Bonnet Springs Park: Transforming an Abandoned Rail Yard into an Ecological Jewel and Community Asset


When Lakeland Railyard, a major freight hub in Central Florida, closed in 1952, it abandoned an industrial landscape that had been degraded since the 1880s. In 2015, recognizing that metro Lakeland is one of the fastest growing regions in the country and building upon the city’s strong tradition of parks and natural areas, local enthusiasts proposed the creation of a new central park. Completed in 2022, Bonnet Springs Park is the result of an extensive community outreach, master planning and design process led by the landscape architect and a multidisciplinary team to create an ecological jewel, a cultural magnet, and a connected community asset. The park features heritage gardens, a canopy walk, botanic gardens, playgrounds, and an event lawn. Walking and biking paths connect major park spaces with three new buildings. The design remediates the former industrial landscape and restores natural systems–removing invasive exotic plants, treating stormwater with wetlands and bioswales, and capping contaminated soil in large hills that also function as overlooks. The park welcomes diverse visitors and reinforces links to previously disconnected neighborhoods.


Great cities are characterized by their parks and green spaces. Lakeland, Florida is a rapidly growing city now distinguished by the new, 168-acre Bonnet Springs Park. At a time when more people are rediscovering the importance of parks in the city, Bonnet Springs Park is a green oasis just blocks from downtown.

The park was once the site of the Lakeland Railroad, which played a vital role in moving, storing and repairing coal-powered locomotives that transported citrus and phosphorus to cities all along the East Coast, fueling the region’s economy. At one time the largest employer in the City, Lakeland Railroad abandoned the degraded site in 1952. Constructing the park involved removing 36 tons of garbage, remediating 300,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, replanting nearly 3,000 trees, protecting 30 acres of wetlands, building green infrastructure to treat over 300 acres of urban runoff, and connecting the new public space to diverse surrounding communities.

The barren, closed-off brownfield site was transformed into a vibrant and accessible community space. Instead of warehouses or a distribution center–uses for which the site was zoned–now there are playgrounds, gardens, a canopy walk, boardwalks, pedestrian and bike paths, pavilions, a tree house, and 85,000 square feet of community, cultural and educational buildings. The multidisciplinary consultant team led by the landscape architect designed every aspect of the new healthy ecological system and community asset–from the master plan to the font used in park signage. Bonnet Springs Park was entirely funded through private philanthropy and brownfield redevelopment credits.

Bringing Remediation to the Forefront

The site’s status as a brownfield was a primary factor influencing the design process. Rather than exporting the contaminated soil or capping the entire site–two options that would have been costly and with negative off-site impacts–the team incorporated a remediation strategy as an integral component of the design. This decision would go on to inform nearly every aspect of the project, including mobility, microclimate, noise mitigation, and architecture. Perhaps most noticeably, the remediation strategy drove the creation of a hilly topography rarely found in Florida, which is now one of the park’s defining features.

In collaboration with environmental engineers, the design team assessed which areas of the site required excavation and developed the grading plan. Intricate modeling and an adaptive design approach created a process that optimized the existing site materials. As excavation began, on-site soil testing continued in order to validate the approach, fine-tune the limits of excavation, and revise the grading plan accordingly.

Contaminated soil was used–imaginatively and practically–to sculpt two large hills that span approximately 10 of the site’s 168 acres. The final height of the hills, which reach up to 40 feet, could only be determined once all contaminated areas were fully delineated during construction. To make the area safe for park visitors, the hills were capped by two feet of clean soil that had been excavated to create stormwater ponds in other parts of the site. Lighting, accessible walkways, benches, open lawns, and native meadows activate the hills to create exciting new experiences and vistas.

Leading By Example:  Improving Water Quality

The two major water systems within the Bonnet Springs Park site faced environmental challenges. Lake Bonnet is the most polluted lake in Lakeland, and Bonnet Springs Valley, which drains into Lake Bonnet, was experiencing an accelerated rate of erosion along its banks.

