Playing in the Rain (Garden)

Play structures that double as public art and native plantings that double as stormwater infrastructure adorn The Metropolitan, by The Design Collective.

By Zach Mortice 

The Promenade at the Metropolitan is a 40,000-square-foot park space serving a mixed-use multifamily building. Photo by Design Collective/Jennifer Hughes.

The developer James Rouse planned Columbia, Maryland, as a tabula rasa New Town in the 1960s, including ample green space woven throughout, a robust public realm, racially integrated housing, and the ability to make a tidy profit. In many ways, this ambition was realized, but with one important exception: the lack of a lively downtown. An inward-facing mall sits at Columbia’s center, looped by a small ring road, but the city has struggled to bring activity back to its center in recent years.

Just across from the mall’s ring road is the Metropolitan, downtown Columbia’s first mixed-use multifamily residential complex. Its signature amenity is a 40,000-square-foot open space called the Promenade, a hybrid playscape and rain garden intended to be a didactic showcase for stormwater retention and native plantings. (The project won a Merit Award from ASLA Maryland last year). The Promenade encourages kids to have some rambunctious fun while learning a thing or two about how these landscapes can shepherd rainwater from the sky to the ground.

A focus on marshy native plantings in retention basins keeps water at the forefront, but the landscape’s water feature—a series of five misting fountains in a plaza operated by five buttons—makes play with them interactive, if not predictable. Pressing each button triggers the fountains, spraying water six to eight feet into the air, but in random sequence, so kids don’t know which one will spray when. It adds a bit of mystique, says Brian Reetz, ASLA, a principal at Baltimore-based Design Collective. The fountains provide a cooling mist that mostly drifts away and evaporates instead of producing a drenching soak, an added bonus to the commercial proprietors not keen on mopping up after customers.

The mist fountains emit a light spray instead of a drenching soak. Photo courtesy Design Collective/Jennifer Hughes.

Play structures that capably double as public art adorn a lawn, emulating the abstracted forms of the tulip poplar tree, a local favorite notable for its presence in the nearby Symphony Woods park, which surrounds a popular outdoor concert venue. Given Reetz’s desire to make the Promenade an art-filled civic landmark, he realized that, “if we had to pick a playground out of a catalog, it would be really unfortunate.” With 1 percent of the budget set aside for art, Design Collective enlisted the Baltimore artist Mary Ann Mears to collapse the art and play structure elements into one installation. “So maybe these pieces of art could be interactive and playful,” says Reetz. “Rather than putting a playground at one end of this linear park, we can thread this idea of art throughout the whole block.”

Mary Ann Mears designed the public art play structures to resemble elements of the tulip poplar tree. Photo courtesy Design Collective/Jennifer Hughes.

Mears’s take on the tulip poplar tree abstracts leaves, blooms, and petals into parabolic arcs and knotted loops that offer a sense of whimsical Alice in Wonderland-esque scalar disjunction. Kids can slide down, clamber over, or duck under the giant curled leaves, all painted orange, yellow, and green. Throughout, “Petals of Thought” on small signs submit inquisitive prompts, encouraging kids to probe the natural world. “Can you smell the rain before it falls?” “Spin like a petal in the wind.” “Find colors in the mist.”

Interpretive signage explains the park’s stormwater management systems. Photo courtesy Design Collective/Jennifer Hughes.

Interpretive signage also explains the purpose and methods of reducing stormwater runoff. Filled with shrubs, native grasses, sedges, and a few flowering species, bioretention basins at the front of the site form an intuitive barrier between kids playing and the street, but are connected to the sidewalk by bridges over the basin troughs. Beyond the basins, the grassy, naturalistic aesthetic continues with variants of switchgrass, accented with ornamental purple coneflower and beautyberry, an adapted species. London plane trees and magnolia trees are largely placed at the perimeter of the site. Stormwater overflows from the basins and the roof are directed into underground cisterns, and this water is used to irrigate the lawn.

The Promenade collects water in bioretention basins that form a barrier with the street. Image courtesy Design Collective.

Beyond signage, subtle design cues identify the overall theme and importance of stormwater. These include the 12-inch depression that holds the basins, sunken so that water can pool on top of plantings, and the pedestrian bridges that let visitors get close enough to peer into the pools. For Reetz, it’s a hands-on opportunity to show children and adults that stormwater runoff (a) exists, and (b) has a role to play in the health and function of our cities that can be celebrated and emphasized everywhere. “[Stormwater] can be integrated,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be something we put in a pipe and run down to the stream.”

The Metropolitan Promenade is part of a wider plan to build a true urban downtown for Columbia, Maryland. Photo courtesy Design Collective/Jennifer Hughes.

 Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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