Going Green, Sustaining Momentum

Park Designs Focus on Sustainability, Equity

By Chris Gelbach


In response to COVID-19, PARKS have become more critical than ever to people wanting to maintain social distancing, go outside, get a workout in, or just spend some time in nature.


If the past year has solidified anything, it is the critical role parks play in supporting healthy activity, peace of mind and opportunities for beneficial social contact even amid a global pandemic. At the same time, the crisis has put a crunch on local budgets that may have long-term consequences for parks departments.

In this environment, parks departments have an opportunity to step up and contribute even more to the health and success of their communities. Through new park approaches that adapt to the needs and realities of a post-COVID world and emphasize sustainability and inclusion, park designers are creating spaces that will serve more people, more effectively, well into the future.

A Time for New Approaches

In response to COVID-19, parks have become more critical than ever to people wanting to maintain social distancing, go outside, get a workout in, or just spend some time in nature. And to meet this increased demand, many communities have taken innovative approaches by transforming existing spaces into popup restaurants, turning city streets into priority zones for walkers and cyclists, and expanding park spaces out beyond their traditional limits.

"As parks and rec professionals, we're trying to balance responsiveness and innovation, but part of what makes that successful is listening and changing and revising," said Nette Compton, AVP and director of strategy for The Trust for Public Land. "And that's going to continue to be the case as we keep trying new things. And I think that there's a real opportunity to learn from that kind of rapid innovation."

One of the things to consider is which of the new approaches might be preferred long-term solutions, as opposed to just pandemic necessities. "I think we have the opportunity to say, do we want to go back to the way things were and give up this space back to cars? Or do we really like how we've been using the space and do we want to continue doing something differently?" Compton said.

Compton also recommended considering new activities people have taken up in large numbers during the pandemic—be it working out outdoors, cycling or gardening—and figuring out ways to keep that momentum going. Parks professionals can assist by doing things like providing things like more outdoor workout equipment, more bike trails and more community gardens.

"There are some habits and lifestyle changes that people were willing to make in this past year that they might not have tried otherwise," Compton said. "And some of those are really great habits. As parks professionals, what are the opportunities we have to build on that exploration and make those permanent habits?"

Eric Hornig, a principal at Hitchcock Design Group who works on the architectural and design firm's Recreation team, expects things like touch-free fountains and other elements to be a long-term shift resulting from the pandemic. He wonders whether the layout of certain parks might shift too. "Our message and our motto for decades has been about bringing people together," Hornig said. "So it's kind of weird to think about, but I think you'll see those kind of spatial arrangements stick."

While he expects areas such as playgrounds to return to normal and anticipates that people will still want to have tactile experiences with play and nature-based play, recent events may change approaches to park layouts.

"A typical park space [today] might have a single core, where everybody goes and the shelter and the splash pad and the playground and everything is kind of there," Hornig said. "We're wondering if we might start to see multiple cores in park design just to kind of spread people out a little bit."

Advances in Community Engagement

While the pandemic has created obvious obstacles to moving new projects forward, it has also spurred new approaches to community engagement that likely will offer benefits that last well into the future. Compton noted that her team has increasingly relied on online meeting platforms such as MeetingSift, Social Pinpoint and even traditional Facebook groups for this purpose.

George Dusenbury, Georgia state director for The Trust for Public Land, has seen powerful benefits emerge from the need to go all-virtual for community engagement efforts. He works on initiatives such as the Atlanta Community Schoolyards Project, which improves community schoolyards through a participatory design effort that includes input from children from local schools. Community members also have a chance to offer input since the program aims to not only improve the schoolyards, but to also open them up as neighborhood green spaces that the public can use during daylight hours when the schools are closed.

Part of this effort has included the creation of websites for each project (like the one at schoolyards.wixsite.com/sarahsmith) that allow residents to fill out an online survey relating to the project, contact project managers and be added to a mailing list for updates. Since Dusenbury's team can get such a site up in half a day, he sees it as a helpful tool that will be adopted moving forward.

