Out of Office

April 2, 2024
Out of Office | Lighting industry experts discuss designing the spaces we use for fun
Photo: Joshua Spitzig

Parks are invaluable resources for enjoyment, relaxation, learning and exploration. Most people have a favorite park—whether it’s the childhood playground that was across the street from their apartment building; the urban garden oasis where they enjoy daily lunch breaks; the National Park they hiked on their honeymoon; or the simple park along the coast with nothing but benches, trees and a view of saltwater waves. (That last one might just be where you can find me when I’m not working on LD+A). What makes these parks our favorite spots for respite? Do tulips grow there in abundance? Does it remind us that nature is always available, should we choose to engage? When we go there, do we have a better view of the Big Dipper? Irrespective of the reason and location electric light plays a big role in how we interact with these spaces and how long we can remain there once the sun sets.

This roundtable features insights from industry experts on the factors that go into designing great lighting for parks and landscapes. My hope is that you find yourself reading it while sitting at a picnic table, munching on a granola bar, under no-glare lights with the stars swirling above your head in full view.

Out of Office |
From left to right:Lee Brandt, Member IES, is a principal at HLB Lighting Design, –Nancy Clanton, PE, Fellow IES, FIALD, LEED Fellow, is CEO of Visibility Innovations, LLC and founder of Clanton & Associates, —Nathan Elliott, ASLA, is a principal with OJB Landscape Architecture, –Josh Spitzig, Member IES, IALD, is a director at Atelier Ten, New York and –Kathryn Toth, Member IES, is principal of Theia Lighting Design.

How long have you been designing lighting for parks? Do you pull ideas from other types of projects into your park designs?

Lee Brandt: I have been designing parks for over 20 years, while simultaneously working on projects in all market sectors. It is amazing to provide lighting designs for a wide variety of human experiences. Parks are such versatile spaces and offer endless opportunities. Lighting for place-making can be inspired and influenced by many things, so I’m always drawing from different realms for design approaches and solutions.

Nancy Clanton: I have been designing parks for around 30 years, starting in 1994. I work on all types of projects including lighting for parks, buildings, communities, roadways, ski resorts, athletic fields, college campuses, historic structures and more.

Nathan Elliot: I’ve been involved in site lighting design throughout my career as a landscape architect, but my first significant park lighting project was in 2009. Since then, I’ve been integrally involved in lighting for Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City, LeBauer Park in Greensboro, NC, and, most recently, The RiverFront in Omaha, NE.

Josh Spitzig: I started designing lighting for my first public park in 2008. I’ve been in architectural lighting for about 20 years, but before that, I was in theatrical design. Parks have been a major focus of my work for quite a while, but I’ve never worked exclusively on parks. I’ve designed a lot of interiors for hotels, museums, restaurants and workplaces, as well as other types of exterior lighting such as building façades and college campuses. The lessons and approaches you learn on other project types definitely influence lighting for parks and vice versa.

Kathryn Toth: When I started as a lighting designer 25 years ago, I worked on many international exterior retail environments. Although not the typical parks you may be thinking of, they were very similar spaces where people could meet and have events to enjoy the outdoors. The majority of traditional public parks I’ve worked on were with the International Landscape Lighting Institute (ILLI) starting in 2010 and a few with my own private firm starting in 2017. My design approach is to use interior themes and translate those concepts into exterior spaces. Diversity of projects keeps the timelines interesting and the challenges make it fun.

What are all of the factors that must be considered when designing lighting for a park?

Spitzig: It’s a long list, and I’m not sure I could list all of them, but there are certainly some priorities. The first question I always ask the owner and the rest of the design team is, “How do we want this space to be used after dark?” That informs a lot of design decisions. It’s also critical to walk around the existing space at night to understand the experience of a pedestrian when they approach or leave the park from various directions. What are the light levels like in the area that they will be coming from? What part of the park will they see first? What parts will they spend time in? Above all though, I always try to understand how the landscape architect envisions the look and function of the park during the day. This is critical so that lighting can support their goals after dark.

Brandt: There’s a whole spectrum of factors to consider. We’re thinking about exterior conditions; safety of the visitors; controls; maintenance; integration with the landscape and any buildings in the park; wayfinding; standards that may be applicable; light-level criterial; color temperature; glare; dark sky considerations as well as lighting zones; lighting power density; dynamic lighting effects; water or other features of the park; use of the space; and the park’s design aesthetic.

Clanton: User experience and reassurance for users to walk outside at night. Other factors include preserving the dark sky; no ecological harm to flora and fauna from lighting; zero light trespass on surrounding areas; and beautiful wayfinding for users.

Toth: Whether it’s a public park, private residence, or a business such as a winery with many exterior spaces, all of the uses of the space and surrounding lighting will influence and make an impact on the design priorities.

