Design for the Times

Stretch Your Dollars, Boost Your Impact

By Rick Dandes

Sprawling public parks and small, neighborhood open spaces in urban settings have long been an intricate part of the world we interact with on an almost daily basis.

Well-maintained parks add value to a neighborhood, realtors say, and there would be a huge public outcry if a municipality tried to sell one off. But these days, in light of diminishing resources and proposed federal and state budget cuts, park landscape design and architecture experts admit that they are being pressed to do more with less.

In fact, suggested Bill Inman, senior vice president of Hitchcock Design Group, a landscape architecture firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill., "The trends in designing parks today closely parallel a park district's and recreation agency's ability to secure supplemental funding. If, for example, a state's Department of Natural Resources has a certain mission that they would like to see with their grant program, what we're finding out is that design follows that very carefully, because capital is so limited."

"We have certainly seen cutbacks," said Phil Myrick, of the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces. "And because of that, we do strategize to figure out how to best spend limited funds, so that we get the most bang for the dollar."

In some cases, he said, it may be as simple as finding a place where you have a budget only for planting flowers. "Use your funds where you will have the most impact visually," Myrick explained. "After that, the use of that money will hopefully synergize with other investments, and that's how you get things done in times of an economic slowdown."

"You have to give people a sense that things are getting better and not winding down," Myrick continued. "We can't allow the impression that things are falling apart. There has always been the opportunity to work within a tight budget. Now, we simply have no choice. We have to work with less money."

The big issue is how to ensure the continuing improvement and maintenance of parks—all while keeping them interesting—a draw to the communities they serve.

"Even at the state and federal level, grant programs have still been there during this great recession," Inman noted. "They may be funded less, and the pool of capital may be smaller, but there continue to be grant opportunities. And the open space movement, which is tied in very closely to the green movement, is strong and is not going anywhere."

Park Landscape Design Trends

The environmental imperative, or "going green," is now one of the greatest influences on commercial and public landscape design, landscape architects said.

The trend in larger landscapes, Inman added, is moving away from vast areas of lawn grass toward a more conscious planting of meadows, whether led by a purely native species approach or planting design, which includes ornamentals to achieve a new look to the local landscapes.

"In that regard, another trend we're seeing," he said, "is nature-based play. Designers are depending less on the classic modular playgrounds that equipment manufacturers continue to sell and more on natural environment."

A lot of municipalities are hooking up not only with landscape architects, but also with ecologists to inventory everything in an existing park system in order to fully understand the kind of visitor opportunities there are based on the space's natural settings.

Park providers, whether public or private, now have recognized that some of these larger open spaces contain riparian zones, greenways, wetlands—areas that have not been fully activated or used in the past. But, with users increasingly interested in the ecology, these areas can become a vital part of a nature lecture educational program.

The movement to bring children closer to nature is another trend, but not a recent one. It started in earnest a number of years ago, as playgrounds became driven by risk management, and the potential for lawsuits, Inman said.

"There are so many requirements that you must follow in order to minimize your risk," he continued. "It almost seems like attorneys have limited the creative play movement. As a result, a trend we're seeing is one in which we're trying to figure out how to bring play and safety together. The idea is to create a space where kids can get their two hands in water, in mud, climb on logs and get close to plants and enjoy themselves—a setting that promotes adventure in nature, as we inexorably move away from the playground-in-a-box kind of thinking."

Recreational opportunities also are key elements in designing a park system, explained Mike Bell, a landscape architect at RDG Planning and Design, based in Des Moines, Iowa.

"Providing great recreation to a diverse cross-section of demographics is important and so is accessibility," Bell said.

Parks are not just for parents and their children anymore, he suggested. "People like to bike. They like to hike on beautiful nature trails. They like contemplative gardens to sit in and look at," he added. "Those aspects of any public space have appeal to people of all ages, but in particular, we recognize that there is a huge, aging baby boomer demographic, so making sure that you are tapped into that mature and still active population is critical to building visitor-ship to a park."

