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A look at how the City of Wichita (Kansas) Park and Recreation brought a habitat and preserve back to life
“I was reminded of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions in By the Shores of Silver Lake. I walked through the heart of the marsh at sunset and it was absolutely beautiful — the glow of the sky, the sun setting in the west against the backdrop of a darkening sky overhead. Hundreds and hundreds of waterfowl and birds were flying in to roost for the night and just kept passing between light and dark. It was a spectacular sight and such a striking experience for me,” says Kim Chapman, describing his first visit to Pracht Wetlands Park, a critically important habitat and preserve located in Northwest Wichita, Kansas.
The incomparably tranquil and stunning landscape is in stark contrast to the action popping up all around it: an intersection of busy roadways, tourists at the neighboring hotel and big-box store shoppers. In the midst of the bustling city, this sanctuary offers a respite for patrons to come immerse themselves in its natural beauty.
Colloquially known as “Cadillac Lake,” a 300-acre site of shallow ponds was once a waterfowl hotspot used by the salesmen of a local Cadillac dealership to take clients duck hunting. The Pracht family originally purchased the land in 1921 for its presence of abundant wildlife and constructed dikes to maintain water levels during dry seasons. But as the city spread from the urban core into suburbs, hunting on the property diminished due to sprawling developments. The pond was deepened in 1952 when soil was taken to elevate the construction of a nearby road. In 2014, a developer purchased the land from the Pracht family for major commercial expansion, including retail, restaurants and a hotel. Forty-one of those acres, which are contiguous with adjoining property acquired by the City of Wichita in 2009, were donated by the developer for the purpose of creating a public park to honor the family that owned the land for nearly 100 years. All this time, the wetlands had not been drained, removed nor developed. Years of using the site for stormwater management to protect nearby developments compromised the quality of the habitat, but also preserved the site for what would become a rare, one-of-a-kind urban wetland environment — Pracht Wetlands Park.
Midwestern farm belt states account for more than 36 million acres, or one-third, of wetlands lost since the country was first colonized. Sixty-thousand acres of wetlands are lost annually. This disappearance is one of the greatest environmental losses our nation faces today. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 50 percent of threatened or endangered animal species in the United States depend on wetlands for their survival. Habitat deterioration isn’t the only concern, however. In the already low-lying Arkansas River, water management at Pracht Wetlands is crucial for the ecological protection of the park and throughout the entire city. It prevents damage from flooding and acts as a natural filter for runoff contaminants before passing into the groundwater or Arkansas River. Water flows into the site from a watershed of more than 2,000 acres, providing habitat for more than 160 wildlife species, including 94 species of birds.
Outside efforts to transform the privately owned duck hunting venue and preserve the site for public use started with a task force of government agencies, landowners and private businesses during the early 1990s. With the near-certain fate of becoming either a housing development or stormwater detention basin, the task force created a comprehensive plan for the site as a recreational and educational resource for the community. Local environmentalists and enthusiasts rallied public support and began the search for funds to purchase the land. For years, this project lay in wait of the perfect circumstances.
Opportunity struck nearly 25 years later when Slawson Companies offered the property adjacent to their budding development. All of the groundwork established in the ’90s was set into action with no time to waste. With environmental stress already evident by the water quality, actions to reverse the adverse effects of development were necessary. In addition to the donation of the property, Slawson also hired Professional Engineering Consultants to develop a Section 404 permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act. The permit strictly regulates the construction and ongoing maintenance of the wetlands, as well as creates a restoration plan. Larry Hoetmer, principal planner for the City of Wichita, has been working on the project from the start: “Sometimes, opportunities land in your lap. The city was very fortunate in this way. The developer understood the value of the site and understood what an asset this would be for Wichita.” The 404 permit was just the first of many complexities that accompanies a project of this scale and sensitivity.
Designing and Developing the Site
The goals determined through master planning very closely mirrored those set by the original task force: to preserve the wetland environment and develop an educational site, accommodate future development in the area by improving stormwater retention, and mitigate the loss of future wetlands through a careful, deliberate development of the site. The implementation had only grown more complicated, however, by the activity that gradually encroached on the park. Careful organization and high levels of communication between all of the stakeholders ensured Pracht Wetlands’ successful creation.