Likewise, Zoom meetings and YouTube presentations have also proven beneficial in engaging more people than a one-time in-person presentation. "By making it virtual, you've created a situation where people can access it at their leisure, and it makes it easier for people to participate," Dusenbury said. "It's especially important with a schoolyard when you're dealing with parents, with working folks with busy schedules. Having a website and recorded presentations makes it more accessible and lowers the barrier to presentation."

At the same time, in-person meetings are still important—especially for engaging with children in the classroom and on the playground site for a schoolyard project. "There's nothing like taking the kids out to the site that we are looking to design, so I think that will continue to happen," Dusenbury said.

A Focus on Equity

These kinds of efforts can also help parks designers and parks departments get much-needed input from all demographics that will be potential users of these vital public spaces.

"We really aim to engage communities in a way that it's tailored specifically to them. So considering all current and future user groups, we want to be inclusive of all demographics while placing emphasis to the diversity, equity and inclusion aspects of the places we help develop," said Colt McDermott, parks and recreation - focus market leader for RDG Planning & Design.

According to Compton, recent TPL research found that parks in neighborhoods with majority people of color average half the size of parks serving majority-white neighborhoods, even though the former parks are surrounded by five times more people on average.

"So you've got smaller parks serving more people, and that's something that's been a particularly acute problem over the last year as people need to distance and have space," Compton said. "But that's a problem all the time. When you have a smaller park, you can't have as much programming. You can't have as many amenities. You can't fit in as many different types of uses."

In his work on comprehensive park master plans, Hornig is seeing a move toward equity as a major priority. "Trying to make sure that you've got that park within walking distance for people is a really important aspect of your long-term planning," Hornig said. In addition to working toward an equitable distribution of accessible parks, he also recommends "making some of them special and making sure they all relate to the neighborhoods they're in and have their own unique character for the context they're in."

Flexibility Paramount

Accompanying the principle of inclusion is the desire to create the most flexible spaces possible. In terms of sports, designers are seeing more new parks incorporating multiuse amenities. When it comes to racquet sports, this might mean outdoor courts that can accommodate both tennis and pickleball. For sports fields, it's often laying out fields suitable for multiple sports.

"Most of our clients don't want to overlay baseball and soccer if they're trying to save money on an artificial turf field," Hornig said. "They tend to not overlay that different of a sport. But if they have a soccer field, it's striped for football, it's striped for flag football, it's striped for lacrosse."

And lacrosse is becoming huge. "In the Midwest particularly, lacrosse and soccer are becoming extremely popular," McDermott said. "So this is impacting track layouts and turf field sizes to accommodate those sports."

More broadly, many designs are focusing less on specific activities and more toward flexible use with equity, inclusion and meeting the needs of all demographics in the local community.

Sustainability Here to Stay

Sustainability is another consideration that is becoming paramount in new park designs, even if it has been a consideration already for some time. For example, Compton noted that the stormwater management and flood-resilience benefits of parks have been an area of focus for some time.

"Look at Buffalo Bayou in Houston — you can design parks to be these amazing community assets, but they can also withstand flooding in a way that housing or other infrastructure can't," Compton said. The Staten Island Bluebelt system of wetland areas that has been expanded significantly since Hurricane Sandy stands as another notable example.

But Compton thinks that the heat management benefits of parks is something that warrants more focus moving forward. "Flooding and your superstorms get a lot of attention, but heat is annually a bigger killer of people than any other type of natural disaster," Compton said. "A park system that is distributed across an entire city really has a role to play. If you look at heat maps of any city, they're essentially an overlay of where the parks are."

TPL has done some analysis of surface temperatures and has found that areas within a 10-minute walk of a park can be as high as six degrees cooler than areas beyond that range. So choices in park locations, materials and in creating the most beneficial tree canopy can make a huge difference.

"There's so much research that's gone into the life of an urban tree, and how do you set up an urban tree to succeed," Compton said. "If you look at the average life of a street tree, it's a pretty low number. And you're never going to get those long-term benefits if the tree doesn't last."

