Restoring Nature's Playground

July 23, 2020, Feature, by Patti G. Sterling and Akosua Cook, AICP

2020 August Feature American Water 410

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Two park projects highlight the importance of offering water play and nature-based amenities to communities

As stewards of our open spaces, park and recreation professionals know parks are essential for families and youth to make a connection to nature, enjoy the natural world and learn to be future stewards of our environment. With that, we are responsible for providing spaces that are welcoming and accessible to all and offer educational value to our community members. This doesn’t just happen overnight; these spaces are thoughtfully planned with the community in mind.

That is at the heart of what park and recreation professionals do every day. And, it’s also what drives the Building Better Communities grant program, the signature grant program of the American Water Charitable Foundation — the charitable arm of American Water — that is administered by NRPA. American Water has long believed in the importance of being a good neighbor and good steward of the environment. Its customers are at the center of everything the company does and every decision it makes. The grant program brings water play and nature-based amenities to communities across the country, while also ensuring the creation of a next generation of environmental stewards through play and educational opportunities. Through this program, two grantees were able to transform parks to create unique educational play experiences for their communities to connect with water and the natural world while learning how to be better stewards of our natural resources.

Town of Bel Air, Maryland: Chesapeake Sensory Plaza
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is home to more than 18 million people, and the Bay itself — which stretches nearly 200 miles long — is the very heart and soul of the state of Maryland. In 2019, the town of Bel Air used the Chesapeake Bay as inspiration to create a unique water-based playground that connects families to this vital natural resource through interactive play and thoughtful design. The project was made possible through a $150,000 Building Better Communities grant and is a testament to Maryland American Water’s dedication to the communities it serves.

Chesapeake Sensory Plaza transformed an empty stretch of lawn at Rockfield Park, a 53-acre regional park managed by the town of Bel Air, into a sensory play experience that provides hands-on water play to teach children about the watershed ecosystem and build an appreciation for the environment. The plaza features a 60-foot-long channel that follows the natural topography of the site. To start the flow of water, visitors manually operate hand pumps or switches that empty into channels. The channels carry the water through the play area where it encounters a variety of features, including water wheels, lock gates, flaps and dams, which allow participants to manipulate its passage and explore the characteristics of water and flow. Design elements, including educational and interactive panels, provide information and fun facts about the Chesapeake Bay watershed and conservation practices. The pathways to the site are illustrated as if you are viewing the watershed area from 30,000 feet above and picture forests and farmlands, as well as urban and suburban areas. Natural elements and landscaping frame the project for additional context. The overall design for the project was created by the town’s director of planning, Kevin Small, who has a degree in landscape architecture and served as the project manager.

This design supports the growing body of research that shows the more children interact with nature, the more likely they are to appreciate and protect the environment around them. A 2017 study by the University of British Columbia showed that 87 percent of individuals who played outside as children expressed a continued love of nature as adults. Of that group, 84 percent said that taking care of the environment was a priority in their life. “We tapped into this research to provide environmental education along with nature-based play,” notes Small. “The result is a rich sensory experience for children and their families to explore and learn in the great outdoors.”

Chesapeake Sensory Plaza seeks to foster an emotional bond with nature and shape pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors that positively influence the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Specific learning outcomes include:

  • Introduce and understand the Chesapeake Bay Watershed area 
  • Explore and experience water flow 
  • Gain a greater appreciation for the natural environment 
  • Encourage conservation behaviors 

The creation of Chesapeake Sensory Plaza is consistent with the town’s role as a Sustainable Maryland Certified Municipality, ensuring that environmental, economic and social objectives are balanced and mutually supported. With this in mind, the plaza was designed to highlight the importance of the watershed while remaining sensitive to water conservation goals. For example, the design team opted for manual pumps to start the flow of water instead of installing a continuously running system in an effort to eliminate unnecessary waste.

Chesapeake Sensory Plaza is an exciting new addition that expands the overall play experience at Rockfield Park, a popular destination that features a community-built creative playground, walking trails, horticultural gardens and athletic fields. The new sensory plaza complements these existing elements and introduces tactile play that encourages creativity and exploration of the environment. “Chesapeake Sensory Plaza helps people understand [that] the health of the Chesapeake Bay is everyone’s responsibility,” says Small. “It’s a natural place to teach children and their families about the Chesapeake Bay watershed and encourage conservation behaviors for today and future generations.”

