Parks Are People & Place

The Intersection of Culture & Ecology in Landscape Design

By Emily Tipping

From large-scale urban park projects meant to unite an entire region to smaller rural park spaces that bring children back to nature, careful attention to landscape design is a common denominator in spaces that function well for their communities.

In recent years, landscape architects have turned their focus toward more sustainable designs. These designs adapt the natural landscape for both active and passive recreation. In addition to saving the planet, they help save money for cash-strapped park districts by saving resources and reducing maintenance requirements.

These landscapes also go beyond sustaining the environment to sustain the communities they serve. Landscape architects carefully involve the community in the planning process to be sure the spaces will be well-used once they're open to the public. And once in place, parks serve to bring those communities closer together.

In this way, the ecology of a sustainable landscape and the cultural fabric of a community mesh to create a landscape that is not out there, where people cannot reach it, touch it or interact with it, but one in which people can immerse themselves, reconnect with the landscape, reconnect with their health and reconnect with each other.

But don't just take our word for it. Check out these many award-winning park landscape projects that exemplify the best of park design for the benefit of the community and the earth.

Disaster Recovery

Couturie Forest & Scout Island
City Park in New Orleans

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, many Americans were shocked to watch continual coverage of the neglect of people in real trouble as the floodwaters rose in the city of New Orleans. But when it came to a natural area within New Orleans' City Park, a little neglect might have been helpful.


Hurricane Katrina killed approximately half of the trees at the 62-acre Couturie Forest and Scout Island site. Floodwaters rose to a depth of 6 feet, destroying ground-level vegetation and displacing wildlife.

The site had recovered from hurricanes before. But in previous disasters, what New Orleans-based Mossop+Michaels, the design team working on the site's master plan, called "fortuitous neglect" allowed the site to regenerate at a slow pace. Trees knocked down by the storm provided shade and the soil was left undisturbed, preventing invasive species' takeover attempts.

After Hurricane Katrina, downed trees were removed and the soil was disturbed by heavy machinery. This created the perfect conditions—lots of sunlight through holes in the canopy and freshly turned earth exposing thousands of dormant seeds—for invasive species to begin to establish themselves. Before the storm, the site was home to just over 200 exotic trees, mainly Chinese Tallow. But in the three years since the floodwaters receded, around 11,000 new Chinese Tallow saplings have risen up. And large patches of ragweed have invaded the now-sunny areas of the site.

In addition to washing away native species, the hurricane also destroyed paths and dispersed the organizations that had volunteered labor for the site. Over 50 percent of City Park's staff was lost, along with their knowledge of the park's operations and maintenance.

The master plan for the site, recognized with an award from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), focuses on establishing more resilient site infrastructure. The design team approached this infrastructure from four perspectives: ecological, physical, organizational and informational.

Establishing resilient ecological infrastructure means halting the spread of invasive species and, in the long term, eradicating the invasives completely. Native species will be planted, and over 21 acres of Coastal Prairie will be situated in the site, providing habitat for migratory birds and wildlife. Coastal Prairie represents a severely endangered ecosystem along the Gulf Coast, and the site will serve a larger purpose, acting as a major seed bank to contribute to other restoration efforts.

The physical infrastructure will include a trail system, while organizational infrastructure will focus on enhancing the volunteer effort by allowing smaller groups to work on specific aspects of the project, giving them a sense of ownership. Finally, the informational infrastructure changes aim to create educational material, including a Web site to keep the public informed of the progress and goals of this very long-term project.

While all portions of the master plan may not be implemented, City Park does indicate that it began work on the plan this year.

A Paradigm Shift

Great Park
Irvine, Calif.

The team of landscape architects working on this "paradigm-changing" park project has been recognized with multiple awards from the ASLA and other organizations. Designed by a team led by Ken Smith Landscape Architect of Irvine on behalf of the Orange County Great Park Corp., this park is a huge undertaking.

Just consider these numbers: It will take 10 to 20 years to develop the park, at a cost of $1.5 billion. Millions of cubic yards of earth will be moved to create a canyon where there was flat space before. The Agua Chinon stream, now underground, will be brought to daylight for the enjoyment of visitors. More than 3.5 million tons of concrete and steel at the site will be reused, contributing to the site's sustainability. With its easy accessibility via nearby interstate roads, highways and trails, the park will be easily visited by more than 10 million southern California residents.

Ultimately, the park, which is located on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, closed since 1999, will cover 1,347 acres and will feature a constructed 2 1/2-mile canyon, the daylighted stream, a lake, a cultural terrace, a great lawn, aviation museum, conservatory and botanical garden, a promenade and a sports park.