Compton is seeing more emphasis in new park projects on doing things like creating continuous tree pits to maximize soil volume, using porous pavement that creates usable paved spaces while still getting water to trees, and the use of structural soils.

Pamela Conrad, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture, founded Climate Positive Design (www.climatepositivedesign.com) to help designers and communities contribute to climate change solutions by making better choices that contribute to better-performing spaces in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change.

Some of the more eco-conscious building and design choices Conrad recommends include:

  • Planting more and paving less.
  • Selecting native and adaptive species for higher carbon performance, increased biodiversity, reduced water use and healthier soil.
  • Using high-maintenance lawn only in areas like sports fields and picnic meadows that really require it.
  • Considering meadow grasses as a substitute for turf.
  • Investing in electric maintenance equipment and retiring gas-powered equipment.
  • Selecting trees for new plantings that will grow the biggest, live the longest and require the least supplemental care in your region.
  • Considering rammed earth walls instead of concrete for a lower carbon footprint.
  • Using organic fertilizers when possible instead of fertilizers containing the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
  • Opting for maintenance plans that avoid over-pruning or over-mowing.

When renovating an existing space, Conrad recommends also being thoughtful about the use of materials that already exist onsite. "That's something that we have been really creative with recently," Conrad said. "If a tree goes down, we work with local craftsmen to redesign it into site furnishings or site features like stairs or fenceposts."

These considerations help reduce the carbon expended in removing materials from the site and can also help to make the site unique. For a new project on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, CMG incorporated a few hundred existing onsite boulders into the design, some of them in the dog park area. Several eucalyptus trees that were cut down for habitat-management reasons have been turned into benches and other site furnishings.

Another new CMG project, DePave Park, is transforming a bayside former concrete-paved naval tarmac in Alameda, Calif., into an ecological park. "We're going to be digging up the asphalt from the site and reusing that into jetties that are going to allow for coastal habitat creation," Conrad said. The final project will be an ecological park that can adapt to sea level rise and that will feature a constructed wetland habitat, trails and other recreational and educational opportunities.

In general, designers are working on more waterfront and riverside projects as people want to get closer to nature and to the water-based recreation. RDG's work on the Central Iowa Water Trails project is one example that includes a multiparty public-private partnership, environmental conservation elements, economic development and copious opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The overall final project is slated to transform 150 miles of waterways into a recreational amenity. It includes projects in downtown Des Moines that would create several sites for kayakers to enter the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers to paddle throughout the city, as well as whitewater elements and other activities that could include fishing shelters, zip-lining and rock climbing.

"From a recreation standpoint, we're providing a whitewater regional destination here in the downtown Des Moines area and then also trying to connect into regional trail systems as a destination focal point there," McDermott said. "It's really thinking about reinvigorating the downtown area from a recreational standpoint and internally looking at the economic benefits it could provide for downtown Des Moines."

Small Opportunities, Big Potential

While the scope of some of these nature-based projects is grand, Conrad believes there is room to incorporate more sustainability in the form of native plantings and tiny forests in underutilized areas of virtually any park.

"We've seen through the pandemic how valuable public open spaces are to our health and sanity," Conrad said. "But you can pick out in almost any park places that don't need to just be covered in turf, that are not actually being utilized in that way, whether it's a hillside slope or perimeter landscape around a tennis court we really need to be maximizing every square foot of our landscape."

Conrad recommended making sure that every spare square foot is used in a thoughtful way. "Because if it's not serving a program or a public need and it's not serving any kind of performance either, then we haven't done our job, honestly," Conrad said.

As communities begin to focus more on sustainability, there is an opportunity for parks professionals to play a growing role in city planning and similar efforts. "I would hope that cities can start looking to their climate action plans and that parks management is built into the climate action plans," Conrad said.

With the threat of climate change imminent and the threat of COVID still apparent, parks are proving themselves more critical than ever. As parks professionals design new spaces that address these challenges, they also have new ammunition in their battle to obtain the funding to make these transformational spaces a reality. RM



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