In response to these challenges, a diverse set of green infrastructure strategies were employed to capture, redirect, and mitigate the on- and off-site watersheds. The new hydrological regime diverts drained water into a new pipe and brings it to a lagoon, preventing erosion of the spring corridor. The first flush of contaminated stormwater is diverted from this pipe to provide stormwater treatment on its way to Lake Bonnet. This runoff is routed through a structural treatment device for debris removal and primary treatment before being released within the Park’s Botanical Garden, first into an armored forebay, then through a winding wet meadow composed of a mix of native and adapted species designed to slow the water, absorb nutrients, and facilitate hydrocarbon biodegradation. This water passes through a swale and into a primary settlement pond, which serves as an accent within the gardens. The water is then conveyed to a new, nearly seven-acre retention lagoon at the foot of the sloping woodland where it can decelerate, settle, and percolate through a 1,300-linear-foot edge of forested wetlands before being released into Lake Bonnet.

This design approach improves water quality and helps restore a sensitive ecosystem. It also provides opportunities for park visitors to experience these new landscapes and be inspired to act in ways that promote clean water in our environment. Inspired by the success of this project, the City of Lakeland, in partnership with Bonnet Springs Park, was awarded a Florida General Infrastructure Program Mitigation Grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to add flood storage capacity to the Lake’s drainage basin through additional improvements to stormwater infrastructure and the natural environment.

Native Restoration Planting

Bonnet Springs Park is home to distinct natural systems that reflect native Florida ecoregions, such as Oak Hammock, Pine Flatwoods, and Baygall Swamp. Each natural system on the site was heavily altered by past land use and in need of restoration and enhancement to improve ecosystem health. The landscape architect’s understanding of complex native plant communities in each ecoregion was crucial to restoration success. The first step in the restoration process was identifying and removing invasive plants to encourage native plant establishment. In the wetland, spring corridor, oak grove, wetland meadows, and buffer natural areas, Restoration planting features native species and supports healthy ecologies.

Composed of small flowering trees to large live oaks, the restored groves provide shade, improve ecosystem health, and set the stage for unforgettable experiences–both on the ground and elevated in the Canopy Walk. Plant composition varies, with restoration areas closely resembling a specified native community in some zones, but with new non-native but climate-appropriate ornamental species providing ecosystem service value in the Botanic Garden.

Prioritizing Play

The Park offers a range of play experiences at playgrounds, incorporating the four types of free play (functional, constructive, dramatic, and games) to challenge and excite visitors through use of fast motion, height, exploration, exposure to natural elements, and use of functional tools. While play elements are scattered throughout the Park, primary playgrounds are located at the Welcome Center, Children’s Museum, and Botanical Garden. The Nature Play Area features unstructured elements that promote creativity, build curiosity, and encourage experimentation. Located at the northeastern edge, it highlights the park’s main landscape types: the flat plateau, the changing topography of the valley slope, the unique features of the sand seep spring, and the broad canopy of the woodland. Play features invite children and families to explore the site’s natural vegetation and habitat while providing opportunities to balance, swing, climb, slide, manipulate, and create.

A Cultural Magnet

The park’s downtown location builds upon Lakeland’s tradition of hosting renowned cultural and educational institutions and supporting the arts. Interpretive exhibits at the Welcome Center highlight the region’s agricultural, industrial and cultural history, and outdoor spaces feature an extensive Botanical Garden as well as the integration of fixed and ephemeral works of art throughout the park. The Florida Children’s Museum has relocated into an expanded facility at the heart of Bonnet Springs Park and participates in the development of educational and cultural programming for the entire park.

Connected Community Asset

Bonnet Springs Park welcomes visitors from throughout the city and connects neighborhoods currently divided by transportation infrastructure and gaps in the urban fabric. New walking and bike paths, welcoming entrances, and integration of transit boost accessibility. A two-mile long pedestrian loop–the Circulator–curves around the upland plateau, ushers visitors down to the wetlands and lagoon, and defines the Park’s four main zones.

