Dynamic Park Design

By Gracie Swansburg

Striving for a climate-resilient future: coastal or otherwise

Hemmed in by increasing development needs combined with outdated or ill-equipped infrastructure, today’s cities are struggling to manage the impacts of warming temperatures, sea level rise, and more frequent and severe storms due to climate change that play an increasing role in our daily lived experience. Climate-resilient design represents a dynamic path forward. According to Rethinking the Future, an organization that promotes excellence in architecture on a global scale, climate-resilient design “ought to be an integral part of the planning process in the context of the project’s function, purpose, asset type, and site location.” Within the public realm, we can use parks to address these challenges uniquely on a broad and equitable scale; they are accessible to all and already weave through our dense urban environments.

Whether they are programmed for active or passive use, public parks provide the space and flexibility necessary to slow and hold floodwaters, address the urban heat island effect, and engage the community in an open dialogue about the solidarity needed amongst all stakeholders. The best part of using parks to help solve our climate crisis is that there is no singular solution. Our parks and communities can remain as distinct and context-specific as the natural systems they exist within.

To help us see the types of possible solutions, we can explore recent improvements at two parks in the Greater Boston area and discuss lessons learned across each unique urban environment.

Langone Park and Puopolo Playground

First, we’ll head to the waterfront and delve into the design at Langone Park and Puopolo Playground in Boston’s historic North End. Langone Park stands as one of the oldest parks in Boston. Most notably, two acres of today’s 4.5-acre park were the site of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 that killed 21 people and injured 150 when 2.3 million gallons of molasses flooded the area after a nearby storage tank ruptured.

Nearly 100 years after this disaster, in March 2018, another type of flooding occurred at Langone Park. A powerful nor’easter caused high-tide waters to breach the park’s seawalls, inundating more than one-third of the park and many of Boston’s downtown districts. The storm caused the third-highest tide recorded in city history, with a crest of close to four feet above the shallowest park elevations. This major storm event, combined with a similar storm that occurred only two months prior, pushed climate resilience to the forefront of the city’s plans. Overnight, a simple neighborhood park redesign project became Boston’s first-ever climate-resilient design effort.

The project team quickly pivoted. A collaborative group of city staff, design and engineering consultants, and climate researchers examined the impact of sea level rise and storm surge within the park and at abutting properties. They evaluated the potential impacts at the time of design, 2018, as well as 30 and 70 years into the future. The team evaluated a range of solutions for their capacity to serve the community’s needs, adapt over time and address the challenges of climate change.

In parallel with the research-design effort, the project team reached out to North End community members at public meetings where open, honest and inclusive engagement methods allowed residents to share their visions for this beloved neighborhood park. In addition, these meetings were an opportunity for community members to learn more about the real threats and impacts of climate change on their neighborhood.

These robust collaboration and consensus-building efforts resulted in a park that reflects an innovative combination of climate mitigation and coastal protection strategies with high-design value. The design, for example, raised important park amenities to six feet above previous site elevations, protecting these key spaces from predicted sea level rise and flood elevations and ensuring local programming can continue despite fluctuating conditions.

Similarly, a secondary seawall protects the park’s upper-level amenities from damaging storm surges and flood inundation. Subtly integrated into the landscape, this seawall functions as seating, planting bed edges, a playground enclosure and a boundary that separates recreational activities. Additionally, Boston’s famed Harborwalk passes through Langone Park, connecting the North End with the neighborhood of Charlestown in one direction and the Seaport and South Boston in the other.

An aerial of Langone Park showing the boardwalk along the water and baseball field with Boston in the background.

Langone Park and Puopolo Playground represent an active recreational lifeline for one of Boston’s most densely populated neighborhoods.

Incorporated within the fabric of the park space as a boardwalk at the water’s edge, the Harborwalk is cantilevered above the harbor and the old seawall. The boardwalk element, however, is independent from the rest of the elevated park spaces and can be adapted incrementally as seas continue to rise. This designed adaptation can continue to provide a seamless connection to offsite and abutting properties and will not impact the seawall.

With its expansive water views and inviting sunsets, the Langone Park portion of the Harborwalk affords all users access to the water. So often missing in urban, coastal communities, this public right-of-way ensures walkability, connectivity and social links to the harbor are maintained for the community and visitors alike. Taken together, the improvements implemented at Langone Park and Puopolo Playground pioneered how climate-resilient features could be integrated into a multifunctional, thoughtful and cohesive design.

