Trends in Park Landscaping

By Sue Marquette Poremba

s many parts of the country are experiencing droughts or water shortages, park landscapers are searching for new ideas on how to create attractive recreation areas while minimizing irrigation needs.

"Drought is a serious issue, and not going away any time soon," said Dominick Casey, superintendent of parks for the city of Henderson, Nev. "When it comes to a choice between drinking water and water for plants, I don't think it's a very tough choice."

Henderson and much of Nevada have been under drought conditions for the past five years, and as Lake Mead continues to drop, the situation continues to worsen.

"We're using less turf now and more xeriscaping," Casey explained. Xeriscaping is landscaping that requires little to no irrigation and is becoming more popular in areas where the lack of water is an issue. This type of landscaping makes use of native plants and landscaping schemes that minimize water runoff.

In conjunction with the drought, Henderson's park acreage nearly tripled since 2005. "We went from 691 acres to 1,100 acres," Casey said.

Turf is now used in Henderson only where it's functional, where people have picnics or passive play, and obviously for park athletic fields. In places like along parking lots or on streetscapes where it is just aesthetics, turf has gone away. A committee was put together to investigate every park area to judge the turf's functionality.

"If you could even lay a blanket down, it was considered functional," Casey said. "But if the only time someone stepped a foot on it was to maintain it, then it was unfunctional. It was there for pure aesthetics and deemed wasteful."

Also, as building and community growth slow down, so does the town's economy. "We have to do more with less," Casey explained. "We're trying to be more efficient with what we have." Which is why the town decided to go with the xeriscape approach.

"In 2003, we created a drought plan," Casey explained. "We looked at how we were using water and asked if we were being efficient."

The parks department partnered with local utilities, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the water authority, so the changes being made in the Henderson parks come at virtually no cost to residents.

One result of the drought plan was a turf conversion program. The town converted more than 1 million square feet of turf to other landscaping options, which saved over 500 million gallons of water. "We've been able to stay at a 5 percent reduction in water, even adding all the extra acreage," Casey noted.

The formerly unused turf areas were replaced with drought-tolerant landscapes. "You can use a myriad of different annuals and colors and trees that bloom and flower," Casey said. "It doesn't mean that it's no plants."

In some areas, the parks are using native revegetation, but for the most part, they are planting drought-resistant trees like mesquites and chaste trees (vitex agnus-castus), trees that are accustomed to native desert areas.

"We're really trying to use a palette that mixes colors," Casey said. "We don't want to just take away a green area of turf, but the areas are much more attractive after we made the change."

Xeriscaping requires a different type of maintenance. "Obviously, we're saving water," Casey said. Henderson now uses a drip method of irrigation, rather than the typical sprinkler-style systems. "The water goes into the ground much slower."

There is, however, more manual labor that comes into play with xeriscape. "You have to rake it, you have to treat it with herbicides, there's more pruning," he said. "But with the water savings and the drought conditions, it's well worth it."

Despite taking the approach that was best for the community as a whole, it did take the parks department time and effort to convince the citizens of Henderson that xeriscaping was the best option. "Initially people were upset," Casey said. "We promoted it and showed people the contrasts. We explained what we were doing and why. People then saw that it could be attractive when done right."

In the long run, with the drought, Casey knew that the parks management team needed to change its way of thinking. "We had turf grass wall to wall in every park. With the drought, that was not favorable for us."


Down in Texas, Pam Smith, parks landscape manager for the city of Farmers Branch, is also concerned about water.

"It's a big issue," she said. "How do we keep things looking good knowing that water is going to be limited?" Smith is committed to do what she can to be creative and make her parks attractive while keeping down the water consumption.

Last year, Smith's landscapers installed an Earth-Kind demonstration garden in a historic park. Working with Texas A&M University in College Station, Smith and her team created a garden that is mostly roses but also contains other perennials.

Earth Kind is a designation given to certain roses by the Texas A&M Agriculture program. These roses have been tested and evaluated and determined to perform best in the landscape and possess outstanding resistance to disease and insects.

"We have a special bed preparation so our plants got off to a good start," Smith said. "We battled our clay by using a shell and compost mix. We use no fertilizers or pesticides."

The results, she added, are phenomenal and went so well that Farmers Branch parks again partnered with Texas A&M, but also with the Houston and Dallas Rose Societies, to put in a national Earth-Kind trial rose garden.

The Earth-Kind rose gardens take advantage of using one of the most popular garden flowers and creating a low-maintenance care program. Texas A&M recognized 11 rose varieties that thrive with minimum maintenance and minimal water.

