It Takes a Community

Promoting Parks & Programs From the Start

By Dave Ramont

On a gorgeous day in June of 2015, hundreds of families gathered on the shores of Lake Michigan in Highland Park, Ill. It was the grand reopening of Rosewood Beach, and residents had more than a little to do with the restoration and subsequent celebration. The Park District of Highland Park was gifted the property in 1928, but over the years the beach and beach house—as well as an adjoining ravine and bluff—had been ravaged by harsh conditions, leaving the beach virtually deserted.

A 2007 Lakefront Master Plan recommended major renovations at Rosewood. The planning commission solicited resident input, with more than 700 residents sharing their thoughts through surveys and input meetings. A 2009 Communitywide Attitude and Interest Survey found that more than half of residents ranked the renovation as a top priority, but the economic downturn stalled the project. Then, in 2011, a resident volunteer task force was recruited to guide the planning and design process—meeting regularly for over a year with open meetings that encouraged resident participation. Progress, as well as solicitation for comments and questions, was promoted through the district's website, press releases, mailings and e-mail—with more than 200 residents participating.

A grassroots group called Friends of Rosewood was also formed, energizing and educating residents through their website, social media, and e-mail updates. In 2012 the task force presented a design plan to the community. The Park Board approved the plan, and then selected an architectural firm via an unconventional design competition. Eleven firms submitted design concepts to the task force, with Chicago-based Woodhouse Tinucci Architects being awarded the project.

Since the unveiling, the new Rosewood Beach, along with its new buildings and boardwalk, has been a huge success, and a model of environmental stewardship. The restoration was the result of a comprehensive plan, with community involvement playing a key role—a long-held practice of the Park District of Highland Park. In this article we'll look at some strategies for knowing what your community or audience wants—gathering input before a project begins to help ensure success.

Master plans, in simplest terms, describe where a park or community is now, where it should be in the future, and how to get there. And just as the Rosewood Beach project was born out of a 2007 master plan, the Park District of Highland Park has now implemented a new 10-year plan, in conjunction with its four-year strategic plans, to guide the district through 2024. These plans establish a clear set of goals, policies and standards for facilities, open space and programs.

The plans are typically developed by outside consultants, including architects and landscape architects, civil engineers, and recreation and other planning consultants. Input from the community and district staff is also invaluable. "The benefit of a master plan is it gives you an update in terms of the facilities and the kinds of things the park district offers in general, both active as well as passive, as well as programming and education," said Chris Lannert, who heads up the Lannert Group, a planning, landscape architecture and community consulting firm.

So, how important is it to seek outside help when putting together a master plan? Can a park district tackle this task in-house?

Yes, it can, according to Ken Ballard, president of Ballard King, which specializes in recreation consulting. But, he pointed out, unless you're a large agency with a lot of specialized staff, it's difficult to have the expertise in all the areas necessary to gather the needed information, including capital cost estimating. Not to mention just having the time to do so. "Sometimes we've seen agencies managing the process—writing the actual plan—but they're relying on outside resources," he said, adding that another issue with doing a plan internally is perception. Whether by elected officials or by the general community, it's natural to wonder if there's built-in bias if a plan is authored by park staff. "Independent companies provide more viability and take out what's perceived as inherent bias."

Lannert agreed, adding that in most cases, parks look to outside consultants to do the overview of the master planning because, while the park district understands the functioning of the district, they may be too close to it to see a broader picture. "They know where the bodies are buried, they know where the budgets have to go, and they know their constraints. They've tried things before that either have or haven't worked, so they have a different perspective than the consultant does."

He added that consultants who work in many communities and states have a broader view of what's happening in many park districts, and so they bring to the table different challenges and different menu items to select from. He points to zip lines as a recent example. "They're very popular certainly in resorts, but there are lots of parks now that have been developed both for challenges as well as for team-building exercises where zip lines are becoming worthwhile." So the consultant may suggest this option. "That's why the consultant becomes a good team member when you're looking for a master plan," Lannert said.

Once a master plan is in place, more detailed examination of particular projects is often required. "Feasibility studies are an outgrowth of the overall master planning; they're more specific to a certain facility or amenity," Ballard said.

And, by sharing these findings with the community, you're more likely to build support for your project, especially if you're looking for funding, according to Janet Jordan, associate at architectural firm Moody Nolan. "Conducting a feasibility study is often the first step of a public information campaign that is critical for a successful referendum. This is the time that a market analysis, needs assessment and demographic data are collected and analyzed to determine the viability of the recreation project vision," she said.

Hana Ishikawa, design principal at Site Design Group, added, "Prior studies and metrics are always helpful in determining and guiding projects. Any type of data is useful and always carefully considered before we begin the design process."

Whether it's a new playground, skating rink or indoor racquetball court, it will require long-range planning, where 20 years ago that wasn't necessarily the case, according to Ballard. "Whether it's going to the voters or just how you're allocating existing funding, it's basically essential now that you're doing a feasibility study." He explained how in the past, agencies often just moved forward with things, realizing later that a facility was costing a lot more to maintain than they'd considered, or a certain amenity wasn't attracting the number or types of users they were looking for. "Long-range planning efforts avoid all that stuff, if it's done well and correctly," Ballard said, adding that public involvement is the cornerstone of the process. "It's really important now to have public buy-in, going above and beyond to integrate the whole community to the planning process, which is usually done early on to provide direction to the project itself."

