Elmwood Park Zoo Concept Rendering

Bridging Worlds: GTP and a New Legacy for Elmwood Park Zoo

Elmwood Park Zoo Concept Rendering

In the heart of Norristown, PA, lies a hidden gem that’s been a beacon of education, conservation, and family fun since 1924: Elmwood Park Zoo

A small, yet vibrant zoological park, Elmwood Park Zoo embarked on an ambitious multi-stage revitalization plan in January 2023, beginning with the construction of a new animal hospital and welcome center.

Designing a First Impression

Eric Donovan, COO Elmwood Park Zoo
Eric Donovan, Elmwood Park Zoo

Glackin Thomas Panzak (GTP), an RGS Associates company, has been an important partner on this project, providing essential landscape architecture and design services as the zoo implements its Master Plan that includes expanding across the banks of the adjacent Stony Creek. Many of its existing facilities, including its main entrance, administrative offices, and nature shop will receive upgrades as well. 

“Choosing the right firm to perform the landscape architecture services for the expansion project was a big decision,” said Eric Donovan, COO of Elmwood Park Zoo. “It became obvious almost from the start that GTP was the right fit.”

Eric said the first phase of the upgrade project, the entrance plaza and welcome center, required careful planning and great attention to detail. As one of the first experiences for visitors entering the park, Eric said the plaza needed to convey not only the rich history of the park, but also direct attention to the facility’s many premier attractions.

A Walk Through History

The arrival sequence begins at a parking lot elevated on a hill across the driveway from the zoo entrance. A boardwalk takes guests to a covered lookout and bridge. Underneath the boardwalk is a selection of native plants, along with a “dry stream” of river rock designed to channel rainwater from high to low ground.

“As you walk into the courtyard, we wanted it to feel immersive, welcoming, engaging, and exciting for people,” Eric said. “It starts at the very top with a big treehouse overlook. As you start to come down the boardwalk from that space, you’re really invited to start engaging with our history.”

This history began 100 years ago when a private landowner donated a small piece of property and a handful of white-tailed deer to the borough of Norristown, the county seat of Montgomery County. The park expanded exponentially over the last century and now welcomes nearly a million visitors annually. The zoological park has grown in accordance with its popularity and now features exotic animal exhibits, such as its state-of-the-art jaguar habitat as well as other prized mammals, amphibians, birds, and invertebrates.

“It’s been a really great experience working with [GTP],” Eric said. “They’re very receptive to our ideas. They’re very creative and keep coming up with these new and different concepts. I think they really understand who we are and where we’re coming from.”

Elmwood Park Zoo Concept

Complementary Priorities

In addition to revitalizing visitor attractions and the zoo’s public and administrative spaces, the goal of the revitalization project is twofold. One, by highlighting main attractions and modernizing public areas, it will serve to cement the zoo’s position as a popular educational and entertainment option for families in the Philadelphia area. 

Second, construction of a new animal hospital will help position the zoo as a world-class zoological institution. The new hospital promises to be the premier veterinary facility for exotic animals in the region and will feature publicly accessible observation areas where visitors can watch as animals are cared for.

“The zoo is going to continue to go through changes and transform as the years go on,” noted Eric. “So, this project is really setting the tone for what the rest of the experience is going to look like. That’s why it was really important to start with a great partner like GTP, that could help us realize this initial vision.”

Thoughtful Landscape Design

RGS Lisa Thomas, Glackin Thomas Panzak
Lisa Thomas, RLA, AICP

As part of the new construction, the landscaping around the facility is being completely redone.

Despite its many other purposes and uses, at its most basic level the landscape plan needed to maintain the functional relationships between indoor and outdoor spaces.

“A big piece of what we want our guests to experience when they’re in the zoo is our landscaping,” Eric said. “It ties everything together, from our large pond to our ticketing queue to the sculptures that reflect our history. And that includes the new jaguar sculpture that’s going to be lurking in the background of what I call ‘Pride Rock.’” 

The design features and implementation of the site’s landscape architecture were inspired by the park’s rich history, which helped make the project more meaningful for both GTP Principal Lisa Thomas, RLA, AICP, and GTP Project Manager Michele Welch, RLA, who each have personal connections to the park. 

“For me personally, this has been such an amazing project to be a part of,” Lisa said. “Both Michele and I have visited the zoo with our families over the years.”  

Nurturing a Partnership

Due to the need to blend form with function in the zoo’s landscaping, zoo veterinarians requested that non-toxic plants be chosen so that trimmings could be used as forage. The selection of plants was therefore thoughtful, chosen with the diets of animal inhabitants in mind and ensuring that even the landscaping contributes to their wellbeing, Lisa said. 

“It’s all been very much a team effort,” she said, discussing GTP’s partnership with the zoo. “We had a significant number of meetings in the beginning to make sure this project was kicked off in the right way and that we had a good understanding of their vision. It’s been a lot of give and take and we’ve really enjoyed the collaboration.”  

Eric said the feeling is mutual.

“We wanted to make this an absolute top-notch experience for our guests,” he said. “Because of the magnitude of this project, we needed to bring in the very best people. With GTP, it’s really become a great partnership, and we’re super happy with them. I can’t say enough good things about Lisa and her team!”

Project construction is expected to be completed in January 2025.