Feature Article - April 2007
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Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Park Components & Play Areas

A Place for Everyone

By Emily Tipping

s the Information Age takes a firmer grasp on our lives, the average American spends more than four-and-a-half hours watching television every day, while the open green spaces and park areas that surround us sit unused, or used by just a few.

Most of us understand the importance of being a part of something bigger than ourselves, but many people get that fix by commiserating about their day in chat rooms and watching reality TV, rather than getting together with friends and neighbors in the local park.

But really, what better way is there to build a feeling of fellowship and community? Disconnected moms and stay-at-home dads can reconnect while their kids socialize on the playground. Older adults can meet over chess tables and on active fitness trails. People with similar or disparate interests come together for various activities, ultimately fostering that sense of community we all wish we could get back to.

Whether you're planning a local neighborhood lot or a regional park for a wider community, there are critical steps to take to ensure its success.

One key to the process is furnishing the site with components like benches, picnic tables, playgrounds, water fountains, shelters and so on. But before you start purchasing site components willy-nilly, you need to take a step back and look at your entire park system.

Everything must begin with a master plan. According to the Trust for Public Land's publication, The Excellent City Park System, a master plan expresses far more than your intentions. "It is a document built upon process, demonstrating a path of achievement and expressing a final outcome. The master plan should be substantiated thoroughly, reviewed regularly and updated every five years."

The Trust for Public Land did a survey that determined that nearly two-thirds of agencies were working with outdated master plans—some of which were created more than a decade ago—"back in the days before the rise of computers and geographic information systems, not to mention dog parks, mountain bikes, ultimate Frisbee, girl's soccer leagues, skateboard courses, wi-fi plazas and cancer survivor gardens, among other innovations."

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has determined that there are a lot of parks out there that "no longer function as places that capture the hearts of local residents." The problem isn't just maintenance and funding, but a lack of "the right combination of physical amenities and activities that make the park a magnet and an important place within a particular community."

When asked what might make a park unsuccessful, Phil Myrick, vice president and director of PPS' work in parks and plazas, campuses and downtowns, said, "Loneliness."

He added, "But seriously, it's unbelievable how many parks, when they're designed, are thought of as a succession or series of facilities that are spread out evenly across however many acres there are. There's not enough thought given to clustering those facilities or uses in interesting ways that will create a spark of energy. So what you find is that people are spread out doing their lonely activities in their part of the park, and there is no central location where people come together."

When it comes to planning for a specific park, the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining public spaces that help build communities, begins the process by determining how the space will be used and what activities will draw people there. A successful park, the organization claims, includes multiple mini-destinations within the site that offer different things to different people.

"These destinations should offer many things to do, such as socializing, eating, reading, playing a game, interacting with art and so on," the organization explains on its Web site.

For example, Myrick said the organization worked with a city with a lakefront that was planning a boathouse that initially was very limited in scope.

"It was designed only for boaters, and it was going to store boats, and would have an exercise room inside, but essentially it was going to become a specialty use for that one tiny slice of the population," he said. "Now when you think about a lakefront—especially a relatively new lakefront like this was—pretty much everybody in the city wants a piece of that and wants a way to enjoy the lakefront. It's difficult for them to look at this empty lakefront with these facilities that weren't built for them and don't attract them."