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Supplement Feature - April 2019
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Intelligent Design

Reimagining Parks & Play Spaces

By Rick Dandes


The challenges of modern-day park design are being met by innovative thinkers who, within their master plans, are balancing demographics, political forces, investment priorities, geography and a host of other contributing factors.

How do you get from an idea in someone's mind to a park that everyone is happy with?

"For us," said Brad McCauley, managing principal, Site Design Group, "we have found the most success by starting with a robust community and stakeholder engagement process. The key to having a successful park design, short-term, and getting through concepts, to long-term is having the community so engaged that they want to ensure the survival of the park."

It all starts with community engagement, McCauley said, "and that can happen in many ways: by having online surveys and websites that get communities involved. You should hold outreach meetings, hopefully draw hundreds of people there, where you get to hear thoughts directly from the people in the community. "What do they want? A dog park? A playground? Do they want something specifically for 2-to-5-year-olds, 5-to-12-year-olds or senior citizens? Sometimes you get oddball requests, such as someone wanting a go-cart track. You work your way through all of that and narrow it down to where we, as designers, can come back with two or three concepts to present to the community. And really, this allows for a democratic process."

Since the recession, the majority of park planning and design projects in which RDG Planning & Design gets involved, said Principal Scott Crawford, "involves bringing together not only diverse users, meaning users from across many demographics, but also potential donors and benefactors for projects very early on to help mold the program and the project. This helps to identify the needs to be provided within a single park or within a park system."

The days of doing $20 million park improvements with 100 percent public funds are over. That funding formula does not exist anymore. So oftentimes it is a combination of everything together, where you try to get as many people engaged in the process as early as possible: Anything goes, and that means both private and public funding opportunities that need to be identified.

If you are a public provider, either a city, park district or state park system, there are still a variety of different funding options beyond just capital improvement programs, city funds or public funds.

When you talk about raising capital, added Andy Howard, design principal, Hitchcock Design Group, "there are many different avenues you can take to fund a park project. What we've seen as most successful, especially for some of the larger parks, are public-private partnerships: for example, using funds from the public and private sectors and from a developer or from a real estate development type project that is able to energize a park along a riverwalk or within an urban downtown area. Or, if there is a housing development as part of a site renovation, using land or cash donations from the developers in order to make sure that there is some parkland set aside and available for that particular residential community."

Quite often, Howard said, you'll see a general obligation bond, as a vehicle used to acquire funding. A "geo bond" is a common type of municipal bond in the United States that is secured by a state or local government's pledge to use legally available resources, including tax revenues, to repay bond holders.

In Illinois, because the state has separate taxing body of park districts, park systems tend to be robust and often qualify to go after open space land acquisition development 50/50 matching grants administered through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, IDNR. This has been a very successful grant program that has been going on for at least 20 years or more.

Other possible funding streams, Howard suggested, are foundations and sponsorships. "There are many nonprofit foundations that can raise money, get sponsorships and start capital improvement campaigns or funding campaigns. There are GoFund Me websites. There are many avenues on the Internet to help fundraise for a particular park project, and there are special taxes. In Philadelphia, for example, there is a soda tax that helps pay for parks in the city. The Chicago Park District has several events and privately contracted programs as revenue sources."

The bottom line? You should investigate funding options that exist at the local, state and federal level, as well as tapping into private funds in your community, to get the best investment in parkland.