Earlier this spring Landscape Architect in its 2016 March issue featured Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown on the south side of Chicago. It is directly west of Soldier Field/Museum Campus by a little over a mile. If you’re not familiar, the Chicago Park District acquired the land in 1991. It was originally a Chicago and Western Indiana Railyard along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Beginning in 1998, the CPD hired site design group, ltd., a landscape architecture firm, to design the acreage into a park.
Topiarius’ very own landscape architect, Amy Beltemacchi, co-led a team of 6-8 designers, engineers, and consultants when she worked on Ping Tom while at site design group, ltd. She had a significant role in several areas of the park, and with such experience in her portfolio, we thought it would be interesting to hear first-hand about the design.
Topiarius: What areas of the park did you work on?
Amy: Our first project was the design and layout of northern side of the park. We primarily chose the specific plants and coordinated a lot with the Civil Engineers about the site grading and hydrology. As our second project, we selected the planting around the new boat house.
Topiarius: What part of the park is on the northern side?
Amy: This section of the park has the brilliant red railings along the bridge boardwalk. Originally the northern side was imagined as an all native prairie planting with a pathway that wound and curved on the river’s edge north of the boat house. This would be differentiated from the southern side which had plants from or reminiscent of China. The final installation has a wide collection of native plants including swaths of native prairie plants, some great Burr Oaks, Black Walnut, and other Oak species with a few non-native Ginkgo’s to carry in the theme from the southern side.
For me the planting plan was fun because it was one of the few places in the city where we could plant Walnut trees and not worry about the walnuts dropping or the plants that grew under them. The Park District has strong awareness that parks are great opportunities to provide nesting and resting habitats, as well as, landscapes that people can enjoy and explore. The planting was also a gentle nod to the Oak-Hickory forest habitat that fringed the historic Chicago area ecosystem. I was lucky to have them as a partner on this project.
Ultimately, the native prairie planting moved to the perimeter, mostly along the railway where we specified a short to tall mesic prairie planting to surround the overlook in the north with a wide area of lawn. At the boat house we selected native and native varieties as well.
Topiarius: What are some of your favorites that were planted and why?
Amy: Leading from the overlook and connected to the red rail boardwalk, there is a gathering plaza accessed by foot bridges. With the changes to the hydrologic level of the river water, or during large storm events, a large section of the park flows to the area around the plaza and creates a gently mote. Originally I themed the plants to have bluer flowers to highlight the connection to the water. Though I learned early on it was an artificial decision, too hard to actually create, and moved to native plants that would hold their own in the specific hydraulic conditions of the site.
Topiarius: When I see the boathouse landscape now, it has a prairie feel of grasses surrounded by controlled turf. What was the feeling you were trying to achieve?
Amy: As it was next to the river and other parts of the site have traditional mowed lawn, we focused on creating a landscape that would allow the water on the site to infiltrate the soil. Most native prairie plants of our area have long root structures (3, 4, 5+ feet deep) and help to both loosen the soil and allow water to infiltrate. Natives are also are more resilient as they pull water up from deeper in the soil during times of drought.
We also juxtaposed the uncontrolled and controlled in a designed manner. It was a continuation of a theme. You have the boathouse modern and linear compared to the naturalized landscape. Playing with the overall colors on the site was fun as well. You have the earth tone colors of the land and water that are everywhere compared to the red which is bold and selectively used.
Ultimately after much discussion, we chose to find plants that would be lower maintenance (because there’s no such thing a no maintenance) and would grow well on the site. Plus, grasses are just fantastic – once they’re in full bloom, hearing them sway in the breeze along the river is magical.
We were also keenly aware how lucky we were to work with the Park District who had top notch native plant maintenance partners. It’s easy to stick a plant in the ground. But to have it grow up in an urban environment? That a lot harder. Rabbits, geese, pollution, compacted soil, etc., will impact the success of a planting.
I like to tell people “Sleep. Creep. Leap.” The first year the plants sleep. They have just been moved and are getting used to their new place. The second year they focus on growing roots with some new growth above the soil. The third year they leap. Keeping weeds and undesirable plants out of the area of the first three years is critical. Once the plants get going, they will outcompete a lot of other plants and the maintenance regimes can change.
Topiarius: Final question. Why transition to working on private home landscapes versus this kind of civic space?
Amy: It wasn’t planned. One day, the president of Topiarius, Craig Jenkins-Sutton, gave me a call with an unusual proposal. Their designer had taken a leave of absence and he asked if I would work for them for three months. I thought it would be fun to work for a smaller company that focused on residential design. Two months into it I told them I didn’t care if their designer was or wasn’t coming back, I wasn’t leaving. We had to work something out.
Along with our Design-Build Division, we have a Fine Gardening Services Division. It’s so easy to work with clients and create a space for them and be able to work with an in-house team on how it will be maintained over time. A great combination.
I had no idea I would love it so much. The quality of work we produce here is outstanding. I love working with clients who enjoy the design process and take the time to think about what they are creating for themselves and their family’s to live into. It’s a privilege to come work with our clients and the team here at Topiarius.