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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 blasphemy—especially 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 palmettos—and 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 wildlife—the 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 Florida—more 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 architecture."

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 dune—that'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 program—in 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 here—you 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 ponds—some 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 native grasses."

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 zones—identified 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 palette—doing 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 community—at 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, Tallahassee, FL.
Fountain technical consultant: Siska Aurand, Inc., Norfolk, VA.
Pattern book consultant: Urban Design Associates, Pittsburgh, PA.


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