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The jewel of Alabama's state park system, ravaged by hurricanes and oil spills, bounces back as a model of green building and economic sustainability

Gulf State Park Master Plan and Implementation

The University of Alabama
Coastal Alabama
6,150 acres
Matthew Arielly
Landscape Architecture Foundation
Landscape Performance Series Case Study Brief
SITES Platinum
Landscape Architecture
Planning and Urban Design
Additional Services
Civil Engineering
Community Engagement
Completed 2016
The Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), Distinguished Phoenix Award
American Planning Association, Silver Achievement Award for Implementation
Boston Society of Landscape Architects, Merit Award – Analysis & Planning

Funded through recovery dollars from the oil spill, the Gulf State Park Master Plan provides a roadmap for the 6,150 acre coastal state park that goes beyond recovery—taking advantage of oil spill recovery funding to enhance the future resilience of the park. Now, 10 years after the oil spill, the implementation of the master plan has positioned Alabama as an international sustainable tourism destination by bridging economic and environmental sustainability.

Alabama’s Gulf Coast was hit hard by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and the B.P. Oil Spill in 2010. As tourism numbers fell sharply during the oil spill, the community grasped an important lesson: the health of their economy depended on the health of their environment. This realization became the foundation of the Gulf State Park enhancement project.

From the start, this project was about going beyond rebuilding to create a new legacy for the state—expanding access to Alabama’s beautiful coastal ecosystems and outdoor recreation. The Gulf State Park project vision statement set an aspirational goal to have the project become “an international benchmark for economic and environmental sustainability demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations.” 

At 6,150 acres with seven different ecosystems, Gulf State Park is the largest protected open space on the Gulf of Mexico with such environmental diversity. A one-of-a-kind environmental resource, Gulf State Park and the local white-sand beaches are also a critical economic asset—the heart of the region’s tourism-fed economy. In 2014, this single park accounted for 23% of the total annual visitor revenue in the Alabama State Park System.

Project Impact

Implementation of Phase 1, totaling $140.5M, is now complete including:

  • 50 acres of dune restoration, home to the endangered Alabama beach mouse
  • 350-room Lodge at Gulf State Park with 40,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space
  • Interpretive Center seeking Living Building Challenge full certification
  • 15 miles of new park trails and new wayfinding and interpretive signage
  • 2 pedestrian bridges over a major state road, connecting the park’s beachfront with inland park destinations
  • Conversion of 1 mile of State Park Road 2 into Gopher Tortoise Trail, providing a much-needed safe bicycling/pedestrian connection between existing park trailheads
  • Learning Campus for K-12 students and researchers set in the park’s northern woods including a student bunkhouse, classrooms and labs, an auditorium, and a public restaurant 

These elements carefully balance new development in the park with its sensitive environmental ecosystems. The need to protect from “overdevelopment” was one of the top themes from thousands of park visitors who participated in the project’s diverse engagement opportunities. An online survey collected feedback from more than 2,600 residents, including responses from all 67 counties in Alabama and from 34 states.

A New Legacy & Nationally Significant “Firsts” for Alabama

The Gulf State Park story is writing a new narrative about Alabama. The recent park investments have positioned Alabama as a leader in the national environmental sustainability conversation. When the Interpretive Center opened in May 2018, it became the first building to open in the southern U.S. on track for full certification under the Living Building Challenge (only 21 buildings across the globe currently meet this standard). Just up the beach, the Lodge is the first hospitality building in the world to achieve SITES Platinum certification. The Lodge and Interpretive Center are also the first commercial buildings in the world to receive designations as FORTIFIED structures, which measures a building’s ability to withstand hurricanes.

Both projects built on an extensive dune restoration program which implemented innovative natural strategies across 50 acres to grow an ecologically healthy, dynamic, and protective dune system for the park and community.

Economic Growth by Focusing on Environmental Sustainability

A common misconception is that too much focus on the environment will hamper economic growth. The Gulf State Park Master Plan and its implementation is debunking this myth by demonstrating how a healthy environment can expand a local economy. The master plan’s “environment-first economic development” strategy has enhanced the park as an international sustainable tourism destination, opening up the local tourism economy to a new market sector. By purposely blending environmental sustainability with economic objectives, the park is pioneering an integrated model of resilience where environmental sustainability is also a path for economic success. 

The Gulf State Park Master Plan and its implementation are demonstrating the power of park improvements to create positive change for a park, region, and state—and to reconnect people to nature, one new memory at a time.

Sasaki led the master plan including the engagement process, designed the new park branding, and completed landscape design for the Lodge, Interpretive Center, and Learning Campus. Sasaki was also engaged for on-call planning support through implementation to advise as issues arose and to support with implementation progress. The results of the project show how an interdisciplinary approach to the project support faster, more integrated implementation. Sasaki’s team included planners, landscape architects, civil engineering, graphic designers, and computer programmers and data analysts (who developed SmartPark 1.0, a park revenue tool, for this project).

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