From Land to Landscape

Effective Approaches to Park Design

By Joe Bush

There's much more to planning and designing parks today than simply using vacant land to provide a place for people to get some fresh air.

Cities and landscape architects must consider demographics, community input, sustainability, gentrification, transportation systems, five- and 10-year master plans, funding sources, pet populations and revenue streams when collaborating on either starting or refreshing a park.

There's too much at stake with the price of park construction or remodeling to wing it. Parks must fit thematically with the rest of the town or neighborhood, respond to citizen requests and needs, and perhaps provide tourism opportunities—all while benefiting or at least not harming the environment. How do town officials and their park-building partners balance all this?

"A lot of the current thinking on parks and open spaces is much more systematic than it's been in the past," said Mark Naylor, a project director at Denver landscape design firm Civitas. "The historic notion of a park has been a place where people go and recreate and decompress. The idea of having a park being a part of an interconnected system—greenways, green streets, pedestrian and bike connections, making it really a connected part of the city—is an important part of open space design these days."

Naylor has been intimately involved with several Denver parks and is currently working on a project in Tampa. An excerpt from his bio on the Civitas website opens a window to what inspires landscape architects as they work with cities and the contractors that make the plans and drawings real: "Passionate about the spatial qualities of music and design, Mark looks for the rhythm of a place—its cadence, continuity, contrast and how people move through space. He brings this sense of place to the forefront of his design, where landscape and city meets, creating spaces where people love to go, where urban life is at its best."

It's science and it's art and it's politics.

Scott Crawford, senior partner at RDG Planning & Design, said his firm breaks the parks process into capitals: human capital, natural capital, cultural capital, built capital—and last but far from least: "The last piece is one that can make or break, and that's political considerations, elected officials, getting them engaged in the process and the benefits that can bring," Crawford said. "Without them, a lot of times you can't achieve what you want to do."

According to American Planning Association research, what municipalities should want to do includes:

  • Creating an interconnected system of parks and open space because it is more beneficial than creating parks in isolation.
  • Using parks to help preserve essential ecological functions and to protect biodiversity.
  • Helping to shape urban form and buffer incompatible uses.
  • Using parks to reduce public costs for stormwater management, flood control, transportation and other forms of built infrastructure.

All that can be satisfied while providing play spaces, exercise areas, meeting locations, dog walking sites, fishing and boating access, or simply seating for pausing and reflecting.

Urban Expansion

Naylor said one important population shift is driving city park design: growth in downtown areas by the millennial generation.

"Here in Denver there's a huge influx of folks who want to live downtown—some don't have cars, using rideshare and bikes and public transportation," Naylor said. "As cities densify you need to have that counterpoint of open space, and you need to have the ability for people to get to these parks. You're seeing a lot of study, a lot of interest, in these urban connections."

Parks must fit thematically with the rest of the town or neighborhood, respond to citizen requests and needs, and perhaps provide tourism opportunities—all while benefiting or at least not harming the environment.

Urban "green loops" are trending in cities across the country, he said, tying the city together using multimodal transportation, pedestrian, bike, public transportation and rideshare.

"Things are changing, and Denver is reflective," Naylor said. "You have a group of millennials that has a different set of values, that really values the urban lifestyle and everything that comes with it."

Susan Veres is a senior vice president of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), a for-profit entity that partnered with Civitas on park development for a portion of nearly 500 acres by the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Riverwalks have become popular in cities with waterways, as parks unto themselves as well as connectors to other aspects of park systems, and parks have proven essential to making the CMLC residential and commercial development attractive and bountiful for the developers.

Veres said the CMLC had experience creating a 4-kilometer Riverwalk, but when it came time to revitalize an island that once drew Boy Scout and Girl Scout activity and RV camping, it needed Civitas and waterway engineers. Opened in 2015, the St. Patrick Island project and the Riverwalk attract 100,000 visitors annually, said Veres. The CMLC was careful to listen to Calgarians when beginning the island park re-do.

