COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Master Planning

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 20, 2017

Excerpted from Public Parks, Private Partners, published by Project for Public Spaces, 2000.

Master plans are tangible and often visible statements of where the park is now, what it should be in the future and what is required to get there. While processes for developing them vary, master plans are most successful when they represent a vision that brings together the concerns of different interest groups, and their recommendations create a ground swell of community and political support. Furthermore, some master plans are less detailed than others, and in some cases, a vision or concept may be adequate, or more desirable.

Good master plans are flexible, and have involved the community and other stakeholders from the outset, giving the plan a legitimate base, and a better chance to come to fruition. While circumstances vary from place to place, the decision to develop a master plan is often determined by the need to understand the current conditions of the park, to generate and build community interest and participation, to create a new and common vision for the park's future, and/or to develop a clear and solid set of recommendations and implementation strategy.

Master plans can build visibility and credibility for a nonprofit group, and can help them target projects and raise money. By the same token, they can call attention to a park's needs and assets and help a parks department or other public agency in their efforts as well. In this way, master plans may be more successful as promotional documents than as blueprints for redesigning a park. Many of our sample organizations worked with, or inherited, master plans from their public sector partners, while several others developed extensive plans of their own.

However, not every group or park needs or would benefit from a master plan. The disadvantages of master plans may include their inflexibility, expense, and the possibility that they may simply sit on a shelf and gather dust. Hiring experts such as well-known landscape architects may not guarantee success. In fact, outside experts, although they can provide an interesting vantage point, can also alienate community members and politicians if they do not include the community's ideas from the beginning.

Master plans commonly include information about the history of the park, the context surrounding its development, and changes that have taken place to the present time. The conditions of existing park facilities, grounds, and landscapes are described and evaluated. People who use the park and live around the park should be interviewed, and should be data gathered to determine who they are, where they go, what they do, what they like and don't like, and what they would like to see changed in the park. Analyses of existing park conditions and the characteristics of park users generally leads to the development of a vision of the park for the future and includes recommendations, plans, designs and strategies for implementation.

While most of the groups we studied have some form of master plan or broad concept plan, the circumstances that brought each one to develop a plan are different. The Friends of Hermann Park, for example, held a national design com- petition for the northern entrance of the park that revealed larger park-wide issues and problems. Conversely, one of the beginning tasks of the Friends of Buttonwood Park was to help facilitate the creation of the master plan by the city of New Bedford. The Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy created its master plan as an early step in its mission to provide a holistic vision for the rehabilitation and management of, and community participation and involvement in, the Olmsted system of parks in Louisville.

Most of the nonprofit organizations in our sample identified the process of developing the master plan as well as the plan itself as being useful for a number of reasons: 1) it challenges the expectations of the general public and public sector about what a park can be and it functions as a vehicle for educating people about park issues; 2) it establishes credibility for the nonprofit; 3) it lays out a work plan for the nonprofit organization; 4) it provides the rationale and framework to raise funds for park needs and specific park projects; and 5) it can be used as a guide for decision-making about park needs and improvements. Another common benefit of the process of master planning is the creation and continuation of a base of active community and political involvement and support for the park and plan. Building community interest, participation, and consensus as part of the master planning process involves challenging expectations and educating the general public and the public sector about what parks can be. Susan Rademacher, executive director of the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy, had this to say about the process of developing Louisville's master plan:

. . .When we got started with our master plan, there were a few important things that we focused on. One was that we started with a belief in the native intelligence of this community, from 1888 forward. And we invited the public to really dream about what these parks could be, what they remembered the parks as, and we tried to change expectations in that way. Typically in the past, ...the little changes that come about in parks are politically motivated to get a big bang in the short term for the next election. And ... our parks were suffering from that. So when we invited the community to dream large, we changed the expectations and also changed the expectations of what the public sector was looking to do.

Another outcome of developing a master plan is that it gives organizations credibility. Patricia Winn, formerly the executive director for the Friends of Hermann Park, said; A vision substan- tiated by a master plan and backed by funds brought credibility to the group. This made the city take us seriously. The Friends of Hermann Park also hired the landscape architecture firm of Hanna/Olin, which involved park constituencies in the development of a master plan.

For Forest Park Forever, the master plan has not only served as the foundation for building a partnership with the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry, and established a work plan for the partners, but it also provided a basis for fundraising. Jim Mann, executive director of Forest Park Forever, credited the value of a master plan in this way: By clearly identifying specific capital improvement goals, the master plan has provided a clear agenda for both Forest Park Forever and the parks department. It has also provided tangible goals and capital projects around which we have been able to fundraise and subsequently facilitate implementation. He also stresses the importance of translating future plans for the park into drawings, thereby creating products that people can visualize and grounding ideas and plans in a realistic setting.

Many organizations have found that the creation of a master plan has been useful as a guide for decisions about and/or making changes in, the park. Debbie McCown, executive director of the Piedmont Park Conservancy, noted; The master plan is our guiding document. City staff and conservancy personnel work closely together to develop working drawings for each project. For the Great Plains Trail Network, the development of a master plan together with the Lincoln/Lancaster Planning Department, city council, and the Recreation Trails Advisory Committee was a critical step, with the result that the city and state now include provisions for trails within their street-improvement and drainage system projects. The plan also ... established a basis for fiscal planning that would support scheduled trail development projects.

However, in other cases, a master plan may be too rigid and top down of a strategy to allow for full buy-in from many different organizations, communities or municipalities that may be impacted by a park or open space amenity. In Denver's dense suburbs, the South Suburban Foundation built a greenway through seven towns and several municipalities by keeping its vision simple and flexible, thus allowing for everyone in the county to see connections and other benefits of this trail, long before it was built. Many towns not even located near the main trail corridor contributed to the effort, convinced of the long-term benefit of the trail, and possible local connector trails to the county and their town. A detailed master plan would have made our job to build on the collective imagination of this county significantly more difficult, said Robert Searns, the greenway consultant for the project.

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