Guest Column - July 2019
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Design Corner

Savvy Insight Into Recreation Project Planning

By John Dzarnowski, AIA


Planning for any recreation facility includes many important decisions, but communication is one of the keys—especially in municipal projects requiring public approval. Good communication includes transparency about the project goals and execution process.

This culture of communication starts in the very earliest stages, engaging with the public and getting buy-in. The goal is to design a facility that the public will enjoy using for many years to come.

Programming & Feedback

The planning process starts with a needs assessment program to identify what the project will address. To help define what will be included in the project and what will not, engage with the community.

In the preliminary stages of the project, there are two possible approaches for community engagement. The first is to work with staff and the board ahead of time to develop some early concepts based on a predefined program, and then present those concepts to the public. For projects that start at the grassroots level, teams work with the public first to determine their needs, refine that input and bring it to the board/staff of the organization.

Many of the overarching concepts are the same in these approaches, but the way the idea is initiated is the differentiating factor.

There are many advantages to a grassroots approach that starts with community input. People tend to be more receptive to a project when they feel that they are part of it. This is especially true when public approval—and funding—are crucial to getting the project off the ground. Getting the community involved early as stakeholders is important to obtain their buy-in.

By contrast, the more top-down approach might be expedient when buy-in is not so critical—for example, when there has been a long-term conversation in the community and the project is delivering on a defined need. It doesn't make sense to ask "What do you want in this park?" if it has already been decided that the park will have an outdoor pool. When the project is part of a community's master plan, there will be inherent buy-in, and less need to start at the grassroots level.

Optimizing Community Engagement

Regardless of the approach, the way the information and decisions are presented to the public can affect the outcome. For instance, an open-house forum presents more opportunities for intimate one-on-one conversations than a large meeting with one person presenting the information and taking questions.

An open house with feedback stations can be particularly effective. Each station has information boards, documentation, and staff to answer questions and collect feedback. Attendees can walk from station to station, learning about various aspects of the project, and asking specific questions about the features that affect them the most.

Another method for public involvement is through user focus groups. These allow the project team to connect with users and involve business leaders. The user groups are a representative sampling of people who will be occupying the space—athletic teams, fitness class participants, etc. These participants act as ambassadors representing the needs of their fellow users. The ideal approach is to have small focus group meetings, with four to seven people in each focus group, spending 30 to 45 minutes outlining the concepts and getting feedback. At least one group should include local business representatives. As leaders in the community, the support of these individuals is key, and sometimes they choose to sponsor a certain program or feature. Business people are also members of the community and may have a personal interest as well because they and their families use the facilities. Ultimately, planning and project goal setting are the same, the only difference is at what point the public is engaged in the planning.

Developing a Solid Plan

Taking into account the needs and opinions of neighbors will build a good rapport with the community, and good coordination with the municipality in the process of zoning and public forums is a key part of the process.

In planning meetings, documenting conversations and meeting minutes creates a foundation to build on when presenting plan documents to municipal authorities such as plan commissions or city councils, to show how the project being presented was built with public support.

In one example project, the team completed a master plan that included concepts for four individual parks. They started by developing basic conceptual plans for each of the parks and presented those to the park board in a public meeting. In this way, the public and the board could share both their interests and concerns, while communicating with one another. At the end of the process, participants from the community applauded the park board for their ground-up approach to the plan.

One of the benefits of a master plan is transparency in decision-making for stakeholders who can see the "big picture" in a master plan as they go through the individual steps. A well-defined plan can guide projects and will stand the test of time, which is important with large-scale efforts that can take 15 to 20 years to develop fully.

Budgets are always part of the planning for any project, and a good master plan can bring the interests and expectations into alignment with costs and available funding. In an example project, the park district was open to public opinion, but they also clearly communicated that there were limited funds available and developing priority-based budgets was critical. When the conditions of the budget were applied to the project, the clear priorities made it easy to choose what would be included and excluded.

The size and complexity of a major recreation project means that there are many factors to consider in prioritization. A survey in which participants rank things in order of importance is one way to gather feedback about what is most important to stakeholders. For a more general approach, a "dot voting" system can be used. In this method, participants are given a limited number of dots to vote for key features. If there are 15 topics on the board, participants might be given five dots to vote with, and the items with the most votes win. The most popular choices emerge visibly before the room.

In a live planning session such as this, a diverse cross-section of people helps reduce bias. Group discussions of defined priorities can drive decisions about lower-ranked items. Soliciting this input—and documenting who was involved and what their comments were—helps justify why the results trend in a certain direction, which is helpful in presenting the results to decision makers later.

In the end, the process is relatively straightforward, but the crucial piece is executing it correctly and maintaining the trust of stakeholders through adherence to defined processes.