Fostering Community Growth through Sustainable Park Design

Innerarity Point Park in Destin, FL

Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, waterfront parks continue to help gulf coast communities recover from one of the largest marine oil spills in history. This environmental disaster incited a need for resiliency and recovery options for park spaces and the desire for people to connect with their coastal culture once again. The recently completed Captain Leonard Destin Park addresses a holistic resiliency effort, as well as a transformative component at the community level.

In 2015, The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, purchased a 3.42-acre site along the Choctawhatchee Bay using Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill Natural Resource Damage Assessment early restoration funds with a vision to preserve recreational access to water and pay homage to Destin’s rich history as a remote fishing village. This site was originally intended for private development, until The Trust for Public Land stepped in and answered the public need for a neighborhood park affording recreational access to water. Much of Destin consists of a resort-oriented community serving tourism with private hotels, restaurants, and shops blocking off a significant amount of access to Destin’s waterfront. During peak tourist season, the City’s population can double as visitors flock to the white-sand beaches and emerald green waters. Due to the influx of tourists, the residents lack an easily accessible and recreation-based place to enjoy with family and friends. Paying patrons can lounge on the beach and find numerous places to reserve a deep-sea fishing boat, but those looking to kayak for the day or enjoy a picnic in the area have a difficult time finding public access. That is until the Trust for Public Land established a vision for the park.

The Captain Leonard Destin Park improves recreation, provides public access to water, and helps preserve the history and natural landscape of the community for generations to come. Designing and building the park was a collaborative effort with a multidisciplinary team. The Trust for Public Land enlisted a team, led by the landscape architect, consisting of biologists, coastal engineers, and architects to create a distinct design respectful to the site’s existing character and original inhabitants. The overarching goal was to balance environmental and historical aspects, while reintroducing water-based activities back to the residents. The Trust for Public Land went to great lengths to receive community input on design features that were drawn from the existing environs. The nonprofit visited a local elementary school to teach children the fundamentals of park design. The children engaged in participatory design to establish a vision for the “the spirit of the park” and were asked to identify design aspects important to them. Many of the children identified a play area, beach access, water, and animal habitats as desirable elements in their neighborhood park.

The park offers residents recreational access to water through universally accessible improvements, social and play environs, historical interpretive elements, preservation of ecological features, resilient and sustainable systems, and educational opportunities for nearby schools. ADA accessibility was a central element incorporated into the design and functionality of this park. Accessible routes are provided from the public right-of-way through the park, to the beach area, and to the pier structure. The boardwalks and piers are ADA compliant, so universally, everyone can view and enjoy the water or fish through lowered handrails. Due to its prime location on the water, the public can launch their kayak or paddle board directly from the park. The park is dotted with picnic and restroom pavilions adjacent to elements of play which draw inspiration from the accumulation of tidal driftwood along the coast in the form of a log scramble.

The park design reflects the significance of water to the area and specifically to the City of Destin. Conceptually, water is the origin of movement. Curvilinear landforms, patterns in the paving, and paths seemingly flow from the waterfront. Strong, familiar, structural forms create the foundation of the site itself – reiterating the site’s importance as a place of origin. Materials are familiar at their core, but the shapes and spaces that emerge reflect the idea of currents and flow in a way that feels more contemporary. The movement inherent in the resulting design unites the park’s features evoking the flow of ideas, development, and energy from this former homestead that became Destin.

The park holds over 150 years of history and introduces residents to the City’s uniqueness. Captain Leonard Destin Park is located on the same plot of land as the original homestead of its namesake. The park is named after Leonard Destin, the original founder of the City who came from New London, Connecticut in the mid-1800s to establish a commercial fishing village along the Florida Gulf Coast. The history of the site inspired the design, including simple architectural forms with clean lines, painted white wood siding, and a grove of fruit trees reminiscent of a time when the land was a dwelling place and source of sustenance for early settlers. Interpretive elements were incorporated into pavilions to reflect a glimpse into the past. Furthermore, the entire community can learn about the foundation of Destin. Interpretive signage is located throughout the park to enlighten visitors of the City’s heritage. A model of a seine boat, captained by Leonard Destin, was erected on the site to reflect the rich history of the park, and honor the pioneering fishing industry of the time. A bed of native grasses drifts gracefully behind the seine boat suggesting the tranquil wake of water, a serene contrast to the upbeat activities of nearby resorts.

An existing heron rookery serves as the central unifying feature of the park. Elevated boardwalks that respectfully meander through the existing canopy are marked with interpretive signage, educating visitors on the important role urban parks perform in wildlife preservation. The remnants of a former homestead garden were bolstered by the planting of an expansive native citrus orchard offering sustenance to park goers. The park strives to raise awareness of a threat to Florida’s loss of native plant species along the coast. Researching decades of state-based data, the team employed a native plant palette that has proven resilient to hurricanes. Simultaneously, these plants establish a habitat for indigenous species such as pollinators, reptiles, and fowl. Looking around the park, these inhabitants coexist harmoniously with visitors who are able to connect with the site’s rich legacy of ecology. The shoreline was reinforced through construction of a riprap and vegetative concealed seawall. Beach access was analyzed and designed in anticipation of the evolving shoreline associated with sea-level rise to ensure resiliency.

Floridians are all too familiar to disaster and recovery given their location and warm climate. Clean up for the oil spill felt like a never-ending scenario for locals along the Gulf Coast. And then disaster struck again with Hurricane Michael in 2018. It was the first storm to make landfall in the United States as a Category 5 hurricane since Andrew in 1992. The storm claimed several lives and caused billions in damage to homes, businesses, and the landscape. The storm threw the park project into chaos, pushing the delivery schedule into late 2020—another blow for the already battered community. Despite the catastrophic event, the park was relatively unscathed due to resiliency measures incorporated into the design. Once the project was completed, the park was donated to the City and included operations and maintenance funding for 10 years. The park is a tremendous asset to the community and has reunited the residents to their coast by embracing the local lifestyle, culture, and heritage. Captain Leonard Destin Park provides hope to locals who envision a more resilient future for the Gulf Coast. This neighborhood park has transformed a historic site into a place of gathering that celebrates the spirit of Destin, with the water at its core.