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   ARTICLE   |   From Scotsman Guide Commercial Edition   |   January 2005

City of Pleasanton’s Central Park

A Case Study in Sustainable Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning

 As urbanization continues to change the course and character of development occurring in the major city centers of California, traditional thinking about what types of parks and open space should be created is also changing.

An excellent case study is the so-called Bernal Property, a 516-acre parcel the City of Pleasanton, California, has designated for development. As envisioned by the city officials, the parcel would encompass a mixture of housing, public facilities and a 300-plus acre park that would provide a diversity of passive and active uses.

“The challenge . . . is to develop a design concept that addresses the role of urban parks in this new century, while meeting the community’s desire for this large, centrally located, unimproved property,” the city stated in its RFP asking for design proposals.

According to the city, the park would encompass a menagerie of uses, including sports fields, civic arts facilities, a wildlife refuge education center, child care center, youth/teen center, agriculture club, gardens, open space, trails and other public uses. “Planning for the site is to be environmentally and fiscally responsible,” the city said. “The preservation of open space and enhancement of this property is to be this generation’s gift to future generations.”

Forty miles north of San Jose, California, Pleasanton promotes itself as the “City of Progress” and a “Community that Cares.” Home to more than 5,460 businesses and industries employing over 50,000 people, the city’s population of nearly 68,000 people represents a diversity of ethnic groups and cultures. The city’s legacy is steeped in agriculture coupled with Native American and Hispanic heritage. Pleasanton's rural character was jealously maintained through the late 1950s while other cities in the Bay Area grew rapidly, often routinely bulldozing blocks of historic buildings in the name of "progress."

Because of its location at the intersection of I-580/I-680, progress found Pleasanton with a vengeance. By the mid 80s, the city became a magnet for retail/commercial developers and the third fastest growing city in California. Nevertheless, with its heart in the past and its eye on the future, Pleasanton has managed to preserve its "turn-of-the-century" flavor while promoting the growth and progress necessary for the economic health of its citizens. As the city moves through the 2000s, it promotes itself as a welcoming family town that continues to emerge as a major employment center with many corporations relocating their headquarters there.

Within this milieu of urbanization and community consciousness, the City of Pleasanton plans to develop a state-of-the-art park that offers many active and passive uses while incorporating the latest thinking and planning techniques that could serve as a prototype for urban parks throughout the U.S. The city defines it as a “jewel” that will “serve as a focal point, a town gathering place and a family place for all ages.”

From our perspective—as a landscape architecture and planning firm that lists parks among our chosen specialties—we approached the design as an opportunity to take urban park planning to a new level of environmental sensitivity while meeting all the conservation, recreation and open space needs defined by the city and its residents. Although our firm was ultimately not selected to design the park (we came in second after an extensive selection process consisting of a design jury, public input and finally city approval), we believe the lessons we learned and the new concepts we developed are worth sharing with our industry colleagues and other planning and government officials.

Our goal was to create a dynamic park that would embrace the area’s rich rural and cultural legacies while meeting the city’s desire to develop a viable public facility with the flexibility to “allow future generations to utilize the City-owned lands consistent with their needs” in a sensitive and permanent manner.  From the outset, we established eight primary planning objectives that served as the foundation for Central Park. These were:

  • Sustainability
  • Balance
  • Variety
  • Integration
  • Flexibility
  • Economic viability
  • Practicality
  • Fun

We considered each objective an important step towards realizing the city’s vision, but the primary one in our mind, considering the park’s urban nature and the increasing need to conserve our diminishing resources, was sustainability. We define sustainability as “meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.”

Our vision was to combine beauty and sustainability to create an urban park of which any community would be proud—a public place that would serve as an interactive classroom and laboratory focused on sustainability and resource management/conservation. In our plans, each component of Central Park incorporates sustainable elements to optimize use of non-renewable resources while minimizing economic impacts. To wit:

  • Most of the vegetation would be native or drought-resistant and thus require the least possible watering and maintenance.
  • The sports fields and other areas would be irrigated with recycled water with irrigation systems managed by evapotranspiration (ET) controllers. Field lighting would be solar powered.
  • The youth teen center would be equipped with furniture made from recycled materials and would be served by “recycling” trash bins.
  • A meadow area and other areas designed for more passive use would be irrigated with recycled water, and an existing perimeter bioswale would be maintained and expanded. Park benches and other furniture would be made of recycled materials.
  • At the park’s agriculture club, irrigation would come from captured rainwater as well as recycled water.

