From Houston to Beirut, 2015 was a big year for parks. They were crowdfunded and data-mined, envisioned as strange, subterranean spaces, and designed to bolster public health. Of all the many innovative designs, a few have even opened their gates.
Here are some of the most ambitious public spaces of 2015. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and many a soccer field or downtown plaza will undoubtedly be absent. But these are the big picture parks, marking a political step forward in Beirut, bringing some much-needed play space to underserved Los Angeles neighborhoods, and signaling a shift toward walkability in two car-centric Texas cities.
The Yanaguana Garden, San Antonio
This four-acre park honors Yanaguana, a Payaya Indian village that used to exist where San Antonio is now. Complete with mosaic benches and a climbable panther adorned with glass beads, the park also features playgrounds, a splash pad and a life-sized chess board. The Yanaguana Garden is located within Hemisfair Park, site of the 1968 World’s Fair, currently undergoing a massive renovation. When completed, the park should be a walkable center that anchors one of the busiest parts of downtown.
50 Parks Initiative, Los Angeles
Begun in 2012, the 50 Parks Initiative has been steadily transforming vacant lots and foreclosed properties into small playgrounds and public gathering spaces throughout Los Angeles. When Josh Stephens covered the initiative’s progress for Next City in April, 31 parks had been completed, mostly in South and East L.A. and part of the San Fernando Valley. These mini-parks aren’t fancy, but they provide much needed recreational access to park-poor parts of the city.
Map of the 50 Parks Initiative (Credit: City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks)
First Ward Park, Charlotte
This month, Charlotte, North Carolina, traded four acres of parking for four acres of park. And First Ward Park isn’t your usual playground-and-soccer field combo, but a lush gathering space with an interactive fountain, event lawn, and plenty of sidewalks and paths. It may be an early sign of redevelopment near UNC Charlotte’s uptown campus. According to local news reports, Google may soon be a neighbor.
Rendering of First Ward Park (Credit: ColeJenest & Stone)
Horsh Beirut, Beirut
Although the 75-acre park makes up almost three-fourths of Beirut’s green space, it has remained closed to the public since civil war destroyed its historic pine forest in the 1980s. That changed in September, when the government agreed to open Horsh Beirut once a week on Saturdays. As Josh Wood wrote last year, the park’s location between Sunni, Shia and Christian neighborhoods has recently been cited as a reason for keeping it walled off, but thanks to some pushing from local advocates, the historic green space will once again be accessible.
Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston
Upon completion, Houston’s Bayou Greenways project will connect regional waterways with 300 miles of continuous hike and bike trails. This year, Houston got a taste of bayou-side redevelopment with the grand opening of Buffalo Bayou Park, a 160-acre expanse featuring pavilions, trails, public art and a dog park. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is already looking ahead toward the next phase of its intended Buffalo Bayou makeover.
Eleanor Tinsley Park, part of Buffalo Bayou Park (Credit: Buffalo Bayou Partnership)
Magical Bridge Playground, Palo Alto
Hailed by local news station KRON 4 as the nation’s most innovative and inclusive playground, this Silicon Valley park is designed with autistic, blind and hearing-impaired children in mind — as well as older adults, kids in wheelchairs and able-bodied friends. A “music zone” features a 24-string laser harp that encourages participants of varying abilities to collaborate. Swings allow children to process stimuli through repetitive motion, and a wheelchair-accessible playhouse invites users to participate in skits and pretend play.
Luther Ely Smith Square, St. Louis
The wide lawn and bench-lined pathways of this newly opened plaza aren’t particularly noteworthy, but Luther Ely Smith Square is part of a much bigger effort. St. Louis’ CityArchRiver project aims to transform the grounds around the Gateway Arch, adding biking and running trails, a museum, and concert space. As a bonus, the new square sits atop cisterns that can hold up to 65,000 gallons of stormwater for irrigation.
A rendering of the future CityArchRiver project (Credit: CityArchRiver)
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian