A broader awareness of the pitfalls of urban sprawl and the need for conservation of resources has led to changes in our approach to the design of parks.

Out of the box concepts for reclaiming urban real estate in big cities has become commonplace, but smaller towns are also raising the bar over what constitutes a park.

What once was a waterworks facility in New Braunfels is being transformed into an educational, sustainable landscape. A former industrial equipment laydown site in south San Antonio is being converted to an interactive recreational park.

Dallas residents reclaimed a former freeway in downtown, providing the city with an award-winning greenspace the connects people, not just to amenities within the park, but the Dallas Arts District.

In west Houston, a suburban project converted an empty lot beside Buffalo Bayou into a children’s teaching park.

These projects represent more than ongoing attempts to develop more green space. They invite innovation by example and enrich recreation with education for visitors of all ages.

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Architectural rendering of a public venue at the future Headwaters at the Comal.

New Braunfels: Headwaters at the Comal

New Braunfels Utilities controls the land where an underground spring feeds the Comal River. For generations, this was the site of the Klingemann Plant, the city’s first potable water facility.

When the water operations moved in 2004, NBU and the city contemplated what to do with the industrial site and from that study arose the concept for Headwaters at the Comal.

This $23 million project broke ground in 2016 and will reach completion in 2021. It involves the restoration of the Comal Springs headwaters and the transfiguration of more than 16 acres of asphalt into an immersive native landscape.

Headwaters Managing Director Nancy Pappas said the site symbolizes the origins of New Braunfels. The project represents a “giving back” of sorts, reconnecting the community to its natural heritage, and it helps locals remember the importance of water.

“We’re at the intersection of water and history,” Pappas said. “This will be an environmental showcase, a chance to learn about hydrology and stormwater management.”

NBU is working with the New Braunfels Area Community Foundation to redevelop the site. The first of three phases in the project will feature the liberation of the springs from a concrete encasement that’s been in place since the 1930s.

Phase 1 also includes removing most of the impervious cover and restoring natural habitat for endangered and threatened species—both animal and plant. New berms and bioswales will filter stormwater before it travels downstream.

There will be a central courtyard, an event lawn, display gardens, walking trails, outdoor classrooms, and wastewater treatment wetlands.

Future phases will entail the bulk of the construction work—repurposing or removing existing structures and creating new gathering and classroom venues. Those phases won’t go forward until at least 50 percent of costs are raised through grants and donations.

Lake|Flato Architects from San Antonio and Ten Eyck Landscape Architects from Austin are handling designs.

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Construction of the petals that will form the pavilions at Confluence Park.

San Antonio: Confluence Park

A three-acre park at the confluence of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek, this project will offer interactive learning and recreational opportunities — chances to learn about the river and its surrounding ecology, as well as proper stewardship of water resources. That is the goal of the San Antonio River Foundation.

The $13 million environmental education space went to construction in May 2016 and will have a celebratory opening January 17, 2018.

Park Director Frates Seeligson calls Confluence Park the largest urban environmental restoration project in the country. Low impact development principles are fundamental to its design, in order to maximize its water catchment capacity.

“Principles such as permeable parking areas, proper site grading and embayments to hold runoff are visible throughout the park,” Seeligson said.

“Additionally, there is an underground storage chamber, which holds all the runoff. This water is then repurposed throughout the park for irrigation.”

A state-of-the-art parametric design helped architects and designers to conceptualize several petal-like structures. The petal structures, once assembled, will form pavilions and be critical to the park’s water catchment.

“It’s an architectural design process where different parameters are entered into a computer program to create a desired outcome,” Seeligson said.

In the case of the pavilions at Confluence Park, artist Andrew Kudless, was inspired by flora in nature, such as the Calla lily, that funnel water.

Elaine Kearney, managing principal of landscape architectural firm TBG Partners’ San Antonio office, said Confluence Park is a model for urban green space development.

