Designing & Outfitting Your Park
By Sue Marquette Poremba
Pittsburgh's Market Square was once a major gathering space in the city's downtown area, a place where people would come to buy produce from two large market houses that once dominated the neighborhood.
Over the past 50 years, however, the market houses were torn down, and you can now drive through and around the Square. City leaders now see Market Square as an ideal location for a park to help revitalize the downtown area, and plans are under way.
The idea is for Market Square to be a piazza, said Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and provide more space for outdoor events, recreation and even outdoor seating in the restaurants surrounding the Square.
However, before the renovations could begin that would turn Market Square into a park, Edwards said the planners had to consider a number of issues, beginning with how the city and its residents wanted the park to be used, how to deal with green space issues, what type of programming would take place in the park, and where the money would come from to pay for the park development.
While there are many layers in developing a new park, site planning may be the most important phase, not to mention the earliest.
"The site planning process is comprised of assessing a site's opportunities and constraints, and then organizing the proposed park's features, facilities and layout in such a way as to take full advantage of the site and optimize its use for the intended purpose," explained Mark Smith, principal at RVi Planning + Landscape Architecture + Graphic Design in Austin, Texas. "Significant site planning considerations may include location, budget, size, compatibility with adjacent land uses, access and circulation, and security."
Site planning should also be sensitive to the ecology of the site and not make demands on resources for its construction or maintenance that are intensive and wasteful, added Jeff Elliott, senior project manager and landscape architect for the Daniel Island Company in Charleston, S.C. "Site planning takes into account the unique qualities of the site and those qualities that can be viewed from the site," Elliott said. "It considers how the site will be viewed by others. Site planning responds to solar orientation and prevailing winds and provides lasting value to the properties around it."
Choosing the site depends largely on the type of park being planned.
"A sports park may require large, flat, open spaces for active sports, while a nature preserve might require unique environmental features," Smith said. "Areas of exceptional beauty or environmental quality, such as the Roy E. Guerrero Colorado River Park in Austin, may be selected in order to preserve them for future generations. Finally, some park sites, usually on the leading edge of suburban growth, are selected for the purposes of anticipating future population and recreational needs."
When planning a park, it is best to start with an inventory and assessment of existing parks and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the entire park system. Once it is determined not only what the needs are for the new park, it is recommended that community input is sought. "By determining what's important to the community, you establish a firm basis for future park improvements, procurement and development that will actually meet the needs of the citizens," Smith said.
Gary Scott, parks and recreation director in West Des Moines, Iowa, said his city wants every resident to live within a ¾- to one-square-mile radius of a neighborhood park and within three square miles of a community park. The neighborhood parks, he says, are usually five to 10 acres in size and are meant to encourage outdoor play or gatherings for individual neighborhoods. It isn't uncommon for new developments to dedicate the land for the neighborhood parks.
"Usually, about half of the neighborhood is developed by the time the site plan for the park has been determined," Scott said. He works with the residents of the neighborhood for ideas on what they'd like to have in the park (or what they don't want to have), and also to explain that there are certain amenities, like restrooms or small parking lots, that need to be included in the site plan.
Community parks, Scott continued, are more intensely developed. They are much larger in size—up to 200 acres—and usually include athletic fields, lights for after-dark activities and a lot more traffic. Whereas the neighborhood park sites are often donated and dictated by developments, Scott said the parks department buys land for community parks. One of his challenges is to find large areas of available land that hasn't already been bought by developers. "Everything within three miles of the city is owned by developers," he said.
Another type of park that Scott plans for is the urban park. The urban park is meant to attract visitors from all over the city region and is host to special events like a 4th of July festival. Like community parks, the West Des Moines urban park includes softball and soccer complexes, but it also has a lake for boating, a nature lodge and hiking trails.
Landscape architects are integral to site planning and are typically brought into the process very early. In fact, landscape architects are frequently engaged as the lead site planner, according to Steve Cecil, AIA, ASLA, of The Cecil Group in Boston.
"Our role is to provide the analysis and synthesis, which results in the shared understanding of a park's character," Cecil explained. "The landscape architect provides a plan of the physical layout for the park that accomplishes both the practical and aesthetic purposes that have been established. In this sense, the landscape architect provides the 'vision' for the park that can be readily understood."
Smith added that the landscape architect's role can include analysis, park programming, site planning and design. "Many of our clients, such as municipal parks departments, know precisely what they need in a park, but don't have sufficient in-house resources to do the site planning and design themselves," he said.
