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Feb 2, 2012
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Water in the works

Design competition brings a zip line, cross country skiing and much more to the development of Des Moines’ Water Works Park

By Rachael Stern

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RDG, Sasaki and AES proposed several new elements to enhance user experience at Water Works Park, including a paddle board canal system and an artistic walking path depicted above. In addition to providing recreation, the paddle board circuit would increase water yield for Des Moines Water Works. The gallery walk would be an educational experience for the public, with information about the infiltration gallery along the path. Image courtesy of Sasaki

About 20 feet below the surface, a gallery runs parallel to the Raccoon River. But the artwork in this gallery is not sculptures or sketches. It’s an infiltration gallery, a 70-year-old pipeline three miles long. The art inside it — water. This precious resource, the history of the concrete relic and the park in which both sit, inspired a competition. A design competition, called Parkitecture, aims to enhance Water Works Park. The outcome of this competition is a three-pronged partnership that calls their design “Water, Wild + Wonder.” Sasaki Associates, RDG Planning and Design and Applied Ecological Services (AES) came together to create a proposal that combines the park’s historical significance with the importance of water through ecological design and public education.

National attention

The park spans 1,500 acres of an immense watershed and a three-and-a-half mile stretch of the Raccoon River. It has been the main clean water vein for Des Moines for a century. The gallery is an example of a spectacular engineering feat. One of the largest of its kind, it originally provided the entire city with drinking water. But the history of the pipe has been nearly forgotten, and the significance of Water Works Park as the largest source of Des Moines’ water is widely unknown. This green oasis in the heart of the city is in need of attention.

Des Moines Water Works wants to tackle water quality issues while simultaneously attracting public attention to the park and its value. Director of water distribution and grounds at Des Moines Water Works, Ted Corrigan, said in order to develop the park in a way that would ensure its longevity both recreationally and environmentally, they needed some innovative thinkers. This is how the idea of the Parkitecture design competition was born. Carl Rodgers, associate professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, saw Water Works Park as an opportunity.

“The issues facing Water Works are all about water quality, water protection and the flooding that occurs and will continue to occur. These issues are at the heart of landscape architecture,” Rodgers said. “This is a great opportunity to seek out a broader range of teams to present ideas for Des Moines and gain some notoriety for the park, for the facility and for the city.”

Corrigan liked Rodgers’ idea. A competition in the hands of design firms and landscape architects brought fresh ideas to the table. The response they received was unexpected. Design firms from all over the country, even outside the United States, took interest in this little known park in the middle of the Midwest.

“I considered there to be tremendous reaction to the competition itself from the design community,” Corrigan said. “Getting 19 full-fledged proposals is a big deal for this size of project.”

Aalyshah Zaragoza, 15, rides her horse Sandry on a bridle trail in Water Works Park. Irish Run Farms is tucked away in Water Works, and many riders use the trails regularly. Photo by Ian Weller

Of the 19 professional proposals, a jury filled with landscape architects, people from Water Works and distinguished community members had to narrow down their decision to one. Their criteria were tough. Rodgers and Corrigan, also jury members, say the best plans combined practicality with knowledge and innovation.

“I was looking for a design that had a creative idea, something practical, that we thought we could actually build on site. A design that would really focus people’s attention on the river, on water quality and quantity issues that we have that result in flooding. I wanted something that made people understand the value of the resource that we have here in the Raccoon River in Des Moines,” Corrigan said.

The winning design group has everything Corrigan was looking for. Their design highlights the most important aspect of Water Works Park — the water.

The design: a water park

The vision — to design a park that inspires ecological stewardship. Three design firms share a passion for creating public parks that promote sustainability and public involvement, and they teamed together to make their vision for Water Works Park a reality. It’s driven by three highly skilled and qualified individuals — Gina Ford of Sasaki, design principle; Pat Boddy of RDG, director of stewardship strategies; and Kim Chapman of AES, principle ecologist. With ecology at the core of their proposal, they stood apart from the other competitors.

“What distinguished us from the other teams was that we started with turning on the tap and seeing the water coming out, then worked our way up to the corn belt and how the water makes its way to the Gulf,” Chapman said. “That’s something that has more truth to it. We came at it from an infrastructure and technology standpoint. Design became the way to communicate it and package it as opposed to being a driver.”

This holistic sense of the floodplain and the river is what the team continuously uses as inspiration. Their design has two zones — the wild and the engineered. In the engineered (the southeast side of Water Works Park) is where they envision the centerpiece of their design. The main component is called the circuit, a system of canals where the public could paddle board. More importantly, these canals would complement the gallery and the river and help improve water quality and quantity.

“Over time, Water Works learned that bodies of water placed immediately adjacent to the gallery but opposite the river increase the amount of water into the gallery,” Chapman said.

Not only would these canals increase the flow of water, it would help clean it. The Raccoon River is dirty. The sediment and pesticides from farming practices upstream cause the river to have high concentrations of nitrogen. This is bad. Think blue baby syndrome. Presently, Des Moines Water Works spends a lot of money to remove the nitrogen. These canals could do the work for them. The canals would connect existing ponds, which over time remove nitrogen in a process called denitrofication.

This is an idea Des Moines Water Works was already playing around with.

“The concept that was floating around was something called natural utility. For an ecologist like myself, the idea that an industrial process of making water in Des Moines, the ability for ecosystem services to deliver these services at a low cost, was just electrifying,” Chapman said. “This is a process of improving nature in order to improve human existence.”

