“Great cities have a great park”—that’s the mantra of our visionary client group behind Bonnet Springs Park in Lakeland, Florida. For more than 30 years, the 180-acre site has gone through a number of attempts to establish its best use. At long last, in early 2015, David Bunch, a longtime Lakeland Realtor, and his wife Jean presented a bold concept to philanthropists Barney and Carol Barnett, generous benefactors who care about the future of Lakeland. Their vision? To create a special public place near downtown Lakeland that the community could enjoy, and make positive use of this underutilized land.
With this vision in mind, they agreed to underwrite the assembly of the railyards and available nearby properties, the environmental remediation, and general enabling of the creation of what is now called Bonnet Springs Park. Bill Tinsley, a passionate Lakeland community member who devoted his career to creating great parks as the former Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director, joined the project to help lead the master plan process. The Tinsley and Bunch families—alongside the Barnetts who were joined by son’s Wesley and Nicholas—added a 20-person advisory committee comprised of a diverse group of local community advocates. Already, the project has had a transformative effect on the adjoining neighborhoods through the removal of 37 tons of accumulated trash to ready the site for transformation. The project is now poised to begin environmental remediation, a foundational step in carrying forward an aspirational design to create this exemplary and vibrant destination park.
The Bonnet Springs Park Board selected Sasaki in 2017 to design the privately funded park, heal the environmental damage that came from years of industrial use, and ultimately transform the site into one of the greatest urban landscapes in the country. Since that time, Sasaki’s interdisciplinary team of designers, led by Zach Chrisco, PE; Christine Dunn, AIA; Anna Cawrse, PLA; and Andrew Gutterman, ASLA have sourced input and feedback from the Lakeland community and incorporated ideas and desires from more than 400 people into the design for the park. The resulting plan includes heritage gardens, a canopy walk, a welcome center, nature center, event lawn, walking and biking trails, non-motorized boating activities, and a sculpture garden. It is set to open in 2020.
Bonnet Springs Park, from a planning and design perspective, presents a rare opportunity to transform a significantly challenged urban plot of land in an effort to improve Central Florida’s quality of life for generations to come. Sasaki’s designs will improve the site’s ecological health, foster unique harmonious architectural design, and set the park up for self-sustaining, economic success.
The site certainly was far from “community ready” when the project began. For years the park site remained a vacant brownfield from prior industrial use as one of Central Florida’s major railroad centers, the Lakeland Railyard. Sasaki now faces tough remediation and ecological conditions with 84 acres of land that contain arsenic and petroleum hydrocarbons. The team is using creative, complex remediation strategies and design tactics to convert this damaged land into the “Central Park of Lakeland.” In a bold early move, they will utilize a variety of remediation strategies including creatively stockpiling the most contaminated material into large hills that act as landscape elements completely transforming the park’s future typography. From lowest to highest point, the future park could traverse up to a 90 foot grade change! In addition, a degraded stream corridor carrying comingled storm water runoff and clean water from a sand seep spring will be rehabilitated by diverting storm water into to a series of constructed wetlands to remove pollutants.
Designing four new buildings
In terms of the park’s architecture, a series of new buildings will be built within the park, in harmony with the surrounding environment. These added buildings are all intentionally immersed into the landscape contexts—some even partially buried into the landscape’s new hills. The buildings will create seamless exterior and interior experiences for park visitors—key among them the “Bridge Building,” future home of the park’s anchor institution, Explorations V Children’s Museum. This building is conceived to bridge between two constructed hills on the site, providing stunning rooftop views of the park.
Park economic model
While the park is privately funded, the park’s programmatic elements are intentionally being designed to generate income. The park will be made economically sustainable with robust implementation strategies for operations, maintenance, and revenue-generating events and facilities. For example the Explorations V Children’s Museum, will charge an admission fee. The surrounding area will host outdoor concerts, events and festivals, while other facilities, like the Nature Center, Events Center, and Welcome Center, will boast a cafe, multipurpose rooms for event rental, and a 350-seat banquet hall for weddings, corporate events, and other large gatherings. A perpetual care fund has been established to supplement future park maintenance and capital needs.
Within the next 20 years, Polk County’s population is expected to grow to near one million. Sasaki, in partnership with a visionary and innovative client team, looks forward to capitalizing upon the economic, ecological, and community potential for a transformative park in this incredible downtown site.
Scroll down to see the design concepts in renderings.
This densely shaded grove of live oak trees will feature a walkway that soars 18 feet above the woodland floor. At moments along this quarter-mile-long walkway through the canopy, the view opens up to showcase the magnificent 200-year-old Grandfather Oak—a centerpiece of Bonnet Springs Park.
The Welcome Center has an oversized canopy on its west side to provide shade and shelter. Where the overhang meets the hillside, the building and landscape merge to create a playground. Within the building, a restaurant and exhibition space are key draws for visiting guests.
At the highest point of the Botanical Gardens sits the Bonnet Springs Event Pavilion, where future weddings and other events can be held overlooking the botanic and sculpture gardens.
The Heritage Garden will tell the history of Bonnet Springs Park’s site, which was once a rail yard and an orange grove. Featuring pollinator paths and fruit trees as well as large Live Oak within the grand Oak Grove, the gardens will be a peaceful and beautiful setting for both relaxation and learning.
The Nature Center will welcome all visitors seeking to learn more about the flora and fauna of Bonnet Springs Park. Connected by boardwalks, the Nature Center consists of three buildings providing exhibit space, classrooms, food vendors, and paddle boat rentals.
A series of lush constructed wetland gardens play a vital role in improving the ecological health of the Bonnet Springs Valley and Lake Bonnet. Interpretive elements along the boardwalks adjacent to each pond show visitors how these areas prevent pollution from entering Lake Bonnet by cleaning stormwater runoff.
The Bonnet Springs Valley was created by the natural eroding processes of the Bonnet Springs, a sand seep spring. The rare hydrological system is the result of ground water being squeezed out of a porous hillside. A new restored ecosystem along the spring corridor will naturally stabilize the banks, clean the water, and provide new habitat for water-loving fauna.
Inspired by Explorations V Children’s Museum, the Bonnet Springs Botanical Gardens takes visitors of all ages on a journey through a landscape dedicated to exploring all five senses. These ornamental gardens will display the diverse horticulture of the region while serving as a natural setting for contemporary art and sculpture.