In the Farmers Branch trial garden, they will be planting and evaluating 100 different rose cultivars in four randomized replicated plots. "Our goal is to identify a group of roses that will do well across the United States without supplemental fertilizers and pesticides and be low water usage," Smith said. "Roses bloom from frost to frost, so we feel like we can have something beautiful, low-maintenance and environmentally friendly."

In addition, the water controller used in this garden will water based on the horticultural needs and weather conditions. "We're only going to be replacing the water the plant actually needs," Smith explained. "We're going to apply it in drip form so it will be effective water. Once we get the programming down, it will take care of itself."

Texas is an area where it isn't uncommon for the temperatures to soar into triple digits, especially in areas where landscaping is close to asphalt and concrete. "We want to encourage water conservation, but as a plant manager, we have to water," Smith said. "We work hard to make sure our irrigation systems work properly."

Smith is also conscious about water runoff and water that puddles on non-grass surfaces. When that happens, she said, it is hard to give the impression that you aren't over-watering.

This is where roses make an ideal plant for these areas, especially in areas where there might be vehicle traffic. "When roses get run over by a car, they pop back quickly," Smith explained.

Smith added that her landscape crew has done a good job blending native plants and adaptive plants so there aren't a lot of high-water users while still providing a beautiful and interesting landscape year-round.

Build Involvement

Getting the community involved with park care and maintenance is a growing national trend, whether it be starting community gardens, developing wildlife space or planning a garden around artwork. However, convincing the community of the importance of taking an active role in park maintenance or development isn't always easy.

PlaceMatters is a Denver, Colo.-based nonprofit organization that believes in informed, equitable and effective citizen engagement. Through the use of novel public engagement processes and emerging technical tools, PlaceMatters enables effective civic decision-making. The organization works to ensure that communities and organizations design and implement processes that garner broad public involvement and support and lead to sustainable, livable communities.

Here are some tips to effective civic involvement:

Solicit public input from the very beginning of a design process. Participants do not want to feel as though they are just signing off on something that is already done. If there are design constraints, make sure they are clear from the beginning, so participants understand the ground rules and where they can and cannot have an impact.

Make sure that participation occurs at every major decision point. No one likes endless meetings, but participants want to know that their input is being considered for each important design decision.

Who you get at the table is at least as important as the participation process. Stakeholders to be targeted include local groups, organizations, local leaders and municipal governments. At the first meeting, ask participants who they think is missing, and reach out to those missing stakeholders for the following meetings. Use tools as appropriate; the Internet opens up participation to many who would otherwise not participate. Use online maps, pictures, plans and surveys to gather feedback.

Make sure all voices are heard. The vocal minority can often drown out others' voices and not allow for equal participation. Keypad polling, which allows participants to vote on options anonymously and see the results immediately, is one effective tool for leveling the playing field.

Participants want to know that their input has made a difference. Be sure to allow participants to see plans at multiple stages as they develop and point out key areas where their input has guided design and will affect implementation.

Plan a way to celebrate the completion of the planning and design process, and after implementation. This helps to foster a sense of ownership and pride in the process and product, as well as build community.


Another trend that Smith is seeing in her parks is the involvement of the community. "We're trying to get the community to take ownership of their various parks," she said. Whenever there is a renovation planned, the parks management holds meetings with the neighborhoods. "As a result, we find the parks are better taken care of," Smith explained.

A few years ago, Farmers Branch put in a new playground in an apartment complex area where a previous playground had not succeeded. "We had an after-school club involved. We went to the kids and the parents, which represented a great cross-section of this apartment," Smith explained. "The kids actually drew up their ideal playground. We adapted their ideas into this playground. We definitely did what we could to include them." And it has paid off. The playground is much better used than it was in the past, and the local residents have more respect for the park area.

With the Earth-Kind trial rose garden, citizens are encouraged to adopt a rose bed. "We find as funds get tighter, we're looking for additional resources," Smith said. "And some of this help comes from people coming in and adopting a park."

People who adopt a rose bed will be responsible for weeding. People or groups who adopt a park become a second set of eyes for the park management.

"If we have more people looking at the park more often, we make sure we don't have hazards and it helps us be more efficient with our labor," Smith said.

When it comes to overall park design, Smith believes that landscapers and community members have become more selective in plant selection. "We want to see different kinds of trees and plant combinations," she said. "Through our parks, we can transport you anywhere. You can be in Dallas and we can make you feel like you are in the tropics or we can make you feel like you are in the arid southwest."

Copper Robbers

As economies tighten, many parks are finding an unexpected and unwanted trend in maintenance costs.