Chattanooga, Tennessee: East Lake Park
East Lake Park is Chattanooga’s first and oldest park, dating back to the 1800s, and has a rich cultural heritage. During its 124-year history, the park has added many amenities, such as a zoo, an urban fishing hole, a home for swans and ducks, and a gathering spot for the neighborhood’s residents. The park is 18.5 acres, and at its center is a 1.75-acre pond. The pond is spring fed and much of the park is covered in trees. Due to wear and tear and a lack of consistent maintenance or infrastructure improvements, ecological enhancements were needed to put the luster back into this historic gem. With community input as a key and a driving factor, the goal of this project was to improve conditions for the pond and surrounding waterways, as well as to enhance key park features, including better access and amenities.

From initial conversations with the community in 2016, the city planned to replace an old playground. Tennessee American Water has been part of the Chattanooga community since the 1800s and through the support of a $150,000 grant provided by the Building Better Communities grant program, city staff were able to include a new play space from natural materials that would better celebrate the ecological restoration of the park. However, Chattanooga had very few examples of natural playgrounds to reference. The city sought proposals from qualified firms to design and furnish a custom-built play structure. After an extensive selection process, the city selected CORE Associates — which ended up being the perfect firm to execute this project. Inspired by the old springbox at the park, CORE created a new playground, called “The Spring,” which honors the surrounding landscape by leveraging the natural spring that runs through the park and feeds the lake. The playground is broken down into six main components: The Gateway, a collaborative community art piece; The Ridge, a central climbing structure; the Oxley trail, a discovery trail that pays homage to the zoo that used to be at the park; Conservation Creek, a rainwater collecting creek bed; and the Stematory, a STEM-inspired outdoor classroom. Along with the play space, access to the pond was enhanced to ensure the community could engage directly with the park’s water resources.

Other key aspects of the park restoration included water-quality improvements, including restoration of the lake, daylighting of the spring, additional green infrastructure to improve overall water quality and a new boardwalk around the lake for the community to enjoy. Leveraging these improvements with a nature-based play area and outdoor classroom showcased the importance of the ecological balance of the park and ensured community members can become future environmental stewards.

What started as a water-quality project to improve the pond in 2016 transitioned into an overall park restoration. Now four years later, Chattanooga’s oldest park has a little something for everyone to enjoy. “This is where people come to celebrate and to have fun; to mourn; to see each other; to spread some love to each other; to talk about the things they may disagree on. This is the public square,” says Mayor Andy Berke.

Local educator Joyce Lancaster says she can now fully enjoy the great outdoors in her own backyard. “Our families have always enjoyed the park and now they’ve done a wonderful renovation here. It’s beautiful. My children are excited….It’s just a beautiful asset to the community.”

While the city and the community are all very happy with the end result, some important lessons were learned along the way. Park staff faced skepticism from the community and scrutiny from leadership but had a vision for this space — they just had to bring those with doubts along. And, community engagement is an important aspect of the work, which meant ensuring community members were engaged throughout the process. City staff hosted a community project day where the designers and the city invited residents to spend a Saturday morning creating brick molds for the entryway to the playground. This provided the opportunity to bring more people into the process, and gave the community the opportunity to have a lasting piece of the playground they could call their own.

Since the park reopened on February 29, 2020, the community has fully embraced the park and playground. The adjacent elementary school has taken the initiative to create a curriculum that activates the outdoor classroom and playground and residents from across the city travel to enjoy this unique space.

The American Water Charitable Foundation’s Building Better Communities grant program helps families not only enjoy the wonders of water and the natural world, but also learn how every drop counts in ensuring stewards of our natural resources. Both of these projects took different approaches to connect their communities to nature and local water resources, which prove that through thoughtful planning and community engagement, unique spaces can be created that highlight key environmental opportunities that can help inspire the next generation of stewards.

Note: Check out this Open Space Radio podcast with Patti Sterling from the Town of Bel Air, Maryland, Akosua Cook from the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Carrie Williams from American Water Charitable Foundation to hear more about these projects.

Patti G. Sterling is Grants Coordinator for Town of Bel Air, Maryland. Akosua Cook, AICP, is Parks Planner for the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee.