A Born Natural

Nature Takes Its Place in Recreational Experience

By Kelly Anderson

Once upon a time, experiencing nature was reserved for hard-working farmers, adventurous hikers and long-traveled tourists. But not anymore.

As studies confirm the stress-reliving benefits of natural surroundings, and as projects like Chicago's Millennium Park demonstrate the powerful economic and social impact of landscape designs on derelict space, there is only one conclusion to be drawn. As a culture, we are getting back to our roots and using smart landscaping strategies and applications to do it.

Equally smart are those who are applying their knowledge of design and landscaping dos and don'ts in partnership with communities and public and private organizations to create recreational experiences that are breathtaking in vision, savvy in technology and mindful of economic reality.

"Rather than controlling nature, people are willing to be friends with it and live as a part of it," said James Burnett, FASLA, president of The Office of James Burnett of Solana Beach, Calif., and a recent ASLA award winner. "In a residential community in Glenview, Ill., they have clusters of housing in a giant nature prairie preserve. We are hearing from urban environments that people want ponds and water features more like a creek; people are interested in getting closer to nature."

And what could be closer to nature than your own back yard? Projects like the recently opened first phase of the ambitious Parklands of Floyds Fork in Louisville, Ky., a new 4,000-acre park system located on the outskirts of the city, are resurrecting an Olmsted-like vision to create beautiful, natural spaces for generations within an urban community.

With an innovative design and system that will ultimately contain four large community parks, complete with spray park, dog park and educational nature center, its 115 miles of hiking and biking trails, waterways and roads will traverse natural woodlands, savannahs and even working farmland, allowing residents and visitors to experience nature in the city's own back yard.

"The philosophy is to provide a high-quality outdoor experience despite your age or fitness level," said Scott Martin, park director with 21-Century Parks, the nonprofit organization responsible for the park that will oversee construction, long-term operations and maintenance. "We want to inspire a simple love of nature, showcasing the past, working with the present, offering an authentic experience to provide for the future."

Plan on It

But while a new generation of Americans is eager for more nature-centered recreational experiences, creating a natural landscape to serve them is anything but natural. "It doesn't just happen; things don't just fall out of the sky," Burnett explained. "You have to have strong design in order to make something feel right. It takes a lot of planning."

Apparently, a little bit of fortune-telling doesn't hurt either, as many of today's landscape architects are being asked to design for multiple scenarios and for multiple possibilities far into the future.

"Flexibility needs to be built in," Burnett said. "On almost all projects, we are being asked to show what it looks like, say, with a farmers market, or with a performance for 3,000 people, or to set up for an arts festival, or for a fireworks show on the 4th of July. It was more subjective before, and people usually just hired you because they like you and if it works, it works."

With fewer communities able to afford to risk the unknown, however, clients now want architects and designers to create visual designs for every conceivable scenario, ensuring that such details as plantings, walkways, lighting, power outlets, safety and even anticipated maintenance costs are all part of the planning process.

Bringing architects into the planning process early is key to creating a successful landscaped recreational area. It helps create a broader vision that enables projects to stay viable for years by including plans for maintenance, revenue and thinking about how phases can bring that about.

This was certainly true for the recently completed phase one of the Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, where architects were invited to offer their ideas early in the planning process.

"We were responsible for directing all aspects of the project, including overseeing the type, location and size of development that would create the revenue to support the park," said Paul Seck, senior associate and operating director for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., of Brooklyn, N.Y. "The design flexibility during the master-planning phases meant that we were able to put the concerns of the park first, making development decisions that would support the success of the park in addition to generating the right level of revenue to support anticipated maintenance."

"Recreation and parks usually have a limited plant palette. Managers often only use what they know is bulletproof, never going outside their comfort zones. But the best way to explore new material is to do a test plot."

Mia Lehrer -
Mia Lehrer & Associates

Time Is Money

Another key to implementing successful landscaping solutions for any recreational project is time. Good planning that will anticipate future scenarios, future needs and present conditions takes time.

"You have to consider the community, the client and who's going to go there. Families with children? Sports? Passive recreation? Dog walkers?" Burnett said of the planning process. "You have to get that nailed down because they're all a little bit different. The designer needs to really understand the client and then program it, figuring out where everything's going to go and then take time. The lesson is to take the time to design it."

In the case of the Annenburg Community Beach House in Santa Monica, Calif., a historical restoration and transformation of a famous Hearst landmark-become-public-recreation facility, time was definitely a factor in landscaping for its success.

"Recreation and parks usually have a limited plant palette," said Mia Lehrer, president of Mia Lehrer & Associates, Landscape Architecture of Los Angeles, about the Annenburg Community Beach House, which required some out-of-the-box planting selections to honor the historic nature of the site. "Managers often only use what they know is bulletproof, never going outside their comfort zones. But the best way to explore new material is to do a test plot."

By taking the time to observe various plants' response to the salty, windy beachfront climate with a test plot, plants for the project could be selected before large amounts of money were invested, with the assurance that they would do well in such conditions.

