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Design Scholars Receive Real World Experience in an Inspiring Setting

Yvonne Gu

When our students design landscapes, they first work to understand the site. They might look at photographs or explore the site on Google Earth, but this often isn’t enough. As PhD Student Yvonne Gu explains, “The only way to inspire you is to get into the field, to experience the landscape by your nose, by your eyes, and your ears.”

Although we give our students occasional opportunities to get into the field, it is challenging to provide them with immersive, hands-on experiences.

The Allerton Park Design Scholars Program began in 2004 as a way to fill that need. Students who are accepted into this program immerse themselves in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Illinois. Located just 28 miles from campus, Allerton Park is a historical treasure. Built by artist and philanthropist Robert Allerton in 1900 and donated to the University of Illinois in 1946, the park boasts 1,500 acres of wild woodland and prairie, hiking trails, a mansion and reflecting pond, formal gardens with over 100 sculptures and ornaments, a meadow for summer concerts, and lodging facilities. It’s a popular wedding and retreat venue, and visitors love the peaceful, secluded atmosphere.

Design scholars visit the park regularly to help the park’s director, Derek Peterson, with projects. They walk the hiking trails and garden paths, watch how visitors interact with the site, and help solve real world design challenges. Students have designed parking lots, rain gardens, and scenic overlooks; created beautiful hand-drawn maps for park visitors; and inventoried the park’s trees.

Yvonne, who participated in the program in 2016, created the conceptual and construction designs for a parking lot, which was constructed in 2017. Allerton needed more parking for its outdoor concerts, but recognized that additional parking would not help it reach its sustainability goals.

In 2013, Landscape Architecture Professor Brian Deal helped Allerton create a Climate Action Plan with goals to reduce carbon emissions from transportation and protect and restore Allerton’s natural resources. How could the parking lot align more with these goals?

Yvonne worked with park administrators to incorporate stormwater management features into the parking lot’s design. Permeable pavement and a raingarden in the middle of the parking lot absorb stormwater and prevent flooding. Native plants attract pollinators and help to restore the natural habitat.

For Yvonne, a successful landscape does more than simply reflect the desires of users. “As a landscape architect, we take the responsibility to not just design for the people who use this park. We also inform them about sustainability, about the importance of resilient thinking.”

Another student, Yi Yang, helped out with a signage project. She analyzed the signage throughout the park to identify problems and made suggestions to improve the signs. Then she created beautiful watercolor maps that the park will use on signs and brochures for visitors.

The Allerton Park Design Scholars Program gives students an immersive, real world design experience in an inspiring setting. They have the opportunity to work with people who care about landscape ecology and are committed to creating restorative spaces.

When our students are designing landscapes in their classes, they really try to understand the site. They typically do this by getting on Google Earth or looking at a few photographs of the site. But this isn’t enough. You really have to get on the ground and immerse yourself in a site to understand it. One really exciting opportunity we have for our students to do this is the Allerton Park Design Scholars Program. Allerton Park is just 27 miles from campus. Students in the program have the chance to immerse themselves in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Illinois. Students apply for this program and the ones who are accepted, visit the park once a week to help the park’s director, Derek Petersen, with design projects.

Linda Larsen interviews a Ph.D. student, Yvonne Gu:

Linda: What made you apply for this program? How did you find out about it? Yvonne: Well, I did my undergraduate school in Idaho, which is very similar to Illinois. I think it’s a good opportunity for you during the semester to do some real design work by yourself and see it turn into reality. And I think it’s a great transition for the students from the academic fields into a very practical design firm. Yvonne Gou, who’s a Ph.D. student in our program, worked on designing a parking lot. Allerton needed parking for their summer concert series, but they wanted to design the parking lot in a more sustainable way. Yvonne: Before this parking lot, it was just a jungle like that area. We did the measurements on site to figure out the slope, discovered what the existing condition was, how we could design some rain gardens and add some stormwater management to really deal with the flooding issue of this area. Linda: So, in the context of sustainability, I know Allerton has been doing a lot of things in the park to make it more sustainable. How does this project fit into Allerton’s sustainability goals? Yvonne: I would say this is good work for long-term sustainability. Although it’s just a parking lot where its major function is to park your cars, at some point this little rain garden and the stormwater management is really working for the future. We always talk about how we can save energy. We only talk about those big words. However, I think as the landscape architects, we should take the responsibility to not only design for the human – for the people who use this park – but we also need to inform them about the sustainability; about the importance of this kind of resilient thinking, about these sustainable solutions.