"Our desire was to make it a usable park, a recreational oasis," Veres said. "We went through two years of public engagement, and we heard very clearly from citizens that they didn't want a heavy touch to the landscape. They wanted a very natural biophilic approach to the design and they wanted no development, just a recreational, serene setting. They also wanted to have places to ride their bikes and run the running trails and to fish and to kayak. The Bow River is an aggressive river and we made those activities possible.

"From day one the park was absolutely filled with people; the entire program was to allow Calgarians to recreate in the center of the city and I think we achieved that. They told us what they wanted to do and they showed up and they did it."

Community Participation

Universally, park planners on each side of the project say there's no sense to going through the arduous process and significant expense if the community the park will serve isn't consulted early and often.

Nancy Prince, deputy chief for design for the City of New York's parks and recreation, said so many factors shape what residents want from a park—demographics, trends, natural surroundings, proximity of other parks—it's mandatory to simply ask them.

Prince and her colleagues use national studies as their guide—one report says people use parks more if there are walkways, for example—but neighborhood meetings are crucial as well.

"We go out to the community and have community visioning sessions," said Prince, who has been with the department for more than 30 years. "What we put in a park, a lot if it comes from what the community desires. Know the demographics, the way the neighborhood is heading."

Prince's story is one of urban park design and re-design. Many of her department's projects involve underserved neighborhoods and parks that have been neglected. Since new land is scarce in New York City, the focus is on improvements. Many parks have a lot of paved areas, so the priority is greening them, primarily with tree canopy. The renewals don't just address adding natural elements, however.

"We're looking at climate change, and we're looking at mitigating the heat island," she said. "We're looking at multiple generations, to make our parks real community spaces. So we have a lot more sitting areas—people now take their laptop out into a park and work.


"We're making our parks a little more seamless, trying to cut down the barriers between the park and the sidewalk, making our entrances more welcoming, making sure the entrances align with the sidewalk, focusing on pedestrian safety."

To maximize spaces for as many age groups as possible, there are skateboard parks, playgrounds and splash pads, dog parks and outdoor fitness areas—rather than the traditional exercise stations at intervals around a walkway, they are full-on fitness areas in one spot, usually near a playground, so users can keep an eye on their kids.

Crawford agreed, and added that because public funding is so crucial, buy-in from taxpayers is paramount for capital at the beginning and later for restoration.

"The degree of how community input can influence design and planning and ultimately what's built can vary depending on if it's funded by the public and if it's truly a public facility," Crawford said. "The majority of projects we get involved in has a pretty intense public engagement, especially early on. We typically have a discovery time period early on. Meetings, online surveys, questionnaires, neighborhood meetings."

That feedback is distilled to create a variety of design alternatives to bring back to present to the stakeholders. Crawford said the two-phase approach pays dividends, particularly if the community is looking for funding and ballot measures in the future.

"Giving the community a voice, even if that voice isn't the one that wins, at least they have an opportunity to express what they think is the preferred future for that park," he said.

"Some (feedback) is driven by the size of the city. It's more difficult to engage with communities just because of size. What do the communities want in a five-year plan overall? Spend on infrastructure, parks and rec, or just keep taxes low and don't spend on anything?"

All Ages and Abilities

Because more and more parks are designed with an eye on the coming-of-age of baby boomers, designing parks for multiple generations is very important to keeping everyone from toddlers to senior citizens engaged and active.

"Millennials and even millennials' children, in 30 years they'll be over 50 and one of the largest economic drivers in the economy," Crawford said. "The ability to engage them in decision-making in what's going to be built, many of the decisions that are made today those are improvements that won't be completed in some cases for five to 10 years because of the funding lag. Engaging younger populations is just as important as engaging parents.

"A lot of times when we do master pans we actually go into elementary schools and middle schools and high schools to better understand how they use parks and why they use parks to try and determine when they're starting families what is it they're going to want to use in parks. There's flexibility in what actually gets designed."

Joseph Brusseau, a principal with Hitchcock Design Group, said the information gleaned from children is to be taken seriously.

