Between 1880 and the early 1950s, the 168-acre Bonnet Springs Park site was home to the Lakeland Railyard, which served as a major hub for the movement of freight up and down the east coast. In 1952 the railyard closed, leaving the land in an abandoned state and Lake Bonnet all but forgotten.
Then in 2015, recognizing that metro Lakeland is one of the fastest growing regions in the country, and building upon the city’s strong tradition of parks and natural areas, a group of Lakeland enthusiasts proposed the creation of Bonnet Springs Park—a central park for Lakeland.
In 2017 the Bonnet Springs Park board hired Sasaki to create a master plan for the park. Sasaki took input from the public during a six-month outreach period and incorporated ideas and desires into an approved design and park mission: to become an ecological jewel, a cultural magnet, and connected community asset.
Sasaki’s park design includes heritage gardens, a canopy walk, boating activities, sculpture gardens, playgrounds, and an event lawn. New walking and biking paths connect major park spaces with new buildings designed by Sasaki: Welcome Center, Nature Center, Event Center, and Children’s Museum and Cafe.
An Ecological Jewel
Decades of industrial use and outdated stormwater management practices have left portions of the site in a degraded condition. Sasaki’s interdisciplinary team, along with a group of local consultants, have developed strategies for restoring natural systems and remediating harmful contaminants on the site. These include the removal of invasive exotic plants, constructing wetlands and bioswales to treat runoff, and capping contaminated soil in large hills that double as overlooks for the park.
In other parts of the site, mature live oak trees and meandering waterways will be protected and enhanced. A Nature Center is planned at the nexus of these environments overlooking Lake Bonnet where park visitors will have the opportunity to learn about the ecology of central Florida. The Nature Center will feature classroom and exhibition space as well as a café and boat rental facility.
A Cultural Magnet
The park’s downtown location creates a prime opportunity to build upon Lakeland’s tradition of hosting renowned cultural and educational institutions and furthering the city’s commitment to supporting the arts. Interpretive exhibits at the proposed Welcome Center will highlight the region’s agricultural, industrial and cultural history, and outdoor spaces will feature an extensive botanic garden as well as the integration of fixed and ephemeral works of art throughout the park. Most notably, the Explorations V Children’s Museum will be relocating into an expanded facility at the heart of Bonnet Springs Park and will participate in the development of educational and cultural programming for the entire park.
A Connected Community Asset
Bonnet Springs Park will welcome visitors of all ages and backgrounds from throughout the city and connect neighborhoods currently divided by transportation infrastructure and a gap in the urban fabric. New walking and bike paths, welcoming entrances, and the integration of transit will allow the park to be easily accessible from near and far. The park will also serve as a place to connect people socially with gathering facilities such as a large banquet hall at the Event Center, a full-service restaurant at the Welcome Center, and a large central event lawn for concerts and festivals. Smaller gathering spaces such as a tree house, tea house and nature playground will help bring people closer to the daily magic of the park. The range of activities planned for the park will support physical and social equity for all park visitors in an effort to reinforce shared experiences and forge new connections within this growing and changing community.
The park opened to the public in October 2022 with a grand celebration. The opening marked the culmination of a fruitful partnership between Bonnet Springs Park’s visionary leadership and the design team, which brought the park from conception to completion over the course of five years.