Walk on the Wild Side
In creating the town green and an overarching landscape plan
for the new town of WaterColor, Florida, Nelson-Byrd Landscape Architects
let the site's diverse native vegetation take the lead role.
By Vernon Mays
Some might have considered it blasphemyespecially here in the Florida Panhandle,
the high altar of the traditional town planning movement-to make
a statement so patently untraditional as the design of Cerulean
Park. But Warren Byrd, ASLA, believed he was answering to a higher
authority in his scheme for the main public space at WaterColor,
the latest resort town to spring up beside the pristine white beaches
along the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of laying out a rigidly geometrical
town green, he broke the mold by creating a gathering space to unapologetically
celebrate the native landscape rather than sweeping it away and
filling it in with a grassy lawn.
Photo by Arvida
"As first conceived by the developers, this was a totally open green with lines
of trees planted along each side," says Byrd, a principal of Susan
Nelson-Warren Byrd Landscape Architects of Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Well, we came here and saw these great vertical pines, these great
sinuous oak trees, these great patches of palmettosand we said,
'God, this is fabulous and rich. What a shame to knock all that
down just to have a simple green.'"
So Nelson-Byrd chose to keep many of the native plants, whose random
pattern suggested an asymmetrical layout. They placed the walking
path off center. They introduced a flowing ribbon of water. They
veered away from a scheme based on pure geometry. "I love geometry,"
Byrd explains, "but in this case we had a mosaic of native plants.
For me, this is a perfect expression of what WaterColor is all about."
Indeed, Cerulean Park, winner of a Merit Award for design in the
2003 ASLA Awards program, is a microcosm of WaterColor's 490-acre
parcel, whose development plan is predicated on the interweaving
of natural and built elements. Bounded to the east by the town of
Seaside, to the south by the Gulf of Mexico, to the west by a state
park, and to the north by a state forest, WaterColor occupies a
landscape that is remarkably rich in its environmental variety,
subtlety, and contrasts. Its many distinct plant communities include
dry upland pine stands, freshwater marshes, cypress depressions,
beach dunes with coastal scrub, and sawgrass needle and rush wetlands.
How, Byrd wondered, could one not celebrate its natural diversity?
As the centerpiece of the town, Cerulean Park was intended to embody
the landscape philosophy adopted for the entire site. The park is
the central town meeting place, a gateway that provides connections
by foot or bike between neighborhoods and public places such as
the beach, the lakefront, and the smaller parks. Its unique character
draws on aspects of the indigenous landscape to capture its essential
qualities and create a landmark public space. And because the 600-foot-long
park straddles a spine linking the wooded upland along Western Lake
with the dunes along the gulf, one can literally look through the
site from lake to oceanfront.
A narrow canal, 340 feet long, extends almost the entire length
of the park's west side. It runs parallel to an 8-foot-wide, crushed-shell
walking path that begins at the marina/swimming pool complex along
Western Lake on the north edge of town and ends at the WaterColor
Inn beside the gulf to the south. Flanking the canal are gardens
planted with flowering annuals and perennials. "One place we have
allowed introduction of nonnatives is in Cerulean Park, because
we are trying to make it more of a botanic garden and give it color,"
Byrd notes. "Some of the annuals and perennials are not necessarily
native, but they are not invasive. And they're great because they
not only provide color but also really draw the wildlifethe butterflies,
birds, and bees."
The design team's hope is that Cerulean Park will serve an educational
function by displaying a diverse palette of native plants, in addition
to the noninvasive herbaceous species that adapt well to the site.
Their theory is that homeowners and visitors strolling through the
park will experience it as a place to discover possibilities for
both found gardens of nature and created gardens of culture. At
the community's disposal are a staff horticulturist and a head gardener
who interact with residents and conduct workshops.
The narrow canal, or runnel, originates in a small basin where
a large granite cup gently overflows like the natural springs found
in the region. Its water cascades through a series of shallow falls
down the gradual slope into a large oval pond. Embracing one side
of the pond is an arc of native water plants, and slicing across
it off center is a wooden footbridge that provides an ideal vantage
point for watching the variety of koi that move hypnotically beneath
it. The pond serves more than a decorative function: It doubles
as a catchment and storage area for stormwater.
