Back to Basics

Seven Guidelines to Creative Park Design

By Daniel P. Smith

any residents carry a gross misconception regarding parkland development, too often believing that the city grabs a slice of land, tosses up a playground and benches, paves a parking lot, and leaves the scene to repeat the process at a later time and place.

Not quite.

Experienced park designers and civic personnel know that proper parkland development takes time and research, as much a result of analytical study as the reality of public funding. To create a park that meets community needs and expectations, designers focus on a series of best practices and proven strategies to draft a comprehensive plan, minimize hiccups, and cross the finish line with a park suitable for the present as well as the future.

With creative energy high and, oftentimes, ambitions even higher, it can be easy to veer off the proven path, particularly given the size and scope of many projects.

This is why we present two goals for parkland development: first, to remind designers of the tremendous duty they have been entrusted with and the fundamental principles they are trained to activate during every project; and second, to provide parks department leaders and civic hierarchy a sense of the expectations they should hold for a professional partner.

When planning a park or open space, veteran designers identify seven essential guidelines, each of which plays a role in producing a park capable of serving the community and enhancing the residents' quality of life.


Prior to starting any project, Justin Platts, a partner and landscape architect with RDG Planning and Design in Des Moines, Iowa, begins by seeking to understand the context of the proposed site, including a study of the area's existing parks, program offerings, unique features, history and community desires.

"Before even putting pen to paper, there's a lot that needs to be studied, analyzed and discussed," Platts said.

Likewise, Bill Inman, senior vice president with Naperville, Ill.-based Hitchcock Design Group, and his colleagues begin every project with a thorough investigation of a park district's overall needs and deficiencies.

"We're looking to identify amenities that lack and then evaluate if the proposed site can accommodate those needs," Inman said.

The process, Platts and Inman agree, allows the designer an objective and careful view of the area's culture and character.

Any site design, for instance, is likely to be influenced by the existing landscape and landmarks. A lakefront property holds different criteria, including design elements and principles, than a new park inside a historic downtown. Similarly, some communities desire a series of neighborhood parks, while others want to see a larger space dedicated to widespread community use.

"Every master plan needs to be tied to a greater vision for the community and fall into compliance with the community's other plans for growth and development," said Dave Burch, a project manager with the design firm, Bonestroo in Mequon, Wis.

Scott Crawford, one of Platts' RDG colleagues, said all designers must first understand that their work sits as one piece of a greater whole. From zoning compliance to creating linkages between open spaces, such thorough comprehension of the existing community helps ensure a functional, formidable design plan.

"Park design standards have been developed over several decades, and being able to understand the area's local context is extremely important to the park's long-term success," Crawford said.

While many communities request a park to service a diverse clientele and host a number of amenities catering to the full population range, others, particularly in today's economic environment, are seeking partnerships with other agencies, such as the YMCA, health clubs or local school districts. Such relationships, which demand that designers consider different features and fill distinctive needs, help parks departments cover the project's costs and ensure a dedicated group's use of the space.

"With a premium on land, spaces have to be multi-functional," Platts said. "Money is tight and the dollar needs to be maximized."


Years ago, inviting public participation was a courtesy, and sometimes an empty one devoid of any real weight. Today, however, the public process is a best practice employed by most design firms.

The public process allows the design team, parks department leaders and civic hierarchy the opportunity to hear community concerns and questions and, perhaps most importantly, identify project champions capable of driving the approval process. Inviting public input also affords designers critical insight into what will make the park most meaningful to its users.

"You need to understand if the community is willing or wanting to accommodate a proposed offering, and interacting with the neighborhood around the park is the best way to get that done," Inman said.

With one recent community park project in Muskego, Wis., Burch's team met individually with 15 different community stakeholders to gather their respective input. Later, a public meeting invited further dialogue. The conversations not only stimulated community support, but also spurred the design team in new directions to ensure that the completed park filled the community's needs and wishes.

To further cultivate public input and generate excitement for a given park project, Burch's team also has spoken at schools and provided handouts for students to take home as well as set up design workshops in public spaces, in which a Bonestroo designer works on the plan in an accessible public space (city hall or the library, for instance) to spawn additional community interaction and enthusiasm.

"There's simply too much value in getting in front of the stakeholders and potential users not to do it," Burch said.


While aerial shots and other images can be helpful, nothing replaces a trip to the proposed park site—to be able to touch the soil, look at the sightlines and slopes, and assess existing drainage patterns.

Such site analysis allows the landscape architect to better understand the site characteristics (surrounding land uses and access points, for example), capability to support the proposed uses (Is the soil "structural enough" to be built upon?), and the views and relationships of adjacent land uses. The on-site analysis also offers a glimpse of the eye-level opportunities users will experience.

"As park designers and landscape architects, this type of analysis is central to our training and our work," Inman said.

In developing ProHealthCare Park in New Berlin, Wis., Burch's team had to adapt its original plans upon viewing the site firsthand. Originally planned to host more active recreational areas, the existing rolling topography, wetlands and endangered resource habitat offered the opportunity for more passive recreation activities, such as trails and boardwalks. That decision, Burch said, could not have been made from an aerial photograph or computer-generated image.

Inman believes designers should first go to the proposed site with zero presumptions, looking to leave with ideas in which the finished product can complement the existing land rather than overpower it. Subsequent trips, Inman suggested, present the chance to sketch ideas and assess a plan's viability.


Civic leaders like a roadmap, a detailed look at expenses and timelines and details, all of which will make their work more efficient and their interaction with the public more pleasant.

In designing a park or open space, a thorough and comprehensive final plan helps put everyone on the same page. The plan should not only break down expenses and the costs of each element, but also present a phasing strategy so that all will know what to expect and when. Providing educational opportunities—allowing people to stay informed and connected to a project—will help build the public support that's so vital to a project's success. Lastly, the final plan should include a detailed list of management needs. Park leaders should have a firm sense of ongoing costs, potential revenue sources and economic development opportunities with the new space.

