The city of Seaside, Calif., was awarded a Building Better Communities grant in 2017 to create the Robert’s Lake eco-recreation station complete with play equipment and an outdoor classroom. The city partnered with multiple groups and agencies to make the park a reality and have it completed by June 2018. “The eco-recreation station represents many facets of our community and a wide variety of partnerships to make it all possible,” Gloria Stearns, city community development director, emphasized.
The project idea came about when the recreation director at the time, Nancy Towne, heard about the grant and discussed with staff members what the department could do that would be relevant. With a background in landscape architecture, Stearns assisted on the initial concept of the park. She borrowed ideas from urban ecology centers on various rivers from Milwaukee, Wis., which were created to help educate children who would otherwise not get nature-based education.
“The idea for an outdoor ecology center evolved as Kay Cline from Sustainable Seaside and I had conversations,” she explained. “She was a teacher for many years and this grant opportunity finally allowed us to help make our vision for youth outdoor ecology learning come to life.” The plan for an outdoor classroom with water-based ecology training and nature-based play was created.
Stearns, Towne and Dan Meewis teamed up with the public works and engineering departments to write the grant. They also worked with vendors to design a unique pergola structure that is highly visible as people drive by Seaside. Unbeknownst to the department, the local Cal-Am water utility was also lobbying on its behalf.
Partnering with Sustainable Seaside, the city’s grant application was due June 2, 2017. On June 15, the city received additional follow-up questions. The requested information was submitted on June 19. On June 30, the city was one of three awarded the Building Better Communities grant from the American Water Charitable Foundation and National Recreation and Park Association. The project was completed as required by June 2018.
Building the park
The design for the eco-recreation station was chosen based on its ability to be fully accessible and fit into the location. The park needed to be compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines so it could be enjoyed by all community members. The chosen location was triangular and surrounded by lakes, paths and a road and so the park needed to be built with that in mind. The goal of the park design was to ensure people of all ages would be comfortable using the space, particularly the outdoor classroom.
“We wanted it to be very natural looking, unlike some play structures that are vibrant colors,” Stearns commented. In 2017, nature-based play equipment was uncommon, so wooden structures were unusual for the Monterey Peninsula. The park faces a lake full of birds and wildlife and is also adjacent to an urban area. Benches in the outdoor classroom are arranged in a council ring design to promote the equality among all participants.
She continued, “We even carefully considered placement of signage, a kiosk and art. The goal was to complement the natural surroundings. When you walk by the peace poles, the placement is intended to be reminiscent of walking through a colorful forest that speaks to you.” The peace poles were made as an art project by the Community Partnership for Youth, a local nonprofit, and have messages written on them.
When it comes to future planning, the city has more in mind. “The ultimate goal is to have little workout stations along the path that goes around the lake,” Stearns described. This will help provide options for community members who cannot afford gym memberships. Bilingual educational field guides have been created to use for future educational park signage. More peace poles in clusters along the lake trails are envisioned. Along the western edge of the play area and classroom, a rain garden has also been planned.
Since the park’s completion, additional items have also already evolved. After a Heermann’s gull was found on Robert’s Lake, the Audubon Society and city worked together to place a nesting raft on the south end of the lake, which has seen positive results.
On the north end of the lake, an annual model boat race takes place. The boaters worked together with the birders in order to ensure the races would not bother the new nesting place of the Heermann’s gulls. The model boaters also hope to hold a national championship on the lake in the near future.
The newest addition planned is the rain garden. Due to COVID-19, it is not currently in place and the plans will be addressed once people are able to return to group activities. However, “it would be great to show how water can be infiltrated slowly and cleaned as it goes into the earth,” Stearns explained.
“The community response has been overwhelmingly positive,” she recounted. Prior to the park’s opening, community members volunteered with Sea-Stars to clean and prep the park. On opening day, 30 kids patiently waited for the ribbon-cutting ceremony to end in order to play on and explore the new equipment.
“Since the opening, the recreation department worked with students from California State University Monterey Bay and with Sustainable Seaside to create age-appropriate water ecology coursework,” she stated. Students are able to visit the outdoor classroom facing the lake and learn about what they are seeing in front of them.
“We had to take a pause during COVID, like other cities,” Stearns explained. The outdoor classroom was not being used and the play area was not officially open for use. “The quiet period gives us time to prepare for what is next — more classes, possibly outreach to conduct senior classes, etc.” Stearns and the city look forward to once again watching children’s eyes light up as they use the eco-recreation station to learn about water ecology and see how nature’s water system works as they look out on the lake, with all the plants and animals that depend on the water system.