Feature Article - April 2002
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A Walk in the Park

Essential elements of modern park design and components

By Kelli Anderson

The Chicago Park District wanted to create a major
regional playground in Ogden Park.

Tot-lots. Skate parks. Splash play parks. Regional parks. Bike parks. Dog parks. Children's gardens. Parks today are as varied as our communities. But the designing and planning elements that make each one a success or a failure are the same: knowing community needs, building community-wide consensus and passion for park projects, using professional designers and planners, and adhering faithfully to Planning and Design 101. It's all a walk in the park—well, sort of.

What's the big idea?

Any good park, no matter its intended purpose, begins with careful research and a long-term game plan. Old adages like "look before you leap" or "measure twice, cut once" are necessary reminders to those of us who love to rush headlong into projects without taking the necessary time to analyze and strategize. Park districts, such as the winner of the 1998 National Gold Medal Award, the St. Charles Park District in St. Charles, Ill., attribute their success, in great part, to the collaborative efforts of the public and private sector.

It's all about communication and gaining consensus with all involved parties—from getting kids' input about designing a skate park, for example, to gaining feedback and consensus from the landowner, the taxpaying public, local businesses, organizations and governing bodies. Developing a community-wide vision for a park district, called a framework plan, is one way to combine community desires and needs into a unified road map. A framework plan can be park specific—identifying the needs for a particular space—or issue driven—such as agreeing to increase the diversity of open spaces as they become available or developing more bike trails. Either way, the process and the results are similar: the model of institutional/public buy-in and testing the projects against the plans.

One mistake that creators of framework plans tend to make, however, is getting too specific. They begin to pick the playground equipment when they should be asking whether the park needs a playground in the first place. Another problem lies in the life span of a framework plan. A 10-year old plan should be looked at and reconsidered, but a 15-year old plan should be looked at with suspicion. They don't last forever since a community's needs are continually changing.

"Unlike a master plan—a call to action to go out and start building—a framework plan allows projects, as they are developed and identified, to be tested against the framework plan," says Bob Megquier, director of planning and development for the Chicago Park District. "If they fit, you know you've got consensus because you know everyone is on board. You've got ownership, and the project can proceed."

On the other hand, projects completely off-the-wall can be identified quickly as a bad fit and a resulting no-go.

We've got spirit, yes we do

As silly as it may sound, rah-rah enthusiasm makes a big difference. In fact, it can make all the difference.

"Develop a passionate team," says Dan Purciarello, deputy director of planning and development of Chicago Park District. "Planners who operate from a distance are not the same."

Enlisting the help of a marketing staff to get the word out about what a park district has to offer—to educate and generate excitement and support for new projects—will also help keep the community supportive and involved, agrees James Breen, director of the St. Charles Park District.