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Pearsall Park, San Antonio
From Dump to Destination

Landscape Architecture by Bender Wells Clark Design


Once a landfill, the park now features a wide array of attractions, such as shaded pavilions, fitness areas, and expansive play structures. The goal was to bring in people from outside of the area of the park and turn it "from a dump to a destination."


USA Shade engineered fabricated and installed three 20 feet by 20 feet custom shade structures for the Family Zone. Designed by BWC Design with an arched fabric cover, they were meant to emulate the shape of the hills around the park.



Fitness was an important priority of the park design. Muscle Beach-style traveling rings manufactured by L.A. Steelcraft and a zipline by Playworld are featured in the Fitness Challenge Zone.

At over 500 acres, Pearsall Park has recently become one of San Antonio's largest and most comprehensive public parks, and a catalyst for change in the area. Its location at the southwest edge of the Alamo City provides incredible views of downtown San Antonio on the horizon, and overlooks Kelly Field and Lackland Air Force Base. However, the park's history prevented its development until recently. Much of the site was formerly a municipal landfill in an underserved area with sparse amenities, but after a 4-year master-planning and design effort led by Bender Wells Clark Design (BWC Design) of San Antonio, it now holds a variety of public spaces and facilities attracting many new visitors.

The master plan divided the park into zones of activity, each a sort of "park within a park," and each with a distinct program. The plan recognized the considerable constraints existing at the site due to its history as a sanitary landfill, with the two large clay-capped landfill mounds presenting the most significant challenges. Site analysis and coordination with regulatory agencies identified opportunities for working atop the landfill in a way that would not puncture the cap, or disturb the material below. Deep footings, trenching for piping, regrading, or any groundwater infiltration had to be entirely avoided over the mounds. Other site constraints included a large floodplain along Leon Creek, steep slopes and clay soils.

Considerable public input, workshops and citizen participation in the decision-making was an essential part of the design work. As a result, the vision and framework for the structure of the park called for limited development overtop the existing municipal solid waste landfill and the wooded slopes of the creek.

One of the guiding principles of the plan was to contribute to the overall health and fitness of the community, with respect not only to the economic and social well-being of the area, but to the park environment and surroundings. Structures and more intense developments were placed over a layer of four to six feet of clean fill, which was acquired from local drainage projects, trucked to the site and concentrated into the core of the park. This allowed new energy-efficient structures such as a restroom, pavilion and shade structures to be built of long-lived materials in the central Family Fun Zone and Fitness Challenge Zone, with recreational and passive uses in the surrounding zones. The plan recommended areas for public art, points to connect with larger regional systems, and offered unique programming ideas.

Improvement of the park gained momentum after completion of the master plan in 2012, which earned BWC Design an Award of Merit by the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The phased plan incorporated the unique terrain and micro-climates of the site into multiple sporting and fitness spaces, including 5K & 10K event and cross-country trails, a BMX course, fitness circuits, athletic fields, a disc golf course, skate-park, dog park, sport courts, public art, an event pavilion and a large family zone with expansive play equipment manufactured in part by Playworld, as well as a splashpad that was manufactured and designed by Vortex Aquatics to help keep the kids cool while they play. The areas within the family zone were further organized into areas that appeal to different age groups.

Newly acquired open space was incorporated into the parkland, with funding provided through a city bond election. Rey Saldana, a young city councilman in this sprawling area of San Antonio, dedicated the $7.5 million park bond allocation for his district to this one park. The citizens recognized the vision, passing the bond election and advocating for a park that would be for everyone, and the pride of the district.



The Family Zone is divided into different areas that have a wide variety of play structures. There are large and small play towers to accommodate kids of all ages, as well as interesting rope climbers and swings. This "Cruise Line" was created by Playworld, and allows children to fly through the air together with a larger suspended seat.

