A Day In The Park

Park design, like any other task, involves some give-and-take.

In these tough economic times, low-maintenance projects top the trends in park design. Photo Courtesy of Paul Hyso, CABQ Parks and Recreation

Landscape architects, members of parks and recreation departments, and vendors face emerging environmental standards, shrinking budgets and municipal belt-tightening, evolving needs of stakeholders and users, and dwindling plots of green space in dense urban areas.

Joan Floura of Baltimore-based Floura Teeter Landscape Architects (FTLA) spoke recently on best practices in park design. Three components take center stage, she says.

“The trend is toward low-maintenance design,” Floura explains. “Many clients just don’t have the funding or the manpower to maintain an intense environment.

"Secondly, use of native plant materials assists with that. There is less maintenance once the landscape is established, and native plants tend to be more tolerant of drought conditions.

"And lastly, in Maryland, there are stormwater regulations which require ESD, or environmental site design, calling for creating smaller controls to capture and treat runoff. It gives us more opportunity to put planting throughout a park. There is some maintenance, but the idea is to break these facilities up. Aesthetically, it looks good and it treats the stormwater.”

Along a similar spectrum is efficient irrigation design. In Albuquerque, N.M., water is very much a political issue. Historical conflicts, negotiation processes, and governmental compromise surround the precious and scarce resource.

“I think park users and people here have become much more aware of sustainability in parks,” says Judith Wong, senior project coordinator and registered landscape architect for the City of Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department Division of Strategic Planning and Design.

“Parks are not buildings in which you can control the atmosphere; parks are responsible to the context in which they are built—climate, geology, planting patterns—our big dilemma is how do we ask people to conserve and then how do we provide this amenity that provides some relief. Water problems here are more complex.”

After all, residents there are living in an extremely dry desert environment. Newer parks have more drought-tolerant, large shade trees, and irrigation is always integrated.

Wildfires, decreased stream flow, insects, and absent snowfall all play a role in park design.

In spite of the landscape, constituents are generally well-served with parks and open space, Wong says. The City of Albuquerque earned a nod from The Trust for Public Land ParkScore project, which evaluated how well the 40 largest American cities are meeting the need for parks.

The Albuquerque park system received top-rank scores in acres of parkland as a percentage of city area, acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, and a No. 10 rank for dog parks per 100,000 (Albuquerque has 13 dog parks), according to information posted on the official city web site.

Back to nature and accessibility are two top trends in playground design. Photo Courtesy of Paul Hyso, CABQ Parks and Recreation

The city has 300 park sites, more than 120 median and streetscape sites, and 113 miles of urban and soft trails.

San Francisco, Calif., earned the No. 1 rank for meeting the need for parks, according to the ParkScore rating system. The city boasts:

▪ 220 neighborhood parks

▪ 179 playgrounds and play areas

▪ 671 marina slips

▪ 82 recreation centers and clubhouses

▪ 72 basketball courts

▪ 151 tennis courts

▪ 59 soccer/playfields

▪ 1 family camp

Trends are pointing to accessibility and simplicity, says Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

Mission Dolores Park recently welcomed the Helen Diller Playground, built into a hillside and featuring a 40-foot slide, rock-climbing features, swings of all sizes, an ADA-accessible suspension bridge, and custom-made shipwrecked boats.

The renovation was made possible thanks to a donation and funding from the 2008 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond combined with general fund dollars.

And like municipalities everywhere, San Francisco has tightened purse strings and seen budget dollars shrink.

“We work hard in this era of declining government resources to design parks in ways that make them easy to replace and maintain,” Ginsburg says.

In reality, park departments just don’t have the funding to take on expansive projects, and instead put dollars into renovating older sites and installing new features to attract a broader audience.

In Boston—another top-ranking park system according to ParkScore—many parks are designed around the existing neighborhood, says Jacquelyn Goddard, external affairs and communications director for the City of Boston Parks and Recreation Department.

Celtic, African, Native American, European, and contemporary symbols were integrated into the fencing around a passive park in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury.