Obtaining public input early in the planning process helps the planning team and owner create a project program—a key step before beginning design work, said Steve Konters, a principal at Hitchcock Design Group. It's also useful for identifying key concerns, and helps build consensus and support as the public sees how their input is heard and included in the implementation of a project or design. "An early public input meeting also shows additional transparency in the process, which we've seen as an important objective for local government agencies. Early public involvement is also strongly recommended and sometimes required for different state and federal grants that can help fund project planning or implementation."

Ishikawa said that inevitably, the projects they design are for those who occupy and maintain the project, so they want them to truly reflect the needs and desires of those people utilizing them. "Without public engagement, the uses, maintenance, aesthetic preferences and budget—amongst other constraints and desires—would not be able to be vetted, and something that is right and adequate for the community cannot be designed for them."

Jordan added that recreation professionals and their consultants always strive to be good stewards of public dollars, so it's essential to engage the community in shaping the big idea into a definable vision and realistic budget. "This is an open-yet-managed process that helps to ensure community support for the project," she said.

Of course, this leads to the question: How best to engage the community? These days, there are many platforms for reaching out to the public, but which are most valid? Ballard said that a variety of methods must be utilized. "Most studies now are using two to three, sometimes four different types of mechanisms for gauging public input to provide a better cross-section of representation."

Stephen Springs, an architect at Brinkley Sargent Wiginton, agreed: "The solution is to reach out in multiple ways— it gives you more data-set to find the common grounds." But he pointed out that it's getting harder to collect statistically valid information because every way you reach out is somewhat skewed, as it tends to be targeted. "So if you cast a wider net and use multiple ways to reach people, you may see the two ways yielded two different results, in which case you do a little more investigation. But if they're similar, they tend to validate one versus the other."

Jordan said that "Conducting a statistically valid survey provides the most reliable data by asking opinions about the project's scope, tolerance of capital and ongoing operations costs, and on the communities' willingness to support the project." This type of survey is usually done for larger projects like community recreation centers or sports complexes. A less formal approach, she said, is to schedule specific stakeholder interview meetings and open public information meetings. A weighted questionnaire may be distributed to solicit more community input. And Jordan believes that having a booth at a community event—like a Fireman's Fish Fry or a community festival—also raises awareness about a future project and encourages further public involvement.

Springs agreed. "You can get some really good information and anecdotal quotes that way."

Ishikawa explained that his company approaches community engagement on a project-by-project basis, which may include public surveys or focus/stakeholder groups. "We've also held numerous charrettes and visioning sessions where we either start with a blank slate, or bring precedents, project images, ideas and sketches to the communities and ask for input on whether they like the idea or not."

Springs also likes the interactive approach, where "you're meeting with the public in an open forum, and walking through the project vocabulary and asking if they'd rather have this or rather have that." He said attendees can then voice comments or cast votes in a variety of ways, including comment cards or electronic voting systems. "Sometimes they vote with stickers—you'll have images on poster boards of different amenities and everyone puts their sticker on what they're most interested in seeing. This gives us something quantifiable to react to."

Springs suggests offering meetings on different days and at different times, joking that "Food is a great attractant as well."

Konters said that while it can be tough to get good turnouts at public meetings and open houses, some residents still appreciate the opportunity for face-to-face engagement. But he added that it's important to reach out in a variety of ways. "With the growth of social media and personal technology devices, online communication and platforms are becoming a great way to solicit input."

A number of online options are available, including videos, mapping technology, open discussion forums and services like Survey Monkey. But Konters pointed out that knowing your community demographic is critical to developing the right public engagement tools for your project, and they still see communities with older demographics who "want to participate in a more traditional sense and complete hard-copy surveys or provide their input individually and not within an open forum."

Seniors have a powerful voice, and Springs said the reason you often see rec centers being joined with senior components is because you may need senior buy-in to move forward. "If you're going to a bond or a public referendum of some kind, if you don't have the seniors on your side it's going to be tough to pass in a lot of places."

And, while we don't mean to pick on swimmers, everyone singled them out as the most vocal special interest group—mainly competitive and fitness swimmers. "There are a number of other ones, but they're the classic example right now and can really skew some of the information and directions for feasibility studies and even for master planning efforts. They're a viable group that needs to be served, but sometimes it's overly emphasized through this process," said Ballard, adding that by using a number of input mechanisms, you can keep that in check and get a good cross-section of representation.

Springs related how there's never enough money to make everyone happy, yet you've got many special interest groups that want their programs accommodated. So you must "try to build some consensus and really see which voices aren't necessarily the loudest in the community but which ones are the most representative."

Lannert believes that people are multi-dimensional, and park districts should see that. Of course dog lovers want more dog parks, but he feels the question to ask them is "what else do you do," as another way to cross-reference and market. "Because then you get a special interest group reaching outside their comfort zone and giving insight into things you might want in the community that aren't self-serving."

He also cautions against putting too much stock in national averages, saying "they're a baseline, not a decision." If a study tells you the average number of tennis courts per 10,000 residents is four, but your surveys show that residents played a lot of basketball or took several nature classes but rarely played tennis, then "You've got to go with what your community's telling you," Lannert said.

When it comes to planning and achieving successful projects, Ishikawa stressed "More data, more engagement, and more information from the community. Asking early and inquiring to diverse sets of users is also helpful."

Jordan suggests agencies utilize all information avenues, and anticipate the questions and concerns that may surface and be prepared to answer in an informed and understandable manner. And, "Don't expect your community to attend public meetings—sometimes you need to take the information on the road and visit soccer or baseball fields or go to the pool."

Konters believes that all communities are different, so understand how yours prefers to be engaged and use multiple strategies to allow for input. "Working with other community organization leaders and having them engage their membership can also help increase participation."

Lannert summed it up this way: "God gave you two ears and one mouth, use them proportionally."



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