Elliot: As a baseline, park spaces need to feel safe at night—you want to be able to see the face of the person you’re passing on a sidewalk or in a plaza. As a landscape architect, it is also important for us to consider how the poles look in the space, not just their scale, cadence and alignment, but also the aesthetic details. In recent projects, we’ve worked closely with manufacturers to minimize the visual impact of cameras, Wi-Fi routers and other tech infrastructure built into our projects, so that people feel more fully immersed in the natural environment.

Out of Office | Grand Canyon National Park | Photo: Clanton & Associates
Photo: Clanton & Associates

Which of those factors pose the greatest challenge?

Toth: For exterior spaces, the greatest challenge is always durability and maintenance. It may look just fine when it’s first installed, but then the public park maintenance team may not have been briefed on how to maintain and keep the project as designed. For example, keeping the mulch off the fixtures will drastically change the lighting effect and the very nature of lighting installed in growing and changing situations. Conversations and follow-up meetings with the team on site is always the most challenging aspect, especially when everyone has worked hard and wants to move on to the next project. It can be disheartening to see an exterior space be neglected and therefore lose the lighting-design integrity after a year or two, if it has not been adequately maintained.

Clanton: User experience and reassurance to walk outside at night is complicated, and lighting plays only a partial role in this. There are other factors such as familiarity with the park, walking alone or in a group, and gender (women have greater anxiety per research findings from Steve Fotios at Sheffield University). Light trespass (glare) from other lighting from outside the park can also be challenging. Mixed-use activities in parks such as athletic-fields lighting can contribute to visual adaptation issues.

Spitzig: It varies by the project, but I’d say usually budget is the biggest challenge.

Elliot: Finding the right balance of spatial impact, aesthetics, safety and cost is always the challenge we face. During our client presentations, we discuss these items early in the planning process, and when we get to the design-development phase, we often construct physical mockups of fixture types and configurations to validate ideas. Good glare control and optics can add to the lighting budget, but showing clients the difference between options when standing on the site at night has been very successful at buy-in. It also helps to protect specified products during value engineering cycles.

Brandt: I would say that maintenance is the biggest challenge. Installation is critical—making sure that not only is the specified product installed, but that it’s installed correctly. Both of those are important factors that designers don’t have much control over. We also don’t have much control over the environment, so weather conditions like taking on water can create pain points for installation.

Out of Office | Tokamachi, Japan
Photo: George Gruel

Is there a park project you have worked on that you would like to highlight?

Clanton: My favorite park project is Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP). In 1994, I was involved in developing the lighting portion of the GCNP General Management Plan. After several days of workshops at GCNP, I was emotionally moved after meeting with the Indigenous people and hearing their spiritual stories about the night sky and how important this connection is to their lives. As a result, we designed the lighting that preserved the night sky, yet still offered low-glare, zero-uplight wayfinding lighting for visitors. Our lighting levels were two moonlight’s average (0.2 lux) along paths, stairs, ramps and destination areas, which emphasized shadow contrast, especially on stairs.

In 2018 the Grand Canyon concessionaire (Xanterra) hired Clanton & Associates to inventory all of their lighting and make recommendations for replacements to meet the original goals of the General Management Plan. We carried our dark-sky preserving designs from Grand Canyon to the Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore visitor centers, which included visitor outdoor areas.

Brandt: My favorite part of the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden and Discover Center is the 200 ft long Skywalk that meanders through the tree canopy. It was one of the first projects that I worked on with integrated handrail lighting. It was a really successful, uniform installation that contributed to beautifully illuminating the tree canopy and the lush landscape 20 ft below. The Skywalk itself flows perfectly throughout the garden—an overall great project to be a part of.

Elliot: I’m extremely proud of OJB’s collaboration with Atelier Ten on The RiverFront in Omaha, NE. The project is large—three parks totaling 72 acres—and we developed a family of treatments that could be applied across three different construction contracts built over a four-year period. In addition to special details developed by the fixture suppliers, the project team also worked closely with Omaha-based Valmont Industries to develop the details on a family of custom poles that accommodated the park’s varied lighting and infrastructure needs. The project comes to life at night and is part of a larger renaissance happening in downtown Omaha.

Spitzig: I’m also very proud of The RiverFront project. Gene Leahy Mall (LD+A, September 2023) was the first of three parks that we opened in that area. Now that all three are complete, the RiverFront has combined three previously underutilized parks into a highly programmed network of spaces that connects downtown Omaha to the Missouri River.

Toth: A lot of the parks I’ve worked on with my private practice are still under construction. The closest one to my heart was in Tokamachi, Japan, when I collaborated with ILLI and Hiroshi Kira. In 2017, the ILLI team softly uplit the trees and the park, while highlighting the viewing structure, which holds a natural warm-spring soaking pool for guests.

Can you name a project that you didn’t work on that you wished you had? What is it about that project that impressed you?

