This fall, members of Sasaki's Urban Studio attended the 2012 National Recreation and Parks Association Congress and Exhibition in Anaheim. Gina Ford and Eamonn Hutton presented a panel with Bridgeport Parks Department project manager Steven Hladun and Barbara Heller of Heller + Heller Consulting. The panel, entitled "Changing Cities through the Revitalization of Parks," examined the larger role parks play in the environmental, economic, and social revitalization of urban environments, and concluded with a case study of Sasaki's parks master plan for Bridgeport, Connecticut and the plan's implementation.
Sasaki also sought to learn more from park professionals about the challenges and opportunities of parks master planning. To help accomplish this, the team launched a custom, online survey. The survey asked probing questions about the role of the master plan in park service delivery. How are master plans useful? How can they be more so? What are the biggest challenges to their realization? 80% of the respondents were members of parks and recreation departments from around the US.
Click this image for the full survey results infographic!
The survey results illuminate the significance of design and vision, engaging the community, and budget constraints in parks master plans. Overlaid with our insights from the master planning process in Bridgeport, we share the key findings below.
Only 50% of respondents said that public outreach was part of the planning process for their agency. However, among these respondents, 73% said public outreach was one of the most important elements of their plan. Among all respondents, public outreach was tied for the second most important element in an ideal parks master plan. This suggests that public input is recognized as an important aspect of park planning, even among agencies that have not engaged the public in the past.
As a critical part of reaching Bridgeport's diverse constituents, Sasaki's outreach process combined innovative online tools with tried-and-true, face-to-face outreach. This toolkit of strategies enabled the team to reach all user types, and ensured the plan responded to a wide range of needs. Sasaki's in-house digital strategists developed an interactive, digital mapping survey. This map was launched on the city's website and distributed by neighborhood leaders, and collected input from hundreds of citizens. The online outreach was complemented by more personal activities such as games with summer youth campers at Seaside Beach. Combining technology and personal interaction, the team also conducted video interviews in the parks with park users. The video technology brought their voices and faces to life for a broader audience, enriching the traditional stakeholder interview process.
Vision and Design
All of the survey respondents currently have a master plan and nearly 2/3 of them are satisfied with it. When asked about the most important aspects of an ideal parks master plan, respondents ranked needs assessment the most important. This was also the most successful aspect of respondents' current master plan. Visioning was a close second for most important in an ideal master plan and third for the most successful in current master plans. Design was ranked the least important aspect of the ideal plan—and nearly half ranked it as one of the least successful aspects of their current plan. In our experience, however, design can actually play a transformative role in the visioning process. We suspect that if parks professionals were more satisfied with the design aspect of their master plan, it would be more highly valued.
One of the key messages during our panel presentation on Bridgeport was the power of design. While a solid analysis and needs assessment can provide a roadmap for decision-making, we believe it is most potent when paired with a tangible design vision. A bold set of ideas, once visualized, can excite the community—building the momentum and enthusiasm necessary to make ideas real. A strong design vision paves the way toward implementation, inspiring new partnerships, elevating the fundraising potential, and spurring unexpected economic development. For Bridgeport, this meant that the master plan included lots of rich visuals, from data-rich mappings and city-wide bird's-eye views of city's existing system to on-the-ground views of park improvements.
Funding, Budgets, and Cost
Budget and costs are high on the list of priorities—not surprising in light of the current economic context. The great majority of respondents (68%) believe that the top challenge their organization faces is budget constraints. A third of respondents wanted more information about potential for both federal and state funding sources to help support park improvements and maintenance. Although most respondents described budgeting and cost estimating as essential to an ideal master plan, nearly half felt it was the least successful aspect of their current plan.
In order to help the City of Bridgeport do more with existing resources, Sasaki proposed focusing programming and maintenance in five parks located in high-need neighborhoods. These "hyper-parks" are meant to strategically add amenity where it will be most effective. To offset the maintenance hours needed for these parks Sasaki proposed system-wide changes to park maintenance practices, including the conversion of underutilized lawn areas to meadow. The plan also calls for building partnerships with local residents and organizations to find new sources for volunteers and funding. The plan continues to generate outside interest in Bridgeport's parks, such as ongoing collaboration with The Trust for Public Land around fundraising for key projects.