Go Natural, Get Creative

The Latest Trends in Park Landscape Design

By Chris Gelbach

Landscape designers are helping park districts serve an increasingly diverse customer base by creating more natural, comfortable and functional spaces that can appeal to a wider range of visitors. They're even playing a growing role in helping clients secure the funds that make these projects happen.

Funding Gets Creative

One trend that has greatly affected the way landscape architecture firms operate has been the need for new creativity in project funding. Scott Crawford, a senior partner and landscape architect in RDG Planning & Design's Des Moines, Iowa, office, rarely sees public parks funded anymore solely through long-term planning from capital improvement programs.

"In the recession, parks and quality-of-life improvements were one of the first things that were reduced in funding," Crawford said. "So parks have had to take on a new approach to getting funded. They're leveraging CIP funds to apply for a variety of grants and partnerships, and then leveraging the combination of public funds and grant money to go out and seek private donations and sponsorships and naming rights."

In a growing number of cases, a large gift from a foundation can profoundly affect the feasibility of a project or even the nature of the projects that get built. One such example can be seen in Philadelphia Parks and Recreation's partnership with Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund. According to Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the fund has repurposed several underused basketball and tennis courts in the city's rec centers into skateparks around the city.

In 2013, the partnership also debuted Paine's Park, a $4.5 million facility adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "It's very large and beautiful, and it's a draw from around the city," Focht said. "So we've created this feeder system of small neighborhood skateparks at our rec centers feeding into the larger, more elaborate skatepark here in Center City."

In today's environment, landscape designers are often playing matchmaker to help connect clients with funders. "We've really made a focus on bringing money to our clients," said Bill Inman, senior vice president of Hitchcock Design Group, an Illinois-based planning and landscape architecture firm. "There's no denying that unfunded ideas don't help anybody, but funded ideas bring value. So we're working really hard as an organization to really become experts in traditional and nontraditional grant funding mechanisms."

According to Inman, these mechanisms can include traditional grants, funds from conservancies and foundations, crowdfunding techniques, special-interest grants from manufacturers or famous sports figures, and public-private partnerships. "Any way you can make a mutually beneficial scenario for two folks that might be able to bring capital to the table, we're always looking out for that," he said.

Sports Goes Big

The growing popularity of a diversifying roster of sports is putting an increased strain on fields nationwide. In Philadelphia, the city has addressed the severe wear-and-tear problem this was creating on its natural-grass fields by adopting a new policy. The fields are now rested and the field lights turned off from December 1 to March 1. "Before, the grass didn't have a chance to regenerate and there wasn't an opportunity to aerate and overseed the field," Focht said. "The new policy has been very well-received because the fields that we're now offering are in better shape."

In other communities, Inman is seeing this growing demand on fields addressed through the installation of an unprecedented amount of artificial turf—even into more play environments and dog parks.

He's also seeing an increased interest by some communities in building tournament-worthy complexes. They're doing this in hopes of attracting revenue from the captive audience of families who have children on traveling sports teams.

"We're working with some pretty big park districts that are trying to do some pretty big things and they're banking on the success of these facilities," Inman said. "They're investing millions of dollars and they're expecting a return."

Active-use parks for sports are becoming a harder sell to the general public, according to Crawford, because of the limited user base they serve. So more of these facilities are being funded by public-private partnerships or for-profit concerns. And while he sees some projects succeed with this approach, he recommends conservatism in forecasting for these tournament facilities. "We've seen too many communities have overstated economic forecasts that promise the sky," Crawford said. "When the facility is built, they're often left disappointed trying to figure out how they can cash flow the facility over time."

Nature Takes Center Stage

Landscape designers are also addressing an increasing interest by parks and rec agencies in more sustainable spaces. "We're seeing a lot more of a trend away from active use and more toward passive-use parks and restoration of natural systems, whether it's woodlands or prairies or repairing zones along creek corridors," Crawford said.

In many cases, this extends to nature-based play and design using natural materials, something the Hitchcock Design Group is focused on through its participation in the Leave No Child Inside campaign by Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance that connects people and nature.

"Conceptually, it involves moving away from standardized play into more unstructured play and immersing kids in something that resembles more of a natural environment, while still following all of the park safety guidelines," said Inman.

One example can be found in Hawks Hollow Nature Playground in Geneva, Ill., which was named the 2014 Outstanding Facility by the Illinois Park and Recreation Association. The park engages kids in environmental learning using eight interactive stations that feature native bird, tree and bug species.

According to Inman, the project also incorporates running water, a chance for kids to get muddy and a place where kids can construct things out of willow twigs that they can climb on. The design incorporates ash trees reclaimed from the ash borer infestation, which were used to build benches and retaining walls.

In addition to getting kids closer to nature, the play environments were also designed to be interactive and cooperative. "One of the things we're trying to combat in our play environment and park designs is static play environments that kids get bored with quickly," Inman said. "Why spend the money if we're not going to encourage repeat visits?"

Other physical features Inman is seeing used more often in parks to sustain this interest include musical elements, sensory gardens and features that attract certain types of animals and insects. Likewise, Crawford is seeing more general restoration efforts relating to native ecosystems.

