Sustainable Parks and Why They Work

By Jeff Caldwell

Jeff Caldwell is Brand Manager of Superior Shelter in Carrollton, GA. Superior Shelter creates custom park shelters and picnic shelter designs to bring communities together under one roof.

As the population continues to grow and environmental concerns move increasingly to the forefront of public knowledge, more and more communities are looking for outdoor spaces that are both beautiful and sustainable. That’s why sustainable parks are such a big trend in the public design space today. A sustainable park is a park that’s made to preserve natural resources and promote quality of life for the people around it. It uses existing native plants and geographic features to be more efficient, while also enjoyable.

What Makes a Park Sustainable?

What are the qualities that define an eco-friendly outdoor space? To help answer those questions, here’s a look at some of the elements that can make a park sustainable:

  • Energy-efficient buildings
  • Long-lasting materials
  • Conserved and restored natural areas
  • Easy-to-maintain plants and landscaping
  • Organic mulch, fertilizers and compost
  • Storm water capturing
  • Wetlands for increased flood control
  • Recycling bins for park patrons
  • On-site composting
  • ADA access when possible

To clarify the idea of sustainable parks further, here is a look at a few examples currently in use, as well as insight into why they’re working so well:

1. Bryant Park, New York City

Just blocks from Times Square in New York City, Bryant Park is a beautifully redesigned, sustainable park used as an example of sustainability by The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Over a century old, the park began deteriorating in the 1900s, but renovation attempts in the 1930s and 1940s didn’t bring lasting change. In 1979, the neighboring New York Public Library planned a large building expansion that would include a renovation of the park. In the process, Bryant Park became an urban oasis once again.

Sustainable Features

What was once a seedy part of town has become a multipurpose setting that is part storage facility and part beautiful outdoor space. When the city demolished the existing park, it built an underground storage area for New York Public Library; the park became that facility’s green roof. The green roof lowers energy costs and greenhouse emissions for the building below. Here are some of its other sustainable feature highlights:

  • Durable, natural and recycled materials throughout the design
  • Salvaged stone paving and statues
  • Preserved historic pieces (foundations, railings, cast-iron lamps, etc.)
  • Two 300-foot-long planters with perennials and evergreens

Why It Works

There are several reasons the Bryant Park redesign has been so successful. As stated above, it serves more than one purpose — covering and improving the efficiency of the library’s storage building while also creating a welcoming community space. Likewise, the redesign is backed by the professional design advice of urban planner and sociologist William H. Whyte, who used behavioral research to improve the space. It was Whyte who suggested removing iron fences and shrubbery to make the area feel more open and accessible. Before the redesign, Bryant Park was a dangerous, costly burden to New York. Now, “the impact of the park is felt (in) the surrounding community through increased real estate values and thriving local businesses,” says ASLA.org.

2. Sustainability Park, Denver, Colo.

Set on 2.7 acres in downtown Denver, Sustainability Park is a “community, education and green industry resource in the heart of downtown,” according to its website, DenverSustainabilityPark.org. It was specially designed to showcase eco-friendly technologies and strategies, from renewable energy and green building to agriculture and sustainable site development.

Sustainable Features

Sustainability Park features eco-friendly innovations in five key areas:

  • Renewable Energy and Green Building: The park supports research and development in these areas, through testing of pilot projects in emerging technologies. It uses smart metering and data gathering to evaluate the costs and benefits of these strategies. It also utilizes innovative designs and materials to increase efficiency, reduce costs and minimize consumption.
  • Agriculture and Sustainable Site Development: The changing landscape showcases new ideas and activities on display, such as access to affordable, high-quality food or careful water management through xeriscaping and recycling storm water.
  • Strong Community Participation: The park hosts events for the community and the green industry, and its urban farms provide a local source of food.
  • Jobs and a Health Economy: Denver’s Sustainability Park also contributes to a locally sustainable community economy. It fosters development in areas that will utilize natural resources while protecting the environment. It facilitates training for green jobs. It also supports partner organizations as locally owned businesses.
  • Transportation: The park’s sustainable transportation features include a B-cycle bike share terminal, easy access to local public transportation, and plans for an electric vehicle car-charging station and a car share kiosk.

Why It Works

“A big part of the success is that it doesn’t end with the park,” said Tony Frank, executive director of Colorado Renewable Energy Society (CRES), the organization responsible for the park’s design, in an article at Solar Today. Rather than merely creating a park, Frank says CRES is “taking a holistic approach to developing sustainable and vibrant urban communities.”

3. Knoch Knolls Nature Center, Naperville, Ill.

Though currently under construction, Knoch Knolls Nature Center in Naperville has already been cited as “a prime example of sustainability” by newspapers. In fact, its eco focus is a big part of why the city received the 2014 Sustainable Development Award from The Conservation Foundation, awarded in late February.

Sustainable Features

Among the energy-efficient features of Knoch Knolls are the following:

  • Design to LEED Platinum standards
  • Solar panels
  • Green roof
  • Cistern to reuse rainwater for indoor plumbing
  • Natural habitat restoration

Why It Works

The new developments at Knoch Knolls are in keeping with Naperville’s larger, overarching commitment to stewarding the environment. The city formed a Green Team in 2009 to manage environmental initiatives for the park district. What’s more, the district received a $100,000 grant for the trails from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and a $255,693 grant through its High Performance Green Building Program, according to an article at Naperville Parks.org.

The fact is, sustainable parks are growing in popularity, and the three examples above only scratch the surface of what’s been designed and what is coming. More and more cities are realizing the benefits of using resources efficiently and cost effectively, while also improving quality of life for their citizens. Whether in a small town or a mega-city, today’s parks will only benefit from a green focus.

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