Feature Article - April 2002
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A Walk in the Park

Essential elements of modern park design and components

By Kelli Anderson

Know your market

OK, this probably goes without saying, but just in case we missed somebody: Know your market. Know the needs of the community.

When it comes to planning, natural areas and bike
trails are high priorities for the St. Charles
Park District in Illinois.

Is the population near a proposed site aging? Transitioning from young family to empty nesters? Will a site need to provide multigenerational use?

The small tot-lots of decades ago are no longer the one-size-fits-all model for playground and residential park use. With double-income families more the norm, parks and recreation areas are increasingly expected to provide entertainment for all, young and old, active and sedentary.

"Today's needs are more for families and kids," says Frank Clements, principal of Wolff Clements and Associates, Ltd. of Chicago. "The regional playground is replacing the smaller neighborhood tot lots. It used to be moms went every day to small parks, but this is less and less the case with working families. It's more about quality time—all together—like the Disney experience. Families want a place to go on a weekend to spend hours where kids can do something and the adults can too."

Urban and ethnic communities also have differing needs. In the early 1920s, densely populated urban areas created parks designed primarily to provide green space. Green space is still a valid need, but urban parks must wear many more hats: providing pleasure grounds for the visiting population while meeting the needs of the local neighborhoods, accommodating daytime and night-time usage, updating park elements while being sensitive to historic landmarks, and celebrating the cultural diversity and needs of the urban population. For example, just as in many Latin American countries where soccer is the most popular sport, the demand for quality soccer fields in concentrated Hispanic communities in American urban areas comes as no surprise.

Getting Framed

Framework plans aren't for everybody or for every project. Because of their scope, they are more suited to generalities rather than detailed specifics. You can have a framework plan for a community of homes, for example, but not necessarily for the individual house. You need to determine at what point a framework plan breaks down and is no longer the tool for the job.

When creating a framework plan, however, the actual movers and shakers—the facilitators of the process—can be either your own staff or hired consultants. The upside of using your own staff is that they are readily available day in and day out and provide for more flexibility since you don't know how long it's going to take to achieve consensus among the participants. It can take months.

A consultant, on the other hand, is more conscious of the clock, and planning necessarily becomes more structured with the realization that time is money. They're more efficient.

When thinking about the essential elements of a framework plan for a particular space, factor in some of the following for consideration: Is the space being considered an historic space requiring more sensitive planning because of things like fountains, field houses or landmarks? Do roads go through the park that have implications for the transportation systems? Does the park transition from neighborhood to tourist uses? Does the park have differing needs based on daytime and nighttime usage? Can you assess adaptive reuses of outdated or unpopular park features? Have you researched the community and identified what are its particular needs? If it is an existing park, is there a better way to organize the composition of the park since over time parks can become a collection of add-ons?

Questions relating to thematic framework plans are much more broad in scope and help identify the collective direction that a community wants to take with its public lands and interests.