The plans for the park were conceived during the economic boom times, and Ken Smith acknowledged during a session at the recent ASLA conference in Chicago that the economic downturn has slowed down the approach the team has taken, by necessity. But that doesn't mean work has stopped. In April 2009, the board approved a 500-acre development plan.

"Despite the financial hiccups around the world and here, there is a force and an energy behind this project," Smith said.

With the award-winning master plan approved in September 2007, work began on the Preview Park, which also won an ASLA award. The Preview Park features a visitor's center, a timeline and a balloon ride that can carry more than two dozen people up to 500 feet to get an overview of the park as it is now and to check out the construction as it progresses.

The clever phasing of the project serves to connect the community closely with its progress. Opened in Summer 2007, Preview Park hosts events like concerts, dances and more, and also provides a venue for community members to learn more about what's to come, building support in the region and ensuring neighbors can contribute their thoughts and desires to the design process. In addition to providing interested visitors with a bird's-eye view of the park, this initial phase also includes prototypes of features such as orange groves, stonework and plantings that will be expanded as the park construction progresses.

And in fact, the public played a major role in creating the master plan, attending intensive sessions with the project team to ensure the end result would be a park that reflected the needs and backgrounds of all of Orange County's citizens, from veterans and environmental groups to artists and families.

The park design is carefully cognizant of the needs of the humans in the surrounding community, as well as the needs of the global community. The design team considered the park an opportunity to explore health from three perspectives: personal health, regional health and global health.

"Part of the challenge is to transform the landscape to make it comfortable for people and sustainable for vegetation," Smith stated. He added, "Our approach to sustainability has been through health."

The park represents a paradigm shift that coincides with the shifting nature of work and life. Just as these have been turned on their head from the industrial age to the information age, the goals of parks have shifted as well—from the leisurely relaxing strolls associated with New York's Central Park's original design by Frederick Law Olmsted to the active, get-off-your-butt and get-active approach of more modern designs.

The park's Comprehensive Master Plan celebrates this paradigm shift and uses personal health as a path to greater understanding of the importance of social and ecological health in the region. The park unites personal health with environmental health by using sustainable design methods to provide a place for people to be active and interact with the environment. Tools like solar power and biomass crops will provide energy, while water will be carefully conserved and recycled through wetlands.

The finished park aims to include The Canyon, as well as a Habitat Park, which will serve as an ecological backbone to ensure continuity from the national forest to the north and state park to the south. Finally, Fields and Memorial Park give a nod to the site's history and the culture of the region, and provide places for cultural events and more active recreation.

An Urban Wilderness

Teardrop Park
New York City

In Battery Park City, a mixed-use neighborhood on the southwest side of lower Manhattan, tucked into a 1.8-acre site surrounded by tall apartment buildings, children, families and residents can find an oasis of wild play.

Designed by Michael van Valkenburgh Associates in New York for the Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority, this park was also recognized with an award by the ASLA. The site was created in the 1980s when a portion of Hudson River shoreline was filled, creating a flat area with a high water table. This meant the depth of the site program had to be limited. Another limiting factor was the surrounding residential towers, which create a very shady space. Finally, studies indicated that the east-west corridor through the park would experience strong, cold winds off the Hudson River, while areas between the buildings would be more protected.

The design team worked within these limiting factors to carefully position the features of the park as well as the types of plantings and ecological communities within the park.

The children's play areas were placed in shaded and wind-protected areas. Close by, Rockefeller Park offers a large traditional playground, so the design team aimed to provide an alternative by creating a natural play area. The Natural Learning Initiative out of North Carolina State University advised the design team, leading to site topography, interactive water fountains, natural stone and intimately scaled plantings to create a child's-eye view of the natural world.

"Our contribution was to persuade them that the whole park was a playground for everyone," explained Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture and director of the Natural Learning Initiative, in a session on natural play at the recent NRPA Congress & Exposition. "[The project is] a demonstration of what a landscape architect can bring to this type of environment."

The park was designed to appeal to people of all ages, including high school students and office workers, local families and the elderly residents of a nearby assisted-care facility. There are many features you'd never expect to find deep within the confines of an urban landscape, including a 27-foot-high, 168-foot long blue stone Ice-Water Wall, a Marsh with an access path scaled to children, sloped planted areas, groves, Water Play rocks and a stone Reading Circle that provides a view to the Hudson River.

The park was perfectly designed to fit its exact environment. The microclimate of the site was carefully studied. Even the soil brought to the site was carefully calibrated to create an optimum support for the plant life being brought in.