"Copper theft is crushing us," said Dominick Casey, superintendent of parks in Henderson, Nev. "This year alone, we've spent over $200,000 in copper theft replacement."

Lighting for security, for athletic fields, for dog parks or for skateparks requires specialty lighting that uses copper wire. Copper earns quick and easy cash from scrap-metal dealers.

"When we lose copper, we lose security and usability of the park at night," Casey explained. Henderson has had to temporarily close five sports facilities this year until they replaced the copper wiring. "That doesn't take into account the loss of revenue, as well," he added.


Sarah Reding, vice president of conservation stewardship at the Kalamazoo, Mich., Nature Center also is seeing people take more of an interest in plant selection, but in her case, there is a trend toward using more native plants as opposed to non-native plants.

Reding's organization helps businesses, golf courses and other members of the Kalamazoo community design their park spaces. She, like many landscapers around the country, is taking a sustainable, or green, approach, to landscaping. For example, bluebird boxes are popular, she said, to increase the bird population. To safely protect pond water, Reding said her group raises beetles and then releases them into the pond. "They fight off foreign species," she explained.

But Kalamazoo isn't a stranger to water issues, either, and Reding approaches her landscape designs with preserving water in mind. One of the best ways to do that, she said, is to use native plants as a first choice.

Because most of the park space she helps to develop is privately owned, there is already a level of involvement by the community the park serves, although some involvement is greater for some groups than others. She developed a park on the Pfizer Inc., grounds recently. "The staff at the corporation monitor the park grounds," she said. "They are a bunch of research scientists, and are interested."

Otherwise, her greatest community outreach is educating the people she is working with on green-friendly landscaping options. "There are people who still want the perfect green grass lawn," she said, "but more people are becoming aware of the need to reduce our carbon footprint and preserve water."

Across Lake Michigan, Gregg Calpino of JJR, a nationally recognized landscape architecture and engineering firm in Chicago, said he, too, is seeing a pattern of sustainable landscaping. "It could be part of a LEED building, a green infrastructure or an eco-focus park," he said.

Residents, he added, are looking at whether or not the space is an active or passive park—is it a place to play Frisbee or is it a place to simply enjoy the landscape—and that is taken into account when landscaping parks.

Calpino also advocates the use of native plants. "They are more tolerant of the conditions," he explained. He also thinks native plants do a better job of naturally trapping water. He likes to look at historic patterns of the park he is landscaping, such as a current project he's working on at Hiram Park. He is returning the beach area to its natural landscape. It's been difficult to plan, he said, because of the current low water levels.

"You have to plan for the conditions," he said, but in a situation like this, you also have to plan for extreme levels and, in this case, even normal water-level conditions so the park's beach area won't wash away. To do so, he's working with plant life that has been historically native to that beach area and returning it to its most natural condition.

"We still see turf," he said, "but we're seeing less turf used as filler as standard landscape. You now find turf where it is being used, like playing fields."

However, even that is changing, he continued. As maintenance costs rise and concerns about water usage increase, more parks, like Chicago's Lincoln Park, are switching over to artificial field turf. Communities, Calpino pointed out, are looking at turf alternatives, anything that uses less water.

"Water problems are a common issue everywhere," Calpino said. "Even the Great Lakes are down to record low levels."

Five or six years ago, Calpino explained, he would have had to justify to citizens why he wasn't putting in standard turf. "Now," he said, "it is the opposite." People want more diverse landscaping and more sustainable landscaping.


Calpino is also seeing more public interest in community parks. "There are a lot more volunteer gardens," he said.

But he is also seeing another community involvement trend. "There is a broader appeal to incorporate art in public parks," he said. "That can be traditional sculpture in gardens or it can take a more sophisticated approach."

For example, in the park area near the Federal Building Center in Rockford, Ill., a grove of crabapple trees has been planted. From the ground, it just looks like a grove of trees. From a window high above, the trees actually spell out a message.

"That's the art," Calpino said. "The way the trees are planted and the message they create."

Landscape itself is an art form, he added, and more people want to see that type of art enhanced.

Calpino isn't completely sure why there is a growing interest to create landscaping that either is a work of art or includes art pieces, but he does have a guess. "I think it is technology," he said. "People go online and see pictures of other communities and the landscaping in those parks, and they want to see their community do something similar." And once the idea is suggested, it often isn't difficult to find someone willing to donate a work of art or help fund a beautifully landscaped park.

He said it is growing more common to incorporate local artists to help create work that fits a particular theme of a park. "The art piece is more than something of quality," he said. "It's a community coming together to do something beautiful."

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