Playground at the Boston Nature Center

The “Nature Nook” is a delightful natural play space on the grounds of the Boston Nature Center & Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the Mattapan neighborhood of the city. In about eight years since the playground’s construction, the vegetation has grown nicely to form a cozy play space consisting of several “rooms” of activity areas. The playground includes all the important elements of nature-based play: water, sand/dirt, wood, plants, rocks, and hills. Additional features include a stage with seating, planters for gardening, music and art spaces, a building construction area, a gathering (seating) space, and a boardwalk.


Pergola with vines at the playground entrance


Water pump and stone stream bed, with adjacent sand play area


Children exploring the woods


Musical play, grass hill, and stage with seating


Building construction area, including a permanent wooden frame that children can lean sticks against to form forts and other structures


Boardwalk through the woods


Climbing log


Bridge over the stream bed; near the sand play, dirt play, gardening, and art areas

Photos by Alice Webb
Project Design by StudioMLA Architects, Brookline, MA

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Myrtle Beach Boardwalk & Promenade


On a recent trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I had the opportunity to walk the new Oceanfront Boardwalk & Promenade. The 1.2-mile long walkway runs between two piers (at 2nd and 14th Avenues North), and is situated behind the sand dunes along the beach. The southern section, called the Promenade, is a linear park consisting of a 12’-wide concrete walkway that meanders through lush landscaping. It also includes several narrower looped paths off the main walk, as well as raised beach access connections. Flanking this area is a row of older hotels. To the north of the Promenade is a wide section of wooden boardwalk, located in a zone of beachfront shops and cafes. The final segment is a narrower, winding boardwalk that connects with the 14th Street Pier.

I like the winding layout of the Promenade walkway, with the gray colored concrete strip in the middle, lined by exposed aggregate concrete along each side (the same gray concrete mixed with white shell fragments, in this case). Also, the secondary loop walkways have a nice pitted texture for variation. The only color choice for surfacing that I don’t particularly like is the mottled coloration of the bricks used at maintenance vehicle access crossings and in combination with concrete beneath the canopied areas along the walkway. A solid color would have looked more harmonious with the other materials used for this project.

Palmetto trees are abundant along this linear section of park, along with beds of various evergreen shrubs and ornamental grasses. These low plants contrast nicely with each other, and make an effective visual transition to the more natural-appearing grass plantings on the sand side of the walkway. An occasional grove of Live Oaks would have been nice, breaking up the monotony of the Palmettos, but I understand that these would have blocked ocean views from the lower floors of the hotels. However, natural salt spray pruning would keep the oaks at a small size.

Wood decking was used for the wider boardwalk areas – although higher-maintenance than recycled plastic planks, the wood is aesthetically pleasing and it evokes nostalgia of historic beachside boardwalks. I like the checkerboard pattern of the wood decking, in addition to the light fixtures and other site amenities.

My least favorite section of the Boardwalk & Promenade is the northern segment. It consists of a winding 8’-wide boardwalk that connects with the 14th Avenue Pier at its terminus. Although there is less real estate in this area between private properties and beach, this walk should have been around 12’ wide (like the Promenade walkway). The curving layout of the boardwalk also has an awkward appearance, and the narrow width makes it seem like a cattle corral.

Overall, the new Boardwalk & Promenade is a huge improvement to this section of Myrtle Beach. It offers visitors an alternative to walking on the beach, and one round trip of 2.4 miles can provide plenty of exercise. It will also likely spur more upscale development than what currently exists in this part of the beach.


The Promenade, as viewed from the 2nd Avenue Pier


A section of the Promenade with ornamental grasses


The widest segment of the Boardwalk, with a good view of the beach & ocean


This section of boardwalk is adjacent to shops and cafes.


The narrow north portion of boardwalk connects to the 14th Avenue Pier.

Photos by Alice Webb

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve



About 20 years ago, I designed a system of trails, observation decks, steps, and boardwalks for a 136-acre nature preserve in Cary, North Carolina. It was an absolute delight to work on this project, because Hemlock Bluffs is such a magical place – a natural oasis within an area of suburban development. It features a series of tall north-facing bluffs that shelter a community of Eastern Hemlocks. This is unusual because these trees typically do not grow naturally in the piedmont region of North Carolina – this species is much more common in the cooler Appalachian Mountains more than 200 miles to the west. In addition, the preserve includes an extensive upland forest and a wooded floodplain area with vernal pools and a rich variety of plants.



A system of steps takes visitors down along the bluffs.



One of several observation decks affords views of large Hemlock trees growing on the bluffs.



Plant beds near the Stevens Nature Center building are filled with native wildflowers and trees.



A boardwalk meanders through a lush floodplain.

Photos by Alice Webb

Newton Hill at Elm Park



Worcester, Massachusetts, is known for its numerous hills. One of those high points, called Newton Hill, is part of historic Elm Park. It was acquired by the city in the late 1800s and a system of trails was built at that time. My company, EarthDesign Landscape Architecture LLC, designed a master plan for Newton Hill in 2007, which retains the historic trails (shown in red in the plan above), adds some new ones, and eliminates steep unplanned paths. A paved multi-purpose loop trail is also proposed along the perimeter, near the street level, and improvements are recommended to trailheads along the adjacent streets. In addition, a memorial at the top of the hill is planned that will celebrate Edward Winslow Lincoln, the chairman of the Worcester Parks Commission for 26 years in the late 1800s, who was instrumental in the city’s acquisition of the Newton Hill property.



The original system of trails gradually winds up the wooded slope, and one of these pathways fades out where the forest opens up to a grassy summit. The plan includes a continuation of this trail, to be surfaced with stone pavers, spiraling up the hillside and terminating at the memorial site at the top (as shown in the plan detail above). All components of the memorial would be at ground level, for two reasons. First, we wanted it have a low visual impact on the landscape and to contain an element of surprise, not revealing itself until one reaches the top of the hill. Secondly, we wanted to avoid including any vertical elements that might be attractive to vandals, mainly because a high school is situated adjacent to the park site.

One of the historic trails on Newton Hill
This trail is close to where the forest opens up to the grassy summit.
One recommendation of the master plan is to selectively thin out some of the smaller trees in spots to open up views from the summit.


Not much of the plan has been implemented to date, due to lack of funding. However, a signage system has been installed, and the non-profit Friends of Newton Hill has continued efforts to raise money for the project and to keep the site maintained.