The site aims to be as sustainable as possible, with a maintenance regime that minimizes use of chemicals and irrigation provided by graywater from a nearby LEED-certified building in addition to stormwater runoff. Stones for the Ice-Water wall were quarried within 500 miles of the site, and the plants chosen for the site are largely native species.

On a Smaller Scale

Jester Park Natural Playscape
Granger, Iowa

"What about small-town USA that doesn't have that kind of money?" Moore asked during his presentation.

You don't have to spend millions of dollars to bring a natural playground to your own community's children. One of the winners of this year's Innovative Architecture and Design Awards did it for just over $200,000.

At Jester Park Natural Playscape, designed by RDG Planning & Design for Polk County Conservation, an unscripted play environment covering about 40,000 square feet invites kids to play with natural elements.

Just as Teardrop Park is located in proximity to a park with a traditional playground, Jester Park also already featured a traditional playground. But now that kids can crawl through a hollow log, splash in the wetlands and get a cool view in the Stone Henge, Polk County Conservation reports that user surveys show the Natural Playscape is used 58 percent more than the traditional playground.

It was constructed with naturally occurring, salvaged, recycled or donated materials, and utilizes rain gardens, bioswales, pervious paving and indigenous plant materials within its boundaries to filter the stormwater that falls on the site, reducing the impact of the playscape on the park.

The Playscape is divided into smaller areas, and kids can wander from one to the other on accessible paths of decomposed granite and limestone edging, discovering something new around every bend.

Features to explore include a prairie-grass labyrinth, a spot with reclaimed forest materials to climb over, around and through, a wetland with a wading pool, waterfall and bubbling stone, and a grass hill to roll down accompanied by log stairs and boulder scramble for climbing. The Stone Henge is a circular stone monolith with viewfinders to check out the assets of the larger park. It also acts as a council ring for classroom and educational activities.

The limestone edging and decomposed granite of the pathways allows stormwater to infiltrate the ground. At the same time, these paths are accessible for those with mobility issues, and the materials provide adequate contrast for those with visual impairments. Footbridges made from donated recycled composite decking lead visitors across miniature gullies and dry creek beds.

The project is not just a childhood wilderness, though. Art is incorporated throughout, enhancing the aesthetics of the site. The entrance showcases a rustic, multicultural feature adorned with carvings and a giant spider web in one corner. Three light bollards are designed to look like old tree stumps. And for visitors returning time and again, the art incorporated into the site offers a chance to keep on discovering anew, as petroglyph carvings are strategically hidden on rocks throughout the playscape.

From Trash to Treasure

Trinity River Audubon Center
Dallas, Texas

Another recent ASLA award-winning master plan, the Trinity River Corridor project in Dallas, has seen one project completed, with millions of dollars' worth of development still to come.

The now-complete Trinity River Audubon Center, recognized with an Innovative Architecture and Design Award, is a building that sits beautifully within its surrounding environment. Combined, the site and building offer Southeast Dallas an educational and community-building shared space for a variety of events throughout the year.

But the current beauty of the site belies its former condition. The site was previously the Deepwood landfill, containing more than 1.5 million tons of construction debris. The waste was consolidated into capped rolling hills, and then planted with prairie grass and hardwood trees. Clay-lined ponds were constructed to further enhance the site. They now attract wildlife, but also allow rainwater and runoff to collect, be cleansed and then flow back into the Trinity River.

The site invites human interaction with the environment through observation areas situated around the pond and 2.5 miles of walking trails leading deeper into the forest. An elevated footbridge connects these miles of trails to the entrance of the building.

In addition to the careful stormwater control of the wetland marshes and ponds, the site also was designed to be water-efficient, with many native North Texas trees and prairie grasses. This reduces the need for irrigation. The wetlands provide a resting spot and a home for wildlife and birds. In consideration of this wildlife's nocturnal activities, the exterior lighting at the center is automatically set to turn off after hours.

Ultimately, this project is just one pocket of a much larger project. In fact, the Trinity River Corridor will be one of the largest green infrastructure projects in the United States. The 9-mile urban park, floodway and transportation improvement project aims to anchor a transformation of the urban landscape.

Wallace Roberts & Todd came up with the ASLA-award-winning design guidelines for this multi-phase project. About 80 percent of the 2,300-acre area will be reserved for low-maintenance landscapes that can naturally withstand flooding, prairie grasses, wetlands, riparian buffers, bottomland woodland and recreational lakes. The other 20 percent of the land will be used for more active recreation including more than 30 miles of trails, promenades, amphitheaters, play areas and athletic fields.

Public art will include site-specific temporary works throughout the site, a single major permanent work strategically located on Central Island, as well as around a dozen "council circles," each designed by a different artists. The $300 million first phase was aiming for completion in 2014.

