By Kerry McCulloug...

March 22, 2016

Kim Wilson instructing an LA Studio

For many, parks are magical places filled with excitement, leisure and the laughter of children at play. Recapturing that excitement for the historic Fairmount Park and bringing it back to its former glory has become a new endeavor for the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The Landscape Architecture program is assisting with these efforts as one of the Parks and Recreation department partners. The two have enjoyed a long-time relationship working on various planning and design projects over the years.

The landscape architecture students have spent the first half of the 2016 spring semester visiting the park, conducting research and developing a master park with site design alternatives as part of their vertical third and fourth-year studio.

"The class is functioning and presenting their park information as a team with focus area sub-groups. It is organized like a professional firm to simulate real-world scenarios," explains Kim Wilson, landscape architecture program director and professor.

Just recently, the studio presented their understanding of the park's issues and opportunities and proposed an approach to the Parks and Rec department at a community meeting for input. The students were very encouraged by the feedback.

"The work presented by the UNL students was terrific," commented Larry Foster, director of Council Bluffs Parks and Recreation. "Staff, residents and media were all equally impressed with the depth and obvious level of detail presented in their drawings. A "plus" was the students' ability to present and discuss their work."

Wilson explains that service learning projects like this one are invaluable to the learning process because they are much more hands-on and in-depth than some of the more academic exercises in the program's curriculum. The students are taking the concepts learned in class and applying them to practical situations.

"They provide the student with opportunities to learn life skills like tolerance and cultural understanding as well as civic responsibility," added Wilson.

The educational lessons vary by student academic year. Fourth-year students are learning to be leaders and third-year are understanding how to address a situation where the problem hasn't been prescripted.

"It's enhancing their problem-solving and critical thinking skills," Wilson continued.

For the projects next stage, the team will be spending the rest of the semester developing site plan alternatives for different components of the park and also options to address various budget scenarios.

Melissa Petersen, landscape architecture student, explains their new concepts will improve the overall circulation, especially pedestrian connections within the park and to surrounding neighborhoods. The designs include improving the existing trails and expanding the trail network.

"We will propose bringing back a pedestrian bridge which historically connected two areas of the park that, today, are only connected via roads," commented Petersen. "This bridge will help to improve overall connectivity in this park which has always been an issue because of its steep topography."

However, one issue that hasn't been a problem is student enthusiasm.

"For most of us, this is our first time working on a project from which ideas or site design elements might actually be implemented. It's exciting knowing that the community is already behind some of our ideas. It is a good first taste of our future careers where we'll be responsible to actual clients and a step toward the real-life practice of landscape architecture," Petersen said.

"It makes me feel good that all our hard work will actually pay off and may be built in the future unlike other projects that are only conceptual or make believe sites," said Stuart Uram, landscape architecture student.

Service learning projects like these do pay off and in a big way. "In addition to great learning opportunities, service learning projects like this one offer students invaluable experiences which they can point to on their resumes and talk about in job interviews," commented Heather Tomasek, Council Bluffs Parks and Rec park designer and landscape architecture program alum. "When I was in school, I worked on various projects with communities such as the City of Crete, Council Bluffs, and a park system in Ecuador. When I reflect back on those experiences, they were great opportunities which led to an internship and eventually a job offer before I even graduated college."

Wilson and city administrators couldn't be more pleased with how the students have embraced the project.

"I think they did a fabulous job. The city administrators can't believe how thorough the students were. How professional, thoughtful and competent they were presenting their concepts," said Wilson.

Foster added, "Nate Watson, a City Council Member attending the recent UNL presentation, said to me, 'This collaboration with the UNL Landscape Architecture students is wonderful. It uniquely benefits both partners. I'm impressed, and I intend to share this experience with my fellow Council Members at our next meeting.'"