Dallas: Klyde Warren Park

Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas is a 5.2-acre green space built over the recessed Rodgers freeway, one of the state’s busiest freeways. The Jacobs Engineering Group came up with the idea of spacing out groups of hundreds of concrete beams that collectively form the park’s deck.

The trenches serve as planter boxes, permitting the trees to grow while keeping the suspended deck from becoming overweight.

Since its opening in 2012, Klyde Warren has become a prime gathering spot. Locals say the park is a key link among vibrant central city neighborhoods.

This connective and pedestrian friendly park fills up with all sorts of events programming. It includes botanical gardens, space for fitness classes and food trucks, a dog park. There are nature-inspired elements supported by sustainable landscaping.

The 30-plus native plant species and 300-plus trees help to sequester carbon dioxide and reduce temperatures in the immediate area. An underground reservoir collects stormwater for reuse.

Landscape architect James Burnett’s design gives visitors a sense they are moving through “rooms” as they traverse the park.

The $110 million project was supported by a public-private partnership, including a city bond, state highway money, stimulus funds, and individual donations to the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation.

Klyde Warren is so popular that Dallas officials are encouraged to find ways to develop more urban parks and green spaces.

The city council earlier this summer voted to authorize funding for a new deck park over Interstate 35 East, hoping to reconnect parts of the Oak Cliff neighborhood that had been separated by decades of highway development.

As part of the local Southern Gateway highway redevelopment, the Texas Department of Transportation would build foundations and a portion of the deck park.

The design of Klyde Warren Park continues to receive honors, the latest being the Design Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects. And now the park may get bigger.

The Rodgers park foundation last year proposed a second phase of development, about $90 million of projects including a parking garage, bigger playgrounds, a multi-level event venue, restaurant, and an ice rink.

There also would be walkways to better link the park with the Perot Museum of Nature and Science with the Arts District.

The council in August called for a $1.05 billion bond election, with a bit of money designated for improving and expanding parks such as Klyde Warren. The election will be held in November.

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Visitors enjoy a walk through Exploration Park.

Houston: Exploration Park

Houston’s Willow Fork Drainage District funded the development of Exploration Park, a popular children’s park linked to a regional trail system that is aligned to a water diversion channel.

Part of the Buffalo Bayou drainage system, the park is within Cinco Ranch, a master-planned community.

Designed from an empty lot, Exploration Park opened the spring of 2015 in west Houston. Although it is primarily a children’s play area, the water-inspired design emphasizes environmental stewardship and education in sustainability.

The park’s play area includes a sensory garden, and a raindrop-themed berm lawn. The playground incorporates natural elements, including wooden and stone log steps.

The sensory garden features green plastic rods. The rods altogether represent a field of grass, teaching children to use all their senses to identify various kinds of plants.

There’s also a “bridgealphone,” a wood and metal xylophone bridge where children can play music by tapping their feet as they cross the structure.

The picnic pavilion’s roof helps to capture rainwater. An arroyo, and native plants all foster the notion of water conservation across the park.

TBG Partners designed the $1.7 million, one-acre park. Architects from TBG said Exploration Park represents a move toward developers helping to provide neighborhoods across the sprawling city with community playground amenities.

“We wanted the design to be variable,” said Meade Mitchell, a principal at the firm’s Houston office. “We wanted there to be a sensory learning environment, for people to engage the more natural environment from the play environment.”

Exploration Park was an immediate hit with neighborhood residents and visitors, but it also resulted in parking problems.

“We never intended to plan for the amount of use we’re seeing out there,” Mitchell said of the surrounding area.

Mitchell said he and his colleagues at TBG were happy to be involved in a ground-breaking project such as Exploration Park — providing a park in an area where a concentration of residents had not seen a communal play environment within walking or biking distance.

He said these and similar projects show how parks and green spaces can offer a variety of environmental, educational and even economic benefits.

“This is not a trend. Developers have bought into the idea, cities have, the general public has,” he said. “This is not a fringe concept.”