"It's more than just a nice drawing or a report, but taking the next step to involve and educate on the park's viability," Burch said. "These spaces and facilities have a life and they need to be cared for."

Burch said drafting various alternatives should also be a necessary slice of the design process, a particularly important ingredient given today's economic tumult and public spending restraints.

"There need to be options of various costs and complexity so a community has choice," he said.

Providing alternatives helps a community identify its most pressing priorities and challenges the design team to generate a number of spirited ideas. In constructing Creekwood Park in Greenfield, Wis., the Bonestroo team offered several alternative concepts for evaluation, including varying configurations for parking, trail alignments, shelter, play areas and lighting. The final design mixed the best ideas, earned neighborhood approval and preserved ample green space in the park.

"You'll often find it works that way — the final plan is a combination of the original plan and a variety of the proposed alternatives," Burch said.


At the Hitchcock office, Inman and his colleagues are sticklers for developing a strategy based on the fundamentals of adjacencies. Ball fields should be grouped together, and seating areas should be placed near a playground. In contrast, a skatepark or baseball court should not be placed next to a community garden or tot lot.

"The fundamentals of adjacencies hold that a park should be designed with compatible user groups in mind, thereby pairing amenities together that will attract like visitor types to create consistency," Inman said.

Inman and his colleagues often determine a helpful list of amenities for a given site, which can bring usability features as well as character to the park setting. From adding restrooms, water fountains and shaded seating to parking and landscaping, these complementary support elements help the park embrace a shape all its own.

"It starts as big-picture thinking and then funnels down to more specific thoughts," Inman said.

RDG's Platts and Crawford look to blend the new site into the existing community. At the Creekside Ballpark in Coralville, Iowa, the team tied the park's design to the town's agricultural history by using existing farmland and architecture as well as relocating some of the area's historic agricultural structures to the park for restoration and reuse. In other projects, the RDG team has matched its park shelters to the architectural detailing of the area's homes, a simple way to tie the park to the existing area.

"If the homes are stone or wood, then we're trying to complement that by using the same stone or wood," Platts said. "We want our design to look like something that's been present for decades, not something that was plopped down from some foreign place."

Platts is also a proponent of adding art, a medium which allows the community to express itself and provides park patrons insight into their neighbors and community.

"We're talking about art with a small 'a' here, but art that anchors the park to the community and provides a medium to tell the story of place," he said, adding that work from local artists can be displayed on a rotating basis to create a fresh experience.

At the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park project in Des Moines, Iowa, RDG integrated program and design elements that appealed to the social and cultural perspectives of park users. In this case, art is the central element. The art within the park invites visitors into the space and encourages them to stay. Located at the western gateway to downtown Des Moines, the park serves as a destination for visitors and area residents alike and sparks traffic at the adjacent businesses.


While sustainability often has been absorbed by the "green" whirlwind, the practice is far more comprehensive and complete. Today's designers frequently incorporate elements that protect and enhance the environment, such as permeable pavers and rain gardens for water runoff, and look to bring in recycled materials as well as durable, local products, an act that fosters economic sustainability.

"In the public sector, you're spending 'the people's' money,' so construction needs to be done in a responsible way. It doesn't mean cheap, it means lasting, and that's what sustainability is all about," Inman said.

Platts suggested that park departments should seek a designer with LEED certification, which signals that the designer or landscape architect has been trained in construction methods that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy for play.

"From an ecological standpoint, [LEED certification] means thinking beyond the next five years," he said.

Sustainability extends to the social side as well, namely creating a novel space that entices guests to come often and stay longer.


Upon the project's unveiling, the site should be celebrated and promoted as a venue to enhance the quality of life for area residents and deliver added amenities to the community. An opening celebration should both engage the public and recognize the project's key personnel; after all, reaching the finish line is an exciting feat.

"Celebration at the end of the project notifies the public that the park … is ready for use [and] offers an opportunity to recognize all of the players involved, including the community leaders, funding sources, designers, contractors, suppliers and regulatory agency staff," Burch said.

When the news photographers leave and patrons enter the park, however, celebration should turn into evaluation. Designers and civic personnel should be assessing the project's hits and misses and stand ready to adjust accordingly.

"Measure the success of what's been done: Have we met the needs we identified and created a sustainable place?" Inman asks at every project's completion. "You'll know you've hit the winning formula when the neighborhood at large identifies the park as an amenity that speaks to value."


From rural communities to city streets, open spaces and parklands dot the American landscape. Trails remain the number-one way to connect these public assets together, so that open spaces can be accessed by means other than the automobile. The challenge is that many city planning efforts largely have failed to produce alternative means of transportation between open spaces, leaving the growing legion of walkers and bikers disenchanted.

In recent years, however, prompted as much by America's growing obesity epidemic as a growing social movement to detach from the automobile, city planners have worked to rectify the problem with a linked network of greenways, civic corridors and streets that connect public open spaces, neighborhoods and destinations.

Common solutions include: striping streets with lane lines exclusively for bike use; granting space on public rights-of-way, such as narrowing sidewalks to create a side trail; or developing trails by way of the utility easements that run through many communities. In all cases, trails should serve as safe traveling zones, and should include lighting, shelters or seating, and clear signage that identifies designated use.

The creation of such trails, according to Scott Crawford of RDG Planning and Design, offers alternative transportation methods, promotes active lifestyles, and encourages positive social and cultural human experiences.

"Trails are critical to the ultimate success of a parks and open space system by providing a safe and accessible link between humans and the natural environment and connection between areas of human destination," he added.

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