Productive Parks: Sustaining Communities
Parks in urban environments provide an essential outlet for residents as places for walks, gatherings, and recreation. Sustainable practices including use of drought-tolerant and native plants, low maintenance lawns, bioswales and storm water management, high-efficiency irrigation, and organic gardening practices are all very common. But where can we push further, to have the most valuable impact on our future parks?
We are proposing to reinvent parks as laboratories of innovation that operate across boundaries of environmental, social, economic, and aesthetic agendas; synthesizing nature and artifice, utility and recreation. The concept of “productive parks” put forth herein is that of parks as self-sustaining testing grounds that inspire communities to further action.
Seattle has layered functionality into its parks for decades through water utility and food production projects. But as renewable energy is now a necessity, we must strategize new programs for integrating green infrastructure into our parks, to make them more “productive.”
History of the “Productive Park” Movement
Like most movements of landscape architecture, the “productive park” has roots in Olmsted. In his conception of parks as a system of urban infrastructure, he designed them to perform as city lungs, or “environmental cleaning machines” in the words of Elizabeth Meyer. Meyer also calls his landscapes agents for “urban social and environmental reform” that “responded to and then altered the processes modernization and urbanization.” Olmsted’s philosophy is integral to the productive park, particularly as a key component in the current race to save the environment.
Herbert Muschamp described parks as “fertile experimental ground” for exploring the relationship between nature and culture. Muschamp concludes that a park can create a place for us to engage in a “collective act.”
Natural Drainage Systems
Almost a third of the city of Seattle has no stormwater drainage system, but a network of ditches and culverts. In these areas near the south and north city limits, polluted road run-off makes its way to small lakes and streams, eventually reaching Puget Sound and affecting the fragile equilibrium of fauna and flora present.
In 2001 Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), in a collaborative effort with SDOT and the residents of Second Avenue NW, completed a pilot project named Street Edge Alternatives (SEA Street). It incorporated an open drainage system where “rainwater was slowed and stopped at the source, in private yards and parking lots along the city’s streets, and allowed to soak into the earth.”
There are numerous other positive aspects of this technology, particularly as related to goals for productive parks. These include: reducing impervious area, improving water quality through biofiltration, recharging the water table, increasing community interaction, and providing public education.
In Kent, Herbert Bayer’s 1982 Modernist masterpiece Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks sculpts a 2.5-acre landscape at the mouth of Mill Creek with berms and excavations that slow water as it drains through the canyon during storm events. The resultant park is a beloved community-gathering place, hosting performances, festivals, and exhibits throughout the year.
The current economic crisis and unemployment leading to poverty and hunger are triggering a return to nature. Other factors such as reducing transportation distance to lower fossil fuel dependency and resource consumption, and procurement of organic produce at a reasonable price are important to many. “
The City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods manages an extensive Pea-Patch program. It currently has 72 community gardens that are very popular within the city. The pea-patch parcels are on various types of city property: parks, right-of-way, schools, and parcels that were vacant or unused. As the city population and density increases, the need for community gardens and pea-patches will also increase. This type of development on public lands is highly productive, particularly when food energy can be coupled with other land uses, such as power lines. Inherently, a pea-patch leads to social productivity through the sense of community it generates.
Established in 1995, The Edible Schoolyard is a one-acre garden and kitchen classroom at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. The goals of the program are to bring fresh, low-fat, low-sugar, locally grown, organic foods to schools. Students learn about the real world, the value of work, and the value of play within the context of their work in the garden. They are engaged and interested. They make their own compost; and learn about propagation, pollination, and other means to grow food well. They then move on to kitchen classes, where they learn about cooking, food preparation, compatible flavors, and how to combine them to make savory, healthy dishes.
In the context of productive parks, urban agriculture could take a step further and incorporate greenhouses to round up their harvesting season. Orca Elementary School has just built a new greenhouse and garden, including: an underground cistern and water catchment system, solar panels, plant beds for a food bank, and a composting system. Their goals are in line with the Edible Schoolyard’s mission of environmental education and social justice.
President Obama’s Stimulus Package includes provisions that make converting to renewable energy systems affordable and sustainable for US citizens. On a macro-scale it aims to rebuild the transmission lines, batteries, and generators of the electric grid to store and transfer renewable energy, while on the micro-scale if offers incentives like rebates to property owners for purchases of solar systems.
Today, approximately ninety percent of Seattle’s electricity is produced by hydroelectric plants, while wind power makes up another two percent of the city’s fuel mix. Since it is most efficient to generate power close to the place of its consumption, and because mechanisms of alternative energy such as solar and wind power require more space than those of non-renewable resources, it is time to strategize new places for energy production closer to and within city limits. With Seattle Parks and Recreation being the largest landholder in the city, it makes sense to use that public property for energy production when it is compatible with other park uses.
