Branching Out

Nestled within a vast spectacle of trees, shrubs, twisting vines, plants and exhibits spanning 1,700 acres at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., lies one of the nation’s newest, most exciting children’s gardens. The new four-acre garden (one of the largest in the United States) allows children and their parents to scale canopies, follow stepping-stones through a pond or crawl across a net suspended above a prairie.

The Arboretum’s project, titled “Branching Out!” was a high-profile, $10.5 million effort planned and created by a team of landscape architects, engineers, architects, botanists, educators, exhibit developers, horticulturists, and researchers. Consultants in civil engineering, construction, electrical engineering, horticulture, irrigation, masonry, mechanical engineering, and structural engineering also contributed to the final product. In short, it was a big project.

With so many experts from so many different backgrounds, it was clear from the start communication and close collaboration were going to be the keys to realizing the Arboretum’s bold vision. And, of course, somebody had to be in charge. That somebody was EDAW, a world-renowned landscape architect firm with 25 offices and 1,100 employees worldwide. The company’s Fort Collins, Colorado branch then commissioned Hitchock Design Group (HDG) to be their local liaison during the conceptual design phase and asked them to take the lead management role during the design development, construction documentation and construction observations phases of the project.

Breaking With Convention

In the past, an exhibit design firm or educator would have most probably led this type of project. Giving the lead role to landscape architects represents, in my opinion, an exciting change in the perception of landscape architecture. Beyond focusing on basic site elements such as circulation, safety and scale, we were challenged to transform educational messages into dynamic, functioning site features. Exciting stuff.

As EDAW and HDG got to work, a basic shared philosophy emerged – both firms were interested in designing the space to teach and unite the whole family versus one particular age group.

Building upon this idea, and the data provided by the Arboretum staff, (they had interviewed children and other community members and visited other children’s gardens as part of their preliminary research) we decided to incorporate open exploration into the design, to give visitors a sense of involvement in the learning process and, hopefully, a deeper understanding of nature.

The notion of letting children’s curiosity be their best learning tool fit in perfectly with the Arboretum’s educational goals for the garden: to combine different kinds of experiences that encourage physical, cognitive and emotional development in children – and at the same time – manage to keep it fun.

Trees, Trees, Trees

Since our project managers at HDG were going to need to have a very broad and precise understanding of the project in order to execute the design plans, from the educational goals of the Arboretum to the finest details in the sketches, the EDAW team invited HDG to actively participate alongside their consultants in the original discussions with the Arboretum’s education experts.

For us, it was somewhat unusual, yet extremely helpful considering the magnitude and scope of the work, to have the opportunity to observe the decision-making process in the concept phase of a project. During the two-year concept phase, we attended workshops and meetings with consultants and gained a thorough understanding of the Aboretum’s mission to help people grasp the importance of trees in our world and how that message needed to stand out in the Garden. The Arboretum felt other highly regarded children’s gardens they visited had left out this crucial element. We used it as a focal point in our collaborations with them and challenged Arboretum staff to use their imagination with us to bring an artistic appeal to every part of the garden.

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