East of the canal, an expanse of lawn is planted with a drought-resistant,
salt-tolerant "seashore paspalum" grass. Oval-shaped islands of
native vegetation are scattered throughout the lawn, allowing the
preservation of significant native trees and masses of ground. "The
thing I like about what we were able to achieve here was the interweaving
and, in some cases, almost pure juxtaposition of what was naturally
here and what we inserted," says Byrd. "To me, that's what the path
system is all about. You've got these great interruptions of the
path by trees."
Indeed, the contrast of the grassy plane against the sculptural
forms of the sand live oaks and vertical spires of slash pines makes
a special event out of the native species. Woody shrubs, masses
of saw palmettos, and beds of grayish reindeer lichen form a textured
carpet beneath the trees. The arrangement of oval beds breaks up
the space enough to allow visitors to claim their own space for
relaxing or Frisbee-tossing yet leaves enough open areas for large
gatherings to be successful as well.
Nelson-Byrd's design of Cerulean Park followed in the footsteps
of the firm's earlier contributions on the WaterColor master landscape
plan. Nelson-Byrd was brought into the process after the initial
master plan for the community had been created by New York architects
and urban designers Cooper Robertson and Partners, in conjunction
with Tallahassee, Florida, civil engineers PBS&J. Nelson-Byrd's
hiring also closely coincided with the acquisition of Arvida, the
project's initial real estate developer, by The St. Joe Company,
a former timber grower with the largest landholdings in the state
of Floridamore than a million acres.
"We were brought in when they thought that they had a decent template
down," recalls Byrd. "People had bought into the overall plan, but
they felt they needed a particular landscape philosophy and point
of view. They said the landscape here is more important than the
Modeled in theory after the pattern established at Seaside, where
traditional Southern building and town-planning practices set the
tone of the community, WaterColor is made up of neighborhoods that
use a regional palette of landscape and architecture. Houses are
oriented toward the street with deep front porches that convey a
sense of neighborhood and civic responsibility. The houses are meant
to be unpretentious, deferring to the landscape and the street,
which is built with curbs and sidewalks.
From the beginning, Nelson-Byrd's emphasis in the master plan was
the preservation and celebration of the unique indigenous landscape.
Later the landscape architects were given full design responsibility
for all of the public spaces and so echoed that emphasis in the
design of the parks, streets, plazas, greens, stormwater management
systems, recreation areas, and residential development codes.
"I feel where we distinguished ourselves, perhaps, was that we
looked at New Urbanist examples already in place, like Seaside,
and realized how similar or different this place was," says Byrd.
"They have a unique landscape here. It includes an endangered [animal]
species on the dunethat's the beach mouse. It has some gopher tortoises,
which are pretty rare. It has some beautiful plant communities.
And the neat thing is that it's big enough that it has distinct
plant communities, whereas a place like Seaside did not have quite
the same opportunities. We have beach strand, back-of-beach strand,
a high, dry sandy oak forest, and a sand pine forest. We have these
wonderful wetland marshes in areas. We have some distinct perched
wetlands that have carnivorous plants in them. So it was pretty
fabulous right from the start."
In addition to the 2003 Merit Award that is strictly for Cerulean
Park, Nelson-Byrd's landscape master plan for WaterColor was recognized
with an Honor Award in the analysis and planning category of the
2002 ASLA awards programin part because of the high standard it
set for integrating the community with its ecosystem. The firm's
intentions, as expressed in the award submission, were ambitious:
"In this scheme, a network of public spaces, from the scale of the
street section to large-scale parks, would be designed as gardens
to inhabit, explore, celebrate, and understand the evolving nature
of this place."
Several strategies were adopted to achieve this blending of the
natural and the man-made. The highlights included an emphasis on
the effect of water and its process in the landscape through the
design of stormwater systems and revealed hydrology in civic spaces.
