Picture Perfect Parks & Sites

Working With Landscape Architects on Park Design

By Joe Bush

When do you need a landscape architect for a recreational space or park project? For larger projects that plan to keep an area's natural features, including water and elevation changes, landscape architects are a must. Since big park blueprints are trending toward multi-experience and inclusion rather than removal of native ecosystems, getting to know your local landscape architect should be on the to-do list.

But that's not the only reason you want to work with a landscape architect on your park project. Eric Hornig, principal and part owner of Hitchcock Design Group, Naperville, Ill., said if you have any of the following questions about the physical aspects of a project, you should consult a landscape architect:

  • How do we make an outdoor space special?
  • How do we improve the experience for our guests, teams, visitors?
  • How do we make a space truly beautiful?
  • How do we increase the duration of a visitor's stay?
  • How do we instill lasting memories into the hearts and minds of our guests?
  • How do we act more sustainably or carry forward our message of stewardship?
  • How do we fit it into our context?
  • Where should we put an amenity, or what amenities should we include?

"In general, it is no longer enough to lay out some soccer fields and call it a park," Hornig said. "It needs a rich set of natural and/or manmade amenities that will welcome visitors and families, bring them together socially, and provide a platform for lasting memories of the time spent in the space."

Go Natural

"Nature-based play is continuing to trend with positive results," Hornig added. "We have been advocating this type of play for years and momentum has been gaining ground in recent years. This is simply the return to the play of our youth (35 years and up), where we were able to actually play in nature. Since that is not always available to the children of today, there is a strong desire to bring it to them. Hawks Hollow is a good example of this."

Hawks Hollow Nature Playground in Geneva, Ill., is a nature-based play environment that features a bird theme in line with the bird habitat previously created on-site by a restored prairie. The Feathered Friends entry plaza offers different shapes, textures and sizes of feathers that can be experienced and understood with interpretive keys. There's a hands-on river experience at the King-Fisher Crossing, enabling visitors to create mud art, wade in and adjust the river flow while pretending to be a beaver, and learn about the fish that serve as food for many birds.

For larger projects that plan to keep an area's natural features, including water and elevation changes, landscape architects are a must.

The Songbird Stage lets people do songbird karaoke, complete with simple orchestra instruments. Visitors can also climb to a view of the prairie at the Hawks Point Perch and learn about raptors through play experiences that interpret elements that define these birds of prey. All this on a half-acre within the larger Peck Farm Park attraction.

The limited parcel and vision for Hawks Hollow made the project a natural for a landscape architect's touch, said Geneva Park District's manager of Peck Farm Park, Trish Burns.

"We wanted to build a custom-made playground that was more about immersing children and families into nature than a traditional playground," Burns said. "The site location is on a steep hill, and we didn't want to remove too many of the trees. We also wanted to keep it close to the core area of the park so that employees were nearby. This also allowed us to keep it close to the existing facilities.

"This project work not have been the unique environment that it is without the advice and design skills that the landscape architect added."

Burns said the planning began with a foundation of "No child left inside," and that the site's native elements would be the focus of play. She said the park district has partnered with landscape architects in the past, for technical projects such as a permeable paver courtyard, a community garden and a neighborhood playground.

"The goal of the project was to get children and families outdoors and interacting with nature," she said—"playing with water, dirt, mud, parts from trees, also making noise and running around and moving. We have families and children who come to visit almost daily when the weather is good. This has become more of a regional park as a result of the nature playground."

Get Collaborative

Landscape architect Bruce Dees sees another trend: park departments, school districts and other agencies with similar missions, like Boys & Girls Club, collaborating to share land and facilities. Dees, owner of Seattle-area firm Bruce Dees & Associates, cited the ongoing South End Recreation and Adventure (SERA) Campus project in Tacoma, for which his firm provided the master plan.

The 78-acre area is a partnership among Metro Parks Tacoma, the Tacoma School District, and the Boys & Girls Club, which has a facility on site. Two of three phases are complete, with the third slated for completion this summer.

Kristi Evans, project manager in the planning and development department for Metro Parks Tacoma, said the SERA work done by Dees's firm highlights not only a landscape architect's value working with a site's natural assets, but also skill at winning community acceptance of a project.

Evans said the vision for SERA Campus emerged from a community process that started with master planning in 2009. That process identified activities citizens wanted to be part of the long-range planning, including a playground and sprayground; the site also includes athletic fields and adventure activities such as climbing walls and ziplines. Features include a multi-use synthetic turf field with walkways, fencing and landscaping; event parking; field lighting; and event lawn underdrainage and irrigation.

The SERA Campus is located in an area with higher percentages of residents affected by poverty, as well as more individuals with disabilities, Evans explained. All were welcome to share their wants and needs.

"Prior to master planning, the majority of the area was previously developed as a flat, formless terrain, something we were unwilling to 'settle' for as the gathering space for this community," Evans said. "Collaboration was an integral aspect of the entire project. We have strong working relationships with our citizens. They are actively engaged in every step from master planning through grand openings. So, the collaborative process not only takes place between our agency and consultant, it's one in which the community is invested through steering committees, heavily publicized community input meetings and outreach presentations with key community stakeholders."

