Project Statement: A neglected park in a striving and diverse community was redesigned to reflect and celebrate its many cultures using art, ecology and recreation. An attached wetland area previously overrun by invasive species was restored. The park demonstrates green building practices, serves as a model for residents to learn sustainable strategies, and functions as an outdoor classroom for youth. The community process, design and construction were completed as a collaboration between the King County Parks and Recreation Division and the University of Washington Landscape Architecture Department. White Center Heights Park was funded by a Starbucks Parks Makeover Program
Location, scope and size: The White Center is a city of 20,975 located ten miles south of Seattle WA. The 4 acre park consists of open lawn and field surrounded on three sides by wetlands. The remainder of the site is open lawn and field. Our team completed the design and construction of the ½ acre of the open area and participated in the restoration of 1 1/2 acres of wetlands.
Community Context: Immigrants have been making new homes and opening businesses in White Center over the past thirty years. Reputed to be one of the most diverse communities in the United States 54 languages are spoken in the White Center School District. The area’s unique flavor is regularly experienced in its many ethnic rituals and celebrations, including Samoan pig roasts, Mexican mariachi bands and Vietnamese dance groups. With population growth, White Center has been losing its natural places and White Center Heights Park is one of few places left where residents can garden, celebrate and recreate in a natural setting. Prior to our redevelopment, residents avoided the greater part of the park that was co-opted by drug addicts and the homeless. Safety was a primary concern requiring the removal of dense invasive vegetation within the wetland and opening up and preserving views from the street. Appropriation by gang members would further be discouraged by offering healthy activities in the park throughout the day and evening.
Design program and intent: Beyond the restoration of the class two wetlands, program needs included a community garden and rainwater harvesting system, picnic shelter and barbeques, performance stage and plaza, grassy mounds/seating, shade trees, a track/trail, a habitat/exploratory garden, ornamental beds, and a community kiosk. A central loop trail leads users from the entry connecting major active and passive elements in a fluid and legible sequence. This main spine unifies the site and feeds several secondary loops for walking, running and bicycling. The central loop is flanked by of thirty five steel and colored glass sentinels and rhythm of these vertical elements offers a strong counter point to the relatively flat site. The “artful” use of grading and planting creates a sense of mystery as the landscape undulates and unfolds as users traverse the site.
Three primary themes of learning, recreation and celebration are expressed in the design. Learning opportunities are achieved in several ways. Eight interpretive panels explain graphically and in , Spanish and Vietnamese the systems and processes occurring in the park. For example, the rainwater harvesting system is described as an integral part of water conservation, erosion control irrigation for the community garden. Local school children use the garden as an outdoor classroom investigation cultivation, nutrition and food security. The restored wetland provides an opportunity for school teachers and King County staff to instruct children about the local urban ecology and threats to native species.
Recreation opportunities are layered throughout the park and range from highly active to contemplative. The accessible loop trails accommodate users of all ages to walk, run and ride within the park. The graded mounds are used by children to play, sunbath and view performances. A habitat/play garden engages youth to climb the large stones, explore a stream and walk across salvaged logs as they learn about their local geology and flora. The community gardening facilitates hands on engagement while the picnic tables and benches allow observation and reflection within the natural surroundings. For residents of this violent and crime ridden community, White Center Heights Park represents a safe zone where the calming qualities of water, nature and wildlife offer therapeutic benefits.
The park is also a celebration of culture and the arts. Poetry, inscribed in the stone table in the shelter reflects on the meaning of community. A Samoan BBQ pit enables residents to celebrate their traditional culture and pass these traditions on to their children. An integrated public art work establishes a strong identity for the park. A lone steel sentinel, memorializing fallen police officer and local resident Steven Cox, reinforces community ties to place. Crafted steel fence panels define the community garden, evocative stone and recycled wood benches reference local indigenous materials and the stage for music and theatrical events reflect the community’s vital culture and importance of the arts.
Materials and Methods: Materials include large quantities of fill, conventional colored concrete (stage), porous concrete (shelter and picnic pads), concrete pavers, wood (shelter and community gardens), steel (fencing, sculptures), entry sign, Cox memorial and cistern), metal roofing, art glass, large stones, sand (Samoan BBQ), hog fuel, vegetation and sod.
The steel columns are punctuated with colored glass circles that capture sun light and broadcast beams of color onto the horizontal surfaces. On the stage, this pronounced effect is a festive backdrop for the many ethnic performances. The sculpture and its many varied glass circles and kinetic light effects are a metaphor for the ethnic diversity that defines White Center.
Environmental Impacts and Concerns: The site is bounded on three sides by wetlands and water quality is addressed in several ways. The rainwater from the picnic shelter roof is stored in a 4500 gallon cistern and used to irrigate the community garden beds. Porous concrete was used in the picnic shelter and around the picnic tables and BBQ’s to reduce runoff through direct infiltration. Further runoff is conveyed to an infiltration detention area, to minimize storm water impacts on the wetlands. The majority of the planting is native vegetation and a habitat garden is used for ecological education. The recycled wood bench slabs salvaged from blow downs in other King County parks. The wetlands have been restored and ongoing community stewardship is being managed by King County. The paths are mostly ¼- and hog fuel as an alternative to concrete.
Collaboration Process: White Center Heights Park is the result of a unique collaborative effort involving the applicant, King County, White Center Community Development Center and the Starbucks Corporation. In a participatory design process, prior to the construction, several public planning and design review meetings were conducted. In the design process, the King County architect worked closely with the applicant to complete construction documents for the shelter. During construction King County provided heavy equipment operators, truck haulers, plumbers, electricians and carpenters. Volunteers worked to clear the class 2 wetlands of invasive species, amend the soils and plant native wetland plants. During the last week they laid sod and built the gravel path. The park was designed, permitted and built in ten weeks.