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Triple Bottom Line: Design Matters

2016-03-01, Feature, by Samantha Bartram

Successful public spaces are developed with the user in mind and include features like multi-modal transportation to encourage visits from a wide range of people.By now, most planners and park and recreation professionals know the design elements that make for a successful park or public space. Open spaces to run, opportunities for play, connectivity, native plantings — all these elements and still others should be included to encourage maximum use by residents and visitors alike. It’s not enough, however, to simply check the box that these amenities are present and accounted for. Today’s most successful parks and public spaces are thoughtfully rendered for the benefit of all ages and abilities; to enhance or improve naturally occurring landscapes; to encourage multi-modal transportation to, from and within a park; and as places for cultural community activities like concerts, farmers markets and health fairs.

NRPA, through its Parks Build Community initiative, has had the pleasure of working with many corporate supporters, planners, municipal leaders and park and recreation professionals to build or revamp six parks spread across the country. Our seventh project, at Trojan Park in Wellston, Missouri, is already well underway. Its scope, amenities and layout were conceived with the help of Forum Studio, a full-service design firm with offices in Chicago, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri, and specifically with the talents of Senior Associate/Senior Landscape Architect Neil Eisenberger. The University of Arkansas graduate has more than 20 years of experience designing a wide variety of projects, from small-scale plazas and public spaces to large-scale master plans and urban design efforts. Parks & Recreation magazine asked Eisenberger to share some of his architectural insights, as well as his considerations for creating engaging and beautiful public spaces. 

Parks & Recreation magazine: How do you first approach a park design project — what are some important initial considerations?

Neil Eisenberger: First, understand the client and the users and their desires. At the outset of a park project, we like to do community engagement to determine the needs of the surrounding residents. We know that parks are not just places to recreate, but, more than that, are spaces that when developed correctly can build or strengthen a community. It’s the “build community” thinking that we share with the citizens — health and fitness, arts and education, and play and social development. This “triple-bottom-line” thinking looks to develop parks with a multitude of recreation and education options for all ages. 

P&R: Talk about ways in which the design of a park or public open space can influence how people utilize that space. 

Eisenberger:  When we develop our parks we think about how they function from the user’s standpoint. For larger parks we like to cluster activities that involve family gathering at the center. We cluster our social and cultural amenities, such as pavilions and gathering spaces, near our play areas for greater visibility of our children — we usually call these areas the “heart of the park.” Then, we plan for a major pedestrian connector that provides users with direct access from one end of the park to the other…we call this connector or promenade the “spine.” We typically place our largest open areas of recreation, like sports fields, outbound or surrounding the heart of the park.

P&R: What would you say is the most important consideration when designing a park or public open space and what amenities should always be included?

Eisenberger:  I feel the most important consideration is to develop it for all ages. A park or open space that links generation to generation and provides opportunities for both is the most successful. Amenities, such as walking loops or fitness areas, that serve to provide health and wellness for the community are a must. For play and social development, features should be present that serve toddlers to teens and offer opportunities for adults to meet as well. Lastly, amenities for arts and education also need to be present — opportunities to share local music or art and landscapes that not only function to capture stormwater and provide butterfly habitat, but also provide opportunities for children to learn about the environment around us.

P&R: Talk about a time when a design failed and had to be revised.

Eisenberger: We’ve had some designs fail when we failed to follow a community process. When we thought we knew what people wanted, but weren’t dedicated in our community engagement. That’s why all of our public projects follow a process of engagement. Because if the communities feel like they are part of this process, there is more ownership into the final outcome.

P&R: What has been one of your favorite projects to date — what did you enjoy most about it and why?

Eisenberger: I recently finished working on a large redevelopment and open space plan in downtown St. Louis along the Mississippi River. The St. Louis North Riverfront Redevelopment and Open Space plan included development strategies and a conceptual open space plan for the 180-acre area directly north of the Gateway Arch, where the grounds and museum are currently being renovated. The project, funded by Great Rivers Greenway, the city of St. Louis and the St. Louis Development Corporation, reimagines what’s possible within this area of St. Louis.

One of the key development strategies is to extend the green network north from the central riverfront along Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and develop a riverfront park to act as a catalyst for redevelopment. During the concept design phase, we identified an area of the plan as a riverfront park that would link to existing trails and greenways and look for new opportunities for connections west back into the central business district of St. Louis. The team tracked their design process with public engagement that included multiple meetings with technical advisers, residents and citizen advisory committees, who provided much of the feedback related to the park and open space program. 

The idea of riverfront parks stimulating urban redevelopment is not new — river cities across America are looking to redevelop these sometimes-forgotten areas and are envisioning them as places where people can live, work and play. So, we were very excited when Great Rivers Greenway approached the Forum Studio team to do a detailed master plan for the riverfront park and develop a schematic design for an area of around 21 acres. There will be challenges, of course — when you attempt to develop parks adjacent to rivers, especially in this area of the Mississippi River, flooding can occur at any time. We need to develop park amenities and landscapes that are durable and maintainable — a design that takes cues from nature and how it would develop along a river’s edge. But, there are also opportunities when you develop along a river — especially a river like the Mississippi. The city of St. Louis invested in infrastructure years ago to provide a protected area for vessels to dock in this area of the riverfront. Think about the possibility of having a barge park or a barge beer garden, or the possibility of a cultural exchange of sorts. What if a park barge from Memphis came to dock for a summer barbecue festival or a barge from New Orleans came as part of a jazz festival? As the team works through the schematic design, we will be meeting again with the community to make sure we equitably provide all the recreation, education and social spaces that citizens desire in an exciting new riverfront park.

P&R: You’re currently working with NRPA and our corporate sponsors on the 2016 Parks Build Community project in St. Louis. Trojan Park will be built from scratch — what did you know, right off the bat, that you wanted to include there, and what did you know wouldn’t work at all?

Eisenberger: We knew we wanted a flexible community gathering space as the main feature of the park. We developed a splash plaza and an adjacent shade pavilion that when not used can serve as places for a farmers market, family reunion or seating area for a movie night. We knew, however, given maintenance and safety issues, that a typical restroom facility would not work. There will, however, be a structure that will house portable toilets for user’s comfort. We want Trojan Park to be a success and want to set up the city of Wellston for success. 

Samantha Bartram is the Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine. 


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