“Not in my backyard.”
This phrase rears its ugly head so often that our profession has started referring to it simply by the acronym NIMBY – understood by one and all as the description of those vociferous neighborhood groups that strenuously object to the development of parks next to or close to residential homes.
As you might suspect, the greater the number of active recreation components within the proposed park, the more NIMBY resistance encountered.
This phenomenon is particularly curious because the public outcry for more active outdoor recreation is often the very reason these park developments are even proposed. Couple that with the long-standing purpose of parks and green space – to serve residential areas – and you have the makings for a good, old-fashioned conundrum.
It’s gotten so bad in our area that my park planners have replaced NIMBY with BANNAS (Build Absolutely Nothing Near Anything).
So why is this happening more and more often in our profession? What is going on?
In most circumstances, the root causes are rapid urbanization, poor planning and design, unacceptable maintenance and ultimately a lack of trust in us.
The good news is that correcting three of the four factors driving this phenomenon is within our control.
As open space and farmland are replaced by rooftops and strip malls, rural areas give way to suburbs, which, ultimately, become densely populated urban communities. As areas rapidly progress through these three stages, affordable housing becomes a big, big issue and often communities choose to solve the problem, at least in part, by allowing a greater density of residential houses (and smaller dwelling units) to be built – i.e., more units per acre.
There’s not much you in the park and recreation department can do about controlling rapid urbanization in your area. But, you can understand how this process will affect you and your department and change some of your planning tools in hopes of better serving the community.
For instance, our park planning now incorporates density maps to complement the typical land use and zoning maps of yesteryear. We do this to understand just how many facilities we will need to provide and how close together they must be. And, since each administration allows for different residential development rules, try to stay on top of new construction in your area and work to educate the current elected officials as to the impact on your department.
In the case of large planned developments, consider requiring both the dedication of park land as well as the construction of the park(s) by the developer. For example, our county requires, as a condition of development, both the dedication of land to the school board for required schools and the dedication of park acreage abutting the school sites for parks.
Poor Planning and Design
Ah, the best-laid plans… No matter how hard we try, developing active recreation facilities on land that is either too small or otherwise not suited for the uses we require is a bad, bad idea. Yet we still get suckered in from time to time.
The result? We’ve all seen it. Suddenly, athletic fields appear within hearing distance of next-door neighbors – the same neighbors whose front yards have suddenly become an attractive overflow parking lot. All of these things create controversies that just never seem to end.
So, with that in mind, here are a few things to consider on your next park project:
Lighting -- Are your outdoor facilities going to be lighted for night play? Ideally, night lighting will greatly extend the use of these expensive facilities. The downside is the light bleeds onto the neighbor’s property. Consider paying the additional cost to install light-spill and glare-control. This technology is available and quite effective.
Landscaping --Where possible, provide a landscaped buffer between your park property and adjacent residential property. This is a great way to reduce sight pollution, create noise buffers and promote native landscaping as a green initiative.
Traffic -- Give plenty of thought to how you will route traffic into your park and where folks will park during peak times. This is a good place to follow some of the tenets of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). One component of CPTED is to have the same entry and exit point because it naturally slows traffic, prevents park cruising and gives patrons (and neighbors) two opportunities to view and identify any violators of park rules. If your proposed park is accessed through residential streets, consider staggering games to give patrons enough time to depart (leaving new arrivals plenty of parking), have your staff regularly police the residential right-of-way to pick up trash and keep it looking neat and clean.
Noise -- Crowd noise, public address noise, traffic noise, etc., is an ongoing complaint (and a favorite weapon of the NIMBY group). You can control noise by using public-address systems that aim the sound down on the crowd from above the bleachers (not out across the field), controlling outdoor amplified music, closing the park at a reasonable hour (and enforcing the closing times), giving neighbors free admission to special events that have to take place after standard closing times, and moving batting cages to the interior of the park (I can think of nothing more irritating than the ping, ping, ping of an aluminum bat).
Multiple use -- Using CPTED principles, lay out your facility plan to incorporate multiple amenities for concurrent uses of the property. If all you place in a facility are amenities that address just one sport or one activity, how will the place be used when the season is finished? Will there be large parts of the day when users are not present? Chances are this will present an opportunity for undesirable activity to occur, unobserved and thus uninterrupted. This is not good. The resulting vandalism or worse will not make you popular with your neighbors and will negatively impact your budget. Plan accordingly.
