The concept for Hardberger Park is cultivated wild. Over the last seven years, this Park has become an integration of the rich cultural history of San Antonio, blended with the diverse and resilient ecologies that are native to the region. The Park dedicates 75% of the 311 acre site to preservation and restoration of this native landscape while seamlessly embedding 25% as low-impact recreation. Engaging state-of-the-art green infrastructure and a restored, diverse landscape, the Park has become a living laboratory for urban ecology, healthy living, and sustainability in south Texas.
In 2007, Mayor Phil Hardberger and the Parks and Recreation Department of San Antonio, Texas led an international design competition for a newly acquired parcel of land in the northern reaches of the City. As winners of the competition, the design team was charged with master planning and designing a 21st century park for the seventh largest city in the United States. At 311 acres, the site was the largest parcel of undeveloped land in San Antonio and has become the most significant public park project in the City since 1899. Positioned in the heart of a major population center, the Park provides greatly needed open space in an urban environment where the acreage of parks per person is below the national average.
Uniquely positioned at the convergence of three ecoregions, the South Texas Plains, the Blackland Prairie and the Edwards Plateau, the site offers a rich mosaic for landscape restoration, from heritage oak woodland to endangered oak savanna. As a former dairy farm, it also exhibits remnants of the agrarian patterns of grazing and farming which are unique to the historic settlement of San Antonio’s missions. Hardberger Park was the first public park to be master planned in the City of San Antonio and generated intense community interest. From the onset, the design team was charged with planning for a city-wide park, and engaged in a unique process of community meetings and public work sessions throughout 6 precincts of the city. This public process continued through subsequent design phases, where the Design Team presented Park design proposals to the Public, the Parks Board, and Historic District Commission for review and approvals.
The conceptual framework for Hardberger Park as a ‘cultivated wild’ designates 75% of the parkland as a renewed native landscape mosaic. This involves the preservation of heritage oaks, the restoration of woodlands and brush, and the reintroduction of the endangered oak savanna, the expansive native grasslands that personify a genuinely wild Texas territory. The remaining 25% of parkland is comprised of active areas for community gatherings and varied recreation carefully embedded in the native and restored landscape. The crafting of places takes inspiration from the City’s cultural landscape, reinterpreting patterns of historic mission acequias and cultivated fields. The result is park programming that respects its natural context creating a dynamic relationship between built and natural elements.
The Park is bisected by a six-lane vehicular Parkway and divided into two parcels. The east side is bordered by the Salado Creek, linked to the regional park system by the Salado Creek Greenway, and has a low-lying cedar elm woodland and scattered with oak mottes. The west side is characterized by overwhelming scrubland and invasive species, a high knoll of live oak woodland, and exposed limestone. Dense neighborhoods and development surrounds the Park on all remaining sides. Existing drainage culverts provide wildlife corridors under the Parkway and connect the two parcels. Eventually, a monumental land bridge will re-connect these two parcels. When the design phase began, a small herd of cows were still grazing on the property, but the majority of the site was covered with impenetrable brushland. These dense thickets of understory had almost entirely succeeded the native savanna grasslands and were choking out the remnant heritage oak mottes and cedar elm woodland. Preserving the heritage woodlands, managing the scrubland, and restoring the native oak savanna became a primary design goal. This holisitic restoration process was integrated with the program of parking for 350 cars, picnic groves, playfields, playgrounds and dog parks on both parcels.
On the east, the Salado Creek Classroom and Trailhead is a 2,400 sq ft Park facility with restrooms, offices, an outdoor classroom and interpretive space powered by solar panels and rainwater harvesting. The building serves as the Park’s headquarters and a gateway for the Salado Creek Greenway. Further north along the Greenway corridor, the Salado Creek Overlook is a 60’ long weathering steel and aluminum structure that hovers 40’ above the creekbed. For years, the City turned its back on these ephemeral waterways by burying and culverting them. This reach of the Creek is re-naturalized and has unique karst features along the bluff edge, made visible from the Overlook where interpretive signage depicts the Park’s geologic history. On the west, a five-acre play field was carefully carved out of the scrubland and is used for passive recreation and public art display. The field was seeded with drought tolerant native fescue grass mix and was recently the site of the Tom Otterness sculpture installation Making Hay. The Master Plan designates 60 acres of the west side to restored oak savanna which will be implemented over time. The Parks and Recreation Department selectively cleared a six-acre test plot, and over 40,000 native plugs were planted by City-wide volunteers.
Over six miles of trails, constructed primarily of native decomposed granite with an organic stabilizer weave carefully throughout the woodlands and connect the new program spaces on both parcels. Boardwalks were created where trails cross watercourses, and the trail system respects existing large stands of heritage live oaks, persimmon and cedar elm, preserving these ecological communities in ‘trail and tree encounters.’ A comprehensive signage package was designed by the Landscape Architects and included two main entry signs, loop trail signs, wayfinding signs, and interpretive signage. The use of materials common to the region such as Leuders limestone, sandblasted concrete, raw steel, salvaged drill stem pipes, and cedar staves, demonstrates the respect for the native San Antonio landscape and connect the project to its regional context.
The west side of the park provides the community with a gathering place for both recreation and education with the introduction of an 18,600 sq ft Urban Ecology Center. This state-of-the-art facility encompasses indoor and outdoor classrooms, a gathering hall, restrooms, picnic areas and parking, all designed and constructed to LEED standards. The Architect and Landscape Architect closely collaborated to ensure the building was embedded in the existing oak savanna and scrub landscape. A unifying element is the ‘grand acequia’, lined with limestone gabion and weathering steel that captures and collects all of the parking lot runoff. This 600’ long bioswale is planted with native forbs and grasses, traversed by vehicular and pedestrian bridges, and provides a model for how large-scale landscape gestures can and should replace conventional stormwater infrastructure.
The Master Plan for Hardberger Park was completed and adopted by San Antonio’s City Council in May 2008. Within three months, Phases IA, IB, and II were simultaneously in progress. The Hardberger Park Conservancy was founded, and $2.0 million in state grant money was awarded by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for construction. The Park had a series of phased openings and has been open for City-wide use since 2010. This project exhibits a commitment to native landscape and habitat restoration, green infrastructure, connectivity to regional open space and human fitness. Hardberger Park is an important milestone in the history of park-making in Texas, and offers a new model for embracing suburban ecology, and has become a living laboratory for healthy living and sustainability in south Texas.
Stephen Stimson, ASLA
Lauren Stimson, ASLA
David Hill, ASLA
Tom Lee, ASLA
Jim Gray, ASLA
Danny Watson, ASLA
Landscape Architect of Record/Firm:
Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects (Phase I and II)
Rialto Studio (Phase III)
Additional Project Credits:
Hardberger Park Conservancy
Consulting Landscape Architect: D.I.R.T Studio
Architect: Fisher Heck, Architects (Phase I)
Architect: Lake | Flato (Phase III)
Civil Engineer: Pape-Dawson Engineers, Inc.
Geotechnical + Environmental Engineer: Raba-Kistner Consultants
Structural Engineer: Arup
Hydrologist: Southwest Research Institute
Botanical and Cultural Resources Consultant: SWCA Environmental Consultants
Wildlife Biologist: Bluestem Environmental Consultants
Community Coordinator: Juan Sepulveda
Cost Estimator: Zachry Construction
General Contractors: Charlie and Company, Sabinal Group