Four urban parks that are doing it right

To design a great city park, you first need an architect. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say you need a true Renaissance person. Park designers must have a basic understanding of environmental science, horticulture, climatology, geology and sociology, among other disciplines. Parks are inherently open — to the elements, to the wilderness, to connecting urban infrastructure and to all manner of visitors.

An expertly designed park can transform a neighborhood or even an entire city, but it does so by engaging in dialogue with its surroundings. Stepping into a stunning park landscape is like a joining a stimulating conversation in which different points of view complement each other to provide a greater perspective.

Which urban parks are a part of the most interesting and innovative discussions with their cities? This list is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, but we hope it will give your own conversations about what makes for a great city park a jump-start.

Myriad Botanical Gardens, Oklahoma City
Located in the heart of downtown OKC and just a few blocks west of the popular Bricktown district, the Myriad Gardens stretch for 17 acres. From 6AM to 11PM every day, visitors are invited to stroll, winding shady paths surrounding a sunken lake. The grounds are also host to a number of sculptures, some figurative, others abstract, such as Hans Van de Bovenkamp’s iconic “Gateway.” But the most prominent landscape feature is the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory. This structure is both a thoroughfare that crosses the park’s central lake and a state-of-the-art greenhouse, where 750 varieties of tropical and desert plants — the 220-foot long bridge is divided into seasonal wet and dry zones — thrive year-round. The park also supports home gardening efforts through multiple educational outreach efforts, both for children and adults.

Washington Canal Park, Washington, D.C.
Canal Street in the nation’s capital marks the site of an actual canal that once linked the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. The canal has been covered in concrete since the early 1900s, but Canal Park is not only named but also designed to honor that historic waterway. The 3 acres on which Canal Park now sits were most recently used as parking lots. Now they host a linear rain garden (much like the one proposed for downtown Dallas’ new Harwood Park) that helps to filter storm runoff, irrigate the park grounds and feed the outdoor ice rink that’s in operation during the winter months. Also unique to Canal Park’s landscape are three multi-use pavilions, whose design keeps alive the memory of those barges that used to float up and down the canal in its heyday. Since opening in 2012, Canal Park has become one of the country’s most innovative public spaces and achieved both SITES and LEED Gold certifications for its sustainability.

Overton Park, Memphis
By far the oldest park on this list, this massive (342 acres all told) park is more properly an urban forest. Overton Park was planned and developed during the first decade of the last century by famed landscape architect George Kessler, whose 1911 master plan for Dallas eventually led to the creation of Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park. Now situated firmly within midtown Memphis, walking paths, some quite rugged, still crisscross the grounds. It’s hard to imagine that you’re still within city limits as you gaze up at the park’s magnificent old growth trees. Overton Park is also the site of a golf course and a huge lawn area — the Greensward — that supports all sorts of recreational activities. The Brooks Museum, Tennessee’s oldest such institution, is accessible from the Greensward, as are the Memphis College of Art, the Memphis Zoo and the Levitt Shell amphitheater, site of one of Elvis Presley’s earliest public performances. Overton Park is a true classic of park landscape design.

Millennium Park, Chicago
Millennium Park bills itself as a “new kind of town square.” Indeed, with its emphasis on art, culture and groundbreaking architectural features, Millennium Park has become a haven for contemporary Chicagoans. The park has been in service since 2004 and continues to be a leader in terms of integrating cutting-edge interactive art installations, such as Jaume Plensa’s video piece “Crown Fountain” (yes, it’s also a functioning fountain), and more traditional amenities such as the Lurie Public Gardens. The park is both bike and pedestrian friendly and feeds into and out of the Loop neighborhood on the shores of Lake Michigan by means of a Frank Gehry-designed BP Pedestrian Bridge. Gehry is also responsible for what is undoubtedly the highlight of the landscaping at Millennium Park, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. This lattice-roofed band shell hosts performers from all genres of music and can even be rented out for private events.

What landscape elements are most attractive you to you? What landscaping innovations are you looking forward to as Dallas plans for the future of its parks? Like DDPC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and help us keep this conversation going.