And this is the biggie. The greatest of all NIMBY weapons is rooted in the way you maintain your current parks. Again, we’ve all made this mistake at one time or another -- we’ve been so anxious to develop a new facility that we didn’t adequately educate our elected officials about the cost it would take to keep the park looking and running great.
There is a cost of doing business in your park. A large part of that cost is the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds and facilities. Your leadership needs to know exactly what those costs are because if you build it, they will come, and without proper maintenance, they will come and love your park to death.
So have specific maintenance standards in writing for the public to see and have input. Aggressively manage (that means train, train, train) your staff in order to ensure that these standards are continuously met.
Make sure your facility manager or administrator schedules a regular walk-around (just like any other meeting) to inspect the facilities, always on the lookout for problems.
If the current facilities budget is under-funded to the point that the current facilities look bad and are run down, don’t try to gloss over this fact as you promote new facilities. Your neighbors won’t care about maintenance-funding problems. They will care about a new park that may reduce their property values because of undesirable activity and crime. If this is a problem in your community, start the dialogue now with your decision-makers. Talk about the true cost of doing good business and being a good neighbor.
We need to face facts. Government, especially local government, plays a part in every facet of our daily lives, and their decisions are not always popular. Couple this with a media that loves to publicize negative government stories, and it is no wonder the public has a tough time trusting its government.
Is this unfair? Yes. But, we need to get over it. We need to deal with it. We need to work to earn the trust of our patrons every day, in every way. Here are some strategies to consider:
Go Slow to Go Fast – By definition, our job forces us to multi-task like madmen/madwomen. We are forced to make rapid decisions – see a problem, address it directly, move on to the next problem--typical Type A stuff. But when it comes to park planning and design, we need to adopt a different mind-set – slow down. Become deliberate, cross the t’s, dot the i’s and avoid the big problems that come with rushing park design. You’ll thank yourself later.
Be Transparent -- Become very public in all of your planning and development operations. If you are considering a new facility in a residential area, let everyone know about it, especially surrounding residents. An idea that has been very effective in our operations is to send a direct-mail announcement about a pending park development to every residence in the service area. The announcement includes a return-addressed, postage-paid information card. The card lists all of the contemplated park amenities and an area map of the proposed location, and asks each household to check off the amenities they would like to see in the new park. The card also notifies residents of the date of the first town-hall meeting to discuss the results of the survey. Generally, we receive hundreds of these returned cards and can create a priority list of wants from the neighbors.
After you have received the mailers and tallied the results, prepare a draft site plan of the new park or facility. Use this and the survey results for your first town-hall meeting. Consider asking the elected official representing the voting district of the park to chair these public meetings. As you begin the public meeting, be sure that the facilitator makes the foundational statement: “Not building a park is not an option. We are here to build the best park for this area and effectively deal with resident concerns and requests.”
An added benefit of this technique is that, as we begin town-hall meetings with residents, we can respond with data to vocal minorities purporting to speak for the community on specific needs.
Make sure you keep a complete list of all of the addresses to which you have mailed. This will help when the inevitable complaint surfaces that a resident was not informed.
At the conclusion of this meeting, consensus is often reached on what the park will contain and what it will look like. In some cases, a second meeting is in order, but our experience is that this is rare. After consensus is reached with the community, we send a second mailer to all of the affected residential addresses with the final site plan and list of amenities.
In order to reduce future political tinkering with the park plan, have the final site plan approved by your Board. Include a provision that any substantial change must be approved by the Board. This will give further assurance to neighbors that they will not be surprised in the future with unwanted and unannounced changes to their park.
Be Flexible -- Be ready to adapt your plans to the community that the park will serve. If there are components that must be placed in the park, let the community know immediately that removing these amenities is not negotiable. Do be ready to re-locate them on the property or make design adjustments, if at all possible, to meet community concerns.
Tell the Truth -- Do not try to manipulate public opinion. You may win the day in the short-term, but you will destroy public confidence in your agency and in you. Once trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain. No matter how badly the facility is needed or desired, don’t fall into the trap of allowing the end to justify the means.
So, the bad news is NIMBY is here to stay. But the good news is you can cope with this behavior by utilizing some or all of the strategies listed above. Good luck!
William Potter is the Parks and Recreation Division Manager for Orange County Parks, Florida. He can be reached at William.Potter@ocfl.net.