A concerted effort by landscape architects and ecologists to make a high-quality wetland in an urban setting placed very high standards on the design and construction of the project. Cary Thomsen, a landscape architect with RDG Planning & Design, attributes the smooth process despite challenging technical aspects of the build to the Construction Manager at Risk approach adopted by the city. By coordinating the construction and design at the same time, the collaboration between contractors, the city and the designer proved very effective.
The site was constrained in space, impacting the types of wildlife attracted to the environment. The proposed elements of walking paths around and in the heart of the marsh had to be designed to screen the movement of people, which scares the animals. Bird blind structures, elevated walkways over the water and carefully planned flora immerse visitors in the sounds and sight of the habitat without disturbing the wildlife. Perhaps the most unique element is the use of helical piers for the construction of the boardwalk. Instead of a typical post-setting in a footing, screwing the piers deep into the ground was much easier to construct and caused less disturbance to the wildlife. The resulting galvanized steel boardwalk allows plants to thrive on the filtered sunlight passing through and visitors can observe the wildlife underfoot.
This type of urban planning can and needs to be the future of all planning and developments. As director of the Wichita Park and Recreation Department, Troy Houtman was responsible for balancing the vision of preservation with the potential of high-value development. He says, “Design of natural spaces can be implemented into active areas. We can preserve spaces for education purposes that people can also enjoy spending their time in.” This is an innovative and visually striking example, contradicting the false dichotomy that economic development and natural preservation are mutually exclusive options in urban planning.
Public Private Partnerships – Ecotourism
Edged on two sides with housing, and the others by hotel and box-store development, this unique habitat is surrounded on all sides. Working with the developer, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and all of the stakeholders for a wetland amenity does not often result in the same vision and goals, but Pracht Wetlands became such a success by everyone coming together to embrace a shared vision.
Kim Chapman of Applied Ecological Services served as the lead environmental scientist whose job it was to understand how the ecosystem functioned in order to improve the quality of the habitat and the water. From his first impressions of the site as a dramatically human-altered hunting environment and its return to a nature-rich playa lake system, he saw Pracht Wetlands as a unique project and envisioned the draw it would have to many people. “The biggest hope that we all shared was that we would create an inviting, exciting and beautiful urban wetland, which would instill in the visitors an appreciation for the value of a wetland ecosystem. They would come to connect the dots themselves: water management plus a good quality habitat equals lots of life. Whether people live right there or drive to come see it, they can always expect to see something interesting, something beautiful. If you can create a space like this, it counts as a real achievement and something you can be proud of,” Chapman says.
Pracht Wetlands Park now is accessible to all as one of a few remaining Midwestern wetland environments, one of the largest urban wetland parks in the United States and, perhaps, the only one that invites an immersive experience. Wichita will benefit from the addition of this ecotourism site by supporting continued conservation efforts, while drawing visitors from all over to observe and engage with the wildlife. Educating visitors about the importance of wetlands and their preservation is essential to maintaining a healthy environment, and healthy patrons, for the long run. This amenity has become especially critical during times of coronavirus restrictions as people look for ways to exercise in the outdoors while remaining physically distant and tending to their mental and physical health.
The reach of the project has gone beyond Wichita, winning awards at the state, regional and national levels. Pracht Wetlands has received a number of awards, including the Kansas Recreation and Park Association 2019 Innovative Program Award and the 2017 Great Plains American Society of Landscape Architects Award in Category II Design Unbuilt.
Preserving a Legacy
The site is unique, and despite all of the development that has sprung up in the vicinity, Pracht Wetlands Park remains a natural haven and tribute to generations of the Pracht family, government agencies, conservationists and even developers that preserved this gem for others to enjoy for many years to come. As wetlands across the country continue to disappear at an astonishing rate, it is now more important than ever that agencies and their community partners continue to preserve and create environmentally sensitive spaces.
Gentry Thiesen is Senior Management Analyst for the City of Wichita Park and Recreation (firstname.lastname@example.org).