Feature Article - August 2017
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It Takes a Community

Promoting Parks & Programs From the Start

By Dave Ramont

On a gorgeous day in June of 2015, hundreds of families gathered on the shores of Lake Michigan in Highland Park, Ill. It was the grand reopening of Rosewood Beach, and residents had more than a little to do with the restoration and subsequent celebration. The Park District of Highland Park was gifted the property in 1928, but over the years the beach and beach house—as well as an adjoining ravine and bluff—had been ravaged by harsh conditions, leaving the beach virtually deserted.

A 2007 Lakefront Master Plan recommended major renovations at Rosewood. The planning commission solicited resident input, with more than 700 residents sharing their thoughts through surveys and input meetings. A 2009 Communitywide Attitude and Interest Survey found that more than half of residents ranked the renovation as a top priority, but the economic downturn stalled the project. Then, in 2011, a resident volunteer task force was recruited to guide the planning and design process—meeting regularly for over a year with open meetings that encouraged resident participation. Progress, as well as solicitation for comments and questions, was promoted through the district's website, press releases, mailings and e-mail—with more than 200 residents participating.

A grassroots group called Friends of Rosewood was also formed, energizing and educating residents through their website, social media, and e-mail updates. In 2012 the task force presented a design plan to the community. The Park Board approved the plan, and then selected an architectural firm via an unconventional design competition. Eleven firms submitted design concepts to the task force, with Chicago-based Woodhouse Tinucci Architects being awarded the project.

Since the unveiling, the new Rosewood Beach, along with its new buildings and boardwalk, has been a huge success, and a model of environmental stewardship. The restoration was the result of a comprehensive plan, with community involvement playing a key role—a long-held practice of the Park District of Highland Park. In this article we'll look at some strategies for knowing what your community or audience wants—gathering input before a project begins to help ensure success.

Master plans, in simplest terms, describe where a park or community is now, where it should be in the future, and how to get there. And just as the Rosewood Beach project was born out of a 2007 master plan, the Park District of Highland Park has now implemented a new 10-year plan, in conjunction with its four-year strategic plans, to guide the district through 2024. These plans establish a clear set of goals, policies and standards for facilities, open space and programs.

The plans are typically developed by outside consultants, including architects and landscape architects, civil engineers, and recreation and other planning consultants. Input from the community and district staff is also invaluable. "The benefit of a master plan is it gives you an update in terms of the facilities and the kinds of things the park district offers in general, both active as well as passive, as well as programming and education," said Chris Lannert, who heads up the Lannert Group, a planning, landscape architecture and community consulting firm.

So, how important is it to seek outside help when putting together a master plan? Can a park district tackle this task in-house?

Yes, it can, according to Ken Ballard, president of Ballard King, which specializes in recreation consulting. But, he pointed out, unless you're a large agency with a lot of specialized staff, it's difficult to have the expertise in all the areas necessary to gather the needed information, including capital cost estimating. Not to mention just having the time to do so. "Sometimes we've seen agencies managing the process—writing the actual plan—but they're relying on outside resources," he said, adding that another issue with doing a plan internally is perception. Whether by elected officials or by the general community, it's natural to wonder if there's built-in bias if a plan is authored by park staff. "Independent companies provide more viability and take out what's perceived as inherent bias."

Lannert agreed, adding that in most cases, parks look to outside consultants to do the overview of the master planning because, while the park district understands the functioning of the district, they may be too close to it to see a broader picture. "They know where the bodies are buried, they know where the budgets have to go, and they know their constraints. They've tried things before that either have or haven't worked, so they have a different perspective than the consultant does."

He added that consultants who work in many communities and states have a broader view of what's happening in many park districts, and so they bring to the table different challenges and different menu items to select from. He points to zip lines as a recent example. "They're very popular certainly in resorts, but there are lots of parks now that have been developed both for challenges as well as for team-building exercises where zip lines are becoming worthwhile." So the consultant may suggest this option. "That's why the consultant becomes a good team member when you're looking for a master plan," Lannert said.

Once a master plan is in place, more detailed examination of particular projects is often required. "Feasibility studies are an outgrowth of the overall master planning; they're more specific to a certain facility or amenity," Ballard said.

And, by sharing these findings with the community, you're more likely to build support for your project, especially if you're looking for funding, according to Janet Jordan, associate at architectural firm Moody Nolan. "Conducting a feasibility study is often the first step of a public information campaign that is critical for a successful referendum. This is the time that a market analysis, needs assessment and demographic data are collected and analyzed to determine the viability of the recreation project vision," she said.

Hana Ishikawa, design principal at Site Design Group, added, "Prior studies and metrics are always helpful in determining and guiding projects. Any type of data is useful and always carefully considered before we begin the design process."

Whether it's a new playground, skating rink or indoor racquetball court, it will require long-range planning, where 20 years ago that wasn't necessarily the case, according to Ballard. "Whether it's going to the voters or just how you're allocating existing funding, it's basically essential now that you're doing a feasibility study." He explained how in the past, agencies often just moved forward with things, realizing later that a facility was costing a lot more to maintain than they'd considered, or a certain amenity wasn't attracting the number or types of users they were looking for. "Long-range planning efforts avoid all that stuff, if it's done well and correctly," Ballard said, adding that public involvement is the cornerstone of the process. "It's really important now to have public buy-in, going above and beyond to integrate the whole community to the planning process, which is usually done early on to provide direction to the project itself."