Barbara Heller And Gina Ford: A Q&A on Parks Planning
Sasaki recently welcomed Barbara Heller as Director of Parks Planning(left). Heller brings decades of experience in parks planning and will drive the practice at Sasaki. Sasaki principal Gina Ford, ASLA(right) and Barbara took a few moments to discuss the field—examining the failings of parks planning, the trends they see shaping today's parks and park networks, and their views on the immensely popular show, Parks and Recreation.
Why are parks important? What is driving their increase in popularity?
Barbara: Well, for one, there are demographic changes with different urban populations using parks today than in the past. Parks planning feeds into better serving changing communities in our cities. I see cities actively working toward providing equity and access to parks. They're starting to see that there are many benefits derived from having a park within a city, in terms of how it can be an economic driver, improve quality of life, connect people to the city and each other, and provide respite from city life. And I certainly do think there's greater consciousness in the country around parks than there was ten years ago. There's a greater appreciation for what parks can be and what they can do for cities.
Gina: This renewed interest in parks can in part be explained by a couple of super highly-visible catalytic landscape projects. Millenium Park is the one I'm thinking of in Chicago. When that happened, I think people understood and could visibly see all the different benefits—the arts and cultural benefits, the sense of community, the economic return on that investment: tourism, image and identity. I think the Millenium Park project really catapulted landscape onto a national platform in a way that was really kind of stunning. I have no doubt that it was projects like that one that paved the way for the Chicago Riverwalk project we have been working on over the last couple of years. And then, of course, there's the Highline in New York. The Highline has been huge. It was certainly not a modest investment, but it has become this sort of international benchmark of what landscape can do in a major city. Part of the rub is that both of these cities have tremendous resources, and have tremendous public/private partnership potential. The challenge lies in how you translate some of that thinking and return on investment to cities that don't have as many resources.
Speaking of park network planning and constrained resources, you recently put on an exhibition on this subject. What is the main line of inquiry set out in the Emerald Networks exhibition?
Gina: We are currently working in the cities of Chicago, Raleigh, and Hartford, and couldn't help but notice that all three had park systems that were really generated by a visionary as part of the generation of the city. All three were endowed with legacies of extraordinary park systems. Yet, like most cities, all are fiscally constrained in their ability to maintain and operate them as demanded by the vision set for them. So, this exhibition was really a way of both visualizing these urban park histories, celebrating the fact that these cities have these amazing park systems (which I think many people don't really know outside of the small group of our profession), and talking about how we see cities really trying to innovate within existing frameworks. So in addition the three we already talked about—Chicago, Raleigh, and Hartford—we added Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and Boston. We included an interactive piece into the exhibition, thinking that the visitor could experience the stories of these other five cities, and end on Boston, our hometown, where the exhibition is, and give feedback on how they think the Boston park system can be better aligned with current needs.
In what ways has traditional park planning failed?
Gina: A lot of the parks planning we see across the country hasn't quite adopted ideas about parks as part of a city-wide system of ecology, and to some extent, the economic driver that it really is. We've been trying to identify clients and cities that want to reposition park systems in that much broader lens. These are clients who understand that parks have this huge potential impact, who see beyond the immediate park needs, and can see investment in public green space holistically—as this big driver.
Barbara: I agree. So many master plans for park planning are very tactically-oriented and limited to improving one park at a time, instead of looking at it as an overall system. And that's something that Sasaki's really good at doing, of having an overall framework for what the system should be and what the system should look like. It's a practice that's more visionary, more strategic, than what I've seen at many of the firms I have collaborated with in the past. It's a big reason why I decided to come here.
What's the next big things in parks? Any trends?
Barbara: Trails. Like in Chicago, the Bloomingdale Trail—which is similar to the Highline—is a big deal. When I am involved in any sort of a needs-assessment and survey, residents invariably state they have the biggest need for access to trails. So there are a lot of trail projects going on all over the country. Then, some cities have recognized that there's some real benefit to having huge events in the city, and are creating park space that accommodates events. Many cities are moving programs from indoors to outdoors, offering yoga and other programs and activities in parks in unprecedented ways.
What will it mean to have Barbara join the firm?
Gina: As designers, we often think of parks planning and design from the physical perspective. Barbara often thinks about how you make the system more functional and efficient—how to improve the systems and procedures and organization of staff. Part of the difference now, with Barbara here, is that that's become a completely integrated component on our park projects—which is exciting!
The other part of this is the idea that the park master planning process enables a bigger conversation about parks among typically siloed departments within cities. The best example I have for that is our work in Cedar Rapids where we did the parks master plan, but we touched all the different departments—economic development, public works, planning, utilities. What was different was we got all of these departments in one room talking about these visions for the future and shared goals. A great example of this is when we designed and constructed this amphitheater on the river in Cedar Rapids. It was partly about the community wanting a gathering place on the river; it was partly about economic development—wanting more tourism dollars downtown and wanting people to stay longer; and it was partly about flood protection—the amphitheater was built into a levee that helps to protect the city. So again, if you can think about the master planning process on a bigger scale, with broader vision, the process can really bring about more of these win-win, multivalent solutions that benefit several departments and communities.
Barbara: So many design firms don't have an understanding of the impact of design on maintenance. As a result, park staff are too often left with a park that is too expensive to maintain. And, many times, in many park agencies, the maintenance people aren't even at the table—which is incredible to me! They need to be brought in because they have such a good understanding of what's going to work from a maintenance perspective. The durable use of materials is important. How do we create no-mow areas, for example? So, anyway the fact that I'm here—as I look at the world so differently than design folks—there's going to be a real understanding of and appreciation of how parks work from an operational point of view, and how parks can generate revenue.
Sasaki has so many really thoughtful approaches. The research that exists within this firm that don't necessarily exist at other design firms, that's a real plus, too. The Strategies group, for example, getting them involved and developing tools to provide better solutions to master planning is a really great thing, and I've never seen that anywhere else. I've worked with so many other firms, and the thing that has been most appealing about working with Sasaki is the collaborative process. Many other firms I've worked with would say they are and then I've been side-lined, isolated, siloed, and not really integrated into the process. With Sasaki, it's truly collaborative around here. Sasaki is like that with the client as well. And that's what really helps to build relationships with clients, in doing a lifetime of business with clients. Yeah, I'm really big on Sasaki. And my frame of reference is so good, as I've worked with probably 20 different firms. Its night and day—it's unbelievable! You just have a lot of really smart people who don't walk around acting really smart, and it's honestly really refreshing. My mother and father both went to Penn State, and they absolutely love the arboretum there. That's one of the facilities that they support and give money to. They've known that it was a Sasaki design, so when I told them that I was joining Sasaki, that meant a lot to them. They were so proud of their daughter working at Sasaki.
Last question: what do you think of the television show, Parks and Recreation?
Barbara: I've watched it a few times. At first, I was not terribly excited about the concept of the show because people in this industry are many times unfairly represented. You know: "What do you do? You throw out basketballs for kids?" People don't understand all the complexities to it. But I've now watched the show, and I get a big kick out of it. I love Amy Poehler. And it helps spread the word about what the world of parks planning and administration is all about. People don't really understand much about city government. So, I think it really helps to lend exposure to how cities operate–sometimes functionally, and sometimes not. It's also great to see women represented in parks departments on the show. That's changed so much over the years. When I first moved to Illinois, I think there were three female directors in the state, and now there's over one hundred. It's really nice. It's exciting!
Cities with park systems designed by historic visionaries are endowed with a legacy of generous, well-connected open spaces. However, the financial pressures facing today's cities, along with new thinking...