These more natural passive-use zones are also being incorporated even into traditional sports complexes to provide broader appeal to all citizens. "If a family is bringing their two sons or daughters to play soccer, they may have two other kids that aren't old enough to play it and they want to go play in the playground or in the creek or mess around in the woodland," said Crawford. "Being able to do those in the same park is of great benefit to the users."

According to Inman, these spaces offer comfort in the form of shade while also doing a better job of screening noise and undesirable views. They offer colorful, seasonal, pleasing aesthetics. And they offer functional benefits by cleaning storm water and bolstering local wildlife and insect populations. "Because park districts own so much land, it's critical that that land contributes back to the neighborhood in a way that goes beyond the edges of the park," Inman said.

In creating these spaces, these natural elements are getting closer to the action than ever before. "We're not seeing trees in the middle of soccer fields," said Inman. "But we are seeing landscapes that are run up to the edge and closer to sports than they ever have been before."

Urban Parks Go Green, Too

Likewise, urban parks are also trying to increase the natural appeal of their parks and recreation centers, building greenery where once there was only asphalt. This can be seen in Dallas, where the city's Downtown Parks Master Plan includes several urban blocks throughout the Central Business District that will be converted into park spaces.

In Philadelphia, the city is focused on greening many of its recreation centers and smaller neighborhood parks through a partnership between the city, the Philadelphia Water Department and the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which recently opened an office in the city to oversee the effort.

According to Focht, this effort is focused on green infrastructure and storm water management. It includes the removal of traditional asphalt to introduce permeable surfaces such as pervious asphalt and pervious safety surfaces under play equipment.

One such example can be seen in South Philadelphia's Herron Playground. Previously 100 percent asphalt, the park is now a beautiful oasis with a spray park, play equipment, a pervious basketball court and improvements that manage storm water on the site and an adjacent street. "It went from being kind of a desolate site to being a beautiful oasis that's much more inviting to neighborhood kids and parents," said Focht.

In addition to managing storm water better, the new surface being installed on new basketball courts around the city has also cut down on noise complaints. "The pervious pavement has a whole series of voids in it," said Focht. "So instead of the sound of the basketball reflecting back up into the air, it's absorbed down into the asphalt. They're really quiet basketball courts, and the neighbors appreciate that."

According to Stan Cowan, principal and owner of Dallas-based MESA Design Group, even parking lots are being designed in a more sensitive, environmentally pleasing way. This is achieved through the use of small pods instead of shopping center-style lots. "Parking lots can take on a park-like quality," Cowan said. "They can be designed in an artful way with tree massing and watersheds to minimize impact."

When greening sites in urban areas, Inman stressed the importance of selecting plants and other elements hardy enough to survive, something that's a big focus for his firm's Chicago projects. Likewise, it's important to fully understand every client's maintenance capabilities before the design is created. "The worst thing you can do is overdesign something they can't take care of," Inman said.

Many park agencies are now requesting the inclusion of more native landscapes. But these areas do still require some labor and expertise to maintain. "If you put five acres of prairie in your park, you have to come back and burn that, and there might be some mowing, especially in the first few establishment years," said Crawford. "There's not a magic program that requires no maintenance, but there may be some that require less maintenance."

Multi-Use for Multiple Audiences

Another growing focus in new urban projects is on creating open spaces that have the flexibility to be used for a multitude of events, venues and activities. "People are seeking social interactions," said Cowan. "Urban parks can allow for socio-economic and multi-generational communities to come together to socialize."

In his firm's recent work in urban parks, some of the amenities supporting that include areas for food trucks, concessions and food carts; dog parks; and areas designed for movie nights, concerts and fitness programming. "Urban parks are being used more as catalysts to increase real estate values," Cowan said.

According to Focht, this has been an important goal of Philadelphia's greening effort. "You can imagine living in a row home and you look across to a rec center across the street and it's all asphalt and chain-link fence," he said. "It's not visually appealing and it doesn't help with heat mitigation. If it's greened, and it's nicer, and it's programmed, that's going to increase your property values." In turn, the city benefits from a long-term increase in property tax revenue as a result of the park investment.

Trails Continue On

A final trend that is ongoing in landscape design, if not new, is the construction of more and more trails to enhance unused spaces such as those near power lines and gas easements. These can also create linkage opportunities between parks. Trails can be a low-maintenance element that can provide access to spaces and experiences for a wide range of users, from walking seniors to runners to cyclists and skaters.

Even in these investments, it's important to budget with an eye to long-term maintenance. "If a community has a push to put in 20, 30 or 40 miles of trail, one of the things they often don't do is plan out five, 10, 15 years after that to put $50,000 to $200,000 back into the capital improvement program to replace, repair and maintain that trail system," Crawford said.

Trails make a natural accompaniment to locations in linear parks along creeks, rivers and stream corridors. Landscape design firms are also going a step further to try to make that trail experience unique through educational opportunities that explore the area's cultural significance. "You can make that experience more than biking 60 or 70 miles on a trail," said Crawford. "You may go through five or six communities that each have their own unique history you can learn about through that journey."

These longer trail routes also provide an alternative transit option for commuters. In the end, they are part of the larger movement that many of these landscape design trends support. Together, they aim to provide more options for recreation, respite and reflection in environments that give visitors greater exposure to nature and its health and community benefits.

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