Feature Article - May 2017
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From Land to Landscape

Effective Approaches to Park Design

By Joe Bush

Community Participation

Universally, park planners on each side of the project say there's no sense to going through the arduous process and significant expense if the community the park will serve isn't consulted early and often.

Nancy Prince, deputy chief for design for the City of New York's parks and recreation, said so many factors shape what residents want from a park—demographics, trends, natural surroundings, proximity of other parks—it's mandatory to simply ask them.

Prince and her colleagues use national studies as their guide—one report says people use parks more if there are walkways, for example—but neighborhood meetings are crucial as well.

"We go out to the community and have community visioning sessions," said Prince, who has been with the department for more than 30 years. "What we put in a park, a lot if it comes from what the community desires. Know the demographics, the way the neighborhood is heading."

Prince's story is one of urban park design and re-design. Many of her department's projects involve underserved neighborhoods and parks that have been neglected. Since new land is scarce in New York City, the focus is on improvements. Many parks have a lot of paved areas, so the priority is greening them, primarily with tree canopy. The renewals don't just address adding natural elements, however.

"We're looking at climate change, and we're looking at mitigating the heat island," she said. "We're looking at multiple generations, to make our parks real community spaces. So we have a lot more sitting areas—people now take their laptop out into a park and work.

"We're making our parks a little more seamless, trying to cut down the barriers between the park and the sidewalk, making our entrances more welcoming, making sure the entrances align with the sidewalk, focusing on pedestrian safety."

To maximize spaces for as many age groups as possible, there are skateboard parks, playgrounds and splash pads, dog parks and outdoor fitness areas—rather than the traditional exercise stations at intervals around a walkway, they are full-on fitness areas in one spot, usually near a playground, so users can keep an eye on their kids.

Crawford agreed, and added that because public funding is so crucial, buy-in from taxpayers is paramount for capital at the beginning and later for restoration.

"The degree of how community input can influence design and planning and ultimately what's built can vary depending on if it's funded by the public and if it's truly a public facility," Crawford said. "The majority of projects we get involved in has a pretty intense public engagement, especially early on. We typically have a discovery time period early on. Meetings, online surveys, questionnaires, neighborhood meetings."

That feedback is distilled to create a variety of design alternatives to bring back to present to the stakeholders. Crawford said the two-phase approach pays dividends, particularly if the community is looking for funding and ballot measures in the future.

"Giving the community a voice, even if that voice isn't the one that wins, at least they have an opportunity to express what they think is the preferred future for that park," he said.

"Some (feedback) is driven by the size of the city. It's more difficult to engage with communities just because of size. What do the communities want in a five-year plan overall? Spend on infrastructure, parks and rec, or just keep taxes low and don't spend on anything?"

All Ages and Abilities

Because more and more parks are designed with an eye on the coming-of-age of baby boomers, designing parks for multiple generations is very important to keeping everyone from toddlers to senior citizens engaged and active.

"Millennials and even millennials' children, in 30 years they'll be over 50 and one of the largest economic drivers in the economy," Crawford said. "The ability to engage them in decision-making in what's going to be built, many of the decisions that are made today those are improvements that won't be completed in some cases for five to 10 years because of the funding lag. Engaging younger populations is just as important as engaging parents.

"A lot of times when we do master pans we actually go into elementary schools and middle schools and high schools to better understand how they use parks and why they use parks to try and determine when they're starting families what is it they're going to want to use in parks. There's flexibility in what actually gets designed."

Joseph Brusseau, a principal with Hitchcock Design Group, said the information gleaned from children is to be taken seriously.

"They are drawn to different materials, like ropes and rocks, and non-traditional playground equipment like nets, spinners, rock climbers and ground events," Brusseau said. "In many parks, space is an issue. The need for play remains the same, regardless of trends. We need to advocate and continue to offer play experiences for children of all ages. We need to adapt to changes in play, and design play spaces that are interesting and exciting for today's children.

"I see so many play spaces, designed with an adult's eye or recollections of past play experiences, that fall short of offering exciting, challenging and rewarding play for current generations. Without fail, at every public meeting, I will hear a parent ask for monkey bars and merry-go-rounds in the playground. These are recollections from their past play experiences, which have been replaced with more current play events and amenities."