Sustaining Excellence

New & Improved Landscape Design for Today's Parks

By Kelli Anderson

Some things, like good wine, just get better and better. Take any landscaping buzzword today, such as "sustainable design" or "universal accessibility," and you may be tempted to dismiss them with a "been there, done that." But what you may not know is that whether you are designing a public park or a playground, these words, among others in the landscape design industry, are continuing to evolve into practical applications and ideas that just keep getting better and better. Better cost savings. Better community satisfaction. Better environmental and public health benefits. And even better economic impact.

Cashing In

Sustainable design, noted for its goal to make our environment and human health, well, healthier, is being applied in increasingly innovative ways that not only make life better, but also stretch shrinking budgets further than ever before. Case in point, recently installed trash receptacles by the Boise Parks and Recreation department in Boise, Idaho, have eliminated the need for daily trash removal and replacement liners (emptied only once during the past year), thanks to an innovative design that compacts accumulating trash into a large, underground chamber, invisible from the otherwise normal-looking trash containers.

"As maintenance budgets shrink, we look at creative ways to maintain our service levels as we stretch our maintenance dollars," said Toby Norton, landscape architect and project manager with the Boise Parks and Recreation Department. "We continually look at new or different materials, equipment and/or amenities that will streamline or reduce the amount of maintenance required at a site."

Another time and money saver, the practice of planting native species in place of green lawn, has been touted for many years for its favorable impact—reduction in water, chemical, mowing and related manpower expenses, to name a few. Good for the environment and good for the bottom line. But park districts like Wheaton, Ill., are learning that native plantings, especially around shorelines, offer even greater benefits.

For a public works-era, 1930s lake restoration in Wheaton's Northside Park, native plantings are key to the restoration of what had devolved into a sediment-filled version of its former self, more visited by pesky Canada Geese than the local community. "It reduced erosion, improved water quality and improved wildlife habitat," said Rob Sperl, director of planning for the city's department. "And it dramatically reduced a really bad problem we had with the Canada Geese population." With the addition of native prairie plants, the area is not only becoming more attractive, but the park is now attracting wild birds like martins and bluebirds, along with the bird watchers who follow them.

Recycling, certainly no newcomer to the lexicon of the landscape designer or the park manager, is also evolving with newer and better applications. No longer content to just recycle objects, communities are finding that recycling derelict and disused areas of land brings new life and community-revitalizing purpose.

High Line Park in New York City, for example, once a portion of abandoned rail line, has been reclaimed and revitalized into a lively hub of community activity. "I think something that has been inventive and interesting is parks where there are these remnants of cities, like an old train line, industrial site or brown field that are turned into opportunities for public space," said Paul Seck, associate principal of award-winning landscape architect company, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., of Brooklyn, N.Y. "There are a lot of opportunities made of land that has been forgotten."

There are also wonderful opportunities, both financially and historically meaningful, in repurposing abandoned materials, as in the case of hardwood harvested from an old coal storage building in the city that was milled and used to create seating in Jane's Carousel Pavilion, which won the 2012 Travel and Leisure Design Award for best pubic space. Or 1,000 large slabs of granite cladding salvaged from the Roosevelt Island Bridge that were transformed into a grand public staircase overlooking Pier 1 as part of the Brooklyn Bridge Park project. By reusing and repurposing historically significant materials, the parks are not only saving money but saving something of the community's identity, as well.

Getting an Education

Whether incorporating historical pieces or bringing in revitalizing sustainable elements like using storm water to create a new habitat, choosing permeable pavers for hardscape materials, or even creating an eye-catching green roof, sustainable landscape design options create another great opportunity for exercising what many landscape architects and park managers feel is a vital role in their job description: education.

"We're more environmentally conscious, and the biggest part is the educational piece," said Kristy DeGuire, RLA, ASLA and president of DG2 Design Landscape Architecture in St. Louis and NRPA award winner. "Our role is to educate the public. A lot is signage and public participation, so when asking as we work with a municipality to learn from them what they want, we can also later say in a project what we believe it needs."

And these days what they may recommend is environmentally friendly permeable pavers or creating rain gardens adjacent to a playground or introducing native plants. They use the community's wish list as an opportunity to explain a new way of doing old things, such as outlining the benefits of replacing mowed grass with native plants. "Although it (the prairie grasses) may not look like a mowed lawn, they don't realize how many chemicals are needed to keep lawns green and we ask them, 'Do you really want your kids playing in that?'" DeGuire explained of their educational conversation with clients. "So we educate at public meetings."

Another key educational component of the park or playground's landscape design is signage. For DeGuire, educational signage is now coming to the forefront of many of their projects, both as a means of eliciting interest about what is, as well as creating enthusiasm about what can be.

Last fall on a conceptual /site analysis for the River des Peres Greenway project in metropolitan St. Louis, her company discovered that people wanted more amenities and greater access to the river. However, because the river was in poor condition, providing those amenities would require a lot of work. In addition to recommending ways to bring people closer to the river, DeGuire suggested that the greenway's large acreage of mowed lawn should be transformed into more prairie, a process alone that takes three years to establish.

"They're working on the signage, and an awful lot of it, to explain why the river is currently as it is, and that it will need millions to fix down the road," DeGuire said. "And another huge part is explaining the positive impact on the city if they will reduce the amount they mow by creating more prairie by not having to spray chemicals or pay people to mow it and using up gasoline."