"Stormwater is a huge requirement down hereyou have to process
water before it gets into Western Lake, which is environmentally
sensitive," Byrd notes. "So there are a lot of stormwater lakes
and pondssome dry ones, but we really tried hard to work with wet
ones so they would be part of the quality of the place. All of these
are designed so there is always standing water, which is lakelike
or pondlike, and then there is a big enough shelf to absorb the
flooding stormwater. And those shelves are usually planted with
The landscape architects were mindful of the distinct ecological
zones contained on the site and, in the landscape portion of the
pattern book created to guide town residents in the design of residential
landscapes, urged that attention be paid to these zonesidentified
as the Gulf Coastal Dune Scrub, the Upland Transitional Forest,
and the Lake Edge Transitional Forest. New residents are provided
with a list of typical plants for each zone and are encouraged to
choose from the appropriate list when selecting plants for their
yards. Lawns are strictly forbidden on residential lots.
Nelson-Byrd also strove to reinforce the existing landscape through
the almost-exclusive use of native plants and planting strategies
based on the established ecological zones and availability of water.
"One thing we really enjoyed pursuing here was the native plant
palettedoing what I call using common plants in uncommon ways or
uncommon plants in common ways," notes Byrd. "We used the native
magnolias as hedges, for example. So, in other words, the garden
structure here borrows completely from the native plant palette.
And that's pretty unusual."
An additional strategy involved preservation, to the greatest extent
possible, of the existent wild landscape and its plant communities
at key locations. As seen in Cerulean Park, for example, the designers
took the opportunity to highlight the sinuous characteristics of
existing sand live oaks by setting them in contrast with the linear
geometry of the walking path and canal.
As coauthors of the pattern book of residential codes and guidelines,
Nelson and Byrd were able to establish a vocabulary of landscape
elements for the community. Details such as hedge and fence treatments
are explicitly prescribed in drawings and diagrams, with the proposed
treatments differing among streets, neighborhoods, and ecological
zones. "We are playing off some New Urbanist ideas but trying some
new ones, at least here," Byrd adds. "As a for instance, Seaside
has this code that requires some kind of picket fence virtually
everywhere. So they have this language of fences, though they're
all a little bit different. But we decided that, for a significant
part of this, our language would be hedges or plants. It seemed
that has been a tradition in some places. So it gave it a little
more of a landscape or garden quality."
A section of the pattern book is dedicated to an illustrated list
of the recommended plant palette to guide homeowners in their landscaping
choices. The detailed plant list is divided into categories ranging
from "water plants" and "beach dune cover" to "thickets" and "large
deciduous trees" in order to suggest an appropriate kit of parts
to residents. Invasive species are expressly forbidden, and residents
are referred to the staff naturalist for detailed information.
Byrd says the landscape master plan was made to create a hierarchical
series of parks and places for recreation and gathering, and to
establish a path system both on the street and off. "I think what
evolved out of the decision to celebrate the natural plant communities
is the idea that this is both a garden and a preserve or reserve."
By extension, the design of Cerulean Park preserves as well as
creates. Selective clearing in the green allows for strolling, framing
of views, and establishing gathering places; the indigenous plant
communityat once vertical, sinuous, parched, and lush-adds texture
and interest. Together, they produce a decidedly untraditional result
that fits within the theoretical framework of New Urbanism while
expanding its landscape vocabulary. What a wild notion.
Vernon Mays is the editor of Inform, the architecture and design
magazine of the Virginia Society AIA.
Project Credits Landscape architect: Nelson-Byrd Landscape Architects, Charlottesville,
VA. Warren T. Byrd Jr., ASLA, principal in charge; Kennon Williams,
project manager/designer; Pete O'Shea; Thomas Woltz, ASLA; Lara
Call; Anne Russell; Hugh Truslow; Mary Wolf; Breck Gastinger; Jason
Kreuzer; Jim Kovach; Todd Shallenberger; Robin Carmichael; Jill
Nolt; Robin Lollar; Kent Dougherty; Shanti Levy; and Shaeffer Somers.
Client: Arvida/St. Joe Company, Jacksonville, FL. Urban design/architecture:
Cooper Robertson and Partners, New York. Civil engineers: PBS&J,
Fountain technical consultant: Siska Aurand, Inc., Norfolk, VA.
Pattern book consultant: Urban Design Associates, Pittsburgh, PA.
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