Fun for All

The Latest in Park Planning and Design


Neighborhoods want sustainable green space and recreation opportunities that appeal to multiple generations. As public parks become increasingly integral to their neighborhoods' identity, architectural designers and planners have learned to collaborate with residents, stakeholders and the broader community to help create and verify park concept plans, and to identify priority projects that can accommodate multi-generational interests.

"That's one of the key trends I've noticed over the past 10 years," said Tom McGilloway, principal, Mahan Rykiel Associates Inc., Baltimore, Md. "Developing partnerships and getting more community and stakeholders involved in the plan, design and visualization of the park is critical to its success. You'll also want to involve private partnerships working with more public agencies, not only the parks department and the parks professionals."

What communities are asking for these days, suggested Charlie McCabe, director for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, Boston office, "… is creativity. The TPL is largely focused on city parks, and the leading trend we are seeing is for a lot more innovations, in terms of mixed uses in a given space. Where we used to see a neighborhood park that would have a classic playground, maybe a sports field and a few basketball hoops, now there is a lot more of thinking through what the local community needs and adjusting based on that."

As an example, McCabe explained, there could be a building, an actual recreation center that is part of a park's design or re-design. The center could have multiple uses besides the traditional classes and after-school programs. It could be a health clinic, provide local nonprofit wellness classes, or even house a free lunch program for seniors. "There is," McCabe said, "a lot more creativity in thinking about how you can utilize the spaces you create within a park throughout the day, during school time as well as after school time, or evenings as well as weekends, and how you can get more connect for the buck out of the investments that cities are putting into those specific areas."

Outdoor facilities are increasingly providing "… big things for underserved populations," McCabe said. "Building skateparks are big ones on a wish list that continues to grow. There is a big push in the western United States to reuse tennis courts for a sport that was developed after the second World War, but is really gaining in the over-50 set, called pickleball, and there is always the need for more dog parks."


But those parks are also becoming more flexible, integrating their active recreational spaces with passive areas. There might be a part of the park devoted to more active racquet sports or ballfields, woven with spaces that are more natural and passive with trail systems, so even if you are there as a more active user, you are exposed to the more natural and ecological aspects of the space. If you are there for the environmental aspect of a park, you are pulled into and exposed to some of the more active features. Integrating the natural features of a park space with its more active areas is a trend.

Sustainability, once a trend, is now a given at most parks, but the term means different things to different people, McCabe said. "Take Austin, Texas, where the big challenge is always water because you have very hot summers. I've heard it said that Texas is a state of drought punctuated by periods of flood. When we did tree plantings or thought about turf fields we would have to think not only about how to fund irrigation to keep things alive, but also about surfacing, and how long it would last. Do you go for packed mulch or crushed stone for a dog park? The other thing we were good at was water, when it did come, and how to manage it through rain gardens and other devices that allowed us to capture more water coming off the streets and then funnel it to trees and plants."

Community gardens continue to grow and expand everywhere. "Where we've seen them pop up the most is in unutilized spaces in cities," McCabe said. "Empty lots may be owned by one city department and they'll transfer it to the parks department, which allows a city garden to be planted there. Again, water is a big thing and getting water service to that area could be the big expense."

Blueprint for Planners

The key to getting any park project started, said McGilloway, is to involve the surrounding community. "By doing that," he said, "you get people who live there, people that are actually using it, and businesses that are nearby, involved. Get public and private agencies interested. Often, we will start our planning job with a series of stakeholder meetings, and it might be something that takes place out in the park where we evaluate the park space, understanding how it does, or does not connect with the surrounding community."


Hearing firsthand from people is important, McGilloway believes. "Particularly if it's an existing park getting updated or improved. Then you have the chance to talk to the people and understand what works for them and what is not working for them. That is really the first step before any design is done. That early input from key stakeholders can be balanced with professional judgment."

The next step would be a site assessment, McGilloway continued. "If it is a brand new park, raw land or a green field, do a full analysis and understand the topographic, environmental constraints and the existing assets."