Related to that is yet another trend cited by landscape designers: a rapid movement toward artificial turf on sports fields. People have always gone to parks to play, and to get away from their hectic daily lifestyles, and that number is growing rapidly. But, communities are not easily able to access additional land assets, even as the programs for baseball, soccer and lacrosse are rapidly increasing.

"We've never gone into a particular district that told us they had too many fields," Inman noted. "They always seem to be short of fields, so park managers wind up having to schedule activities from early in the morning until late at night. As a result, one of the things we are seeing is the movement toward lighted artificial fields. They can be played on immediately after rain and the grass obviously doesn't wear out. There is also less maintenance cost, which helps at a time when funding is tight. In short, artificial turf fields can accommodate a much larger slate of programs without the municipality having to purchase additional land."

Going Green

The going-green trend and the sustainability of landscapes—in both construction and maintenance—is very prevalent these days in the world of designing parks, said Mark Focht, executive director of the Fairmount Park Commission in Philadelphia.

"Looking at parks to make sure they are sustainable has been a trend for the last several years, but it's only getting stronger," Focht said. "At Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, we are in the process of expanding our park system. We are going to be breaking ground on an entirely new park just south of Philadelphia's downtown—Center City. We've been working on the design for more than two years, and the whole time much of the discussion has been about sustainability, the appropriateness of materials, how locally sourced materials can be used."

In a way, park districts are environmentally friendly by nature, added Inman. "Park districts, being in the natural environmental business, are already green," he said.

Inman noted such "green" trends in parks as the establishment of rain gardens and infiltration basins. "It's all done in an attempt to reduce the cost of maintaining otherwise unprogrammable turf areas," he said.

There is certainly a lot of discussion about permeable paving, dark sky lighting and just an overall native plant palette. And, of course, using recycled materials whenever possible.

Many parks now work to include stormwater management and retention. Larger parks and even smaller neighborhood parks are being designed to capture and then reuse storm water that falls in the parks. The goal is to not direct it to a piping system into a river or a treatment plant.

"Another green practice is to use solar lighting," Focht said. "We have many parks in our system that use solar lights. We're considering the use of wind-powered light fixtures as well. We have a park that is completely removed from the grid. We produce all of our own power in the park by using photovoltaic cells. It's efficient. It saves money. And to our environmentally conscious park-goers, it just makes good sense."

When designing a park landscape, there are several basic to-dos suggested by planning experts, but the most obvious and simple one is to begin the design process well before breaking ground.

"We're working hard at pre-development before we even get to the design stage," Bell said. "Some questions we initially ask our clients are: What kind of ecology was there in the beginning—not so that we can replace it, but so we can find some level of balance between the old and the new? And that is an extremely exciting development from a design standpoint in landscape architecture and the realm of designing parks."

RDG recently teamed up with an ecology firm to inventory 4,000 park acres, Bell said. "We inventoried areas that were developed and those that weren't. And we did so to gain an understanding of the habitat and how various recreational activities would affect the local ecology. After all, people who want to go birding or people who want to go nature hiking shouldn't have that opportunity taken away from them. A park is a living system for the community, and we want to make sure we capture available land that not only provides recreational opportunities, but also provides opportunities for clean water, cleaner air and greater habitat."

Scott Crawford, also a partner at RDG, concurred. "We actually have systems that measure how green a project is or how sustainable a project is," he said, "in order to validate that it is environmentally sound and doesn't adversely affect the environment or the ecology of a particular site. Parks are certainly in the forefront of that movement."

Utilizing native plant material as well as installing less bluegrass turf and more native prairie and no-mow kinds of mixes are "must-dos" for any park landscaper these days, Inman contended.

