Supplement Feature - April 2017
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Fun for All

The Latest in Park Planning and Design

By Rick Dandes

Blueprint for Planners

The key to getting any park project started, said McGilloway, is to involve the surrounding community. "By doing that," he said, "you get people who live there, people that are actually using it, and businesses that are nearby, involved. Get public and private agencies interested. Often, we will start our planning job with a series of stakeholder meetings, and it might be something that takes place out in the park where we evaluate the park space, understanding how it does, or does not connect with the surrounding community."

Hearing firsthand from people is important, McGilloway believes. "Particularly if it's an existing park getting updated or improved. Then you have the chance to talk to the people and understand what works for them and what is not working for them. That is really the first step before any design is done. That early input from key stakeholders can be balanced with professional judgment."

The next step would be a site assessment, McGilloway continued. "If it is a brand new park, raw land or a green field, do a full analysis and understand the topographic, environmental constraints and the existing assets."

After that, McGilloway and McCabe agree, develop a park design that enhances and protects the assets and builds on the site's character. The topography will dictate the park space, with its characteristics enhanced.

This stakeholder involvement really needs to continue throughout the planning and design phase, before construction, McGilloway said. "In the beginning, listening to what people are saying informs your thoughts. Balance that with your assessment. And then go back to the stakeholders and share some concept ideas, while always looking at alternative approaches. As you do that, you are getting constant feedback, and an understanding that you can't accommodate everything that everyone wants. As a planner, ask yourself: what are the things that will take priority over the others? Take that input and refine your plans into a final draft, a plan that you once again take back to stakeholders."

Don't forget to reach out with special interest groups, like sports groups or arts groups, McCabe said. "All that feedback is really iterative throughout the whole process of park design, not just at the beginning and not just at the end."

Park planners working for San Francisco and New York City agree that neighborhoods have to be involved as part of the process. "San Franciscans have a lot of enthusiasm for the democratic process, and so there is no park project that does not involve community feedback," said Dawn Kamalanathan, director of Capital and Planning, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. "One of the things we've been very effective at is experimenting with new formats, and not just the traditional meeting in a room. Everyone is so busy now, so what we've tried to do is bring our meetings to people, making use of existing community forums, rather than scheduling a meeting in the middle of the week and expecting everyone to come out to the park. We go to where people already show up, and engaging with them is an important first step."

The San Francisco Parks Department also sends out citywide online surveys, which gets them feedback to specific planning questions, "… and it's been helpful," Kamalanathan said, "particularly with parents who are too busy to meet us in person. It also gives us a chance to respond to questions that are more important to them. We, meanwhile, get open-ended feedback. We've been able to capture a couple hundred people more using technology than we would by asking them to come to a meeting."

New York City, with almost 1,900 parks in its five boroughs, also conducts outreach meetings as standard planning policy. "Outreach is important because we've found that people are passionate about their park spaces in New York City, and we'll often find different opinions in a community about what they want," said Nancy Prince, deputy chief of design, New York City Parks Department.

"We advertise and have community visioning sessions in a particular neighborhood," Prince explained, "and we'll also issue invitations to members of community boards. There are 52 community boards in New York City and they all have a parks committee. The advertisement goes even broader than that, with an online notice about it. We've had anywhere from 75 to 120 people show up at separate visioning sessions, which is great, because we get different inputs. We'll go back to the community a few times after the initial meetings with schematics, and eventually, the actual design. We have to present the final design to the community board and to the people in the community. What we are saying is, 'We heard what you said, and this is our illustrative plan.'"

Parks departments are probably the most public-facing local public agency that is out there, McCabe said, summing up. "They deal with public input on a variety of levels, everything from all the programming for youth and recreation to reservations for picnic areas. You need to be genuinely interested in what people have to say, and remember—you'll get the whole spectrum, including opposing and polarizing views on things, like dogs-on-leash areas vs. no-leash areas. As planners, you'll have to balance views, get to the real issues of concerns and address those.