The Green School Challenge

June 1, 2013, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

The Alpine Adventure Park design team makes their class presentation.The inaugural graduating class of NRPA’s newest professional development school, the Green School, tackled their final class project with energy and determination. Their challenge was to use the knowledge they had gained throughout this innovative two-year instructional program, apply it to an actual park project submitted by NRPA member agencies and create a conceptual design for a fully sustainable park.  

Compelled by more than just the pressures of shrinking budgets and demands for greater efficiency in park operations, park and recreation agencies are realizing that all their parks and facilities must become more sustainable simply as a matter of principle. Sustainably designed parks demonstrate conservation leadership, reduce tax burdens to citizens and improve quality of life for all.

Thus the Park Design Challenge was more than an intellectual and academic exercise for Green School students — it was equally a practical demonstration of how to put sustainable design principles into practice. And the students willingly embraced this challenge — they threw themselves into the exercise, and at the end of the week, they proved that principles of sustainability and conservation can be infused into any park design, no matter what the type of park or the location. The design teams produced five exceptional conceptual design plans for actual parks of NRPA member agencies, designs that are being shared with each of the submitting agencies.

The real-life park projects for the design challenge were solicited through a Request for Proposals (RFP) in summer 2012, according to a set of criteria for parks that were currently planned or which were slated for design in the near future. Eleven eligible projects were submitted by NRPA agencies and five were selected. Each agency provided extensive background information on their proposed parks, such as environmental assessments, geo-technical surveys and summaries of citizen engagement forums. 

The randomly chosen design teams were instructed to prepare their design plans for their park as if they were to be presented to their governing board, mayor or county council for approval. Projects were judged by a panel of faculty advisors on overall quality and comprehensiveness of design, application of Green School knowledge, incorporation of key principles and quality of oral presentations. Every member of each design team was required to have a specific role that was to be identified during the class presentation.

Alpine Adventure Park, Rockford, Illinois
The design team of Catherine Schrein, Linda Rosine, Mike Moore, Darryl Oden, Ann O’Toole and Jenny Doty had tongues planted firmly in cheeks when they introduced themselves as “Green School Designs, a nationally noted landscape architecture and design firm.” In a multimedia presentation, they proposed converting an old golf course at the park into the “Alpine Adventure Park,” an all-season recreational park that would offer snow skiing by utilizing the existing pond for snow-making in the winter and switching to grass-skiing in the summer. The team made a number of recommendations to make this park sustainable — porous paving in parking lots, rain gardens to capture stormwater runoff and creation of a nature play area utilizing natural materials gathered from the park. They even suggested a branding campaign: “This Park is an Adventure — Have a Blast.” The faculty advisors gave the project high marks, but suggested that their design plan would need to go back to the community for additional input since some of their ideas departed from the original community desires for more picnicking and fishing.

Channahon Community Park, Channahon, Illinois
The Community Park in Channahon, Illinois, involved an element unlike any other of the proposals — a 55-acre wetland mitigation bank built by a private developer that was to be taken over by the agency and incorporated into a larger 121-acre park. The design team of Julie Arvia, Christy Bright, Chris Fife, Bret Henniger, Chris Landis and Jonathan Seils proposed maintaining the overall natural character of the site by using the wetland bank as the core of a naturalized park that emphasized wildlife watching, trails for walking and biking, and natural resource enhancement.  

Among their sustainability recommendations were to remove 5,000 square feet of existing pavement, restore historic native plant life by creating a replica prairie area on former turfgrass and creating a historically correct (replica) “Indian Mound” containing a biowaste mound composting system. They noted how their plan addressed the “triple bottom line,” that is, the environmental, social and economic benefits of the project. The faculty advisors noted the excellent quality of this team’s oral presentation, but noted that though they mentioned trash cans at various locations, they did not mention recycling cans. The design team indignantly replied, “Of course they would be included — this is a sustainable park!”  

Fairwood Community Park East, Prince George’s County, Maryland
Fairwood Community Park is a facility of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The design team of Andy Phillips, Marlene Mears, Kay Frazier, Mike Calhoon, Mike Grandy and Caroline Bartolome took a novel approach to planning this park, unlike that of any other design team. They proposed a “Concept A” and “Concept B” plan to contrast a traditional design for a community park with an alternative design for a fully green, sustainable park.

