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09-03-21 | Feature

Adding Identity

Nathan Logan, ASLA, PLA, SMALLWOOD

This project in the City of Alpharetta, Georgia, encompassed a 5-acre city park, a 1-acre town square, a pocket park and a tree-lined streetscape. Part of the planning by landscape architecture firm SMALLWOOD, David M. Schwarz Architects, city mayor David Belle Isle, and the City Council involved recreating a traditional street grid and arranging mixed uses around green spaces with accommodations for both walkability and vehicular access. The use of a classical planning approach provided strong axial relationships and was intended to make available postcard moments.
An interactive fountain was designed at one end of the town green to encourage daily activity. Brick garden walls double as seating and protection from adjacent streets. Benches were utilized throughout the project to offer multiple seating options with a classical look.
The city center lights up during the holiday season. Accommodations and flexibility inherent in the planning and design allows for a variety of event set-ups throughout the year.
A natural amphitheater was located and designed using existing grades to preserve present stands of tree canopies. 'Emerald' Zoysia sod was used for its turf to withstand the wear and tear of multiple events throughout the year.
Pervious pavers were used in parking spaces as part of an overall stormwater management strategy.
Incorporated into the city park for interaction and noise abatement for a heavily used parkway close by, a natural water feature (lower right) became a significant element of the Veterans Memorial, which is a focal point for annual commemorative events.
A classical garden design incorporates traditional brick edging, gas lamps, teak benches from Country Casual Teak, brick garden walls, water features and custom ornamental railing designed by SMALLWOOD.
The garden is nestled between the county library and the city hall and provides a more intimate space for smaller gatherings, break-out meetings, or a quiet place to read a book.

In 2012, the City of Alpharetta, Georgia, embarked on a journey that would transform the city for generations. Alpharetta is a suburb of Atlanta with an estimated population of around 65,000. The city had long been a popular destination for young families moving out of the Atlanta area and for a growing technology business sector but like many suburban communities, Alpharetta lacked a true identity and a place where the community could connect. Mayor David Belle Isle, the City Council, David M. Schwarz Architects, and SMALLWOOD set out on a master planning effort that could change the image of the
city and produce a "place" for everyone to
call home.

Alpharetta has always prided itself on being a "Tree City" as recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation and felt that it was important that their new city center incorporate a substantial amount of green space as part of their new identity. SMALLWOOD was tasked with designing and developing a five-acre city park, a one-acre town square, a pocket park in between the new city hall and new county library and a tree-lined streetscape to connect the new downtown to neighboring sites.

Active Spaces
William "Holly" Whyte, an American urbanist and self-proclaimed people watcher, once stated "It's hard to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished." One of the goals for the design of Alpharetta's new city center was to create places that people would use and go to often. Urban parks were originally designed so that people could escape the harshness of city life. The best parks today also include active uses and are a driver of community development.

The City of Alpharetta wanted the green spaces in their new center to be dynamic spaces where the community could gather, neighbors could meet and children could develop memories that they would carry into adulthood and make them always yearn to return home to the city they grew up in. Variety is the spice of life and the same is true in designing outdoor spaces. The more variety and flexibility that is built into the design, the more choices end-users will have to utilize the space for their needs and the more activity is created.

The Town Green
Alpharetta has a strong community development department with a full calendar of programming and activities where space is needed. The town green was designed with this flexibility in mind. The design avoided physical obstructions to the greatest degree possible so that the city had the flexibility to use the space for whatever events they currently had or would have in the future. A balance of hardscape and turf was achieved to allow for the Farmer's Market set-ups and festival tents as well as plenty of open space for gathering and free-flowing circulation. An interactive fountain was designed at one end of the green to spur daily activity and was devised so that it could be turned off for a stage to be assembled on top of it for "concerts on the lawn" events.
The City Park
For larger events, a natural amphitheater was conceived for the backyard of the new city hall and part of the five acre city park. At the base of the amphitheater, a bandstand was placed to allow for anything from orchestras to small musical groups to singer-songwriters. The park was intentionally designed around the city hall to further create a feeling of connection between the community and their local government.