Designers for public park projects, Smith continued, are often selected by means of a Request for Qualification (RFQ). "When utilizing this approach, the client has usually already selected a site, established a budget, and needs a design firm to see the project through," he said.
A number of parks departments or city planners, like Michael Edwards in Pittsburgh, are looking at organizations such as Project for Public Spaces to help plan parks and other public spaces.
Pittsburgh brought representatives from Project for Public Spaces to help create a strategy based not only on how the city wanted to revitalize the Market Square area, but also to find out how residents and visitors would actually use the space.
"There is no reason why a park or any kind of public civic place should not be attracting all kinds of people at all times of day and not have that vibrant life you want to see in a downtown," said Phil Myrick, vice president of Project for Public Spaces. "But most parks don't work that way."
The idea behind Project for Public Spaces is to put the people who will be using the park first, before the design.
"When you talk about downtown spaces, you are looking at high land values, a lot of opportunities to become an anchor for activity downtown," Myrick explained. "It's incumbent on all parties to do their utmost to create the park for maximum success."
However, what often goes missing, he said, is the attention to the vision for what the site should be in terms of a destination. That includes considering closely all of the programs and activities that could happen in that park that would make it a popular recreational destination. What Project for Public Spaces does is help communities tease out the potential uses for the park site.
"We believe the community is the expert," Myrick said, "and they are the backbone of the project." His nonprofit organization shows community leaders examples of dozens of other parks to help spur ideas and suggestions. Once the community defines its vision, Project for Public Spaces begins to shape it. "We use a variety of tricks of the trade, like triangulation," Myrick continued, "which is the clustering of different uses and activities to create destinations, both large and small." It can also include creating small park areas within the larger park or developing amenities that create irresistible places to visit.
"What we come up with is a program plan that is very detailed," Myrick added, "and that becomes the backbone for the design."
Edwards and his group worked with Project for Public Spaces to come up with the initial design for Market Square. "Then we called a landscape architect who took that information and came up with three scenarios," Edwards said. "The choices were: don't do much at all, some change, and a complete change." The designs were then presented to the public, who had a say in the final decision.
Site planning usually involves a team put together from those with a vested interest in the park, representing the parks department, city administrators, neighborhood or other citizen groups, and designers. And inevitably, when you bring together a group of people, conflicts are bound to arise.
"We address this by carefully phasing our design services and confirming that everyone involved has reviewed and approved the design before we move to the next phase," said Smith of RVi. For example, his company is involved with the design of community parks and greenways at the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport site in Austin, Texas. "We have maintained constant communications with the city, the client, neighbors and other stakeholders to ensure that everyone involved reviewed, understood and approved our work before refining it further. While this does require extra effort, it also minimizes the opportunity for conflict."
Seattle landscape architect Brice Maryman thinks conflicts in the planning process can best be avoided by having robust public involvement.
"Time and time again, various constituencies have come to the table strongly advocating one particular solution to a park's design, but through the iterative design process, the result is a synthesis of everyone's agenda," Maryman said.
However, Maryman added, park owners changing their minds is one of the biggest challenges of the design process. His approach to that challenge is to develop a planning scheme that locks in certain decisions.
"For example, during the conceptual design phase, we lock in high-level principles that should guide the development of the site, such as universal accessibility and environmental stewardship," explained Maryman. He admits that there are times when revisions need to be accommodated during the design process. "The locking in of various decisions during the design process not only helps move the process forward, but also identifies true 'point of costly returns' milestones that will have impacts on the project's bottom line."
One of the biggest design challenges Maryman faces can be summed up in a single word: elegance.
"We've all seen parks that are good, and we've all seen parks that are bad," Maryman said. "But I would conjecture that the parks that are most loved and best cared for 20 years after they have opened are those that are elegant." The role of the designer, he said, is to come up with a plan that brings together the input from the community, the qualities of the site, the regulatory requirements and the needs for ongoing maintenance—no easy task.
Steve Cecil also said that getting all of the parties involved to agree to a site plan can create a high hurdle. "People involved in the planning and approvals processes often look upon park design as a kind of turf battle," Cecil said. "They seem to become fixated on particular park characteristics or uses, and misunderstand that parks can serve multiple purposes and multiple users in a unique way. You can have an open lawn, for example, that allows kids to play with a soccer ball, provides a place for a picnic and serves as an informal theater for the 4th of July concert—and one does not exclude the other."