In many ways, the entire Central Park would be a model of sustainability, incorporating the latest LEED guidelines and components that would provide a lifelong learning experience for visitors of all ages. (LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings.)

To comply with the city’s requirement to develop a visually and functionally cohesive park in phases over several years, the plan included several featured areas from the Sports Complex to the Civics Art Facility to the Farm and Deer Meadow that addressed the many recreation, civic and other needs underscored by the city fathers and stakeholders. Each area could be developed independently; in its own special way, each showcased and underscored the essence of sustainability and wise use of our valuable natural resources.

The Earth Institute would be an environmental education center, encompassing seasonal wetlands, Spring Valley Reservoir, which would be traversed by a Resource Stewardship Trail. Included in the Institute would be a Kids Kamp daycare center housed in a “green building,” as well as Kritter Kamp wildlife refuge, a natural amphitheater and various gardens featuring native plants.

Butterfly Walk would be a habitat for endangered species of butterflies endemic to the Bay Area. Intended as a place for strolling and quiet reflection, this part of the park would consist of a sequence of outdoor rooms featuring native plants available from local nurseries to give those businesses a boost. Components would also include a Children’s Storyteller Garden, a Central Interpretive Plaza and a Sculpture Garden to exhibit the works of local artists. Additionally, there would be benches and picnic tables along Butterfly Walk for individual or group use.

Deer Meadow would be a place of quiet reflection, bringing people closer to the wonders of nature through a series of outdoor “rooms” and wildlife habitat forage areas of meadows and a ravine and arroyo. A meandering Environmental Interpretive Trail would take visitors by native trees, compositions of native grasses, interpretive platforms and observation platforms.

The Farm would be the agricultural club where children and adults alike could witness farming methods past, present and future, as well as visit a year-round farm animal zoo. There would be demonstration areas and indoor and outdoor classrooms where visitors could learn about herbology and home gardening techniques. This area would include a stand of edible orchards, hop vine trellis, hydrophonic greenhouse, community garden plots, a compost pile, and even a farm-products deli and outdoor patio café.

Respecting the area’s Native American legacy, the Ohlone Ghost Dance of Caburans and Pelans would be a place honoring the memory of the Ohlone Indians who populated the area some 4,000 years ago. An earth mound covered with rings of berry and grape vines would celebrate the Ohlone culture; mosaics would symbolize the tribe’s “granaries;” and a seed meadow would include mustard, sage, chia, evening primrose and clarkia. Paving configurations would reflect the weave patterns of colorful baskets, and sculptures would represent the Ohlone people who lived in the area well before the arrival of the Spaniards. Rings of native bunch grasses, tules and marsh/swamp plantings would harken back to the plants used by the Ohlones to build their homes, sweathouses, baskets and canoes. The area would be traversed by an ecological trail and rock walls that would symbolize the unique labyrinth of water channels used by the Ohlones for irrigation.

All areas of Central Park would serve as a testament to stewardship of water resources through storm water retention, intelligent water management and planning for the future. Along with educating visitors on the importance of water conservation, the park would be a laboratory of water management techniques.

A reservoir on the park grounds that serves as an extension of the seasonal wetlands would be used to irrigate the sports fields and other grassy areas, and the park would also utilize recycled water and captured rainwater. Management of the parkland would emphasize such other activities as flood protection, recharging of water into local aquifers, improving quality of water runoff, efficient use of storm water runoff, and overall habitat improvements to reduce water usage and runoff.

An integral part of our plan concept was economic viability, a key factor for any local government in today’s world. To support the park, we envisioned revenues coming from such diverse sources as concessionaires and restaurants, land leases, class registration fees, concerts, alliances with commercial sponsors, and even filming of movies. No revenue-generating stone was left unturned.

Ultimately, a successful design for any public park must be flexible and economically viable. From our perspective, design is about the process that gives birth to new ideas and the evolution that brings those ideas to reality. In our process to create Central Park, we viewed the site as a tapestry of ideas, compositions and opportunities that together would set in motion a planning and development evolution aimed at balancing environmental protection and quality of life with economic progress and population growth.

Build it right, build it smart, build it sustainable, and they will come.


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