The team noted that M-NCPPC wanted some intensive-use recreational facilities in this park, including lighted artificial soccer fields and an array of multisports fields for differing age use. In their alternative design, the team noted their desire to go beyond basics and design this park with “a sense of place.” They set a goal of balancing the recreation facilities with the need for an attractive park that was appealing to the entire community and which would be a place for healthy recreation. This concept incorporated a number of innovative sustainability features such as an unfenced stormwater management pond with wetlands, pervious paving, bioretention areas and no-mow areas planted with native plants. They noted that engineering for this park was critical due to the impact of runoff on the Chesapeake Bay. The design team stated that they could realize $500,000 in cost savings by incorporating sustainable design features. The faculty panel gave this plan high marks, and noted how much they liked the concept of creating a healthy park with “a sense of place.”

Sunset Bluff Park, Mason County, Washington
Mason County, Washington, offered an undeveloped treasure of a park site on Puget Sound for the design challenge. The team of Dan Erwin, Stephanie Neal, Ellen Bennett, Laura Rogers, Mike Trigg, Andy Dotterweich, Joe Brady and Tim Bragg noted in their presentation for “Sunset Bluff Park” that there was outstanding access to a natural beach and a spectacular view — you can see the Olympic Mountains on a clear day. Mindful of the extraordinary natural character of the site and the wishes of the surrounding community, the team proposed only minimal development for this park, intending to keep all public uses relatively passive. They noted the overriding theme of “Clean Water, Clean Puget Sound.” Their design plan called for picnicking sites, a stacked-loop trail system of increasingly accessible trails, sustainable shelters and restrooms, and a canoe/kayak access dock on the Sound. Their sustainability recommendations included bioretention areas, green infrastructure stormwater management improvements, pervious paving and, interestingly, creation of sustainability partnerships with local organizations and businesses including a local shellfish company, a local timber company and sustainable forestry organizations. The faculty panel’s critique included questions about liability for a proposed nature play area and ADA accessibility for a natural amphitheater, but also included praise for including outreach to local schools for environmental education partnerships and showing the cost/benefit relationship of restoration and sustainability initiatives.

Laurel Hill Park, Charleston County, South Carolina
Laurel Hill Park of the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, South Carolina, is a large 800-acre park that presented some unique design challenges to the team of David Chappell, Dolly Foster, Eric Goetz, Vonda Martin, Meredith Reynolds and Nathan Hill. This park features a historic mansion, an “oak lane” of majestic trees, historic gardens and a number of significant historic structures and sites. The design team quickly established priorities: First, to maintain all natural areas; second, to preserve history and culture; and third, to only add minimal infrastructure. The Park Commission has already set forth a number of allowable and prohibited activities for this park. For example, they wanted no bright lights, no commercial or industrial use, no pollution and no invasive species.

The “Palmetto Consulting Group” (another self-styled creative design team of national reputation) suggested that the best uses for the park would be to utilize the historic site for wedding rentals, develop a sustainable campground (with LEED-certified camp store, showers and restrooms), and enhance the trail system for walking and biking. Some of their sustainability recommendations included restoring wetlands onsite, installing composting toilets, adding bioretention areas, using dark-sky lighting and making campgrounds more sustainable by installing solar lighting and solar trash compacters, and by using repurposed shipping containers. Theirs was not an inexpensive design plan — total cost was estimated at $5 million — but they assumed that they could significantly reduce annual energy and operating costs with net-zero buildings and increased entrance fees. The faculty advisors noted that this plan had the best combination of achieving what the team set out to do, the best approach to addressing agency and community objectives, and the best metrics for success. Therefore, this design plan was the highest-rated plan of all the groups.

The Park Design Challenge proved to be a highly worthwhile exercise, one that generated many favorable comments from the students. NRPA would like to extend sincere congratulations to the first graduating class of the Green School for this outstanding demonstration of how to put sustainability and conservation knowledge into practice.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA's Vice President of Conservation and Parks (