An Interview With Kathleen Benedict, Senior Landscape Architect, City of Fort Collins
by Michael Shamalla, Associate ASLA

Colorado, December 16, 2011

In each newsletter, we will focus on a Parks and Recreation Professional Practice Network (PPN) member who works hard to create and shape excellent parks. Almost all park planners work at some point to help create a forward-thinking vision that might protect a city from a flood but also provide a path for commuters to enjoy a morning pedal to work. Kathleen Benedict’s role of balancing passive and active spaces in Fort Collins is similar to her roles as past President of Colorado’s ASLA Chapter and Chair of the ASLA Parks and Recreation PPN: each requires consensus building.

Here is a paraphrased interview with Kathleen Benedict, ASLA, Senior Landscape Architect for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado.

What brought you to Landscape Architecture?

I grew up in the Midwest (Indiana), on a farm where we grew corn and soybeans. I was the second of five children. In the back of the property was a forest and that was our playground. It was where Mom sent us when she didn’t want us underfoot. I used to go out into that forest and map it out—drawing maps of the forest so we could determine where we were going to play that day.

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Registry Ridge mini forest. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict

So, I was acting as a landscape architect as early as ten years old. Making the decision to study landscape architecture was easy for me when I heard what a Landscape Architect was. I was like, “oh, I’ve already been doing that, I guess I’ll take door number one.”

Your Master’s thesis was, “Balancing play: evaluating pre-school age play on public playgrounds for physical and psychological balance.” Where does the natural playground fit in?

Let me back up. I am actually the proud mother of two young children. I take them to all of the playgrounds in Fort Collins, and then watch them quickly get bored. I used to play for hours in the forest, so I started to wonder if our playgrounds had everything they needed to stimulate and provide an enriching play experience, especially for the younger, preschool-aged children. But I had no current method to quantify playground success. So, I created my own measurement, and that’s what the big, long title of my thesis describes. I researched preschool-aged children and how they used playgrounds, and which particular items on the playground were the most valuable to how they played. I was not just looking at physical development but also social development. I spoke with Robin Moore, Affiliate ASLA, about how the natural environment could provide more “affordances” for play in this age group. An example of an affordance is: If you have a tree in your playground and a three year old child can’t reach the branches, the tree may still “afford” them a hiding place to go behind the trunk and hide. To a ten-year old, that same tree might afford a climbing activity, if he/she can reach the branches. So, the same tree is providing an opportunity for different play activities to different children. That’s an affordance.

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Trees affordances at Spring Canyon Community Park. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict.

Nature is incredibly variable; it has so many more affordances than anything we can create. So, I started being more interested in natural play and how that could provide additional affordances that may not be available on a built or entirely man-made type of playground.

In your mind’s eye, what might a natural playground look like?

Natural playgrounds could be entirely made up of natural items like logs, rocks, and ropes to swing and climb on. A natural playground could be as simple as having some plants, sand for digging, and maybe some water running through it. There are different levels of natural play; the question is: how many of the human-created items do you want to invest into natural playgrounds? I believe that natural play is really great to a certain extent, but there are some human-created items that also encourage physical activity and social interaction with children. The two aspects I look for are things that move, and things that change through time or have a temporal nature. Nature has that all covered easily. It’s a little bit harder for us to create things safely that move and change over time, but we can do it. Water and sand provide two of the highest affordances of all because we can do millions of different things with water and sand.

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Fossil Creek water feature. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict.

Let’s take a step back from looking at natural playgrounds for kids as an important part of growing up. Is there such a thing as a natural playground for adults?

I am trying to make one right now. One of the things we are considering for adult/teen play is an adventure park for team-building. Adventure play can provide an opportunity to rely on each other to make something happen. I think adventure-type play is analogous to natural play for adults.

Do you get involved at all with folks like the BMXers and skate boarders, mountain bikers, and are they breaking at the seams for places to enjoy these activities?

At Spring Canyon Park, Fort Collins’ most recently developed park, we added a bike trials course. Several of the trees from the site needed to come down because they were rotting. We used these trees to create a course where mountain bikers can jump their bikes and practice skills they may need on the mountain trails. They get the bikes on their rear wheels and bounce from log to log. It’s wild! This is more of a mountain biking-type technical course that we created with the help of local experts, because it’s certainly not my area of expertise.

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Bike trails. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict.

All of our large parks have a skate park, and there are also a couple of bowl parks. But one park, the Fossil Creek Community Park, has what we called an “urban skate park.” In the past, skateboarders used and destroyed some urban areas. So, we wanted an alternative that looked like an urban area that they could use without destroying anything. Literally, the urban skate park is a giant plaza with a bunch of stabs in it, handrails, and a bridge area that do not exist in a built skate park. We had issues in the very beginning because people thought it was a regular plaza, and they would come out and have a picnic and get their blankets rolled over. But people caught on to its purpose, and all worked out well in the end.

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Fossil Creek skate park. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict.

 What do some of the parks in Fort Collins provide besides a place for recreation? 

They have a multitude of other uses besides recreation and play that many people don’t see or hear about. At Spring Canyon Park, we keep raving about all the different play activities it presents, but it also has a regional detention pond. So, when we get big rains or during the snow melt, the entire soccer field goes underwater and it becomes a big lake. It keeps the rest of the city from flooding. Few people realize that the soccer fields are perfect for lakes. Hydrological use can be a significant purpose for turf areas.

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Spring Canyon Community Park fields. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict.

