Palm Springs Downtown Park is an inviting 1.5-acre urban oasis for residents and visitors to Palm Springs, a design-forward desert destination nestled along the base of the San Jacinto Mountains in the southwestern Coachella Valley in California’s Sonoran Desert. The park lies in the ancestral homeland of the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla people who migrated between the shady palm groves and meltwater creeks of mountain canyons in summer and the hot springs and temperate climate of the valley floor in winter. The park is also located on the historic site of Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn. An early booster of Palm Springs, Coffman stressed the space, stillness, solitude, and simplicity of Palm Springs. Nellie’s “four S’s” inspire the park’s design, which amplifies the intrinsic qualities of this extraordinary place to immerse visitors in the multi-sensory beauty of the desert and celebrate Palm Springs’ legacy as a destination for health, nature, and pleasure seekers. The park is made up of three spaces: the Palm Grove, the Outcrop, and the Theater. Each offers distinct programmatic capacities and reveals facets of the region’s dynamic geology, distinctive vegetation, and rich history.
The densely planted Palm Grove achieves thermal comfort in the extreme heat of summer days that can exceed 120 degrees. The arrangement of over 130 Washingtonia filifera, California’s only native palm, was inspired by team hikes to Palm Canyon. The canyon’s sandy floor and canopy formed a cooling cathedral that significantly influences the park’s identity. The design team measured temperatures inside and outside Palm Canyon and mapped the spacing of its palms. Varying heights were selected for their unique and irregular forms and composed to create shady areas. 3D modeling of seasonal shade scenarios were used to ensure thorough coverage. Custom aluminum park furnishings stay cool to the touch and are left loose for users to “follow the shade” throughout the day. Visitors can move them around to support morning coffee klatches, family picnics, or reading. After dark, the grove illuminates inviting use into the cooler evening hours.
The dramatic Outcrop rising along the park’s northern edge obscures an adjacent parking garage to allow for an immersive park experience that relates to the surrounding mountains. The team abstracted the geology of the Tahquitz Canyon into a custom “sedimentary” finish for shotcrete vertical walls and pre-cast concrete modular seat blocks that retain slopes and form gathering spaces in the park. The geologic layers of the Outcrop reflect the ombre of tones that make up the San Jacintos, reddish and rumpled sandstones along the base to desaturated, smooth granite along the top. Meandering trails rise with a landform to the east as the Outcrop becomes the backdrop for the park’s centerpiece, a powerful cascade inspired by Tahquitz Canyon’s iconic waterfalls. An interactive water feature of jets and fog emitters cools the park while bringing the magic of the surrounding mountains into the urban core. The Outcrop’s westernmost extent contains restrooms and a police substation fully integrated into the geologic structure.
Park visitors flock to the Palm Groves and the relief of the Outcrop’s water features to beat the heat during the day, but at night as temperatures come down, the Theater comes to life. This space honors the cultural heritage of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, a world-class destination for the performing arts from the days of singing cowboys to contemporary music, dance, and film festivals. The Theater hosts an array of events from live performances, lectures, film nights, and music festivals taking place on an elevated stage with a capacity of over 1,000 on the event lawn and amphitheater seat blocks. The stage is framed by a palm frond-inspired shade canopy and has a dramatic backdrop of the Palm Springs Art Museum and the San Jacinto Mountains.
The materials and the plantings in the park are rooted in the character and natural history of Palm Springs. Local ‘Palm Springs Gold’ stone was sourced from a quarry 10 miles away and used as boulders, cobble mulch, concrete topcast, and decomposed granite to complement the hues and tones of the surrounding mountains. Climate-appropriate native and regional desert plantings were specified to provide ecological habitat, attract native pollinators such as monarch butterflies and hummingbirds, and showcase the biodiversity of the desert. Mesquite and Palo verde trees provide shade and anchor a more arid and sculptural palette of ocotillo, agave, and barrel cactus on the Outcrop. Hesperaloe, bulbine, and desert milkweed are among the more colorful species, which also contain a series of rain gardens receiving and filtering all stormwater. Armrests on the seat blocks increase accessibility while offering pops of vibrant color sampled from the blooms of surrounding flora.
Landscape Architecture: RIOS
Project Webpage: Palm Springs Downtown Park
Project location: 230 North Museum Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262
Design year: 2021
Year Built: 2021
Photography: Millicent Harvey