Parks come to life with playgrounds, turf, footy goals, BBQs and benches. A quality public open space is welcoming, vibrant and provides space for the community to play, socialize, exercise and explore. The development of public open space provides the opportunity to create valuable places for the community. With infrastructure a space goes from being a patch of green on a map to being an AFL oval, a nature play space, a skate park or an urban plaza.
It’s about creating places, not just spaces. The Project for Public Spaces describes successful places as having four key qualities: “they are accessible; people are engaged in activities there; the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, it is a sociable place: one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.” (PPS, “What Makes a Successful Place?”)
In new suburbs, putting the “stuff” on the ground is usually the responsibility of the developer, it is a condition of subdivision approval that they must develop the open space to a minimum standard and maintain it for at least two summers. Once established over two years the local government takes over responsibility for its ongoing maintenance.
Many local governments have local planning polices or guidelines to facilitate what ends up on their parks but often the quality of the resulting park is the outcome of developer lottery. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you’re left in the dirt.
Deciding what goes on the ground on a public open space site is a multifaceted, often technical conversation which is sometimes skimmed over in the hurry of getting a landscaping plan out the door, but it’s a great one to get involved in. There are a few key issues which come into play; I’ve loosely grouped some ideas around the themes of function, maintenance, water and comfort.
What the space is for is as important as how much of it there is. For planning purposes the plethora of different activities people use public open space can be clustered in three categories; sport, nature and recreation. Sport spaces provide an opportunity for the community to engage in formal organized sport, nature spaces give residents a chance to connect with and explore the natural environment, and recreation spaces provide a venue for casual exercising, socializing and play.
Nature sites are an opportunity to conserve native vegetation but can sensitively be developed to add value to the community for example; walking trails, boardwalks, interpretative signage, bird hides and look outs. These delicate upgrades encourage people to visit and engage with the space.
Sport sites rely on infrastructure being provided to be functional. A soccer pitch is not purely a rectangle of ground; its turf, goals, club rooms and equipment storage too, without which the site could not host a competition. There are minimum standards to apply for the type of sport you are accommodating whether it’s a tennis court, oval or swimming pool.
Recreation is a bit more flexible and can cover everything from walk trails to playgrounds. It’s space to walk to dog, hold a picnic, go for a run or tire out the kids. As such the development should consider the recreational preferences of the community; do you need playgrounds, running routes, a skate park or a duck pond adjacent bench, or perhaps all of the above?
Being inviting and encouraging people to stay a while is an important part of creating a valuable public space. Providing multiple functions at one location means that people of different ages will visit at different times of the day for different reasons. For example, providing a playground and picnic area together is a common one which is always more popular than one or the other on their own. Valuable sites are so cherished because they serve many people’s needs.
Parks with just grass and a string of bollards around the edge are easy to mow and are pretty bland, at the other end of the spectrum, a park with a whole lot of expensive, beautiful infrastructure is sometimes difficult and costly to maintain. A reality of developing anything is, of course, ongoing maintenance costs. There is no need to stop doing fantastic, innovative things, as long as the whole of life costs are considered. Engaging with park maintenance crews when designing a space will prevent a park that can only be hand watered, is a nightmare to mow and/or features a deck that needs oiling every 6 months.
Using locally native plant species in landscaping and limiting turf grass in areas not used for sport, demands less water, preserves local character and also keeps maintenance costs low. Seek out local resources and materials that are robust, recycled/recyclable and environmentally sound.
Some battles to reduce maintenance costs can be won early in the planning process, by matching the purpose of the site with a location with the right soil/water conditions, for example, choosing a sandy, well-drained location for the playing fields. Common sense of course, but when you design without knowing your site it’s an easy mistake to make.
Some areas of Western Australia are subject to very limited water availability, some have a troublesome abundance and everything in between. New development in the Perth Metro area must be conscious of its limited water availability and respond through innovation, rather than limitation.
Landscaping with water-wise and locally native plants and maximizing retention of existing vegetation on public open space reduces the need for irrigation. Hydrozoning, being the grouping of vegetation types into categories with similar water requirements and locating them adjacent to each other, enables more efficient use of irrigated water. Where irrigation is required, conversations about alternative, fit-for-purpose water sources encourage innovation and problem solving.
The uptake of Water Sensitive Urban Design has resulted in many parks being used to manage storm water; noticeable when done badly and barely noticeable when done well. Where water management infrastructure it should be integrated into the landscape and contribute positively to the aesthetics and function of the site. Water sensitive design can provide water where it’s needed, keep landscapes green for longer, and create living streams and frog ponds for kids to splash in.
You’ve got a space, it looks great and provides opportunities for sport, nature and recreation; how do you get people to come, stay and play? Make it comfortable and create an experience.
Make it a refuge by providing shade from the heat and protection from the rain. Make is safe by providing adequate lighting and preserving sight lines from the street and overlooking residents to enable causal surveillance. Lighting is especially important in the North of WA where people are more likely to play sport and go for a walk in the evening to escape the heat of the day.
Encourage people to walk and cycle to, from and through the site by connecting all the footpaths together in a system, connect it internally but also externally to the wider network of paths going to schools, facilities and centers.
People appreciate a variety of different seating opportunities; benches, low walls, tiered embankments, and logs all provide places to perch and watch the world go by. A successful place is welcoming and engaging for people of all different age groups, abilities and interests. How would you see your local park though the eyes of a 7 year old? How about a 70 year old?
Public open space development is a mixed bag of issues interacting with each other and this provides many innovative and fun problem solving opportunities. Working collaboratively and actively participating in the conversation will result in valued places to play, explore and enjoy.