Capitalizing on Natural Infrastructure and Low-Impact Development

by Steve Sanchez, ASLA

Chattahoochee Nature Center, Roswell, Georgia. ADA-compliant boardwalk and pedestrian-bridge allow a focused experience to the river without vehicle interference. / image: HGOR

Those outside the landscape architecture field often think the role of a landscape architect equates to the enhancement of greenspaces within parks, office complexes, and various urban areas. Those within the field and affiliated industries realize it involves so much more.

A landscape architect typically provides planning, analysis, and creative design for all outdoor areas. The broad scope of ALL they do increases the quality of physical well-being for the local population, giving people more options for recreation, relaxation, healing, learning, and working, along with opportunities for social connection with others using the space.

A landscape architect’s role is also to play a vital part in helping to address global challenges— by thoughtfully integrating green infrastructure elements and other environmental preservation strategies whenever AND wherever possible. These methods involve the integration of natural, enhanced, and engineered assets. Natural assets, such as meadows, parks, tree canopies, soil, and wetlands, include the living and organic tools of the trade. Enhanced assets—which fall under low-impact development, including green roofs, bioswales, urban tree planting, and stormwater ponds—are utilized in various landscapes, ranging from workplace to multifamily to park environments. Engineered assets include permeable pavement, cisterns, and infiltration trenches.

Using their expertise, landscape architects provide holistic approaches to planning and managing the built environment, and landscape architecture design solutions regularly address common industry challenges we face. Many of these projects enable the shift to a carbon-neutral future by integrating innovative and occasionally all-new radical solutions. These projects include dense, walkable, mixed-use communities that connect to larger urban footprints and workplace environments, promoting functional outdoor work and physical activity—all of which help reduce emissions from transportation and urban sprawl.

Green infrastructure, often referred to as natural infrastructure, can also be designed to preserve ecological functions and provide networks of trails or greenways to enable access and movement throughout various open space developments. Well-designed landscapes can prevent soil erosion, clean stormwater runoff, enhance groundwater recharge, and offer beneficial canopy cover to protect buildings and people. Additionally, green infrastructure on a larger scale—such as significantly sized parks likw Westside Park, the largest park in Atlanta, and urban forests, similar to Hickory Log Creek Reservoir—help to facilitate wildlife activity and link wildlife habitats with green corridors.

This vital infrastructure is essential in mitigating climate change’s effects. As urban areas grow and impact more forested land, it is critically important that these new developments include designs that re-establish a healthy canopy to deliver environmental services, such as carbon sequestration and stormwater interception.

Green infrastructure:

  • Increases exposure to the natural environment, which provides considerable benefits.
  • Reduces exposure to harmful substances and conditions.
  • Provides opportunities for recreation and physical activity.
  • Promotes community identity and a sense of well-being.
  • Provides economic benefits to the community.
  • Improves water quality for wildlife, restoring their habitat and welcoming beneficial species back to the places we live.
  • Mitigates the effects of climate change.

Two nature-themed projects in which HGOR incorporated green infrastructure strategies, natural and enhanced, and where environmental preservation was at the forefront, are the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir and the Chattahoochee Nature Center.

Hickory Log Creek Reservoir, located in a rural area of Canton, Georgia, was an important initiative enabling the City of Canton to continue meeting its water supply needs through 2040. During the initial planning phase, a thorough analysis of the site revealed a unique forested environment of considerable maturity, indicating certain conditions that should be addressed in the future.

Hickory Log Creek Reservoir, Canton, Georgia. The site lies within the Southern Metasedimentary Mountains subsection of the Blue Ridge Ecoregion. / image: HGOR

The design solution for the 150-foot buffer around the reservoir, completed in 2021, involved capitalizing on the area’s natural assets while respecting past preservation efforts. Low-impact trails surrounding the lake were proposed, allowing individuals to enjoy the lush setting while offering views of the natural beauty within the area. The land surrounding the reservoir is one of the southernmost examples of the Blue Ridge Ecoregion, and the natural environment displayed a mix of mountain and Piedmont habitats. The effects of urbanization, such as invasive species, were essentially non-existent. The proposed program elements and design sought to preserve the unique viewsheds on the lake, leave a minimal impact on the land, and provide education opportunities to enhance the knowledge and enjoyment of the user.

Chattahoochee Nature Center, Roswell, Georgia. A comprehensive site sustainability plan ensures longevity and maximum performance for the facility. / image: HGOR

Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC) in Roswell, Georgia, has long been a destination for wildlife enthusiasts. In fact, despite the pandemic slowdown, many individuals’ strong support and partnerships with a desire to revitalize the facility allowed fundraising to reach $6 million for the facility’s renovation. The main focus was to connect with nature while minimizing the impact on the site’s natural topography. Two projects, the redesign of the 3,000-foot boardwalk and a new pedestrian bridge connecting CNC to the river boardwalk, have transformed the facility while enhancing access to the Chattahoochee River and its environment and preserving the terrain. Along with the improvements to the boardwalk, the wetland had an array of appropriate native species replanted to help mitigate the ongoing removal of invasive species currently existing.

Green infrastructure at CNC includes a water-quality bio-retention area that accommodates current and future development stormwater capacity. The design also included a new vehicular drive with an enhanced entrance identification feature, and the plan is to implement this after a future funding campaign.

