Supplement Feature - April 2011
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Design for the Times

Stretch Your Dollars, Boost Your Impact

By Rick Dandes

Sprawling public parks and small, neighborhood open spaces in urban settings have long been an intricate part of the world we interact with on an almost daily basis.

Well-maintained parks add value to a neighborhood, realtors say, and there would be a huge public outcry if a municipality tried to sell one off. But these days, in light of diminishing resources and proposed federal and state budget cuts, park landscape design and architecture experts admit that they are being pressed to do more with less.

In fact, suggested Bill Inman, senior vice president of Hitchcock Design Group, a landscape architecture firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill., "The trends in designing parks today closely parallel a park district's and recreation agency's ability to secure supplemental funding. If, for example, a state's Department of Natural Resources has a certain mission that they would like to see with their grant program, what we're finding out is that design follows that very carefully, because capital is so limited."

"We have certainly seen cutbacks," said Phil Myrick, of the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces. "And because of that, we do strategize to figure out how to best spend limited funds, so that we get the most bang for the dollar."

In some cases, he said, it may be as simple as finding a place where you have a budget only for planting flowers. "Use your funds where you will have the most impact visually," Myrick explained. "After that, the use of that money will hopefully synergize with other investments, and that's how you get things done in times of an economic slowdown."

"You have to give people a sense that things are getting better and not winding down," Myrick continued. "We can't allow the impression that things are falling apart. There has always been the opportunity to work within a tight budget. Now, we simply have no choice. We have to work with less money."

The big issue is how to ensure the continuing improvement and maintenance of parks—all while keeping them interesting—a draw to the communities they serve.

"Even at the state and federal level, grant programs have still been there during this great recession," Inman noted. "They may be funded less, and the pool of capital may be smaller, but there continue to be grant opportunities. And the open space movement, which is tied in very closely to the green movement, is strong and is not going anywhere."