Supplement Feature - April 2017
Find a printable version here

Fun for All

The Latest in Park Planning and Design

By Rick Dandes

Take Good Care

The biggest pitfall is not reaching out to the people who are using the space, McGilloway said, "… because you won't get that sense of ownership, and you won't end up with a park that really works for the people using the park. It also might limit your opportunities for partnerships and funding for some elements of that park."

Over-designing the park space should also be avoided. "I don't see this happening as much now as it did back in the 1970s or 1980s where very specific things were designed, and where you could only do one activity, like a fixed chess table or something that has such a specific use," McGilloway said. "When that use goes out of style there is no flexibility to use it for something else. That goes back to having a park space that is flexible."

One other pitfall, especially for an urban park, is not recognizing the ability to see into a park space and out of it. Sometimes, McCabe explained, things can be overplanted and it blocks your visibility, which creates the perception that the park might be unsafe. So in urban parks, except in areas where it is appropriate to do more natural plantings, emphasize overhead canopies and lower shrubs so that it is open enough to see into the park space and out of the park space. It's crime prevention through environmental design.

Parks departments have a hard job, McCabe continued. "The biggest challenge is they never have enough money. They also must conform to the standards for access mandated not only at the federal level but also at the state and local level. Make sure all the play equipment is sturdy, will last a long time, is safe and won't cause injuries."

The various pieces that go into a park can be quite expensive. Many towns, cities and states have design standards and rules that help ensure money is invested wisely. Everything costs a lot of money, "… but you are following these rules because you want to make sure the park lasts a long time and is available and accessible to the widest amount of people for the longest period of time," McCabe said.

One thing parks departments should continue to do is to be open and transparent, McCabe added. "Say, 'Here's what this equipment costs,' and then be prepared to explain why it costs so much. And use examples—establishing a new playground, building a splash pad or building basketball hoops. Demystifying the process as well as expenses is a big thing."

Make sure you are getting as wide a range of viewpoints as possible. In planning, McCabe and McGilloway talk about finding as many people as they can on the streets who are neighborhood experts. It might be the guy who hangs out every day on a bench and reads the paper. Or people who walk their dogs. Or people who bring their kids to the playground every day after school. Capture those folks, and not only can they help you think about the challenges you face, but also may know other folks who you need to talk to. Cast the net wide.

Getting It Done Right

From San Francisco to New York, planners are adjusting their methodology to meet the needs of their communities. In other words, they've learned their lessons and are doing things right. Neighborhoods are responding.

"We are very lucky in San Francisco that San Franciscans value their parks as much as they do," Kamalanathan, of the Recreation and Park Department said. "We have a rich variety of open spaces that is rare in American cities. And that ranges from gorgeous, charming neighborhood parks to having a zoo, to a marina yacht harbor, to waterfront open space. What we have seen from San Franciscans is the very high passage rate of the past two general obligation bonds; we've had over 70 percent of San Franciscans voters voting to invest in San Franciscan parks."

San Francisco is actually a relatively small city, in terms of the land it takes up, yet the city continues to grow and change. "We don't have the opportunity to easily buy new open space to accommodate that growth, and so one of the things that we really had to look at as we are renovating our open spaces is how to create more capacity, how to serve more people with our existing open spaces, particularly in neighborhoods that are getting more and more dense."

People are requesting more outdoor fitness equipment, Kamalanathan said. "There is a strong desire of adults wanting to stay active, whether it is using outdoor fitness equipment or creating very clear specific walking routes within parks. On the sites themselves, one of the interesting challenges we are trying to think through is not to just have playgrounds everywhere, but play environments. So again, you want to have more flexible spaces. We have a great park, Cayuga Park, where there is a traditional playground, but all along the edge of the park is a path system, with sculptures along the way. Both kids and adults love walking along that path."

Another successful park project was McLaren Park, 338 acres of extraordinary, wild land in San Francisco that most residents had never been to. "It's a best kept secret," Kamalanathan said. "It was unable to attract investment since no one knew about it. We started a capital improvement process by first hosting events like an elaborate treasure hunt that was mapped out so that people could experience the great views in the park, and the great trails and paths they didn't know about. It was super successful, with over 300 people in the treasure hunt, many of them first-timers to McLaren. Activation as a way of outreach has been positive for us and helped us connect with different user groups."

New York City took another route to success. "Parks aren't just islands of green space; they're connected to our entire public realm," said Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. A new program, Parks Without Borders, helped the city create a more seamless experience at the edges, entrances and adjacent park spaces.

"In New York," Prince said, "there is a lot of fencing around parks, and we figured a lot of it is unnecessary. We are trying to break down the border between the fence and the sidewalk to expand what is considered the public realm. We are really looking at making parks more welcoming and blurring the line between the park and the sidewalk. That's a real trend right now in New York City."

These new community parks are multi-generational spaces—spaces in which people can socialize. "That is in addition to all the sports we typically do in the playgrounds," Prince noted. "Last year our landscape architects designed 35 projects in under-served neighborhoods, and those parks were previously paved asphalt fields. We are transforming those into multi-use community spaces. Typically we get requests for different kinds of things in the park; we'll have a playground, an active basketball court or skate park and then separately, also, a sitting area for socializing outside the play area, or for community events. Just a more pleasant place to sit."