After that, McGilloway and McCabe agree, develop a park design that enhances and protects the assets and builds on the site's character. The topography will dictate the park space, with its characteristics enhanced.

This stakeholder involvement really needs to continue throughout the planning and design phase, before construction, McGilloway said. "In the beginning, listening to what people are saying informs your thoughts. Balance that with your assessment. And then go back to the stakeholders and share some concept ideas, while always looking at alternative approaches. As you do that, you are getting constant feedback, and an understanding that you can't accommodate everything that everyone wants. As a planner, ask yourself: what are the things that will take priority over the others? Take that input and refine your plans into a final draft, a plan that you once again take back to stakeholders."

Don't forget to reach out with special interest groups, like sports groups or arts groups, McCabe said. "All that feedback is really iterative throughout the whole process of park design, not just at the beginning and not just at the end."

Park planners working for San Francisco and New York City agree that neighborhoods have to be involved as part of the process. "San Franciscans have a lot of enthusiasm for the democratic process, and so there is no park project that does not involve community feedback," said Dawn Kamalanathan, director of Capital and Planning, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. "One of the things we've been very effective at is experimenting with new formats, and not just the traditional meeting in a room. Everyone is so busy now, so what we've tried to do is bring our meetings to people, making use of existing community forums, rather than scheduling a meeting in the middle of the week and expecting everyone to come out to the park. We go to where people already show up, and engaging with them is an important first step."

The San Francisco Parks Department also sends out citywide online surveys, which gets them feedback to specific planning questions, "… and it's been helpful," Kamalanathan said, "particularly with parents who are too busy to meet us in person. It also gives us a chance to respond to questions that are more important to them. We, meanwhile, get open-ended feedback. We've been able to capture a couple hundred people more using technology than we would by asking them to come to a meeting."


New York City, with almost 1,900 parks in its five boroughs, also conducts outreach meetings as standard planning policy. "Outreach is important because we've found that people are passionate about their park spaces in New York City, and we'll often find different opinions in a community about what they want," said Nancy Prince, deputy chief of design, New York City Parks Department.

"We advertise and have community visioning sessions in a particular neighborhood," Prince explained, "and we'll also issue invitations to members of community boards. There are 52 community boards in New York City and they all have a parks committee. The advertisement goes even broader than that, with an online notice about it. We've had anywhere from 75 to 120 people show up at separate visioning sessions, which is great, because we get different inputs. We'll go back to the community a few times after the initial meetings with schematics, and eventually, the actual design. We have to present the final design to the community board and to the people in the community. What we are saying is, 'We heard what you said, and this is our illustrative plan.'"

Parks departments are probably the most public-facing local public agency that is out there, McCabe said, summing up. "They deal with public input on a variety of levels, everything from all the programming for youth and recreation to reservations for picnic areas. You need to be genuinely interested in what people have to say, and remember—you'll get the whole spectrum, including opposing and polarizing views on things, like dogs-on-leash areas vs. no-leash areas. As planners, you'll have to balance views, get to the real issues of concerns and address those.

Take Good Care

The biggest pitfall is not reaching out to the people who are using the space, McGilloway said, "… because you won't get that sense of ownership, and you won't end up with a park that really works for the people using the park. It also might limit your opportunities for partnerships and funding for some elements of that park."

Over-designing the park space should also be avoided. "I don't see this happening as much now as it did back in the 1970s or 1980s where very specific things were designed, and where you could only do one activity, like a fixed chess table or something that has such a specific use," McGilloway said. "When that use goes out of style there is no flexibility to use it for something else. That goes back to having a park space that is flexible."


One other pitfall, especially for an urban park, is not recognizing the ability to see into a park space and out of it. Sometimes, McCabe explained, things can be overplanted and it blocks your visibility, which creates the perception that the park might be unsafe. So in urban parks, except in areas where it is appropriate to do more natural plantings, emphasize overhead canopies and lower shrubs so that it is open enough to see into the park space and out of the park space. It's crime prevention through environmental design.

Parks departments have a hard job, McCabe continued. "The biggest challenge is they never have enough money. They also must conform to the standards for access mandated not only at the federal level but also at the state and local level. Make sure all the play equipment is sturdy, will last a long time, is safe and won't cause injuries."