Dees said that yes, being able to shape land and manage stormwater and recycle onsite materials and turn community desire into reality are signature abilities of landscape architects, but when considering the services of one, don't underestimate the landscape architect's public relations and interaction.

His firm had to nimbly navigate this aspect of landscape architecture when working on a plan to convert a 114-acre marine waterfront park on Puget Sound to a day-use facility. Prior to being retained to develop the plan, Washington State Parks staff had logged a large portion of the park in order to protect the ranger residence from potential damage from a root rot that had infested trees. The public was not happy with the logging.

"State Parks staff was reticent to even discuss the issue with the general public," Dees said. "We brought to the table the ability to openly and honestly address the issues, listen to the public and develop alternative solutions to the problem. That sense of understanding and empathy for people is, I believe, unique to landscape architects."

Evans said the SERA Campus project has been an overwhelming success, and based on this project and others in the past, considers the use and expense of landscape architects mandatory, not excessive.

"We didn't consider a landscape architect to be an extra resource; instead, the landscape architect was our prime resource," she said. "When you are talking about parks and the natural environment, landscape architects have a good sense of how to restructure an area without jeopardizing the integrity of the environment. For (SERA Campus), we knew the design approaches of a landscape architect were essential to deliver the experience our community envisioned throughout the master planning process."

Go Inclusive

By all accounts, the vision the community had for Mayor Thomas M. Menino Park in Boston has been fully realized, and it provides more than fun and exercise. When the late mayor visited Spaulding Hospital's new rehabilitation facility in the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2013, he wondered about an adjacent, unused plot of land. That sparked the Boston Redevelopment Authority to hire Spurr, the design studio of landscape architect firm Weston & Sampson, to plan and oversee the conversion of the triangular area to a fully accessible playground and park.

While all such areas have to meet minimum accessibility standards, the minimum was never a consideration. Spaulding Hospital was a partner from the start, and the design began in the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombings, survivors of which used Spaulding's services to recover.

"When it comes to

"There was a very high public focus and high level of attention put on Spaulding, and those folks that were surviving and learning to live a completely different life really brought a lot of that to the forefront and made it a very real conversation," said Cheri Ruane, vice president of landscape architecture for Weston & Sampson/Spurr. "Meeting with parents and patients and physical therapists and understanding what the requirements would be to have a very high-quality experience was very enlightening and eye-opening, and I think it has certainly for our team changed our perspective on how we approached design moving forward."

The idea was to have playspaces and equipment that able-bodied friends and family of physically challenged people could enjoy side-by-side with their loved ones; for patients of physical therapists to enhance their rehabilitation; and for the traditional look and feel of accessibility to be re-imagined.

playgrounds, when people think accessibility they think ramps everywhere," Ruane said. "Ramps, especially for play equipment, take up a lot of space, they take up a lot of money and they don't have a very high play value. What we did was considered the entire landscape. Earthworks. You'll see we created these mounds that connect equipment to a high level elevation-wise so kids can experience getting really high up in play equipment and even leaving their wheelchair or walker and even sliding down a slide, a high-level slide that they couldn't do in another park because they'd have to leave their care behind in order to get that high up.

"It doesn't always mean ramps and handrails. It's how integrating accessibility could happen, and I think the takeaway is that it can be integrated into every part of the park and it doesn't have to be a ramp. There are many ways to get people from Point A to Point B. Be creative about it."

The technical demands of landscape architecture were put to the test, Ruane said. The combination and overlap of water management, grading, elevation and navigation to satisfy accessibility regulations was the main challenge, she explained. Then it all looped back to consideration of the humanity of the original vision.

"How do you do this so it feels integrated into the landscape and you're not consciously as a park user experiencing these subtle different changes in grades," she said. "That definitely put our team to the test, just trying to make meaningful design moves but also grade the elevation changes so that they were fully accessible."

Special equipment was necessary, but did not add much to the expense, Ruane said. Wheelchair and molded swings, as well as a carousel that was flush to the ground are the most customized of the equipment.

Lauren Bryant, project manager for Boston Parks and Recreation, said because Boston's density mandates more renovation of parks and playgrounds than new construction, her department will consider lessons learned from Mayor Frank M. Menino Park for future retrofits. She said the $4 million park has spurred a lot of interest locally, regionally and nationally.

"People in the city want to replicate it and people outside the city want to know about it," she said.

Ruane said the park's health over time given its high volume of use and its seaside location will be a measure of success. The other metric has already been achieved.

"Because it is in such a high-profile location and we maintain contact with the folks at Spaulding, we continue to hear success stories," she said. "Parents and kids and people who are finding their way through recovery processes and had breakthrough moments for whatever reasons in this park, varying from a kid finally able to get on a swing because he's developed enough trunk strength to be able to hold himself up, or a parent who could get out of their wheelchair and just sit on a park bench with their kid. A lot of great things happen there."

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