Two examples of workplace environments where green strategies were pivotal are the corporate headquarters for TIAA-CREF in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Lowe’s in Mooresville, North Carolina.

TIAA-CREF Headquarters, Charlotte, North Carolina. Over 400 native species were incorporated into the garden-like exterior, each divided into local habitats, including Cypress, Swamp, Carolina Bays, and Piedmont Riparian. / image: HGOR

The master plan for TIAA-CREF’s 137-acre headquarters included several outdoor experiential opportunities, exhibits from a corporate art program, and educational displays; environmental preservation was integrated as well. The master plan placed new construction along the edge of a broad ridge, preserving valuable hardwood areas and focusing the campus around an 8-acre central green park that introduced the employees, relocating from New York, to the natural beauty of North Carolina.

TIAA-CREF Headquarters, Charlotte, North Carolina, A 2,000-foot-long ridge was transformed from depleted farmland into a magnificent landscape. / image: HGOR

HGOR designed a captivating landscape through a 2,000-foot-long ridge, reshaping exhausted farmland into a tranquil garden that reflects the geography and plant communities of North Carolina. 400+ native species were incorporated into the gardens, each divided into local habitats, including Cypress Swamps, Carolina Bays, and Piedmont Riparian environments. To provide further information, HGOR designed an informational booklet explaining each ecosystem and the species found within them to elevate the gardens to a more interactive learning level.

Lowe’s Corporate Headquarters, Mooresville, North Carolina. Meticulously designed outdoor spaces were created for function and enjoyment. / image: HGOR

The Lowe’s corporate headquarters project was an opportunity to blend a combination of natural systems with innovative designs, resulting in one of the most exciting company landscapes within the state. The firm designed a garden-like series of bio-retention and stormwater courses offering functional courtyard and outdoor spaces accessible to employees. The landscape includes littoral and wetland plantings, numerous spaces to relax in nature, and received a LEED Silver certification.

Lowe’s Corporate Headquarters, Mooresville, North Carolina. An elaborate series of bio-retention and stormwater courses provide a landscape of beauty and sustainability. / image: HGOR

Grant Park Gateway and Westside Park are projects for which HGOR received high honors and recognition in 2022. They represent community and park spaces where unique green infrastructure strategies were fundamental and have set a new standard for achieving excellence within a landscape.

The design for Westside Park, which recently received an Urban Design Commission Award of Excellence for Resilience, delivered a comprehensive framework for park longevity. The carefully curated plan features future opportunity zones throughout the park supporting leisure and recreational activities, learning opportunities, and economy-driving programs for the community. Sustainability was a key driver in this 280-acre project, the largest gathering space in Atlanta.

Westside Park, Atlanta, Georgia. A 35.5-acre quarry-turned-reservoir that serves as Atlanta’s major emergency water source up to 30+ days. / image: HGOR

One of the park’s unique attributes, a 35.5-acre quarry-turned-reservoir implemented by Atlanta Watershed Management, is now Atlanta’s major emergency water source, increasing city water reserves to 30+ days in times of drought. Additional green infrastructure integrated within Westside Park includes a 2.1-acre parking lot with vegetated swales and bio-detention cells, EV charging stations, and native plants chosen specifically to re-establish the park’s canopy coverage. Over 8 acres of invasive species, including Kudzu and Chinese Wisteria, were removed towards the greater effort of preserving this urban oasis as one of the largest contiguous intact forests within the city.

Westside Park, Atlanta, Georgia. A 2.1-acre teardrop parking lot with vegetated swales, bio-detention cells, native plantings and EV charging stations. / image: HGOR
Westside Park, Atlanta, Georgia. Green infrastructure components incorporated to support park resilience. / image: HGOR
image: HGOR

Grant Park Gateway was recently announced as the world’s first triple-certified project, receiving LEED, SITES, and Parksmart certifications. The aspirational design transformed an 8-acre declining parking lot into a pedestrian-oriented, environmentally sensitive work of art.

Grant Park Gateway’s parking area before the project. / image: HGOR
Grant Park Gateway, Atlanta, Georgia. Creative solutions enabled the complete transformation of this site. The photo showing parking before (above) reveals what an experienced, innovative team of forward-thinkers can accomplish. / image: HGOR

The development’s sustainability elements include:

  • A 2.5-acre green roof with a 4,000 SF LEED Silver Certified restaurant and plaza space and an open lawn bordered by terraced seating offering elevated skyline views.
  • Through SITES Gold Certification, Grant Park Gateway provides an improved rainwater management system that manages stormwater while simultaneously helping to meet irrigation demands, recharging groundwater, and providing an enhanced stormwater amenity.
  • EV charging stations, “green vehicle,” and carpool parking in a semi-underground Parksmart Silver Certified parking deck.
Grant Park Gateway, Atlanta, Georgia / image: HGOR

While creative green infrastructure solutions are continuously improving and are increasingly in demand, at HGOR, we not only strive for innovation and efficiency within the projects we deliver but also to educate the client and community throughout the process. To achieve sustainability, we believe that the education component is equally as valuable as the design and implementation to ensure long-term value.

Steve Sanchez, ASLA, is a Principal at HGOR.

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