Whatever the landscape design is, make sure it responds specifically to its setting. "Landscapes in parks take a beating," Inman said. "So you need to select plant material that can survive in a public setting. This is not a place for a rose garden. It's not a place for plants that are annuals. But, you do want to give visitors a beautiful visual experience in a setting that's going to last."

Increasing Attendance—a Numbers Game

After all is said and done, can landscape planners increase the number of visitors to a park?

One sure way to do this, Focht suggested, is to make sure the park design is responsive to the local community needs.

"When we design," he noted, "we make sure there is a really rigorous community outreach. We aggressively engage the community, making sure the features that go into the park, the landscaping, even colors and textures, are representative and responsive to the community interests. Now, community members don't have the final say. We do. But, the best parks are those that reflect the community as strongly as possible."

It is relatively easy to engage users if the park in question is a small neighborhood space across the street from row houses in the middle of a city. But even if it is a larger park, identifying the user groups and trying to engage them is important to understanding their interests and desires.

Don't ever overlook the basics, Inman said. "You need to have a place for users to get a drink of water and go to the bathroom. If a family unit of people can't do one of those two things, then that is going to limit their stay."

And, make the park design unique to the community; something it can be proud of. "How you landscape it should make community members feel like it's truly their park and not like one they might see in a nearby community," he added.

Also, incorporate the multigenerational aspect. A park should be something for the entire family to experience—a place everyone can enjoy.

Another trendy draw to parks incorporates the local produce movement, through farmers markets and community gardens.

In rural areas, this may not be necessary, but urban parks and their surrounding neighborhoods will likely respond positively to homegrown fruits and vegetables sold in an outdoor farmer's market setting.

Community gardens have become quite popular around the nation. Imagine an urban garden producing organically grown herbs and vegetables, with some of the produce put on sale for area residents at bargain prices. It helps support urban agriculture, healthy food choices and anti-obesity programs. Some parks have built organic farms and send out the produce to local food pantries for the needy.

"There are some other trendy amenities that encourage visitors," Focht added, "such as a splashpad, which is a fountain feature. Skateparks are still popular. And there is still a high demand for picnic permits and shelters. A park should and always will be a place where people can gather for a party."

"But, more than anything," Inman noted, "parks are still all about sports. "Sports participation in this country is huge. And it's not just one particular ethnicity. There is huge participation in soccer, lacrosse, cricket, baseball and softball. Active adults engage in recreation. Those kinds of sports-related amenities have and will continue to draw the most people to parks. And, of course, you have to have good managers to manage the schedule."

The Social Generation

People go to parks to relieve stress and get away from it all. But younger generations will definitely bring their phones along. That phone informs them, protects them and connects them. Can you imagine what Facebook, Twitter and other social sites can bring to inform people of a great recreational and health opportunity a park provides? This is an opportunity that has not been fully utilized, said several park planners.

"It's something I'm sure that the next generation of park designers will understand and provide for users," said Mike Bell, of RDG Design & Planning in Des Moines, Iowa.

It's All About the Money

Given the economic climate that park planners have had to endure over the past few years, "we're finding that any kind of design that maximizes efficiencies and flexibility is something that municipalities are looking for," Crawford said. "Because of funding constraints, parks and recreation departments are seeking partnerships with other public agencies, sometimes with private service providers; and they are looking for designs that give them the most flexibility so that they can program their facility to the fullest extent possible. Efficiency and flexibility is extremely important in the overall design of parks."

In Philadelphia, it has certainly been a struggle for the past couple of years, Focht said. "But we have done fairly well with the philanthropic community and we got a boost with stimulus money. Having said that, there is never enough money to do what you want to do, and we believe that you can't let money stand in the way of doing good things."

"We firmly believe that resources follow aspiration," Focht added. "Even when the economy gets tight, you don't pull in, you don't hunker down. If anything, you get more aggressive in your planning and you convince people that now is the time to get moving. The thing to say is, 'If you give us a grant, public or private, we can stretch your dollar farther now than we could have ever before.'"

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