Park Design and Planning Should Fully Engage Our Communities

February 18, 2021, Department, by Kristine Stratton

Kristine Stratton 410

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The development of the Parks & Recreation design issue always inspires me. Design-thinking, after all, is about using solution-oriented approaches to solve what park and recreation professionals are faced with every day — complex problems. The complexity ranges from how to design cost-effective programs that benefit the wide range of ages and interests represented in a community to how to design parks that deliver on a multitude of benefits, from passive to active recreation spaces to environmental services and climate resiliency. Most in our field look to system master plans and strategic plans to guide overall thinking and look to community engagement design processes to tackle individual park and program challenges. And even these efforts have evolved to reflect the complex society that we are living in.

In the face of all this complexity, I want to remind our entire park and recreation community that we have had a couple of touchpoints available to us since the 1990s, and I invite you to revisit these in your planning and design efforts. The first is the Ethical Principles in Planning, adopted by the American Planning Association in 1992. This set of principles is directed at “all who participate in the process of planning as advisors, advocates and decision-makers,” which unquestionably includes park and recreation professionals. The beauty of these principles is that they stand the test of time and remind us of the “rights of citizens to participate in planning decisions,” that choice and opportunities should be oriented to all, particularly to meet the needs of the disadvantaged, that the “integrity of the natural environment” should be protected, and that we should “pay special attention” to “long-range consequences.” Inherent to these ethical principles are a look toward unintended consequences of our decisions and the need for active community engagement, open communication and
information flow.

Another touchpoint is the 7 Principles of Universal Design, developed in 1997, which guide design processes of products and environments — again, highly relevant to park and recreation professionals. In these principles, the focus is on human-centered design that allows for things such as equitable use for people with diverse abilities; flexibility for a wide range of preferences and abilities; and design that is easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge or language skills.

As we look to make the most of our limited resources in the coming years, let us make sure that we are staying true to universal design and ethical planning principles, so that the programs and parks we manage, improve and create are designed to benefit all members of our communities. Thinking back, in 2014, the RAND Corporation’s report of park usage found that seniors, who represent 20 percent of the population, only reflected 4 percent of park users. A more robust application of these principles might very well increase that number.

And, as we look toward putting into use the fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund and continue to advocate for full access to resources for state and urban assistance programs, let’s make sure that our planning for these funded projects reflects the best and most holistic planning practices possible. Let’s make sure that our planning fully engages with our communities and co-creates parks that will live up to their full potential — providing multiple health, social and environmental benefits to all they serve.

Kristine Stratton
President and CEO