Intelligent Design

Reimagining Parks & Play Spaces


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.

Amenities in the Park

One of the biggest and most significant shifts in park planning is not just the equitable distribution of where parks are located in communities, noted Crawford. Today, planning goes beyond aiming to ensure that geographically, everybody has access to open space near their residence.


"Now we talk about social equity within those parks," Crawford said, "meaning it is not good enough to have a park within a quarter mile of where everyone lives, you have to make sure there are amenities within that park from the east side of town, to the west side of town, to downtown to ensure that everybody is getting equal access to amenities in the parks."

In the past, you'd measure the success of a park system by access to open space, but this was before the current focus on equitable distribution of amenities. That focus on amenities is much stronger today than it was 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, Howard said, choosing the amenities that will be offered to the community users "begins when we look at how to plan for the long term. We believe in coming in and doing a comprehensive master plan for a park system at least every five years, a roadmap to help guide that park system into the future. These plans are not set in stone, but give an authority a roadmap to refer to throughout the process."

Part of the process when putting together a comprehensive master plan for parks is to evaluate the existing park system to understand the amenities that already are offered. You have to start globally and understand: What are the land holdings? Are they land-locked? Do they need to acquire additional property? And the other side of it is to understand any inefficiencies that exist within those parks. You also need to factor in the demographic populations, their needs and desires.


Once you recognize a park's deficiencies, Howard said, and you have an idea of the overall park system, you then must engage with the community, and this is done throughout the process. "We do community-wide surveys," he said. "We look at the demographics and understand what the demands are because different cultures and demographics could have higher recreational demands. We also look at recreational trends. We see that challenge courses, inclusive playgrounds, adventure play, providing access to nature, continuing to make connections through trail systems to increase access to parks is continuing to grow. You want to look at those trends as well as deficiencies that currently exist in your own parks."

One trend in modern park design, Howard said, is grouping amenities into zones. "That is looking at a park and saying, OK, what is the infrastructure there? Are there passive and active zones? And that all helps in determining what kind of amenities fold into the site context. If the site is in a more natural setting that includes a wetland and a woodland, you might not want to build a soccer field right there. The site itself is something that needs to be considered when planning on the amenities to be included. And then you try to group high-activity and low-activity zones. High activities might include playgrounds and spray pads and sports. Low activity might have picnicking, shelters and more natural areas, and interpretation of those natural areas may lend itself to different park types."


Zones of universal access is another growing trend in park design, Howard said. "It is not a new trend, but it's one that is becoming increasingly more important. Here we have the diversity of activities within the zone. You appeal to the large surge of retiring baby boomers, with kids, grandkids and great-grandkids; all of them wanting to be active in parks. Having activities that 60-, 70- and 80-year-old citizens can participate in, while their 2- or 3-year-old grandchild is active in an activity right next to them is becoming very important."

Bison's Bluff in Schaumburg, Ill., is part of the Spring Valley Nature Center, and a park that Howard points to as offering diverse amenities. The park is a nature-based play space that lends itself well to the nature center side of things, he said. "Bison's Bluff is one of those parks where they already had a nature center and some trails. But they wanted to draw people into that space and they were targeting a younger age group, 2 to 12 and even lower 3-to-8 age range. In this case, we tied into the prairie savannah wetland ecosystems that existed on the site."


There is a series of adventure treehouses. "We went into the savannah with the treehouses and built treetop towers. There is a waterfall and stream that meanders down toward the wetland ecosystem. And in that area there are stone steppers where kids can access and look for tadpoles and frogs and understand what the wetlands ecosystem is all about."

Valley View Park, in West Des Moines, Iowa, is another example of designing around already existing natural resources within the space. "It's a 90-acre park," Crawford said, "that we master planned almost 10 years ago and now we are on a implementation stage of a $30 million project. It was a park that was designed around restoring the natural ecological system that existed on the property pre-European settlement. But we also needed recreational amenities around those natural systems. So there are restored wetlands, restored native wooded areas that are all weaved in to active recreation zones. It is a non-traditional approach to planning a new park that is surrounded by residential development."

Reinventing Spaces

Anna Cawrse and Andrew Gutterman, both landscape architects with Sasaki, faced an altogether different kind of challenge: to reimagine what had once been a railroad yard into the anchor space within a broader, rundown 180-acre site that also included wetlands and an oak forest.


Bonnet Springs, in Lakeland, Fla., is about halfway between Tampa and Orlando. The site is very close to the downtown, and it has been cut off physically and psychologically from the community because of an active rail corridor and roadway infrastructure.

It took the vision of local community leaders to see the potential for this site as something other than what it was zoned for, which was commercial and industrial use, Gutterman said. It was ground zero for a potential distribution center, which would have added traffic congestion without really enhancing quality of life for the community.

About 80 acres on the site was a former rail maintenance yard, active for about 100 years. But by the mid-1980s, all of the tracks and structures had been completely removed, and that rail function had been relocated to another area. The balance of the site consists of an area that was formerly a citrus grove and sloping live oak forest on the edge of Lake Bonnet.

"So, we had a site with quite a bit of variety to it with a varied history of different types of uses," Gutterman said. "Some areas had a certain amount of environmental integrity, but much of the site had been previously disturbed by agricultural or industrial use."

Thirty years ago, after the railyard was decommissioned, a group formed to market the site for a commercial office park. It didn't get very far, although at the time it seemed like a good idea.


Better ideas prevailed, Gutterman said. "There was a recognition of an opportunity to create a great, central park for Lakeland. In 2015 a vision statement was put together, "and we were called in," Gutterman said. "This is a private ownership project. We are still in the design phase. Tentatively, we plan to have the park done by the end of 2020."

An advisory committee was formed and it was this group that saw the value of the site, Gutterman said. "It is essentially a private endeavor in terms of ownership and much of the fundraising. But it is being done with the participation of public agencies, local, regional and state, since its intended use is for public use."

Sasaki did a master plan, explained Cawrse. "We did public outreach for six months and asked the community what it was they wanted. We went out and looked at the parks that already existed in Lakeland. We didn't want to duplicate or compete with them; we wanted to complement them. We asked the community, what was their vision? And we learned they wanted the park to be a cultural magnet and an economic jewel in the region."

From that, she said, "we developed a couple of concepts, went to the public and asked them about those different concepts. We then refined the masterplan so that it reflects the goals that came out of the outreach and public engagement. We balanced the program with the restored ecosystem."


A section of the 180 acres has a spring that runs through it, and there is a lake on the site and 40 acres of wetlands. That natural experience coupled with cultural amenities has been the driver of the program, Cawrse explained. A children's museum that already exists in town will be moving to the site as an anchor. Adventure play will be prominent. There will be a botanic garden and an event center, with potential as a revenue center. Plans also call for a welcome center with a restaurant.

"The other goal," she said, is to showcase the central Florida landscape, such as having a canopy walk that goes into the oak forest. And we'll take people out to the wetlands on a boardwalk."

The project has the support of the city, which has been important in funding. "We have a naturally occurring spring on the site and the regional water management district has a grant program to fund the restoration of spring environments," Gutterman said. We have looked at applying for that. The advisory group is starting to explore partnerships in order to broaden the spectrum of funding sources."