Plant List

Ground Covers and Perennials

  • Agapanthus
  • Chalky Bluestem
  • Splitbeard Bluestem
  • Wiregrass
  • Cast Iron Plant
  • Blue Porterweed
  • Night Blooming Jessamine
  • Short-leaved False Ros
  • African Iris
  • Twinflower
  • Elliott’s Lovegrass
  • Purple Lovegrass
  • Button Rattlesnakemaster
  • Blue Daze
  • Squirreltail Barley
  • Coral Bells
  • Blue Flag Iris
  • Parson’s Juniper
  • Dwarf Shore Juniper
  • Big Blue Liriope
  • Lomandra
  • Sunshine Mimosa
  • Pink Muhly Grass
  • Apostle Iris
  • Aztec Grass
  • Graffiti Series Pentas
  • Lyre-leaf Sage
  • Heliconia spp.
  • Lamb’s Ear
  • Pineapple Sage
  • Golden Lemon Thyme
  • Oyster Plant
  • Little Blueberry
  • Tall Verbena
  • Virginia Chain Fern
  • Vines
  • Gold Bougainvillea
  • Trumpet Creeper
  • Creeping Fig
  • Angel Wing Jasmine
  • Hardy Jasmine
  • Passion Flower


  • Spineless Century Plant
  • Variegated Caribbean Century Plant
  • Aloysia virgata
  • Purple Haze Butterfly Bush
  • Buttonbush
  • Beauty Berry “Pearl Glam”
  • Coral Tree
  • Miami Supreme
  • Fire Bush
  • Oakleaf Hydrangea
  • Ilex x attenuata “Fosteri”
  • Dwarf Yaupon
  • Shrimp Plant
  • Yellow Shrimp Plant
  • Simpson’s Stopper
  • Boston Sword Fern
  • Sweet Osmanthus54
  • Dwarf Podocarpus
  • Large Podocarpus
  • White Indian Hawthorn
  • Emerald Green / Schefflera
  • Trinette Schefflera, Dwarf variety
  • Silver Saw Palmetto
  • Climbing Aster
  • Oyster Plant
  • Small-Leaf Arrowwood
  • Walter’s Viburnum
  • Sweet Viburnum
  • Sandankwa Viburnum
  • Cardboard Palm
  • Coontie


  • Gold Bougainvillea
  • Trumpet Creeper
  • Creeping Fig
  • Angel Wing Jasmine
  • Hardy Jasmine
  • Passion Flower


  • Summer Red Maple
  • African Fern Pine
  • Hong Kong Orchid Tree
  • Pignut Hickory
  • Calamondin
  • Floss Silk Tree
  • Sugar Hackberry
  • White Fringetree
  • Key Lime
  • Navel Orange
  • Stiff Dogwood
  • American Hornbeam
  • Red Cluster Bottle Brush
  • Loblolly Bay
  • Southern Red Cedar
  • Acoma Crape Myrtle
  • Muskogee Crape Myrtle
  • Japanese Privet
  • American Sweet Gum
  • Southern Magnolia
  • Wada’s Memory Magnolia
  • Sweet Bay
  • Arbequina Olive
  • Slash Pine
  • Indian Mast Tree
  • Longleaf Pine
  • Chickasaw Pine
  • Flatwoods Plum
  • Sand Live Oak
  • Boardwalk Live Oak
  • Cathedral Live Oak
  • Cabbage Palmetto
  • Golden Trumpet Tree
  • Pink Trumpet Tree
  •  Autumn Gold Bald Cypress
  • Winged Elm
  • Chaste Tree

Edible Garden 

  • Okra
  • Lemongrass
  • Turmeric
  • Nasturtium
  • Loquat
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Lettuce
  • Cherry Tomato
  • Strawberries

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):