Gateway to Prosperity

Landscape design doesn't just help the budget by reducing costs, however, but, as in the case of Dragonfly Landing and PrairieWalk Pond in Lisle, Ill., it also improves the budget by helping to revitalize the community. This recreational space, which includes lighted walking trails, fountains, preserved wetlands, nature-themed play areas and a splashpad, was recently awarded recognition from the state for playing a critical economic role in the city's recovery and is an example of a gateway park, a park that is used to help connect a community to its commercial downtown areas.

"The park started as a stormwater management project that turned a natural area restoration into an environmental playground with a lot of different educational elements and different experiences," said Keven Graham, ASLA and registered landscape architect and principal with Planning Resources Inc. in Wheaton, Ill. "One of the benefits of a gateway park is that it blends the downtown streetscape with a park, and those two components serve each other very well. Maybe it's a regional bike trail or river walk—some natural element or feature—that makes a lot of downtowns very desirable."

Playground and Park Design Trends

However, as studies conclusively show, sustainable design and the use of more natural elements do not only help the environment or the budget. Our exposure to nature also improves our sense of well-being. Armed with this information and recognizing the reality of nature deficit in our nation's children, communities are clamoring for more natural elements in their children's playgrounds as well as looking for more ways to connect with nature in their public parks.

From natural playgrounds to community gardens, people are seeing the benefits of and requesting more opportunities for getting back to their roots. "We've seen communities more and more interested in seeing natural playgrounds, particularly in our more outlying foothill community, who like the natural environment and are asking to incorporate it more," Norton said of the trend in his Boise area.

"It's nature play that we all did as kids, but something we're doing purposefully in a park. What we traditionally see is a prescribed play event where there is only one way to go up an apparatus or to go down a slide and run across a bridge. But in nature, you use your brains to find out how to entertain yourself, and we're seeing more playground equipment that is less prescribed and more 360-degree equipment that you can approach from any angle and interact with it."

Mixing the manufactured with the au naturel, some parks are finding a happy balance. "In our Northside Park we reconstructed a playground there and tried a 100-foot zip line that goes through it and an embankment slide," Sperl said about their natural approach. "We wanted the playground to share the same theme as our landscape and, with manufacturers taking on this nature deficit problem, we found play structures that look like tree houses kids have built themselves. We just installed it last year, and it's a very popular playground."

A further marriage of these ideas comes together in designs by DG2 that seek to make natural playgrounds also universally accessible. While the two concepts may at first glance seem mutually exclusive, DeGuire has found plenty of ways to merge the two into a play experience for all abilities.

"On one we created a boardwalk where it goes through a woodland so people with different abilities can still go out and enjoy the environment versus being on a trail made out of dirt, and it intertwines with other areas," DeGuire said of a project that hits close to home. Her husband was paralyzed two years ago from the waste down, which makes their desire to interact with their own 21-month-old son in natural play spaces a personal one. "My ADA education while good, it is nothing compared with living with a disability every day, so any design we work on, we try to visualize it from the user and how that affects life," DeGuire said.

The Spice of Life

Another emerging trend in designing parks and playgrounds is variety. Parks and playgrounds are being designed for greater varieties of users and uses. "I think we're seeing an increase in who park planning is serving," Graham observed. "Parks nowadays are so much more than just a playground or a ballfield. We are seeing a desire for a diversity of age groups, so I design for children ages 2 to 5, or design for elderly and active adults. We are seeing more fitness trails and incorporating more of our lifestyle into our parks, and community gardens."

A healthy diversity of parks within a community includes those that focus on passive activities as well as active. Parks and gardens can be edible, historical, horticultural and cultural. It is important to have a variety of recreational landscapes to meet the diverse interests and needs of the community.

This awareness of different users within the same park also affects design elements such as seating placement. For guardians of young children, for example, seating should be in closer proximity than for older children who want the look and feel of more independence but who still need to have their parents and caregivers within sight.

Safety and Security

Designing the landscape with safety and security in mind is also high on the list of design "dos." One of many design tips in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) suggests that choosing locations of parks and playgrounds within direct visual and physical reach of a local community reduces crime and vandalism. "Two of the most essential elements of successful design are safety and security," Graham said. "There's a national program, CPTED, that we emphasize strongly in our designs. Each park needs to be safe, and parents need to feel safe when their children are there alone, or with them. We want people to feel comfortable in a public space."

One park in Boise that continually suffered from vandalism was finally relocated closer to a street and, now more visible to the community, it has greatly improved. "The community rallied around the new park and began to self-police it, picking up trash and keeping it safe," Norton said. "Another similar issue relates to bathrooms, making sure the doors face the line of sight or looking at shrub placement to avoid any visual barriers. We work with the police force and often ask them for comments on designs to see if we are missing anything since they're the ones patrolling. It's a team effort."

Speaking of Team Effort...

Of course, no amount of planning for sustainability, safety, security or fun will matter if maintenance isn't factored into the landscape design. According to Graham, one of the most important elements overlooked during the early design phase of a project is having an accurate understanding about what the end maintenance program is going to be. A good designer, Graham said, will ask those questions from day one and will interact with anyone and everyone who might have a hand in its future upkeep, asking what resources will be available and learning about the level of commitment they are willing to make in order to maintain the park once it is finished.

"One of the major things we have learned is to have as much input during the design process on how the projects will be handed over and maintained," Seck said, underscoring the issue's importance. "We have to provide opportunities for maintenance folks to have access to lawns and not have it look like it's an afterthought. The design has to involve maintenance and operations because some unique sites will need a unique approach."

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