While we can envision wind turbines on the southwest and northwest bluffs of Discovery Park, poised high above Puget Sound to catch strong prevailing winds and power the city, at this point in our transition to green power it is necessary to implement it incrementally.
According to Seattle Parks Project Manager Dan Johnson, the demonstration value of the project is much more important than the energy it is producing. Interpretive information about the installation, aimed in large part at children (Parks’ largest demographic) creates awareness about renewable energy within the community, which helps grow the local market for solar and other green technologies.
If education is a priority of productive parks, more attention should be paid to the presentation of these devices. Photovoltaic panels could be integrated into parks’ landscapes and architecture with more sensitivity to aesthetics. Installations should merge aesthetics and function to define unique park spaces while contributing to the energy grid.
Wind is not as reliable as sun, and turbines require building permits. That said, it is not difficult to imagine an alternate version of Doug Hollis’s 1983 A Sound Garden, an art installation at the NOAA campus adjacent to the north end of Warren G. Magnuson Park, as an energy-producing artwork. Much of the resonance of the artwork is in its capacity to tune viewers into the power of the wind, and make them aware of its effect on the landscape. Wind turbines in a similarly lyrical setting would have that same ability, which verges toward the educational; layered onto it would be the function of energy production.
In many successful instances of community-initiated parks, community energy can be both the catalyst and bi-product of a park. Through this dynamic a type of “social productivity” is generated, which is a fundamental aspect of the productive park.
Seattle’s Fremont Peak Park is an excellent example of how community energy can create a park, and in the process enlarge its own power. Located in the north end of Fremont at N 45 Street and Palatine Avenue N, this half-acre parcel has an amazing view to the west, from downtown Seattle to the northernmost tip of the Olympic Mountains, including Ballard and the Ship Canal. The design team, GGLO (lead landscape architect) and Haddad|Drugan (lead artist) facilitated a public process for the schematic design and art exploration of the project.
The community meetings were friendly and positive. Residents agreed on an initial vision of a ‘walk-to urban oasis’ with passive program elements that would foster community gatherings. The Fremont neighborhood, self-proclaimed “center of the universe,” was the perfect setting for art and landscape designed to attune people to the natural and astronomical rhythms of life: the solstices and equinox, and phases of the moon. Art is weaved into this sequence through the overarching myth of the Minotaur. Walls in the park retain grade but also symbolize remnants of King Minos’ maze, framing the park and its components. A “spool of silver thread” begins at the entry, follows the main promenade, and culminates in the view terrace by pointing to the sunsets at winter and summer solstices.
Through this process many connections have been forged, from a small child remembering which plant he has planted and checking it each time he comes to the park, to neighbors meeting and lending each other a hand, to the satisfaction of work well done. The park has become an integral part of the community and is a beloved stop on routine walks. Community gatherings and small concerts have taken place here, along with weddings and picnics. Perhaps most emblematic of the synergy between park and community is in how the community has initiated a tradition of solstice celebrations at Fremont Peak Park. Where the community’s motto first inspired the design concept, now the design concept has inspired the community, and through that process enlarged the meaning of the motto. This holistic transfer of energy back and forth between place and community is essential to a productive park.
Productive Parks: Sustaining Communities
What begins as one citizen’s idea might then change how one person in a city agency thinks. That person in turn can be inspired to gather forces in his or her agency, and begin a new program that will then affect a much larger group of citizens. Through this process a new paradigm of thinking may evolve. In this grassroots model, energy will start to grow in a park, and as it builds, the values instilled in the park will infuse the surrounding neighborhood and city and transform it into a place of vibrant green infrastructure centered on community.
Compared to single-purpose power plants where land is devoted only to energy production, parks might not necessarily be the best energy makers, simply because they also have to perform as inhabitable places for people. But it is exactly this multi-purposing that makes them a valuable asset in the shift of society toward a more systemic green infrastructure. The education and awakening brought about by coupling social productivity with energy productivity is critical and invaluable. Park systems already exist as the green structures of our cities. Let us develop new tools that expand their capacity to help enact a “greening” of the collective consciousness.
This is a condensed article drawn from a presentation given by Marieke Lacasse and Laura Haddad at the 2009 WASLA Conference in Seattle, April 3, 2009. Click here to download a complete version of the article.
Marieke Lacasse is an Associate at GGLO, and has over 10 years of experience designing parks, trails, streetscapes and community places that work for people. She incorporates innovative approaches and open communication with every project. Her most recent park projects involved strong community-based groups, playful and unique design concepts and inspiring artist created elements.
Laura Haddad of Haddad|Drugan is an artist and landscape architect in Seattle who operates in the realm of public art, creating unique environments that strive to unearth and invent meaning in the built environment. Fusing the conceptual with the functional, her past work includes collaborations on parks, plazas, transportation and utility infrastructure.