“No two parks in Boston are alike since no two neighborhoods are alike,” Goddard says. “We see park redesign as an opportunity to showcase culture and a chance to build features which will encourage community-building and encourage exercise by people of all ages.”

Goddard says that Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino challenged the Parks and Recreation Department to develop more creative offerings to get teenagers and adults exercising outdoors.

In keeping with the request, the department installed outdoor exercise equipment at Laviscount Park on Humboldt Avenue. There are eight HealthBeat family exercise stations for users 13 and older, featuring Tai Chi Wheels, Balance Steps, AB Crunch/Leg Lift, Plyometrics, Pull-up/Dip, Cardio Stepper, Chest/Back Press, and Squat Press.

“These stationary exercise machines, designed for outdoor use, allow adults to work out while watching their children play on playground equipment within 10 to 20 yards away,” Goddard says.

“In addition, teenagers can use these machines, which is wonderful since traditional playgrounds never had equipment for older children. Future plans call for opening up the fence around the Laviscount Playground by the adjacent mass-transit stop to allow commuters to use the equipment while waiting for the bus.”

At Gertrude Howes Park on Moreland Street, a “rocking bench” was installed, along with shade structures, picnic tables featuring built-in checkerboards, and a passive seating area, containing a rock garden and plants, away from the playground.

To attract even more park users, the department is also partnering with businesses to offer programming.

At Geneva Cliffs Urban Wild, an inner-city site featuring walking paths, a professional artist hosted a free watercolor workshop. Supplies were donated by Blick Art Materials.

Several parks have also hosted free photography workshops, Goddard says.

When it comes to park design, perhaps the greatest trend is in cash flow. City budgets have taken huge hits, and robust project dollars just aren’t there.

“The budget is always the biggest challenge,” Floura says. “Many clients have restricted budgets. Our challenge is to be as creative as possible while staying within budget.

"Another challenge is reusing materials in a different way to create exciting, aesthetically pleasing design for less. It’s about creating a nice design that accommodates the client’s goal and meets the budget.”

Meeting the needs of both the community and the park operators is equally important, Floura notes.

There is a big trend in incorporating the natural environment into children’s play areas. Equipment is manufactured to look natural, designed to resemble tree houses and logs.

Children are also being exposed to sustainability practices, demonstrations, and interpretive signage in parks.

Keeping up with the needs and values of park users is the top priority.

“Our challenge is to design for the needs of today, and allow for enough flexibility for tomorrow.” Ginsburg says.

Sara Macho is the editor of Landscape Architect Business (LAB). She can be reached at sara@northstarpubs.com or 866-444-4216 Ext. 225.


Patricia Rotschild of Vortex Aquatic Structures International says splashpads are one of the most sought after park amenities in North America.

These interactive aquatic play areas offer relief from the heat without the associated construction and maintenance costs of a swimming pool.

Most splashpads operate by user-activation, and water is released based on predetermined spray sequences. High-efficiency nozzles and spray heads are used to minimize water consumption, Rotschild says.

There are sustainable options for the use, reuse, and disposal of water consumed.

The Percolation System collects the effluent water, strains it for debris, and transfers it to a containment system. This porous underground reservoir naturally filters the water through the earth, where it eventually makes its way to a nearby pond or wetland, or replenishes the natural water table. Without using any chemicals, the earth acts as a natural bio-filter.

Like the percolation system, a Sub-Surface Drip Irrigation System drains captured water, strains it for debris, and transfers it to a containment system. With an irrigation schedule set up, a pumping station draws water from the reservoir, nourishing the vegetation and returning it to nature.

An Above-Ground Irrigation System allows for above-ground dripping, spray, or surface-flooding options.  Water collected from the splashpads is first accumulated in a holding tank and gradually filtered and disinfected before being transferred to an underground reservoir. The irrigation pumping station draws the clean water from the reservoir at the onset of scheduled irrigation.

Source: Patricia Rotschild, Marketing and Design Specialist, Vortex Aquatic Structures International