Swing Your Partner

The Annenburg Community Beach House was also a success thanks to partnerships between the famous Annenburg Foundation and its generous $25 million donation, along with many other private and public funds and services.

"There has been a very special collaboration between the state parks and the city," Lehrer said. "They've been involved all the way through the planting and maintenance process."

In today's economic climate, partnerships have become an essential means of providing the kind of financial support required to buy money-saving technology, and sustainable, eco-friendly kinds of landscaped recreational space communities are looking for.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork, also supported by pubic-private partnerships, local donors, city governments and federal funding, owes much of its existence to the financial partnerships that have included private funding of specific attractions by such companies as PNC Bank, which will be building the PNC Achievement Center for Education and Interpretation, a 3,500-square-foot educational center.

But partnerships are not only financial. Municipalities and park districts are increasingly relying on the expertise and passion of part-time help, volunteers and nonprofits to oversee landscaped areas like parks and community gardens to help make ends meet, and to achieve the landscaped recreational spaces their communities want.

"Many who don't have money or know- how come to us, but there are many models that parks and recreation can take when it comes to creating a community garden," said Bill Maynard, community garden coordinator for the city of Sacramento, Calif., Parks and Recreation and vice president of the Community Gardening Association based in Ohio. "Parks and rec don't have to head it up; they can go to a nonprofit to oversee the project or, if they can't hire someone full time, they can hire a part-time person like me."

Growing Money on Trees

But for all the partnerships and creative funding, many parks and outdoor recreation projects still must become financially sustainable. To that end, landscaping with water conservation in mind (using native species, implementing smart water-saving technology like underground irrigation or recycling captured water) and selecting low-maintenance plantings are certainly popular ways to lower costs.

The good news is that well-designed areas can become revenue generators themselves, making financial sustainability a much-needed reality. Even the Parklands of Floyd Fork, for all its donations and endowments, recognizes that the park must eventually pull its own financial weight and is being designed with that purpose in mind.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, too, has been very mindful of creating revenue-generating space, with the New York City and the state requiring that 20 percent of the 85-acre park be used to support revenue-generating development for the long-term maintenance and upkeep of the park.

These days it also pays to be savvy about the location of landscaped recreational areas with bargain prices and bargain deals to be made by taking on disused, discarded and abandoned urban plots. "A larger trend which we are seeing in other cities as well, is to open up underutilized portions of waterfronts to recreational uses," Seck observed. "Sometimes these are the most beautiful spots in a city, and they are only now becoming accessible to the public."

In the case of Millennium Park in Chicago (originally an unsightly shorefront area, congested with train tracks and parking lots and considered one of the worst addresses in town), it has become a world-class attraction, and a jewel in Chicago's crown, drawing millions of people each year.

But transforming unused space isn't just for big cities. Smaller communities, too, are seeing the financial and social benefits of taking derelict spaces and turning them into landscaped community space. "We're taking spaces that have been vacant for years and reclaiming them and planting trees," Maynard explained of Sacramento's acceptance of this idea. "One of our community gardens used to be an old gas station and we approached the parks to revitalize it. Half of our stand-alone gardens are from unused green space that we convert into gardens. We go to a housing redevelopment agency, who buys lower-income neighborhood property, and we improve the streetscape, planting native flowers on the outside, adding beauty to what was a barren four corners."

Transforming such spaces not only adds property value, but also revives a sense of community. Community gardens are especially popular and bring whole neighborhoods and cities together. It also brings in positive press.

"I think because of the outreach nature of community gardening, we get a lot of positive media, and that helps a lot when the media buys into it," Maynard added. "A few years ago was the start of the food movement with Michelle Obama and Maria Shriver, so it's getting a lot of positive attention. There's been a huge outpouring of interest—it's been pretty amazing."

In Sacramento, community gardening has doubled in size in the past two years. Cities all over the country, such as New York and its gardening program called GreenThumb, are finding that urban communities are eager for more, and no wonder, as gardening is now the nation's number-one hobby. (For more information, see the American Community Gardening Association's Web site, www.communitygardening.org.)

Growing Community

Whether it's garden plots that bring urban green thumbs together in farming solidarity, or dog parks that bring together lovers of all-things-canine, landscaping a space well can make a good thing even better. It can help grow community.

Providing shade trees for passive recreation and seating is a landscaping "do" for any outdoor space, but for some, it can elevate shade into a destination.

For the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas, well-designed landscaping has transformed a simple, open square near the campus library into an ASLA award-winning social hub, and a popular destination for the student community. The Brochstein Pavilion, an elegantly transparent glass structure with its café, bar and restrooms, invites students to lounge, study and socialize under a grove of neatly rowed shade trees in the pavilion's adjacent quadrangle.

With the soothing sounds of water spilling over the edges of a long, monolithic raised fountain topped with smooth river stones, and with European-style moveable café chairs and tables, the space provides cooling shade from the hot Texas sun, refreshing sounds from the fountain and landscaped four-season interest. In a word, it is beautiful.

And in another word, it is also communal, thanks to one of its key elements: moveable chairs.

