Going The Extra Mile

By Evan Mather

Landscape architects bring value to the built environment in multiple ways. Streetscapes, public parks, and gardens, if designed in a meaningful way, can have lasting impacts on the cities they serve. Firms that design public parks properly can revitalize communities, bringing health and wellness to areas that may be park-deficient.

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However, what happens after the park’s completion, when the design team hands off the project? How do you work with the park maintenance team to ensure the project exceeds the design intent and performs optimally over time?

Most projects lack any post-construction or post-occupancy evaluation (POE). POE is a process of assessing design by studying built projects in a methodical and precise manner after their opening.

Below are two examples of civic parks designed by AHBE Landscape Architects that have had a profound effect on the environment and the urban fabric of Los Angeles.

Stoneview Nature Center, Culver City, Calif.
Stoneview Nature Center is nestled between two well-used recreational open spaces in Los Angeles: the Baldwin Hills Overlook and Kenneth Hahn State Park. It is a contrast of natural and urban scenes—juxtaposed among the Inglewood Oil Fields (the largest urban oil field in the U.S.), the Blair Hills residential community, the Jim Webb Trail, and the Inglewood Oil Fields Trail (part of the Baldwin Hills Regional Conservation Authority). Although comprising only five acres, Stoneview offers visitors many options to experience nature, including vistas of the surrounding community. By 2020, the park will be part of the Park to Playa Trail, a 13-mile regional trail that will connect a network of open spaces from the Baldwin Hills Parklands to the Pacific Ocean.

EYRC Architects, in collaboration with AHBE, was hired by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works to transform the former brownfield site into a community learning center for sustainable living. A new community building has interpretative educational components and is surrounded by gardens that continue a narrative of lifestyle shifts toward sustainability. The landscape design has two main elements: a Mediterranean demonstration garden designed around the building and a native-grass meadow surrounded by a loop trail called Pollination Walk. The meadow is the organizing garden feature of AHBE’s design. Plant materials for Stoneview were selected to meet certain performance criteria: drought resistance, stormwater bio-filtration efficacy, sources for nectar or pollen, plants native to California or Baja California, or those edible by people and pets. California native, Mediterranean, succulent, and salvia plant species are introduced within a garden scheme that presents fragrances, habitat, seasonal interest and textures, and other sensory stimulation year-round. All fruit and edible plants are shared with the community and visitors, maximizing the opportunities for conservation, education, and urban agriculture.

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Sustainability is a standard of design for the park. Most of the hardscape areas were designed with permeable, decomposed granite and specified plant species that are native and water-wise. Water-conserving drip irrigation and low-flow spray heads are used throughout the site.

Upon visiting the park over a period of months after its completion, the firm observed that some of the native plants were not doing well. It was determined that the time of their installation—occurring at the end of the growing season—was one factor and caused stress for some plants. It was also determined that the irrigation was accidentally off in the meadow grass area—a key design feature of the garden. The meadow grasses, which need time to establish, were not watered during a critical period of growth, and many died. Due to budget constraints, the meadow was reseeded instead of planted, and after testing different seed mixes, the grasses started to establish and grow.

The landscape architects also worked with the nature center staff to find ways to improve the care of the landscape, including a review of soil ecology and the preparation of a maintenance report used for staff training.

Johnny Carson Park, Burbank, Calif.
The city of Burbank initially wanted a renovation and energy-efficiency update of the various recreational amenities in this heavily used, 10-acre urban park. The work included new pedestrian trails, a destination children’s play area, an expanded event stage, picnic areas, refurbished pedestrian bridges, and interpretive signage. During the conceptual design phase, we saw an important opportunity for improving water quality, flood control, and habitat restoration. The firm articulated a vision to the city for transformation of an existing concrete storm channel that bisects the park into a restored natural stream—actually, a historic water body: the Little Tujunga Wash, a tributary of the Los Angeles River that conveys a significant portion of urban runoff from Burbank into the river itself.

Transforming this gutter into a natural system would provide not only local benefits of habitat restoration and aquifer recharge but also regional benefits by lessening the demand on the Los Angeles River itself. AHBE successfully convinced the city and the community to add the creek restoration to the project scope.

A narrative was presented to the city about its important contributions to improving the quality of water entering the Los Angeles River, as well as providing better recreational amenities. As the prime consultant and landscape architect, the firm successfully led a design team that included civil, structural, and electrical engineers, an environmental graphics designer, and a stream-restoration specialist to achieve technical, environmental, functional, and aesthetic-design excellence. The firm prepared demolition, hardscape, irrigation, and planting designs for the park and also managed the design team through administration support during the year-long construction period.

The project is significant for its restoration of a tributary to the Los Angeles River. Water quality and water retention are critical for the region and were the drivers for the design. By working with a stream-restoration specialist and engineers to replace the existing concrete channel with a natural stream bed with native plants, the Little Tujunga Wash creek was revealed. The creek restoration means more food and shelter for urban wildlife, which in turn connects people to nature. Additionally, a community place was created with more and better recreational amenities that provide a positive and healthy human experience for the city.

Since the project’s opening in mid-2016, a POE was conducted that has revealed how the site performs through drought and El Nino conditions. In the winter of 2016, downtown Los Angeles received approximately 17 inches of rainfall. The restorative riparian planting has filled in and has stabilized the banks of the creek. When it rains, rainwater flows into the restored creek, later to be infiltrated into the sand bottom or to empty into the Los Angeles River. Various riparian Salix, scrub, and perennial species have grown vigorously adjacent to the stream channel, providing a more natural appearing edge to the restored stream.

The POE process was invaluable on these projects and should be required with every project, as it continually informs about landscape installations that do not meet expectations, as well as the successful ones that perform as intended.

Evan Mather, FASLA, RLA, SITES AP, is a Principal and Owner at AHBE Landscape Architects in Los Angeles. He has led several award-winning projects, and currently leads a multi-disciplinary team as prime consultant for the city of Santa Monica Memorial Park Redevelopment and Expansion Master Plan. He advocates the use of research to identify new design technologies that inform the firm’s sustainable design framework and standards. His project experience includes streetscapes, transit-oriented design, parks and open spaces, and learning environments. Mather is also an independent filmmaker, known for his short films about design and architectural issues, which include “So What?”an ASLA award-winning documentary about sustainability. Reach him at emather@ahbe.com.