We also are trying to retain soils, and control stormwater because we get a lot of erosion and runoff. At Fossil Creek Park, we have installed swales in the parking lot that hold stormwater before it hits Fossil Creek.

Do you see bike trails as a critical piece of infrastructure in your city?  How do you approach thinking about planning for pedestrians and bicycles? 

Almost every one of our parks is in some way connected to the bike system that also serves as a commuter system. Our bike trails are not just for recreation; many people use them to travel to and from work. But we also design trail areas for dogs and other critters and they are also visited by the occasional mountain lion and bear.

Being so close to the mountains, do you have conflicts from the community about the natural areas in your parks?

Well, yes. For instance, when we designing Spring Canyon Park, folks said that we couldn’t light the sports fields because the mountain lions would see the kids and come and eat them. We didn’t end up lighting the fields but I know it was due to another recreational need and not that particular comment.

Could you share a little bit about the Fort Collins parks and the Sustainable SITES Initiative?

The Sustainable Sites initiative is like LEED, it has several prerequisites for different categories. For instance, you get points if your building site is a brown site vs. a totally green site. There are prerequisites that must be met to qualify for SITES. These include using materials that are recycled, using vegetation that is not invasive, clearing invasive vegetation from your site, and using soils that are not needed or are from farmland. There are also credits that vary for the different sustainability categories such as hydrology, soils, vegetation, and materials. SITES tries to provide basic design guidelines, and gives you extra points in the credit system for doing it even better—going to that next level. So, for example, instead of using just a certain percentage of recycled materials, maybe all of the materials were recycled. In Fort Collins, we are getting ready to build a 10-acre park called “Radiant,” which is a SITES pilot project. One of our efforts under SITES is to strip top soil off the entire park, store it in a big pile, build the recreational amenities, and then return all the top soil to the site. So, we are recycling our topsoil rather than throwing it away. It’s simple, but effective.

How is Fort Collins including sustainability elements in other parks?

We are also working on a small neighborhood park as a Sustainable SITES pilot project, and using the SITES system of voluntary guidelines and benchmarks to see how our design is addressing sustainability. A key component for achieving sustainability is using measurements and benchmarks to determine whether you’re hitting targets. Our park will be starting construction in June 2012. When it’s done, we will know how well it met the SITES goals, and can share that with the rest of the community. So, our intent is to build a sustainable park that meets the top national criteria that we have available today—the SITES program—but still provides the same activity and opportunities for play that are typical for our parks.

Does Sustainable SITES consider connections to neighborhoods, like promoting healthy lifestyles?

SITES can be applied to an area around a building as easily as it can be applied to a park or green space around a commercial facility. So, SITES isn’t just about the parks, although parks have it pretty easy with healthy lifestyle and neighborhood connections. One of the SITES categories is the human health and wellbeing and a criterion is whether you’re including a place where people can gather. This is easier for a park to demonstrate, but it might be a lot harder for a building envelope to include a gathering space. The intent is that SITES will provide guidelines for all outside areas around buildings, and not just parks.

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Oak Street Plaza. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict.

As a park planner involved in Sustainable SITES, you are working with your community to realize these great places where people can spend their time, and connect with their neighbors, and nature. What do you think are some of the broader issues facing urban areas and park planners today?  As a past president of the Colorado ASLA Chapter, did you get to talk with a lot of folks and hear their concerns?

The same problem that everyone is facing is money. It’s very difficult to have the money not only to create the parks, but also to keep them going. A lot of times, you have a great idea and you’re able to build a wonderful park but it does take money to maintain it and stop nature from overgrowing the recreational opportunity you were striving to provide. For example, if you quit mowing the lawn, you won’t have the soccer fields much longer. The lawn will eventually grow into long grasses, then shrubs will appear, and hundreds of years from now, it will be a forest. Maintenance is not pretty, and it’s not very praiseworthy or exciting, so it’s not where people want to put their money. Whereas, if I were to say I wanted to build a really awesome playground that nobody has ever built before, then I might get the money to do it. That’s part of the problem facing parks and recreation. In my opinion, it’s money and as money gets tighter with the economy hurting, then it becomes even harder for us to maintain what we have.

I do a lot of work trying to make playgrounds accessible to disabled individuals. I have a lot of contacts in this area, too. We also get calls from all over the nation with questions as simple as, how the heck did you get that dog park to work—to much more in-depth questions about the vision I had for an inspiration playground and accessible playground. 

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Inspiration Playground. Image courtesy Kathleen Benedict.

Your neighbor, Boulder, Colorado, which everyone says is the “Adventure Capitol of the U.S.,” has set aside 45,000+ acres of land around its community. Has this given momentum to Fort Collins to preserve open space?

We try to NOT be Boulder; we try to be ourselves. But there is a little bit of healthy competition there. We have quite a bit of land set aside regionally and throughout the city. We’re up to 36,000 acres in open lands, 820 acres of parks, and have the 28 square mile Soapstone natural area.

What do you think about protest, and the occupy movement?

The park is the perfect forum for public speaking. I think that part of human health and wellbeing is being able to voice your opinion. A park is meant for that. Yet at the same time, people using the park need to respect the capacity of the park. Not every park is designed to be used as a public forum spot, and most certainly many of them are not able to handle overnight camping. People should respect the limits of the park.

Mike Shamalla, Associate ASLA, is the co-host of Sustainability Now Radio, and an energy engineer at Envinity Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at:

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