People Meet Nature

James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center
White Lake Township, Mich.

Designed by Columbus-based MSI Design for the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which operates 13 Metroparks covering almost 24,000 acres along the Huron and Clinton rivers, providing a greenbelt around the Detroit metropolitan area for about 9 million visitors annually, the ASLA-award-winning James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center, is located at the Indian Springs Metropark, a 2,215-acre park featuring bike trails, a golf course, hiking, picnicking, a sprayground and more.

The 70-acre James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center is "dedicated to the exploration and celebration of the natural environment," MSI Design stated in a press release. "Restored ecosystems and their associated wildlife inhabitants are within an arm's length, optimizing interaction with the natural world, while preserving and protecting its sensitive ecological areas and endangered species."

The site features some outstanding elements for connecting people to nature, including a center with an underwater classroom and an outdoor laboratory.

The project team collaborated with an educational committee and research scientists to design a master plan that could be used to ensure educational goals for the site were meeting the needs of the community. The committee established criteria to "fit" the restoration into school programs, and the master plan included teacher-training sessions, research, activities and exhibits for the center and activities designed for groups from elementary students through college-age students.

The project involved restoration of ecosystems, including prairie barrens, shortgrass prairie, tallgrass prairie and a sedge-fen-lake complex. The site's natural grade change helped reestablish the ecosystems that would naturally occur in specific microclimates. More than 170 plant species were reestablished, and existing endangered species on the site were protected, including the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, Blanding's Turtle and Henslow's Sparrow. The team also has made an effort to reintroduce the Karnar Blue Butterfly. And, Sand Hill Cranes have returned to the site as a result of the restoration.

Site elements encourage interaction between people and their environment. The Muck Pond functions as a working outdoor laboratory near the indoor wet lab. Boardwalks allow students to get closer to the water. Council Rings are featured in the different ecosystems, offering a spot for educators and environmentalists a spot to share information about the specific aspects of the site. A demonstration garden introduces the public to the native plant species found in the area.

Like many landscape projects, the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center also aims at conservation. A geothermal system is used for heating and cooling in the building. In the summer, the geothermally heated water is piped and used at a nearby sprayground in the larger park. That water is again reused for irrigation at the Indian Springs Golf Course.

From Blight to Bright

Buffalo Bayou Promenade
Houston, Texas

Winner of the ASLA 2009 Award of Excellence in the General Design Category, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade is a showpiece for Houston, bringing people back into an area that has been long neglected. SWA Group of Houston designed the project for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.

The site presented unique challenges, with criss-crossing freeway structures towering above, blocking the sunlight and dumping sheets of water from their sides during storms. In addition, the bayou's waters naturally bring trash, debris and silt, depositing them along the bank, creating a litter-strewn eyesore. The site, 30 feet below the grade of the surrounding streets and with few access points, was intimidating to pedestrians who wandered that way.

The design team aimed to reverse this and create a successful environment for pedestrians. The site was regraded to change the slopes, allowing for improved views into the park, and at the same time reducing erosion and improving flood water conveyance. Access points were added at each roadway crossing, and lighting was incorporated into the site to improve the impression of safety.

The heavy-duty materials used on the site were chosen for their durability, cost-effectiveness and appropriateness for this context. They include exposed concrete, recycled crushed concrete and galvanized steel. Recycled concrete cobble-lined swales help reduce the impact of high-volume flows of water running over the freeway.

The site was planted with native, flood-resistant riparian plants and trees to the tune of nearly 300,000 plants, including more than 640 trees.

With a goal of ensuring a safe environment for pedestrians, lighting was a central feature of the design. There are three orders of lighting in the park.

Primary trail lighting poles are relatively closely spaced, showing pedestrians exactly where the path will go next. Because the site is subject to flooding, careful attention was given to ensure the lights could handle periodic submersion, as well as withstand the rigors of vandalism.

The second order of lights serves to light up the dangerous spots—like the dark urban corners under bridges—to alleviate safety concerns. The whole site doesn't need to be flooded with light, as long as careful attention is given to direct illumination at these spots.

Finally, the third order of lights is more artistic, connected to the ebb and flow of the bayou and the waxing and waning moon. Floodlights under bridges and LEDs atop each light fixture change from blue to white to blue with the lunar cycle.

The site also features artwork that helps create a connection between the city's art district and the historic channel.

The site is now used by pedestrians, bikers and boaters below, while the drivers above can enjoy the impact of the creative lighting systems. And Houston has turned 23 acres of dangerous eyesore into a necklace of lights and water in the heart of the city.



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