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Urban park design concepts and key elements

Urban park design concepts and key elements

Urban park design and planning: main types and features of green areas together with a 3D model ready to use

Urban green spaces provide residents the opportunity to connect with nature, considering that green areas are a reflection in urban spaces of the natural areas surrounding cities. In this context, successful urban park design requires a full understanding of the technical analysis tools together with adequate expertise in the fields of environmental, urban, social and architectural planning.

The aim of this short guide is to provide some basic but useful insights for designing an urban park. Starting off with some historical considerations, we’ll be taking a look at the evolution of open green spaces and a brief focus on the different types of urban green areas.

We also added a practical example of an urban open space project ready for you to download.

City park design

Playground and skate park

Although ancient cities were perfectly integrated with the surrounding countryside, the transition from rural life to urban civilization became inevitable leading to both social and environmental impacts and creating an urban – rural conflict.

The importance of cities has increased significantly over the centuries and, by the end of 1700, urban green areas started to be highly valued for their contribution to the quality of life in cities. “Public gardens” started to flourish, outlining a vision where ornamental plants were considered as an element of public health alongside their strong contribution in terms of aesthetic-recreational functions.

Urban green space today definitely contributes to urban sustainability and improves microclimates thanks to vegetation. It is widely recognized that the biodiversity of green areas maintains equilibrium balance through initiatives of green structural integration with what has been built, while rapid urbanization is continuously altering urban ecosystems.

historic gardens

Boboli Gardens – Florence (16th – 19th century)

Different types of urban green spaces

Public open spaces are usually categorised into a hierarchy of neighbourhood, district and regional open spaces. The main types of green areas, present in urban and suburban contexts are described below.

Historic gardens

They are generally old green areas that witnessed different historical periods and culturally related with the development of the city. For these reasons, historic gardens play a unique role in the urban environment. One of the main aims of managing these gardens, is the conservation of their original genetic material and at the same time the preservation from a degrading condition.

The occasional presence of secular trees requires careful evaluations of the phytosanitary conditions and the stability conditions of the specimen present, to guarantee users safety and garden integrity. Architectural and artistic furniture elements are frequent to be found, such as – statues, fountains, benches, small buildings – as well as artefacts of historical interest.

Neighborhood green spaces

Found in different urban areas, neighborhood green spaces are mainly used by local residents for recreational, leisure and encounters purposes. Considering the modest extension of these green spaces, design criteria need to be simple: trees, shrubs, and lawn areas should be located in such a way as to alternate shaded and sunny spaces; paved areas must also be provided, equipped for playing and sitting areas.

Urban parks

These are more or less extensive areas of green open space that are present in urban contexts or their outskirts and that play important recreational, environmental and cultural function, contributing to a better quality of life.

Urban parks can serve different needs and functions (rest, play, sporting activities, facilities, cultural and recreational centres) and, generally, are designed using native species, with a considerable use of grass and acclimated shrub and tree species for that area.

In areas of peri-urban expansion, parks can also assume a role of integration and replacement of the agricultural and forestry system, and if properly managed, can make important contributions to urban climate mitigation (reducing the “heat islands” effect).

Public and private green spaces

Private domestic garden and public green space are an integral part of the dwelling and residential environment.

The consequences of urban sprawl are raising a series of problems related to new urbanizations, such as high-density building construction, while leading to an increased demand for more quality in residential areas. In response to these environmental hazards and urban densification, there is a growing need to innovate healthier designs and planned sustainability for urban environments. Therefore, green areas need to fit in and residential interventions should provide adequate furnishings.

urban park design

Concept design | Functional layout

Urban park design elements and materials

Project aspects

When designing an urban park, there are certain functional aspects to consider, such as:

  • children’s play is a time of aggregation for different age groups, to encourage physical activity and social inclusion. It is fundamental to properly equip a playground and recreational-sports facilities also for disabled children and recreational-sports facilities for adults and the elderly;
  • the didactics and civic training nature of urban parks is considered a primary element from a cultural perspective that also plays a fundamental learning tool, for example, when learning signs regarding the different types of trees and the information tables on the naturalistic characteristics of the area (vegetation, fauna, history and culture) or in case of community gardens, etc;
  • sport is an activity which must be encouraged at every level, taking in mind space and planning possibilities, it is fundamental for physical and mental health and for recreation and aggregation;
  • animals cohabit easily within these reserved areas; it is important to provide waste bins and other solutions for collecting dog waste as well as comfort zones for animals and their owners such as shading, open space, seating areas, drinking water etc;
  • benches and seating areas are an important part of an urban park as essential for social interactions and for reading, resting, or simply to make conversation. It is important to identify shaded and quiet areas, as far as possible from roads or high traffic volume;
  • pedestrian paths in green areas must be easily accessible by persons with different abilities, and which are at least 2 metres wide and well illuminated. They must connect different parts of the area and foresee adequate access from the surrounding roads and contain resting areas with benches , areas shaded by trees, arbours, gazebos and drinking fountains;
  • paved surfaces provided for the public in urban areas, generally need to be used safely by people across all age groups, some of whom may have various mobility or sensory impairments or need to be accessible for prams and wheelchairs.

Project Elements

The combination of the elements listed below are those considered during the design phase by urban planners with the purpose of providing a creative identity, as well as emotional and utility factors, to green spaces.

  • Soil is not only considered as a horizontal surface. The levels of topographic variations, small hills, ditches with the use of slopes or steps provides different perceptions and dimensions to a park and enables it to be used for different purposes;
  • Vegetation suggests the possibility of a visible chromatic variation that can be used for various combination of colours, for example with the use of flowering. Based on the project design, colour variations can be inspired by using the principles of chromotherapy. Another element which needs to be taken into account regards the vegetation and its seasonal colours;
  • Moving or still water induces the perception of chromatic and sound variations. Apart from the aesthetic and emotional aspect, you must also associate its microclimate functions relating to mitigation, refreshing and humidifying, increasing the amount of vegetation and utility for park users;
  • Shading is contemplated in these guide lines with regards to light variations, where you must carefully consider the purpose and use of the park so you can find yourself in an oasis of wellbeing.
urban park design

Project example of a central square between the skate park and the neighborhood library

Project materials

The materials used for designing a park will be chosen according to their functions and duration.

It is important to highlight that:

  • the different materials used to create structures and furnishings must be congruent with the naturalistic environment of the park;
  • automatic irrigation must be an obvious requirement. Watering is constantly needed for flower borders and the same goes for trees and shrubbery in their early stages, or during long periods of drought, summer, and sometimes in other key moments of the year, for example the end of winter or autumn;
  • with regard to illumination you can also consider different lighting elements to create particular atmospheres especially in the evening;
  • furnishings must contemplate fixed or mobile elements. You must also take into consideration the possibility to create shadow areas with gazebos or small pergolas as a rapid solution whilst waiting for the tree canopy to grow and create a vegetation cover;
  • furnishing structures must take into account the various age groups, and must be made with materials that are easy to maintain and to find. Seats made of wood are also preferable;
  • refreshments kiosks/ bars are structures that play an important role for aggregation and socializing;
  • planning of services such as toilets and drinking water shouldn’t be neglected.
city park design

Project example | Seating and recreational area view next to the skate park

Download | Project example

Download the 3D BIM model (.edf file format)

Video | Project example