Three years after the acceptance of the Pearsall Park master plan, BWC Design celebrated with district residents and city staff at the successful grand opening of the Family Fun Zone, Skatepark, & Fitness Zones after managing the associated $7.5 million construction phase. The new park was an immediate one-of-a-kind attraction, and is now full of people from sunrise until well after dark. In addition to hundreds of children wanting to climb, run, splash, skate and play, runners have flocked to the park. The park plan allows flexible circulation and programming for large regional events, such as an uninterrupted 10K course run entirely within the park without street closures, while still providing local residents with much-needed recreational amenities such as disc golf, soccer, and fitness classes. All new park facilities, including park trails, are ADA compliant and accessible. The new topography and nearly every park element are composed of rounded forms, reflecting the surrounding landforms.

Beautiful flowering native Texas plants and native grasses provide new habitats for butterflies and birds, while over 300 new native Texas trees, consisting of cedar elms, three varieties of oaks, Texas Redbuds, thornless Retama, Texas mountain laurel, thornless mesquite, and Yaupon holly were planted to provide some much-needed shade. Organic soils and compost were added, and all plants were selected for low-maintenance and low water demand. San Antonio boasts the largest direct recycled water delivery system in the nation, and the park irrigation water comes entirely from high-quality recycled wastewater. A series of naturalized swales removes suspended solids and pollutants from storm water runoff before it is allowed to slowly travel into the watershed.


The new skatepark is only the second in San Antonio, so Pearsall Park is drawing in large crowds of skaters. Designed by Pillar Design and constructed by Artisan Skateparks, its announcement drew up considerable buzz over social media, and has only elevated the park's success as a community hub.



The large splashpad was designed and manufactured by Vortex Aquatics for the project. It is a welcome addition to a playground in the Texas heat.

Seattle-based public artist Buster Simpson collaborated with the design team to create "Midden Mound Wickiups" on the hilltops, simple domed shade structures that honor the historical presence of indigenous peoples and their light footprint on the land. The wickiups have substituted the typical construction of bent or gathered branches with bent steel pipe. Blankets, which traditionally cover wickiups to protect against the elements, have been replaced with colorful woven wire mesh and geometric hexcell material. Solar panels supply power to nighttime lighting. They provide shaded gathering places, seating, and viewing experiences looking out over Lackland Air Force Base, and the Texas Hill Country on the horizon.

True to the vision, the site has gone "from a dump to a destination." People throughout the region come to Pearsall Park to take part in activities across the site. In the Family Fun Zone play area one can climb to the top of a 28-foot-high climbing net, or get onto one of several of the latest and innovative pieces of play equipment, including opportunities to zip, swing, twirl, slide, climb, jump or hang upside-down. Children can run up and down the grassed terrain play areas, reinforced with pieces of small interlocking plastic polyethylene mesh to prevent soil erosion, while caregivers can sit in the shade and watch all of the activity. The younger kids have their own area at the splash pad and at the play area, with age-appropriate equipment, including a scaled-down climbing net, tower, slides and swings, just like the big kids. The Fitness Challenge Zone is filled with different types of fitness equipment. You can work out on the exercise stations or run a 40-yard dash on the Sprint Timer track and check your time against your opponent. Muscle Beach-style travelling rings and chin up bars manufactured by L.A. Steelcraft offer opportunities for bodyweight exercises. For a more playful experience, visitors can take a trip on the zipline, which was provided by Playworld. Organized fitness classes can use the shade pavilion, which can accommodate 40 or more users.



These structures were created by Seattle-based artist Buster Simpson. They are inspired by the "wickiups" of the Native Americans of the Southwest who used branches covered by blankets. Here, the branches have been replaced with steel, and the "blankets" are made of colorful woven wire mesh and geometric hexcell material.

News of the new skatepark, designed by Pillar Design and constructed by Artisan Skateparks, exploded on social media and has had constant use, bringing a new crowd to the area. Pearsall Park's grand opening brought with it the opening of just the second skatepark in this part of town, but it has attracted skaters from hundreds of miles away. The park has something for every type of skater: long and short rails, small, medium and huge ramps, multiple steps, boxes, and even a bowl.

The park uses will grow over time, but the vision of a sustainable reformation of a huge landfill, and on-going protection, conservation and restoration of the surrounding natural area will drive future improvements.

As seen in LASN magazine, September 2016.

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July 20, 2019, 7:38 am PDT

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