West LR

Turning Obstacles into Amenities

Managing Natural Resources

One of the most recognizable parks in America was built on land that was considered to be full of obstacles, to say the least. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux submitted their entry in a competition for a Central Park in New York City in 1858. Poor living conditions in the City led to a public outcry for a “people’s park” for health and recreation. Commerce had encircled Manhattan’s coast lines leaving the unbuildable wilds in the center of the island. According to the Central Park Guidebook by Raymond Carroll, the future park site was considered, by one observer, “bleak, dreary and sickly.” Rock outcroppings and patches of stagnant swampland were the challenges that Olmsted and Vaux had to work with (not to mention primitive construction techniques and the outbreak of a Civil War before the project was completed). After numerous on-site planning sessions, the Landscape Architect and Architect, respectively, transformed an 843 acre obstacle into a world class amenity that ranks as one of New York’s most visited tourist attractions.

 Managing Financial Resources

In today’s economically-challenged climate, municipalities are cutting funding for parks and open space improvements leaving Park Departments and Public Works Agencies looking for ways to maintain what they have with little hope for new amenities. Plans for new playgrounds, pedestrian bridges, ball fields or recreation facilities are put on hold when funding source options aren’t forthcoming. However, in this balance between needs and budget, all hope is not lost. Consider the examples Olmsted, the Father of American Landscape Architecture, provided in so many of the parks he designed over his illustrious career – from New York’s Central Park to Boston’s Emerald Necklace to Mount Royal in Montreal. Amenities can be found in various forms and inspired by numerous obstacles. There may be issues or site elements that for one reason or another were left unrealized or avoided or possibly not even identified. A design from a creative Park Planner, coupled with an in-house labor force, may be what is needed to turn open space obstacles into park amenities. The cost of this transformation depends on the size of the element and the imagination of the planner. Below are a few ideas for consideration:

 Rails to Trails

Nothing divides the circulation of a community like a rail line. Railroads are a physical barrier that presents challenges for vehicular traffic flow and even more challenges to bicycle and pedestrian crossings. Some communities resort to pedestrian bridges when at-grade crossings are determined unacceptable by the rail line. Pedestrian bridges can be very expensive. However, when a railroad becomes inactive the option of converting the rail bed to a trail becomes an affordable option to link the community. Trails provide recreational benefits that unite families, connect neighborhoods and offer an alternate mode of transportation usable by all age groups. The Rails to Trails mantra is “We’re Building Healthier Places For Healthier People & Communities”. Learn more about this Conservancy at www.RailsToTrails.org

 Constructed Wetlands

Wikipedia defines a constructed wetland or wetpark as an artificial wetlands, a marsh or swamp created: as new or restored habitat for native and migratory wildlife; for anthropogenic discharge such as wastewater, stormwater runoff, or sewage treatment; for land reclamation after mining, refineries, or other ecological disturbances; and as required mitigation for natural wetlands lost to a development. Natural wetlands act as a biofilter, removing sediments and pollutants such as heavy metals from the water, and constructed wetlands can be designed to emulate these features. The size and type of the constructed wetland depends on the nature of the stream (flow volume, channel width etc) and the pollutants that exist in the area. A wetpark uses the technology of a constructed wetland while adding natural and recreational benefits to a site. By utilizing trails, boardwalks and fishing piers, a wetpark becomes a community amenity. Access to the wetlands allows the visitor a chance to passively study the ecology or actively interact with nature. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s web site has numerous links for constructed wetland data: http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/restore/cwetlands.cfm

Photo 1 caption: Constructed wetpark concept sketch for Sager Creek Restoration Study in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

 Drainage Swale into Water Features

Stormwater runoff issues can present difficult challenges to a site, especially when development in the area directs the runoff to a swale or intermittent stream. The intensity of the flow can change the topography of the site over time and if not controlled, create erosion issues that can be detrimental to surrounding site elements. One way to address the stormwater issue is to change the swale into what it wants to be during rain events – a water feature. By adding engineered weirs to the swale, incorporating boulders to slow or divert the flow and increasing the basin where the runoff collects, a water obstacle becomes a site amenity that is functional as well as aesthetically pleasing. A Civil Engineer should be consulted to assist with watershed calculations and sizing of walls, while a Landscape Architect can add the design elements needed to make the feature attractive and more natural in appearance. In Arkansas, the amount of runoff in the winter is vastly different than the summer months. The feature should either utilize a submersible pump for recirculation of water from the basin to an upper pool for a year round water effect or should include a rock-lined stream with stones of varied sizes for a dry creek look in the summer months when the runoff is intermittent. Either solution will improve the ecology of the site. Aquascapes is one source for pumps and pond/stream materials: http://www.aquascapeinc.com/

Photo 2 caption: Drainage swale with rock weirs in West Little Rock, Arkansas.

Create Nature Preserves

It is important to identify and protect natural assets before open space is lost to development or site expansion. It is equally important to ‘think outside the box’ to solve problems with green solutions that return nature to a site. Consider the scenario presented in Anatomy of a Park by Molnar & Rutledge: A school fought with a boggy area created by drainage from surrounding sites. The ongoing efforts to establish turf in this wet location had frustrated administrators that were forced to set aside funds to drain the area. An alternative solution of turning this ‘unused area’ into a nature preserve with a variety of species of plants, birds and insects became an affordable resource to the school’s science program. They now have a sustainable outdoor science lab. A similar example of converting maintenance-intensive turf areas to native grass prairies would cost less while providing more. Savings in fuel costs and man hours from ceased mowing as well as dramatic reduction of water use would more than justify the amenity of a restored prairie. Of course, the creation of a diverse ecosystem for future generations would be another good reason. Additional information on this topic can be found at The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation by Design Gateway: http://conserveonline.org/workspaces/cbdgateway/

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Much like the early days of Central Park, the benefits of turning obstacles into amenities extend beyond the elements constructed in the park. Olmsted and Vaux shared a vision of the park as a scenic work of art where people of all social backgrounds would mingle and enjoy uncontaminated surroundings. Their design solutions were realized by creative problem solving that took years to build with manpower using pickaxes, hammers and shovels (and gunpowder). Today’s challenges of limited funds and reduced manpower may differ slightly, but creative planning and a dedicated labor force can yield similar results. Ian McHarg, in Design with Nature, states “We need nature as much in the city as in the countryside. In order to endure we must maintain a bounty of that great cornucopia which is our inheritance.” Progressive communities initiate park and open space planning when the economy is down so a plan is in place with details resolved for prosperous years to follow. Planning ahead is the key to good planning – the best way to turn obstacles into amenities.

Dave Roberts, Landscape Architect

Vice President and Director of Planning

Crafton Tull

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2 thoughts on “Turning Obstacles into Amenities”

  1. As a City of Tulsa employee and citizen, I am promoting Green Infrastructure both as a water quality/quantity issue and public amenity. I look forward to these types of projects in Tulsa.

  2. Great article, question for you. When a pond is created with the intent of filtering heavy metals from the surrrounding landscape, when if ever and how are the heavy metals removed. Example several small holding ponds on the OKC Airport property are just such ponds. The collect run-off and I am told filter heavy metals from the water as it returns to the aquafer in this area.

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