"They are drawn to different materials, like ropes and rocks, and non-traditional playground equipment like nets, spinners, rock climbers and ground events," Brusseau said. "In many parks, space is an issue. The need for play remains the same, regardless of trends. We need to advocate and continue to offer play experiences for children of all ages. We need to adapt to changes in play, and design play spaces that are interesting and exciting for today's children.

"I see so many play spaces, designed with an adult's eye or recollections of past play experiences, that fall short of offering exciting, challenging and rewarding play for current generations. Without fail, at every public meeting, I will hear a parent ask for monkey bars and merry-go-rounds in the playground. These are recollections from their past play experiences, which have been replaced with more current play events and amenities."

Environmental Concerns

Prince said concern for residents is side-by-side with concern for the environment. There is stormwater management using not piping, but green infrastructure.

"Take the stormwater from a rain event and try to manage some of it onsite and get it to soak into the ground before it overflows into the storm pipes in order to lessen the load on our sewage treatment plants," said Prince. "We're working with department of environmental protection for innovation on this."

For example, the city does not use rainforest woods in public spaces, benches are typically made with recycled plastic slats, and splash pads use low-flow equipment.

To be sure, contemporary park design emphasizes sustainability as much as usability. Take for instance this project from Site Design Group, Stearns Quarry Environmental Park, also known as Henry Palmisano Park.

The 27-acre park is located in the historic Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, and is on a site rich with historic significance. Its history includes a stint as one of the city's most important quarries, and became a forgotten dumping ground of construction waste.

Site Design Group transformed it into an urban oasis that boasts high-quality native prairie and wetland re-creations. Design Principal Hana Ishikawa said one of the early project goals was to leave as small a footprint and contribute as few carbon emissions as possible through two primary means—keeping all existing materials on site, and managing all rainfall through natural systems.

Featured are angular metal catwalks, recycled concrete steps and zigzagging paths, contrasting the surrounding prairie grasses and celebrating the site's industrial past.

"This much-loved park has set the bar for a new kind of urban park, one that can be made of mostly what it used to be, and embraces surreal natural beauty, diversity and the celebration of a site's unique past," said Ishikawa. "The end result is a park that exhibits the natural processes of rainwater collection and filtration, as well as a park that is historically and culturally unique to the neighborhood and finally, provides recreational capacities that nearby parks do not."

Ishikawa said Palmisano Park is adjacent to a park with typical recreational facilities, like playgrounds, baseball fields and a fieldhouse, so it can be enjoyed for more sentimental reasons.

"With its historical significance to current and past residents, many (residents) mentioned that they had played in the quarry when they were children and were excited once again to enjoy the space in a new capacity," Ishikawa said. "The park supports educational and environmental awareness, and also provides unique recreational opportunities, such as exercising up and down hills, yoga and tai chi, fishing in a stocked pond, or sledding in the winter, something that is harder to come by due to the topography of Chicago."

She said it's a great example of today's park philosophy. Parks in general have more of a role in society, not only providing a place of recreation, respite and appreciation of nature, but also serving as key drivers for social and sustainable change.

"We are currently working on several high-level conceptual design projects where rivers are serving not only an industrial transportation corridor, but a filtration system for water pollutants, exceeding retention and detention requirements of the city by approximately threefold, as well as becoming a recreational amenity," she said.

Naylor said use of waterways and water itself are keys to modern park design. Water is fun and pretty, but getting those benefits requires giving back as well.

"More and more parks are expected to contribute to the health and livelihood of the city," he said. "There's a restorative aspect to parks, but there's a more pragmatic aspect. Parks can help with air quality, be the lungs of the city. They can be the kidneys, too, when water running through the city can be purified. We run water from nearby streets through native grass ditches before they get to (Denver's) South Platte River and the water gets purified by doing that."

In the end, while park design philosophy and priorities have evolved, there are foundations that stand the test of time, like safety and cost-effectiveness, and ensuring the spaces will be popular.

"If we create a park that doesn't resonate," said Naylor, "we've failed."



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