by Susan Rademacher,

Director, Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy
and Fred Kent,
President, Project for Public Spaces

From Parks As Community Places: Boston, 1997, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.

Above all, regard master planning as a creative process. It should start with a value statement which gives an understanding of why you’re working to save or create a park. You then need to be willing to change your own course, rather than trying to control the outcome. Master planning is learning by doing, and it’s often a matter of changing directions after realizing a strategy is not going to work. If it’s not a continuous process, with constant adjustments, the plan will just sit on a shelf – with all the other plans.

Structuring an Effective Community Process

The ideal community process is structured around the question: How can the community coalesce around the park to help activate or revive it? Getting the public involved is always a challenge: you can hold meetings and ask people what they think but most people really don’t have an answer. Try to find ways to trigger people’s interactions in creative ways. One way is to map the memories of residents who had lived in the area for a long time, by having residents go out in the field and develop a historical profile of the park from their point of view. Getting people on-site also gives them the whole picture of what has to be considered in creating a plan and facilitates cooperative problem-solving. It’s more telling and more effective than convening a group of citizens and expecting them to say something.

User patterns also change over time, so you need to understand those uses and their impacts in order to accommodate them in a temporary way, while protecting the park and its landscape.

Creating a Master Planning Team

You have to listen to what everybody says or a master plan will go nowhere. Don’t take an academic approach, but include a wide variety of people on a master planning team. Show respect for other people’s input and listen to everyone, including junior staff members.

By listening, you can get lots of ideas, but a formal planning team should make sure that interests of various groups, experts and advocates are balanced against each other and against the vision statement. This is hard, because various stakeholders can wind up dividing a park into a field of special interests. This may create buy-in, but it won’t create the best park.

Developing the Design

Planning is part of the design process. You’ve got to have a big idea, and that takes design, not planning; but planning is the tool. The planner, along with the designer, can trigger the creativity of the community, whether they’re a bureaucrat or a dog walker.

Design has the potential to bring people into contact with nature and with each other when it is based on a knowledge of how landscape works in terms of both its natural systems and social systems. Don’t be focused just on recreation. You want to establish the highest and best use of every part of the park, and fit recreation into that context. The point is that active recreation belongs in a park landscape but it needs to be of the landscape – it can be beautiful if it has layers of value to it, designed to be enjoyable even when you don’t have a game going on there. Protect the other open spaces from recreation uses. When permanent structures are necessary, combine them and arrange them together – put the tennis courts next to other recreation uses – it’s more fun and it decreases the impact.

You do have to have a plan, but keep it within a framework of what you’re doing now – over a time frame of maybe ten years – so it stays realistic. Then try out short term experimental programs or design changes and gauge the reaction you get from the public each time you do that.
– Fred Kent

In Louisville, the master planning team included ecological and historical landscape architects, engineers, historians, parks department maintenance staff, park users, and city council members. The many points of view helped to ensure that the product would be useful – not a plan that would sit on a shelf. We then created stewardship councils: We invited the public, including people the alderman had suggested would make important contributions, to the first public organizational meeting. Every person who had written a letter to the editor or called in to complain about a park-related issue was invited. Of this group we eventually found the people who were committed enough to be on the new stewardship councils. The councils met as needed, consulting with the planning team whenever they needed input.
– Susan Rademacher

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