Achieving universal accessibility at Crystal Lake's shoreline park
By Cassie Bethoney
One of only a few public parks along the shores of Crystal Lake, Louise Levingston Cove is a linear, half-acre public park located in a residential neighborhood. Crystal Lake, and Levingston Cove in particular, is a place of nostalgia, where people learned to fish as kids, launched kayaks, or simply enjoyed some alone time, taking in spectacular views.
During the peak summer months, people are making use of the lawn, benches, a fishing wall, and ample shade. However, the park’s long and narrow geographic footprint, steep shoreline, beautiful but heavy shade, and poorly managed circulation have resulted in considerable damage to the physical landscape over the years. These challenges, though, became assets with a redesign centered on universal accessibility, developed in close partnership with the local community, the Newton Parks, Recreation, and Culture Department, and Weston & Sampson’s Design Studio. Now in construction by SumCo Eco-Contracting, upcoming changes include the following:
Fully ADA-compliant pathways
Stabilized steep slopes
Invasive plants replaced with new native plantings
High-use lawn areas armored with reinforced turf
Improved lake-water quality with on-site, stormwater, best-management practices.
These improvements will restore the park to a beautiful native shoreline habitat, and provide protected, functional greenspace for those who love and use this space year-round.
Cantilevered Deck And The North Side
Central to the park’s new universal accessibility will be a two-level, cantilevered-deck system that extends over the edge of Crystal Lake, a designated “Great Pond” under Chapter 91, the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act. The deck is located along the main pathway through the park, which uniquely serves as a sidewalk connection along Lake Avenue.
Through a public-input process, a design emerged that consists of four elements:
An upper level that allows people not using the lower level to pass by unencumbered
A lower level, closest to the lake, to serve as a gathering and fishing platform
Accessible, sloped walkways that connect the main pathway and upper level to the lower level
Each level to be backed with retaining seat walls that reduce the steep slopes and provide seating opportunities.
The cantilevered deck’s location and design will offer many benefits:
Adding much-needed, passive recreation space to the park’s small footprint. Through many discussions with invested stakeholders, the community, Newton’s Conservation Commission, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the design team settled on 513 square feet of elevated deck that will cantilever over the water. A balance was struck between the programmatic use of the deck as a fishing spot and shading impacts to wildlife below the deck. The deck will be cantilevered, so no piers or other structural elements will impact the lake’s shallow bottom.
Creating a safe separation of programmatic uses. Previously, the walking path through the park doubled as a fishing wall in this area, causing conflicts between passersby and the throwing of fishing lines and hooks. It was quite dangerous. By separating these uses, people walking through the park will be able to do so safely.
Providing universal access without ramps and handrails. The redesign capitalized on the park’s linear shape and, through seat walls, the decking slopes from the upper level/main pathway to the lower level of the deck at less than a 5-percent change. Eliminating the need for handrails reduces the visual impact of vertical elements and perceived barriers in the park, making for more open and equitable space. The deck’s elevations will be carefully coordinated to tie into its surroundings and eliminate existing ramps. Further, the height of the guardrail on the cantilevered deck was reduced from the standard 42 to 34 inches, and designed with a 9-inch gap at the bottom to accommodate all types of users and mobility devices.
Easing slopes and reducing erosion. The two-tiered system and retaining walls ease slopes from nearly 1:1 to 1:10, now allowing for plantings to take hold. This will stabilize the highly eroded slopes that have experienced chronic stormwater runoff from the street. Catch basins in the street will be fixed under a separate effort; in combination with these improvements, stormwater will be slowed, collected into swales behind the deck, and infiltrated through crushed stone and piping behind the uppermost retaining wall.
Water-Access Area And The Shoreline Trail
Crystal Lake has historically been accessed at Levingston Cove through a large, eroded opening in the bank. Several large boulders were used for sitting, the compacted dirt was full of roots, and deciduous shade cover was plentiful. Nearly 11 feet below a nearby roadway intersection, a non-compliant ramp led from the street down to the water-access area. This ramp transitioned into a loose, non-ADA compliant, stonedust path running parallel to the shoreline to the southern end of the park. This stonedust pathway had nearly disappeared, degrading over time into a large, barren, dirt area.
With universal accessibility as a core driver of the redesign, several improvements will work in concert to improve the degraded lawn area, ensure ADA-compliance on all pathways, protect the shoreline, and
manage stormwater effectively:
An on-grade deck, backed with terraced walls to create seating opportunities and to combat erosion. These seat walls will retain portions of the slope in the lawn area with the heaviest use, allowing for a reworking of grades to ease steeper slopes. The redesign also specified a reinforced loam mix for this area of lawn, which effectively armors it for high use.
Terraced granite blocks and boulders from the on-grade deck down to the shoreline. This will stabilize the shoreline and allow for unencumbered access to the water for small watercraft launching. Most of these boulders have been collected and repurposed from the site, ensuring that the materials used in the park are in keeping with the naturalized aesthetic.
Robust detailing of the shoreline trail. This includes a vertical granite curb at the toe of the slope and a series of swales, raingardens, and an overflow piping system that directs stormwater into Crystal Lake. All plant selections will be native and tailored to their purpose, in this case, to improve stormwater infiltration.
A desire line pathway to the water-access area to direct foot traffic off the lawn area. This pathway incorporates stairs to help walkers navigate the steep slope.
Accessibility As The Driver Of Design
The seven lofty but necessary goals for improvement were identified through the design process:
- Ensure accessibility across the site.
- Ensure thorough pedestrian movement.
- Preserve and enhance opportunities for passive recreation and fishing.
- Improve how stormwater moves and is captured on-site.
- Create a stable and sustainable landscape.
- Enhance and protect views.
- Improve water quality.
With accessibility as the driver of the redesign, the six other goals fell into place. Of course, this redesign would not have been possible without the spirited collaboration from neighborhood residents, Newton Conservators and other stakeholder groups, the larger Newton community, the city’s ADA/504 Coordinator, the Newton Conservation Commission, the mayor’s office, and the Department of Public Works. Though there were many differing opinions on various topics, everyone agreed that universal accessibility was of paramount importance.
When accessibility is at the core of redesign, great things happen. Levingston Cove’s physical arrangement of spaces, significant grade change, waterfront location, and erosion and compaction could all be seen as insurmountable challenges. Yet, a cohesive new park will soon emerge that deftly weaves its way through those obstacles. Once everything is completed this summer, the results will be nothing short of transformative for the park and for the neighborhood.
Cassie Bethoney, RLA, is a Registered Landscape Architect and Project Manager with Weston & Sampson’s Design Studio in Foxborough, Massachusetts. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in PRB Magazine, July 2023