Editor’s Note: Parks & Rec Business magazine presents the first part in a year-long series of articles devoted to park landscaping and grounds maintenance, Landscaper’s Corner. Please let us know if there’s a subject you’d like to see covered in this series, or if you have a unique project or perspective you’d like to share with your peers. Please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chicago’s new Soldier Field is certainly an architectural wonder; a bright, modern facility with all the bells and whistles. You’re unlikely, however, to hear anything from the sports press about the creative morphing of the surrounding concrete jungle into undulating and interactive park land.
An integral part of the stadium redevelopment was a mixed-use open-space bridge between the stadium and Chicago’s world-famous triumvirate of museums — the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium — that make up Museum Campus.
Though mostly a passive, green area, active elements include a Children’s Garden play area with a Planet Earth theme to reflect the museums’ attractions, and a sledding hill.
“The Children’s Garden is a great pre or post venue for the kids who go on school trips to the museums. There’s a good stretch of green space around it so they can blow off steam, plus the educational component. It’s also a neighborhood park, aside from all the visitors we get at the stadium and at the museums,” says Linda Daly, capital projects manager for the Chicago Park District.
“The goals of the park district were to not only create some new and interesting park space but to green up and create more passive space, and let people enjoy it at their leisure. You typically find much more hardscape around the perimeter of a stadium this size. From a design standpoint you have to break out of the mold. The project was to redevelop the stadium, but the lesson here was that if you weren’t open-minded none of these great new park improvements would be here today; it would be status quo and a lot of cement.”
The project’s landscape architect, Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture Inc. (PLSLA), working with Wood + Zapata Architecture and Lohan Caprile Goettsch Architects, came up with a natural-looking amphitheater-like design for the Children’s Garden. It creates a sense of enclosure, while allowing a high point for people to view the city, stadium and harbor, says Peter Schaudt, ASLA, design principal and president for PLSLA.
“You cannot have enough benches. We’ve clustered them together similar to Central Park’s mall. They’re placed together for a social space, fostering social contact for grandparents, parents and kids. When you design a children’s garden you have to think about the adults as well, and make it interesting for them,” adds Schaudt.
This general theme of landforms and hills that runs throughout the park was a creative way to accomplish a number of goals. Outside the Children’s Garden, it would be a subtle wayfinding device, saving money and even improving water quality.
“We saved a couple million dollars in hauling off material, and completely transformed that property from being essentially as flat as a pool table to a dune-like, undulating area.
The nice thing about using topography in a strong way is that you see green,” says Schaudt.
Excess material dug up during construction and redevelopment was also used to build a new sledding hill. The hill features a fully-accessible ramp on the backside and will be complete with snow-making equipment.
Another innovative use of topography was to bury the new underground parking garage under a sea of green, creating park land on top of parking.
“It was about taking the 120,000 cubic yards of material, reshaping the park and creating the new parking bridge primarily by burying the parking underground. The lesson we learned here was to take advantage of the roof of the parking structure for usable space,” recalls Schaudt.
“We don’t have the luxury of vast open spaces anymore, so you have to get a lot of mileage out of projects. Everything needs to be choreographed like a film, where you’re going from one spot to the next with elements in the landscape that are memorable.”
Utilizing extra construction materials and a Styrofoam-like block material called GeoFoam, V3 Consultants — a civil engineering, construction and real estate firm based in Chicago — built up the landscaping in and around the park. The GeoFoam material was primarily used on top of the parking garage to help sculpt the landforms, an idea brought into the mix by PLSLA. It was covered by top soil, then sod.
V3′s director of land development, Patrick Kennedy, says that prior to the redevelopment, about 63 of the existing 84 acres were paved. Once the project was complete, that 63 acres of paving had been reduced to about 48 acres.
“From a planning standpoint, water quality was very important, as were the long term benefits to the community, like the sledding hill and more parking,” says Kennedy.
“If you’re doing a redevelopment and converting existing urban land into park space, you’ll improve the water quality by adding green space and decreasing the total runoff. Since it’s a redevelopment you’re not necessarily trying to meet standards, but you’re trying to improve the overall situation. The question we always ask is — How can I improve the water quality without tearing the whole thing out and starting all over again?”
In the past, Kennedy says the initial storm flush, which carries the majority of pollutants into the water system, would go to the lake. Now, thanks in large part to the natural water infiltration, the filtering of the additional topography, and a new storm sewer system, that first flush is diverted westward to the city’s sanitary system where that water is treated and released. Only the overflow, which benefits from the topographical filtering, makes it to the lake.
Kennedy relates that the project was not without its share of surprises, as the site’s past produced archeological obstacles, such as an old concrete structure from the 1893 World’s Fair, and underlying soils which consisted of debris from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (a cow and its owner were implicated in that one, by the way) and the Chicago Freight Tunnel excavation.
“We ran into all kinds of things underground that no one knew were there, in addition to the types of soils we ran into. It’s important to find as much documentation on previous land use as possible to avoid construction cost issues later in the game. In this case they were managed well, because the contractor put allowances in for the unknown, so the site work came in at budget,” says Kennedy.
The Chicago Fire also finds its way back into the picture, but not exactly how you’d imagine. The Fire, in this case, is Chicago’s pro soccer team.
The soccer team’s appearance in the story of the new Soldier Field speaks to the park district’s need to collaborate in such a way with the stadium’s main tenant — the Bears — so as to build a true multi-use stadium.
Apparently, this has been accomplished, as Daly says the new stadium is much more fan- and organizer-friendly for special events, such as concerts, and is easily reconfigured for other sporting events, such as a Chicago Fire home game.
“We pushed for certain things in the design stage that were incorporated into the redevelopment. For instance, we hold concerts here, and needed much more access to the field level than we had before, so that semis could actually get to the field to set up for a concert. Now we have the infrastructure to accommodate a concert and the ability to fairly easily bring in the vehicles to the edge of the playing field. That was a huge win for the park district,” says Daly.
“In this case, it wasn’t the park district as the technical owner of the facility turning it all over to the private sector and seeing what we got after it was built. It was definitely us at the table bringing the needs of the park district to light.”
The stadium also has war memorials, including a veteran’s water wall — a 300-foot granite wall with a continuous flow of water coming from the top down to a trough at the base — with an orchard and a free-standing bronze relief behind it.
“There was so much about the stadium project in the press, and though we promoted the park development, it fell second to the stadium development. You can tell by talking to park goers that many of them didn’t realize it was more than the stadium,” says Daly.