Brandt: I really enjoy Bryant Park in New York City. The main ambient lighting is achieved through floodlights from the surrounding skyscrapers that provide a uniform wash of light across the entire park. Pedestrian lighting, water features and other small layers are integrated as well, but I just love how simple and successful the main layer of light is.

Elliot: Our studio has been talking about Bruce Munro’s Sensorio installation in Paso Robles, CA, a lot over the past few months; some of our Los Angeles clients have been exploring something along the same lines. Munro’s Field of Light is currently a temporary installation on a 6-acre site on the Manhattan waterfront that will house a major new development and public park, Freedom Plaza. As the landscape architects for the park at Freedom Plaza, we are encouraged by the public embrace of the art and are hopeful that it may be extended beyond its temporary installation. The painterly use of light and sculptural nature of the fixtures are underpinned by a significant technical foundation. These installations enchant people and draw them into our shared open spaces.

Toth: While I did work with Janet Lenox Moyer, Jan worked on the Chicago Botanic Gardens before I knew her, and I would have loved to work on that project with her. They considered all the viewing angles and the paths of travel through the park, highlighting features along the way, and came up with a technique she calls “shore scraping” to tie the composition together. The level of detail they were able to attain for such a large public area was impressive.

Spitzig: There are a number of recent projects along the rivers in New York City that I admire. In general, I appreciate lighting that is cleanly integrated into a park’s structures.

Clanton: Citygarden in St. Louis, designed by Reed Burkett Lighting Design and Fisher Marantz Stone, is an excellent example of using wayfinding lighting as the design philosophy. Walls along the park are lighted providing no glare, and zero-uplight pedestrian lighting.

Out of Office | Rory Meyers Children's Adventure and Garden Center | Photo: Sisterbrother Management
Photo: Sisterbrother Management

Are there any products you find particularly reliable when designing for outdoor spaces?

Toth: This is a tricky question, but as with any lighting designer, I have my favorites for all the right reasons. Mostly I’m looking at durability, reliability, performance and aesthetic value for fixtures. If you want to talk more shop about favorites, then I recommend we have a chat.

Spitzig: I’m extremely picky about in-grade lighting since it’s so prone to failure. I’ve had very good luck with Vista Pro uplights. I’m also a fan of Acclaim Lighting, BK Lighting, Selux and Erco for exterior projects, just to name a few.

Clanton: Products that can be installed in the park features such as downlighting walls, handrail lighting, recessed no-glare step lighting, and all other lighting products that can be integrated into the hardscape environment with no view of the light source. Also, products that can be adjusted from 2700K to 1600K and dimmed/controlled to 1% output.

Elliot: I tend to focus on well-built fixtures with good optics and strong manufacturer support over an artful pole with bad fixtures. In-ground uplights are another area where compromising on fixture quality will come back to cost you more—I rely more and more on factory-sealed uplights that can’t be compromised prior to installation.

Brandt: Flexible tape/tube LED lighting for outdoors is incredibly reliable. The quality and output are so great now that you can tuck fixtures in a wide variety of places to get meaningful light on surfaces. Also tried and true—pedestrian pole lighting. A fixture that unifies and integrates with the design aesthetic of the park, lights pathways and provides vertical light on faces and surfaces is a wonderful thing.

What is the most enjoyable or interesting aspect in designing lighting for parks?

Brandt: I really enjoy getting creative about how to integrate lighting within the landscape and the architecture so that it can be somewhat hidden and even ethereal. I love it when you have no idea where the lighting is coming from, but you are comfortable and can just enjoy the setting— creating that type of experience is a very rewarding feeling.

Clanton: Lighting parks for nighttime enjoyment without any environmental or biological harm to flora and fauna. Also, preserving the night sky so everyone can enjoy and be “star struck” by the natural beauty of the dark, star-filled skies.

Spitzig: The most enjoyable part is always opening—when you finally get to see the park in use after dark. Parks are one of the last public places where you can spend time without being expected to spend money, and they can have a huge impact on quality-of-life for people who visit them. It’s wonderful to see how happy people get. Recently, we’ve been lighting playgrounds for use after dark and I’m always surprised by how late they get used by families and kids of all ages.

Another aspect is that the space is literally alive. In the short term, the trees and plants usually change with the seasons, creating a different experience as the year progresses. In the long term, trees and plants usually go in as juveniles and then grow substantially over the years, so the scale of the park is always changing.

Toth: Well, there can’t be just one! Before getting started on a project, I find an initial night site survey to be the most helpful to understand the light levels and contributing lighting around an area at night. My favorite and most enjoyable part of the design process for parks is in the final night aiming sessions, when you get to fine tune the light levels and adjust fixtures so they are effective, but not visible for viewers.

Elliot: Walking through one of my projects on a weekend night in good weather when it is full of people laughing, smiling and playing has been one of the great pleasures of my career.