Many times, towns are arranged so that government facilities are consolidated in an area of town where people would only go if they specifically had business to do with the government. At night, these areas become ghost towns. The designer's intent was to immerse the government in the daily activities of the community so that elected officials and government employees were "living life" alongside their constituents. A city center brings communities together and, in this case, brings them together in a powerful civic way.

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Bob Regus, the City of Alpharetta's city administrator, says they have seen an "immediate shift in the way our city hall engages the public. With families enjoying the green spaces on a daily basis, the workings of the city government have become much more accessible and welcoming."

Best practices were used in designing the pathways through the park and city center by avoiding critical root zones of existing trees. When it was unavoidable to infringe on them, the contractors were asked to only use hand grading in these areas and, where possible, bridge over the critical root zones with structural soil, in lieu of cutting into the grade and the roots. A mature tree canopy was an important part of the park concept and sense of place. When people visited the new city center green spaces, the intent was that it could easily be assumed that the parks and streetscapes had been there for generations. With that in mind, the designers saved and transplanted several mature specimen trees that would have otherwise been destroyed by construction of the new city center and all new plantings were of a well-established size at installation.

The idea was to use fewer but larger plants to further the narrative of an established environment. The plant palette consisted of traditional southern plants that could have easily been found in nurseries in the early 1900s and the designers avoided the nursery plant "du jour" to keep the landscape timeless and sidestep a dated look for a park that hoped to be around for generations to come. A group of engaged citizens was also recruited by the design team to incorporate an arboretum into the new city parkscape. A list of trees they wanted was included in the planting design and the designers helped locate the trees in areas where they would be accessible and on an "arboretum walk" through the park.

Multi-Purpose Garden Space
One of the most popular places is a formal garden that was planned between the new city hall and the county library. The space serves a variety of purposes, such as a formal entry to the new park from the street, an intimate event area for weddings and parties, and a breakout place for the city hall and county library. On any given day one can see: families having picnics and reading books, city employees taking part in meetings, or wedding parties being photographed. When parks are bordered by active buildings and uses, active spaces are inherently created between them. This is the theory of triangulation and is a good practice to keep in mind when planning and locating outdoor environments.

Celebrated
The city center project was bestowed an Excellence in Town Center Development Award by the Urban Land Institute, the People's Choice for the Public Realm Award by the Urban Land Institute, the Alpharetta's Recreation, Parks & Cultural Services Department Agency of the Year Award by the Georgia Recreation and Parks Association and the Exceptional Merit for Context-Sensitive Town Center Development Award by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Designing places for people requires the input of the people for whom it is being designed. It needs to have active uses incorporated into it and be flexible for the programming of other active uses to take place. The old adage is true, "people go where people go because people go where people go." All a design team needs to do is create the spark and provide them space!
Team List
Client: City of Alpharetta
Landscape Architect: SMALLWOOD
Planning Consultant: David M. Schwarz Architects
Civil Engineer: URS (now AECOM)
Experiential Graphics: SMALLWOOD
Electrical Engineering: HESMA (now Salas O'Brien)
General Contractor: Choate Construction
Natural Water Feature Sub-Contractor: Allgood Outdoors
Fountains Sub-Contractor: Waterworks
Landscape Contractor: Merritt Brothers
Structural Engineer: Uzun & Case
Architect of Record for City Hall and Parking Deck: SMALLWOOD

Street Tree List
Common Name Botanical Name
'Panache' Shumard Oak Quercus shumardii 'QSFTC'
Princeton Elm Ulmus americana 'Princeton'
Bosque Elm Ulmus parvifolia 'UPMTF'
Everclear Lacebark Elm Ulmus parvifolia 'BSNUPF'
Athena Classic Elm Ulmus parvifolia 'Emer I'
'Esplanade' Nuttall Oak Quercus nuttallii 'QNSTC'
'Autumn Gold' Bald Cypress Taxodium dystichium 'Sofine'
Pyramidal European Hornbeam Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata'

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