In addition, Cecil continued, often people's expectation of a new park is linked to that of a park they enjoyed in another community, but what they appreciate in other parks isn't always appropriate for the new park. "The challenge in these cases is to provide multiple examples and to allow people to understand that each park is—and should be—unique."
Budget issues are always a challenge, according to Steven Cosmos, owner of Cosmos Associates in Natick, Mass. Planning a park site isn't cheap.
In Pittsburgh, fundraising efforts brought in $5 million to renovate Market Square.
Gary Scott in West Des Moines said that a lot of money is needed for general construction of a park, like the utilities, paving, buildings and restrooms. "A lot of money goes into the ground," he said.
In the past, Scott would have several parks under construction at once, adding on to each one a little at a time, taking several years to complete. This would allow more residents earlier access to a park without breaking the budget. Turns out, however, that the neighborhoods wanted their parks completed quickly, so the city now focuses on getting a single park done in one or two six-month building periods.
Cecil suggests establishing a steering committee for the planning process, which can be a watchdog on the budget, as well as other issues. "Don't make the committee so large that it can't make recommendations or discuss ideas among themselves. But don't make it so small that it appears to be exclusive or narrow-minded."
He also recommends that there be a clear decision-making process for the site, the site plan and the park design. "Parks can engender enthusiastic debate," Cecil continued, "and there always seems to be a contrary opinion. Consensus is not the same as unanimity, and it is important to bring appropriate closure at each step of the planning and design process."
Once the committees are organized, the budgets set, and the conflicts ironed out, there is one major piece of advice left.
"Build the park and they shall come," said Cosmos, riffing on the famous line from Field of Dreams.
That's exactly what happened in the city of Houston. A convention center was built in downtown Houston in the 1980s, and while it brought visitors to the area, the convention center didn't attract new business, according to Guy Hagstette, park director. In 2004, the city owned 11.78 acres across from the center, and the plan was to turn it into a park.
Site planning began in 2005 to develop a public park for residents of Houston, as well as provide an outdoor gathering space for those attending events at the convention center.
"The mayor decreed the park had to be open in three years," Hagstette said. Working with Project for Public Spaces, Hagstette's team created a park with very distinct areas and programming plans.
"There were a lot of concerns about cramming too much stuff into the space," Hagstette said. Yet there needed to be enough programming planned to attract people. While conventioneers and hotel guests might see the park as a place to unwind, "having locals come to the park was not a given."
But the park was built, and people are coming. A quarter-acre lake attracts families who enjoy driving radio-controlled boats. There are stage areas for concerts and other events. One section is a neighborhood park, with dog areas and an interactive waterpark. There is a garden near the convention center that Hagstette called an "outdoor living room."
The site planning involved more than deciding where to put a restaurant and how many dog parks were needed, of course. Hagstette explained that, because they planned to have a stage, sound and lighting systems also needed to be considered.
"We had to consider the amount of power needed for concerts, but still try to keep the costs low," he said. "If we wanted to be able to put up tents, we had to plan the various configurations in advance. Active spaces have a lot of infrastructure, and we wanted to accommodate activities without a high cost."
Another issue in site planning is whether or not to "green build" the park. It almost sounds like an oxymoron to make green spaces more eco-friendly, but the experts say there are a number of ways to design parks that use sustainable building practices.
"Park design and construction should consider recycling local building materials," Steven Cosmos suggested. "I have reused granite curbing to create walls and mark linear walkways in parks."
In West Des Moines, Gary Scott said his department is looking at sustainable site initiatives, such as permeable parking areas and rain guards. To help reduce maintenance, as well as be more environmentally aware, West Des Moines is planting prairie grasses and other native plants and only irrigates the athletic fields.
"We're looking more at environmental impact through the park's design," Scott explained.
Site planning and design of parks can be incredibly challenging because the expectations of everyone are often so high at the outset.
"What we almost always forget," Cecil said, "is that great parks don't emerge all at once. It takes some time for the landscape to mature, and for people to find the best way to use a park. It is interesting to look at photos of Central Park in New York just after it was 'finished.' In fact, it took several decades for the trees to mature and the quality of the park to fully emerge. We all need to approach the site planning and design with a little bit of patience, lots of listening, and provide park plans that can flexibly absorb different uses and experiences."
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