The various pieces that go into a park can be quite expensive. Many towns, cities and states have design standards and rules that help ensure money is invested wisely. Everything costs a lot of money, "… but you are following these rules because you want to make sure the park lasts a long time and is available and accessible to the widest amount of people for the longest period of time," McCabe said.

One thing parks departments should continue to do is to be open and transparent, McCabe added. "Say, 'Here's what this equipment costs,' and then be prepared to explain why it costs so much. And use examples—establishing a new playground, building a splash pad or building basketball hoops. Demystifying the process as well as expenses is a big thing."

Make sure you are getting as wide a range of viewpoints as possible. In planning, McCabe and McGilloway talk about finding as many people as they can on the streets who are neighborhood experts. It might be the guy who hangs out every day on a bench and reads the paper. Or people who walk their dogs. Or people who bring their kids to the playground every day after school. Capture those folks, and not only can they help you think about the challenges you face, but also may know other folks who you need to talk to. Cast the net wide.

Getting It Done Right

From San Francisco to New York, planners are adjusting their methodology to meet the needs of their communities. In other words, they've learned their lessons and are doing things right. Neighborhoods are responding.

"We are very lucky in San Francisco that San Franciscans value their parks as much as they do," Kamalanathan, of the Recreation and Park Department said. "We have a rich variety of open spaces that is rare in American cities. And that ranges from gorgeous, charming neighborhood parks to having a zoo, to a marina yacht harbor, to waterfront open space. What we have seen from San Franciscans is the very high passage rate of the past two general obligation bonds; we've had over 70 percent of San Franciscans voters voting to invest in San Franciscan parks."

San Francisco is actually a relatively small city, in terms of the land it takes up, yet the city continues to grow and change. "We don't have the opportunity to easily buy new open space to accommodate that growth, and so one of the things that we really had to look at as we are renovating our open spaces is how to create more capacity, how to serve more people with our existing open spaces, particularly in neighborhoods that are getting more and more dense."


People are requesting more outdoor fitness equipment, Kamalanathan said. "There is a strong desire of adults wanting to stay active, whether it is using outdoor fitness equipment or creating very clear specific walking routes within parks. On the sites themselves, one of the interesting challenges we are trying to think through is not to just have playgrounds everywhere, but play environments. So again, you want to have more flexible spaces. We have a great park, Cayuga Park, where there is a traditional playground, but all along the edge of the park is a path system, with sculptures along the way. Both kids and adults love walking along that path."

Another successful park project was McLaren Park, 338 acres of extraordinary, wild land in San Francisco that most residents had never been to. "It's a best kept secret," Kamalanathan said. "It was unable to attract investment since no one knew about it. We started a capital improvement process by first hosting events like an elaborate treasure hunt that was mapped out so that people could experience the great views in the park, and the great trails and paths they didn't know about. It was super successful, with over 300 people in the treasure hunt, many of them first-timers to McLaren. Activation as a way of outreach has been positive for us and helped us connect with different user groups."

New York City took another route to success. "Parks aren't just islands of green space; they're connected to our entire public realm," said Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. A new program, Parks Without Borders, helped the city create a more seamless experience at the edges, entrances and adjacent park spaces.

"In New York," Prince said, "there is a lot of fencing around parks, and we figured a lot of it is unnecessary. We are trying to break down the border between the fence and the sidewalk to expand what is considered the public realm. We are really looking at making parks more welcoming and blurring the line between the park and the sidewalk. That's a real trend right now in New York City."

These new community parks are multi-generational spaces—spaces in which people can socialize. "That is in addition to all the sports we typically do in the playgrounds," Prince noted. "Last year our landscape architects designed 35 projects in under-served neighborhoods, and those parks were previously paved asphalt fields. We are transforming those into multi-use community spaces. Typically we get requests for different kinds of things in the park; we'll have a playground, an active basketball court or skate park and then separately, also, a sitting area for socializing outside the play area, or for community events. Just a more pleasant place to sit."