The team hopes the public shares their excitement and believes they can achieve this by using their design as an educational tool. The circuit will act as a living museum. While paddling down the canal, iconic Iowa scenery and examples of best management practices will be around every bend: restored prairie, wetlands and woodlands; sustainable farming techniques; natural flora and fauna. The circuit itself will tell the story of Iowa’s landscape.

Water, Wild + Wonder envisions telling more stories. The team wants to highlight the history of the infiltration gallery with a pun. An artistic pedestrian path called the gallery walk would be adjacent to the circuit and directly above the infiltration gallery.

“This would be a place for public art, an engaging and exciting walking space where you learn the story of the gallery beneath you,” Boddy said.

Along the gallery walk, the team envisions incorporating public art, pipe replicas and placards as an illustrated interpretation of the gallery itself.

“The gallery is something that has no physical presence. The gallery walk would trace that site so you have an idea of the length, which is extraordinary,” Ford said. “It would be making the invisible visible.”

One of the most important components of Water Works Park is that it’s a floodplain. The team wants to create a park that is both functional and low maintenance in the event of a flood. More importantly, they want to give people the chance to learn about how and why flooding occurs. Ford says through her experiences in working in flooded landscapes, she’s learned that people find flooding surprisingly fascinating.

“As horrible an event as a flood is, it’s a strangely exciting community event,” she said.

The attraction to flooding inspired the team to create an “engagement with the flood and that dynamic,” Ford said. They designed a levee landform museum, where elevated land would depict flood levels and frequency.

“We would put up fake levees and give people an opportunity to experience what topography can do and understand flood frequency and storm water frequency,” Boddy said. “It’s really a new vision for an outdoor museum.”

Flooding could even be viewed from above.

“One element designed is a flood tower. It’s a drop-dead, awesome flood tower,” Boddy said. “This tower is set up in a way that there are landings that are high above the flood elevation mark so you’re able to walk to these landings and see a flooded landscape.”

The engineered zone of the teams’ proposal encompasses only a piece of the park. The other zone, called the wild, takes up 1,200 acres. The engineered portion is already somewhat developed and used for various events — and according to their plan will allow for even more — but the wild section is more untouched. The team wants this zone to remain an area where people can immerse themselves in nature.

“We want it to be a place where Des Moines Water Works can invite people in, but will cause minimal environmental impact,” Ford said.

Connected to the rest of the park through trails, this area would remain a quiet escape. The team hopes expansion of existing trail systems — including bike, pedestrian and equestrian trails — as well as plans for zip-lining, would attract people while limiting development and restoring the landscape. Something that current park users are in favor of.

“Pat [Boddy] learned very quickly that people absolutely love the wild nature and quiet, isolated feeling of the bulk of Water Works Park,” Chapman said. “That decision to basically stay out of three-fourths of the site was an early decision we made.”

Public attention

From the start, the Water, Wild + Wonder team wanted the public to have input. To achieve their vision of creating an environmental ethic, the team would need to incorporate all current users’ interests and concerns. Boddy and RDG did a lot of homework before delving into this project. In addition to analyzing historical and ecological components, they reached out to community members to get a grasp on public usage.

“One of the things we recognized was the importance of all of the different partnerships,” Boddy said. “We brought to the table the understanding and awareness of all of the organizations, groups, neighbors, individuals and institutions that work up and down that watershed and up and down that greenbelt.”

Boddy says she often heard one of two things from community members — that they don’t know much about the park at all, or that they feel strong ties to it. Those who use the park regularly voiced their opinions about park development. One group that collaborated to ensure the survival of their usage was equestrians who enjoy riding their horses on the bridle trails. President of the Iowa Nebraska Hunter Jumper Association, Mary Wickman, was one of dozens of riders who pressured Parkitecture competitors to take their interests seriously.

“Since we’re such a small group, we were afraid we were going to get shoved out,” Wickman said. “But I think the landscape architects thought it was a really unique thing to have in the middle of the city. Once they figured out that we’re down there, they wanted to preserve that.”

Park users of all other sorts expressed concerns.

“There was a lot of interest in what we were doing and why, how it would affect the park and the existing uses,” Corrigan said. “There are a lot of people that use the park, and they don’t want their current use to be interfered with or changed.”

But Corrigan, and the Water, Wild + Wonder team, see these concerns as a positive. They want people to get involved, to care about the park and what goes on there. They want this project to instill an ecological ethic.

“This was really a strength of the community — to have this extremely exciting dialogue around what it takes to understand a floodplain,” Boddy said.

That dialogue is exactly what the team wants to hear. Discussions about the design build awareness of the park and an understanding of its processes. Ford applauds Rodgers for creating the Parkitecture competition, which in itself spurred conversations about water quality issues within a different group of professionals.

“This is such an amazing thing. This is something (Rodgers) really wanted to do to elevate not only watershed issues but the role designers can play in creating awareness,” she said.

As the visions of the team begin to take shape, they hope to see even more public engagement. Implementation will have to be done in phases, and which phases are completed first will depend largely on what the public wants to see, as well as what Des Moines Water Works thinks is valuable and feasible. This process will be ongoing.

“The process of developing the master plan won’t start right away. That will take a while, a couple of years, maybe more. We hope this plan will guide us for 20 to 30 years into the future. It may take that amount of time to complete the plan in terms of implementation,” Corrigan said.

The team says it will be worth the wait. This project could be a step in the right direction toward a healthier Iowa — a community in the heartland of America with ecological stewardship at the heart of urban planning.

“We hope this will be a spark to help more and more players understand what they can do on behalf of water quality. Directly, we want to restore this park and its landscape. Indirectly, we want to restore and inspire for the whole watershed,” Boddy said. “Every time the community rallies to look at its rivers and understand them, much has come to the table to improve our quality of life in the future.” CV



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