Langone Park and Puopolo Playground represent an active recreational lifeline for one of Boston’s most densely populated neighborhoods. With no other such assets nearby, this park space offers critical and equitable recreation opportunities to a diverse and multigenerational local population in addition to visitors from across the globe. Amenities include a universal access playground, bocce and basketball courts, a Little League field and multisport turf field, a variety of seating options, the Harborwalk with the pier and interpretative signage, and a memorial garden.

Given the critical role the park and playground play in serving the wider community, the project team worked diligently to complete the improvements in a timely manner. However, construction efforts continued to reveal the site’s diverse history as excavation efforts uncovered old building foundations, buried granite blocks and large swaths of urban fill. Each discovery led to distinct challenges and opportunities. The team reclaimed 273 granite blocks from the excavated materials, which they integrated into the site design as artful walls and seating elements that serendipitously honor the past. In addition, the geotechnically poor soils necessitated adjustments to the proposed design and extensive collaboration with the permitting agencies to achieve the city’s climate-resiliency goals. These unexpected realities were not insurmountable, but they did extend the project’s schedule. Going forward, the project team recommends that future resiliency projects account for additional time and services to address the range of complexities that can accompany novel design approaches.

Lincoln Park

Located inland and just beyond Boston’s city limits is Lincoln Park in the City of Somerville. Parks are scarce in Somerville; in fact, the city’s 2016-2023 Open Space and Recreation Plan notes that just 6 percent of Somerville’s 4.1 square miles is designated as open space. When the city first allocated funds to upgrade Lincoln Park and an adjoining schoolyard, the park’s neighbors, school community and city residents offered their input to ensure the park would serve a cross-section of people and meet their diverse needs. Using this feedback, the project team developed improvements to Lincoln Park that addressed programmatic requirements, as well as the dramatic increase in climate-related stormwater events onsite and in nearby Union Square. With land in limited supply, resiliency planning became a critical component of the design mission.

Lincoln Park’s softball and soccer fields, for example, serve dual purposes. Prior to park improvements, small, localized collection systems managed onsite stormwater but were historically inadequate and resulted in frequent flooding during large storm events. Now, in addition to supporting school and citywide sports programming and other more passive recreation needs, a system of subsurface stormwater chambers underneath the fields maximizes the amount of stored stormwater the park can support. The new system directs onsite and offsite rainwater into drains and gardens networked to underground cisterns for infiltration. The system also includes excess storage capacity for future connections from additional neighborhood streets.

A child riding a bike past a runner on a sidewalk at a park.

Now with new park amenities, improved layout and circulation, and an intricate stormwater system in place, Lincoln Park has become a civic hub teeming with opportunities for recreation and hands-on learning.

Low-flow outlets provide extended stormwater detention for a 25-year storm event (or 1.2 million gallons) without surcharging the system, while a high-flow outlet ensures larger storms can bypass it without surcharging. Anecdotally, the city engineer noted that local abutting residents are reporting less flooding in their basements since the project was completed. The design process at Lincoln Park provided opportunities to pursue an innovative stormwater management approach that solves issues larger than the park, representing a clear example of the ability of public parks to lead urban adaptation.

Most critical to the success of this project, however, was the project team’s ability to respond to new environmental conditions during construction. Before improvements began, the project team conducted groundwater monitoring onsite to determine groundwater elevations that would shape the proposed stormwater system. Unfortunately, this monitoring took place in the fall during an unusually dry season, and groundwater levels were higher when construction began the following spring, requiring design adjustments to ensure all improvements sat above the high-groundwater elevations. Going forward, the project team recommends monitoring groundwater levels earlier in the year when possible to identify anomalies before finalizing subsurface stormwater elevations.

For too long, innovative system designs have been hidden from the public in the name of aesthetics, obscuring the direct role that urban planning, landscape design and community use play in a landscape’s functionality. Considering the potential to reach children through thoughtful design, the team incorporated stormwater and watershed education into the park plans.

Now with new park amenities, improved layout and circulation, and an intricate stormwater system in place, Lincoln Park has become a civic hub teeming with opportunities for recreation and hands-on learning. The park’s educational mission continues to enlighten youth about their environment with the hope that this awareness will inform their future endeavors — and ours.

Today, the need for multifunctional landscapes is more urgent than ever, and the thoughtful, groundbreaking solutions deployed at Lincoln Park and Langone Park and Puopolo Playground prove that we are up to the task.

Gracie Swansburg is a Landscape Designer II at Weston & Sampson (swansburg.gracie@wseinc.com).

Published in Parks & Recreation, April 2024.

Posted in News, Publications and tagged , , .