“Public Participation Helping to Shape Public Places”

by: Debra L. Smith, AIA, AICP
Published in Iowa Commerce
December 2003/January 2004
High quality public places are an important part of the quality of life in healthy communities. Common places, such as parks, plazas, community buildings, and recreation trails offer places for the full cross-section of a community’s citizens to gather to celebrate, play, relax, learn, and sometimes to mourn, such as was the case with 9/11.
Des Moines and West Des Moines residents are fortunate to have two new facilities that add to the dynamic quality of the metro area’s public realm: the improvements to Gray’s Lake, including a quarter-mile pedestrian bridge, and the Raccoon River Nature Lodge.

Gray’s Lake, immediately adjacent to downtown, forms a key element of the entry into downtown from the airport and the southwest part of the city. It also offers wonderful site for a large, open, recreation place close to downtown. This reclaimed quarry was the site of a hotel that was severely damaged in the flood of ’93. The hotel and surrounding site sat vacant and created an eyesore to the entrance to downtown for more than five years.
The initial public participation began in the mid-1900’s when the Parks Department developed a citizens’ survey and held a series of meetings throughout the community to define the citizens’ needs, interests, and priorities for the park system throughout the city. This information helped create a basic framework for park improvements city wide and from which the Gray’s Lake amenities started to emerge.
RDG Crose Gardner Shukert Landscape Architects and Planners were selected by the city in 1997 to build on this basic framework and create a master Plan for Gray’s Lake. The public continued active participation in this phase of the project, including several community workshops, and it gained widespread public endorsement.
A community committee was created to ensure representation of the city’s full cross-section of citizens, including the youth of Des Moines. Through the evolution of the master planning process, the Gray’s Lake Foundation was created. The foundation devoted time towards fund-raising, securing in-kind contributions, and maintaining public awareness and support for the project. The foundation continues to represent the community’s interest in ensuring Gray’s Lake serves the needs and interest of the larger community and implementing the donors’ vision for the Park.
The City of Des Moines’ Parks and Recreation Department selected HLKB Architecture to design a bridge for the south edge of the lake. The goal was a bridge that was functional, served as a strong visual component and enhanced the park and trail users’ enjoyment. All of this and a modest budget add to the impressive end product.
The result is a stunningly graceful bridge with a gentle arc up to the center and back down to the other shore as well as a sensuous curve away from the south shore to offer a series of changing views of the lake, the downtown skyline, and the experience of being over the water. A large part of the beauty and charm of the bridge is the skillful incorporation of details such as a minimal railing design to reduce any obstructions of views, lighting that illuminates the trail as well as punctuates the sweeping form, and use of dichroic colored glass inserts in the railing to add a rainbow of colors for the trail users to enjoy on the trail and on the water. These characteristics help the bridge change with the seasons, the time of day, and the amount of sunshine or cloud cover.
The firm of RDG Crose Gardner Shukert addressed landscape design issues for the project. The firms worked together to ensure a smooth and pleasant transition from trail to bridge and back to trail again.
The park has been successful beyond anyone’s expectations, in large part due to the public participation that went into the effort and the resulting project program that defined the various amenities that were desirable and well used. The process also built a healthy sense of civic ownership.
The Raccoon River Nature Lodge is another excellent example of a successful addition to public facilities. This project also incorporated public input and participation throughout development to ensure the community with a well-designed facility that optimizes visual appeal, character, and a sense of place with function, budget-conscious decisions, and flexibility. The lodge emerged from a complex program in which a diverse group of players had input, including community focus groups, user groups, and West Des Moines City staff. Issues for their input ranged from function and budget to public art and aesthetics.
The Raccoon River Nature Lodge is located in the 700-acre Raccoon River Park being developed by the City of West Des Moines. The lodge takes advantage of views of the one-acre lake and orientation to nature trails, recreation trails, playing fields for soccer and softball, wetlands, and a beach.
The popularity and sense of ownership for this building come in part from providing the community with a much needed and very desirable facility. However, it is also key to the project’s success that the public participation created a sense of civic ownership and pride in the Raccoon River Lodge.
Architects are skilled at leading public participation and to shape projects that reflect the best of what communities hope to become. This process is a win-win for all involved. The architects learn from the citizens about the needs priorities, and ideas for a range of uses; the public learns about the design process and are able to build civic ownership in a project they help shape, and the municipal government gains public awareness and appreciation for projects that will be valued and well-used.

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