"Moveable chairs are still catching on," Burnett said of the landscaped area's most surprisingly successful features. "But it's been happening all over Europe for a very long time in public parks, and it says, 'Here you go, take your two-pound chair, sit with a friend, face the sun, have total control.' It elevates people. And the satisfaction rate is so much higher when you let people do what they want to do. "

And contrary to initial concerns that moveable chairs would invite vandalism and theft, the very opposite has been true. Students take pride in this space, value its care and seem to be responding well to the unspoken message that they are trusted to use it wisely. In New York's Bryant Park, where moveable chairs have been used for several years, park managers couldn't be happier with the results.

For those watching their pennies, moveable chairs also make financial sense. They cost only $40 each, are seldom damaged, and are easy to replace.

"Rather than controlling nature, people are willing to be friends with it and live as a part of it. We are hearing from urban environments that people want ponds and water features more like a creek; people are interested in getting closer to nature."

James Burnett -
The Office of James Burnett

Go With the Flow

No one sets out to make a job more difficult. Whether it's choosing the right seating or the right plants, knowing how to go with the flow of the environment will go a long way toward reducing management headaches.

When developing a master plan for the vast acreage of the Parklands of Floyds Fork, the first order of business was to identify their natural assets. "The first thing was to take an inventory of what is special in our park," Martin said. "The landscape is special and we didn't want to diminish it or detract from it with artificial architecture. Secondly, we had to design accessibility to those places."

With a whole board highly committed to the park as an educational facility, it was important to maintain the integrity of the landscape and to work with its seasonal ebb and flow. Knowing, for example, that the creek that forms the spine of the park is dynamic, flooding and drying up at certain times of the year, the planners built bridges designed to handle worst-case scenario 100-year events, and trails were constructed where there would not be much current.

Similarly, not wanting to fight or work against the natural setting, the planners embraced the popular philosophy of "grow, don't mow," allowing much of the native areas to remain untouched. "What we don't do is just as important as what we do," Martin explained of the team's approach to landscaping. "When you come in the park, you have a series of ponds and savannas that really just need a little buffing on the edges. You can highlight many spaces without bringing in a Caterpillar D9 to re-contour that piece of land."

Room to Grow

Even when nature is not the star of the show, landscaping can still greatly impact a patron's experience. At the Annenburg Community Beach House, landscaping is given much of the credit for helping to create distinctive spaces, helping improve patron comfort and for creating a greater sense of atmosphere.

With a structure designed with many distinct spaces, landscaping was used to help define them.

"We wanted to create distinct places within the property that related to the buildings," Lehrer explained. "So the front guest house garden needed to feel more like a residence that celebrated the original history of the house, but also allowed people to meander into the house through a series of plantings."

Other spaces, from volleyball courts and children's play areas to a café and quiet terraces attracting older patrons for conversation, reading and card playing, are planted according to their need and their aesthetic—palms for shade, roses for beauty and pines for durability in a salty-sea-wind environment. The plants help create a sense of space.

They also serve to soften the severity of manmade necessities like the safety walls surrounding the pool, and transform pathways into more than just a functional experience.


Pathways, of course, called hardscape, are also part of any landscaping project and require careful consideration. These days recycled materials offer many affordable and eco-friendly options, along with the traditional considerations of concrete, asphalt, pavers, loose stone and more.

For the Annenburg Community Beach House, hardscape material was a challenge. With many of their users walking in bare feet, dark paving material in the heat of summer was a no-no that led them to ultimately choose light-colored asphalt for the parking areas. Depending on your needs, it is important to consider the effects of reflectivity or heat absorption of paving materials.

It is also important to consider their aesthetic and/or historical appropriateness. For the boardwalk and other areas historically made of wood at the Beach House, the project planners compromised with a more durable wood-plastic composite. It was a win-win.

Lehrer cautioned, however, that whatever you choose, the different kinds of hardscape materials should be kept to a manageable minimum to avoid having to maintain too many different kinds of surfaces.

Water, Water Everywhere

Of course, for just about every landscape project around the country, reducing water usage has become an issue that goes well beyond choosing drought-tolerant plants. From systems that work on timers to sophisticated sensoring and weather-detection features to compensate for rainfall, there are a variety of irrigation systems that make the actual process of watering a great deal easier and that also reduce waste.

Capturing water, too, has become an effective tool in reducing the cost of irrigation. Underground cisterns to capture rainwater or wastewater certainly help to offset the monthly water bill, but landscape architects are finding that even these practical features can be so much more than practical. They can be focal points, as well.

"This whole idea of being environmentally friendly and managing storm water on your site is definitely a trend," Burnett said. "So having places where water can be stored and featuring that—not just making it a square basin, but making it a feature—is more interesting."

No matter how easy a system you employ, however, there is no denying that landscaping and maintaining it can be hard work. Seminars and conferences, ongoing education and online communities certainly help. "Hard work is a four-letter word," Maynard said of his own experience with community gardens. "It takes a commitment to pay attention to it. But the good news is that there are more and more seminars directed toward parks and rec."

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