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Design Strategies for Downtown Parks: Dallas and Tampa

“Cities large and small are the most sustainable living models, and the viability of a sustainable city rests on the success or failure of its urban parks,” said Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect responsible for designing Main Street Garden in Dallas and Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. But what kind of urban parks provide the best benefit to the health of a city? According to Balsley, “Smaller parks, not large destination parks, are the key to a vibrant city.”

Balsley, along with Willis Winters from the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department and Karen Palus from the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department, discussed their strategies behind designing Main Street Garden and Curtis Hixon Park in a session at the 2010 American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting and Expo in Washington, D.C. The panel discussed their experiences and provided excellent insight into what it takes to develop a successful urban park.

Main Street Garden, Dallas. Credit: Neff Conner (Flickr Feed)

In 2001, Dallas was jolted by a decision unlike any other before. The Boeing Company chose to move its headquarters to Chicago rather than Dallas because there was a lack of vibrancy in the city center. At the time, only 240 people lived in downtown Dallas, all in a single apartment building. The numerous city employees vacated the area after their nine-to-five workdays and no real thought was given to attracting residents to live in the business district. This lack of a 24-hour tenant presence resulted in a stagnant city center, a place that Boeing did not want to call home for its new corporate headquarters. The decision was a wake-up call for city officials and a new emphasis was placed on revitalizing their downtown, with particular interest in urban parks.

In response, Balsley’s firm was selected to design Main Street Garden, a 1.7-acre park occupying a full city block on the east end of downtown. The site with its historic buildings offered an excellent opportunity to bring life back into the city’s center. As Winters said, “Main Street Garden served as the reason to revitalize the buildings surrounding the area.”

Main Street Garden was designed with an inviting streetscape encouraging people to stop and visit, not just pass through the park on their lunch break. Innovative lighting techniques such as study shelters encouraged use well into the evening hours. Other design elements included a large lawn that can be adapted to multiple uses, a green roof canopy over a concession kiosk, café and dining terrace, botanical garden, urban dog run, playground, stage and an interactive stream fountain that has proven to be popular with children of all ages.

As Balsley discussed the project, he explained that creating a successful design for the park is only part of the job. A large part of the work is managing an oftentimes-contentious public process. He offered some tips for success including:

  • Share your experiences: Be open about your past experiences, offering insight into your successes and setbacks.
  • Form client/designer collaboration: Work with your client encouraging communication and teamwork.
  • Advocate for a committee format: Be open to the idea of a community process.
  • Maintain reasonable expectations: Encourage stakeholders to understand what is possible and what may be unachievable.
  • Listen, and prove it: Encourage an open dialogue and act upon what you hear.
  • Avoid preconceived notions: Be open to all ideas and viewpoints.
  • Hang your ego outside the door: Avoid the “designer knows best” mentality.

Palus who shared the background behind the redevelopment of Curtis Hixon Park emphasized Balsley’s advice. “This is a story of a city that invested in its people by creating a meaningful public space,” she said. However, the park had many organizations and interested parties who had conflicting opinions as to how the park should be developed. Recognizing that differing ideas would be a challenge, the stakeholders agreed to be open to all options, yet keep in mind that the park would be developed for the benefit of the entire city, not one specific group. After navigating the public process, the result was a dynamic park that has proven to be a central gathering space for the entire city.

Curtis Hixon Park, Tampa. Credit: Graham Coreil-Allen (Flickr Feed)

Like his previous work at Main Street Garden, Balsley designed 6.0-acre Curtis Hixon Park with attention to incorporating the park into its present surroundings. Special awareness was given to connecting the park to adjacent cultural assets such as Kiley Garden and the Tampa Museum of Art. This was achieved through a terraced lawn and a promenade garden at the edges of the park. At the street entrance is a large Louver water fountain, frequently used by children and adults to cool down during the hot Tampa summers. When the water sprays upwards, it distorts the view of the park, revealing and hiding different features. The park also has a playground and dog park and even incorporates a segment of the Riverwalk, connecting the David Straz Performing Arts Center to the Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art. The paving along the Riverwalk contains a mechanism for misting and creates “fog clouds,” another clever strategy to promote cooling in the summers. Within the park is a large lawn sloping towards the river, featuring what Balsley described as “urban rafts,” large platforms rising out of the slope for sitting, lounging or gathering. These “urban rafts” have become a central part of the park, attracting both people watchers and visitors who want to be seen. People watching was a prominent feature in the design, with both overlooks and rotating chairs incorporated for users to choose views of the waterfront or park.

An attractive park is an essential part of a vibrant city. Both Main Street Garden and Curtis Hixon Park have strong elements that bring visitors to their parks. They also connect to the surrounding area, encouraging growth of businesses and housing. It would be interesting to see how usership has increased at these parks since their openings.

And for those who will be in Dallas today, Peter Harnik will be giving a presentation entitled “Rebirth of the City Park” at the 21st Century City Conference. Come learn more about the efforts the park movement has played in Dallas.

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