storytelling. An artist will be designing the outer portion of the hearth into beautiful wrought-iron work. We also developed a series of postcards with, for example, subjects like the edible forest or the ghost town, with an early 19th-century photograph."

The goal of the project is to ensure that the rich history of the park comes alive for visitors through meaningful design and interpretation. An interpretive trail loop called "The 8,000 Year Walk" recognizes the thousands of years of human habitation on the site and invites visitors to see the history all around them.

At another site, Diamond Point Park in Bemidji, Minn., home to a 3,000-year-old archaeological site, The 106 Group is helping with cultural resources planning for the park's redevelopment. In addition to conducting archaeological surveys to ensure minimal impact to the existing resources on site, the team is also facilitating tribal consultation and developing interpretive content and strategies for the park.

"This is a 3,000-year-old archaeological site, and there's a large Ojibwa population," Ketz said. "Developing the park creates some conflicts, so we recommended to the city, and they accepted the idea of bringing together an American Indian advisory committee," Ketz said.

Ketz added that some of the money for the project is going past the archaeological mission to help interpret the cultural resources of the site for the public. "We would tell the story of this place, and the shared experience of how many has wanted to use this place through time for picnicking and fishing and so on," she said. "It became a nice opportunity for building relationships between two cultures."

The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota gave the Diamond Point Park project its Archaeology Award for 2007, specifically citing the "notable and commendable" way that the 106 Group "worked with the City of Bemidji, local Native Americans and the public to not only make the project accessible, but to fully incorporate Native interpretive perspectives." The Alliance adds, "From personal interaction, to site tours, to brochures and interpretive signage, this project stands out as a model effort."

The biggest challenge with these kinds of projects, Ketz said, is the very nature of interpreting cultural and historical resources. "When you start interpreting people's history or culture, you're really getting to the heart of the matter, and you have to be sensitive and really listen to what people are saying, whether it's in public meetings with stakeholders or one-on-one oral interviews and ethnographic interviews," she said. "You cannot go in with any preconceived ideas."

The Dearth of Historic Landscape Landmarks

Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) pointed out recently that historically, landscape architecture has been underrepresented in National Historic Landmark designations—a fact that he attributes to the "publish or perish" dilemma.

"If we don't write about these landscapes, they'll be forgotten," he said. "One of the things we're seeing now is a surge in books by and about significant landscapes and landscape architects. We now see Ph.D.s in landscape history, so we're beginning to grow an army of scholars who can recommend these places for designation."

He added that "branding," so to speak, is also important. If people are unaware of landscape architects and their work, there will be no drive to protect that work.

"With all the parks and the interpretation done in Louisville, Ky., the citizens know their parks were designed by Olmsted, but they also know there's more than one Olmsted. If you look at downtown Louisville, you have buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe and Michael Graves, and the people don't know who they are. You have to go out and instill those values in people."

In Indianapolis, for example, people are beginning to recognize the works of George Kessler, whose Park and Boulevard plan, designed in 1909, represents the largest National Register of Historic Places listing in Indiana, at nearly 3,500 acres. "With that designation, people start to recognize and wonder who was this Kessler fellow," Birnbaum said.

For more information on the National Historic Landmark program, visit To learn more about TCLF, visit

Creating the public realm

In urban, developed areas, landscape design can serve to bring people together, creating a public sphere for citizens and visitors to interact with one another and with their environment. At the eight-acre Charleston Waterfront Park, dubbed "this generation's gift to the future" by the mayor of Charleston, S.C., fountains, lawns, garden rooms, paths and a pier combine to provide a public space in an urban setting. The park received the 2007 Landmark Award from the ASLA, which recognizes a distinguished landscape architecture project completed between 15 and 50 years ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes significantly to the public realm of the community.

Charleston's waterfront hadn't always been so publicly accessible. Like many harbor and waterfront areas in America, Charleston's had suffered from years of industrial use, followed by abandonment. By the early 1980s, the waterfront was mostly used as a parking lot, despite the fact that it sits among some of the most historic neighborhoods in the city.

Bucking the idea of private development, Charleston turned to Sasaki Associates to design a park that integrates sustainability with urban design. Completed in 1990, the design has transformed the informal parking lot into a curving, expansive park that is a huge draw and has inspired further development in the area. Marsh grasses were restored and supplemented to protect the river's marine ecology, and numerous spaces were created within the park for the public to enjoy.

"It is now a glorious part of the public realm and it is enjoyed by local and regional residents and tourists," said Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. "It is a very democratic place, as it should be."

Care was taken to ensure that the park would be a true public space for the use of all—not just a few lucky citizens. For example, the head of the new 365-foot pier was designed for recreational fishing and gives everyone a chance to experience the deeper water beyond the salt marsh.

The park's development has led to rising property values, increasing tourism and additional projects in the surrounding area.

On a much larger scale, the city of Chicago transformed a similarly blighted area along its lakefront into the 24.5-acre Millennium Park. What had long been an eyesore in the corner of Grant Park consisting of railroad tracks and surface parking has now become a crown jewel for the city, attracting millions of visitors.

"What they've accomplished at Millennium Park has to be viewed through the lens of great civic spaces," Birnbaum said. "The city of Chicago has some incredible parks from the Olmsted-designed Jackson Park and Washington Park to Columbus Park, which was designed by Jens Jensen. Millennium Park is just another jewel in the crown. And if you think about it, they didn't steal existing parkland to create it. They said, let's create something wholly new. Let's create a park where there never was one. Let's increase the amount of urban waterfront open to citizens and visitors. I think it's tremendous, and it's part of that continuity of civicness."

Among the prominent features of the park are the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which hosts outdoor concerts and performances of all kinds; the interactive Crown Fountain; the contemporary 2.5-acre Lurie Garden; and the popular Cloud Gate sculpture. The 925-foot-long, BP Bridge provides amazing views and is a work of art in itself. The bridge's 5 percent slope allows easier access for people with physical disabilities.

Birnbaum pointed out that the development of the park—which took four years longer than expected and eventually cost nearly $500 million—didn't take place at the expense of other parks in the city.

"During that same period, you had Columbus Park and the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool both undergoing restoration and rehabilitation, and being designated as National Historic Landmarks. You have this duality of embracing the heritage and celebrating it with these designations. Here were these masters—Jens Jensen and Caldwell. Chicago recognized that they were extraordinary.

"They also recognize that parks are neighborhood revitalization engines," he added. "Think about Douglas Park and Humboldt Park. Those parks had fallen into disrepair, but now to go back there, you can see the community spirit at Humboldt Park in the green market they have. You have nature, culture, scenery, economics—all playing hand in hand."

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.