The Aftermath Of Park Projects

By Eric Hornig

In the not-so-distant-past, a park project took a familiar path to become a reality. Leadership gathered to build a consensus on project priorities for the coming year. After careful consideration, Park X—the aging flagship park—was selected. The budget was set, based on the last neighborhood park completed, and the green light was given to proceed.


Once the director initiated the project and provided background and program definition to the design team, other leaders were included as needed. Community input was sought to refine the conceptual plans, and the desire for a large splash pad, shelter, or play environment, and the maintenance of the park’s prominence emerged as goals.

Technical drawings were prepared, but the costs were usually higher than anticipated. To help stay within the budget, several items were reduced or eliminated. Challenges regarding permits occurred, requiring native plantings to be added around a detention area and best management practices (BMPs) to be incorporated into the plan for stormwater runoff. The team was excited about the opportunity to “go green” and embraced this aspect of the design. Bids opened without issue, and the project was awarded to the lowest responsible bidder.

Construction began and continued with only minor issues. Substitutions and imperfect workmanship were accepted along the way in the name of cost and time savings. Overall, the project was a success, and the ribbon cutting brought excitement to all.

Park X was wildly celebrated, and people flocked to the new features, which included a splash pad, shelter and concession building, a custom play environment, uniquely shaped planters with steel accents in a grand plaza, and significant landscaping. The project received positive local press and even a few awards.

And then the designers left.

The Fallout Begins
Time often begins to take its toll on a project as wear paths emerge in the landscape, causing erosion issues. The specialty clamps on the custom playground are wearing, and portions of the park must be closed for repairs. Safety surfacing deteriorates in high-traffic areas, and continuous raking and replenishment lead to regret about some of the engineering decisions that were made.

The splash pad is hit by an electrical storm, causing four weeks of downtime while new parts are shipped. Once activated, unexpected costs of the water and sanitary sewer bill and the weekly upkeep of the mechanical and electrical systems force summer programming to end sooner than planned.

The shelter and concession building work great, but the softball association would like to store its equipment inside for the season. With no space planned, a temporary storage container is rented and staged on-site, resulting in yet another unforeseen expense as well as an eyesore. Vandalism becomes a problem with a few broken light bulbs, some spray paint, and skaters grinding on the planter walls.

As the summer progresses, the new landscaping looks thirsty, making the decision to irrigate with quick coupler valves and hoses a labor-intensive one. Patches of annuals and high-impact botanical displays require continuous personnel investment to keep the park looking attractive. The native plants and BMPs required by the permitting process look like unsightly weeds, confirmed by weekly calls from concerned residents. Although a 3-year growth cycle was outlined as the typical timeframe before the area looked presentable, this is not quite what was expected.

The design team and product vendors respond to questions and requests for help in a timely manner, but distance and lack of contract obligations eventually result in more issues than solutions. The daily struggle to operate and maintain the park escalates due to the cracking concrete (that should have been rejected); in the board room, the pressure mounts to find the best way to alleviate these issues.

For designers, this is their worst nightmare. The design was solid and well-received, but post-installation adjustments, maintenance challenges, and vandalism have affected the overall aesthetic and safety of the project. In addition, vendor support, permitting, and technical requirements needed by the premier system have damaged the relationship between the park agency and designer, and weakened the park board’s trust in the designers’ ability. These issues are almost entirely avoidable with only a few adjustments.

Open Communications
The right team was assembled, but some critical players were omitted. Including a mechanic or electrician in the initial stages of planning may have alleviated the challenges with the spray park. Contacting organizations that have approved programs in the park to discuss their needs could have addressed the storage issues. Involving the police at some point during planning might have resolved the security needs. Making sure to reach out to anyone who might affect the success of the project is an important step. Just because staff members are busy, don’t miss the opportunity to have them sit in on meetings when appropriate, as they may have valuable insights about the future operations of the project. Make sure to ask questions and require explanations from the design team in the presence of staff members. Things that are commonplace in the design world may be new to department members, and current practices could be positively impacted with simple, inexpensive tweaks.

Budget Accordingly
Unless you undertake annual, multiple park projects that are the same size as the one proposed, don’t plan the budget without some help. Effective design firms and contractors monitor ever-changing market conditions. A host of conditions affect price, so even if the project is just an idea, provide one of the preferred designers with as much information as possible, and ask for help in creating a budget. Keep value engineering decisions and bidding alternates to a minimum, as these tend to water down project goals at a time when it is difficult to recover. Be mindful of the budget throughout the project, and trust the team to provide accurate pricing information. Set aside board-approved design, bidding, and construction contingencies that prohibit the team from reacting to unforeseen issues with the project’s best interests in mind. Be leery of cutting systems that may not be visible to the public but are important to the long-term success of the project.

Minimize Experiments
Native grasses and BMPs are great and are often primary goals for projects, but submit details of exactly what they will look like, how to care for them, and how they will perform. Visit other sites, and have the design team supply pictures, data, and client stories for clarification. Educate staff members and the public about the goals so they can celebrate the project’s success. This goes for other materials and systems as well. If it’s going to be an experiment, truly make it an experiment—track it, monitor it, write about it for the benefit of others, and don’t forget to obtain a grant to help pay for it.

Promote Training
Have the installers take time to train staff on the proper use of new equipment and systems before the project is finished. Ideally, the staff that will be responsible for the maintenance of the park will be exposed to some of the items during the design process, and this training will be more of a confirmation. Make sure to obtain manuals, as-built documents, and recommendations for upkeep on all installed materials.

Time-Tested Technology
Be smart about the use of technology. Automatic irrigation, web-based security, and climate-monitoring systems can save significant labor. Fancy circuitry is no match, however, for a control valve that can be purchased locally as opposed to waiting four weeks for a replacement part to be shipped in. Technology is wonderful, but the leading edge can become the bleeding edge, so only use what has been proven to be durable and effective in a harsh park environment.

The Concrete Truck Is On the Way
Watch out for the traps of time and scheduling. Make sure the schedule is flexible enough to accommodate some unexpected items. Obtaining permits is notorious for delaying schedules, and is generally out of the project team’s hands. Avoid making decisions in the field that are not in line with the high-quality project that was started because the decisions will almost always come back to haunt you. If something is wrong, create an air of teamwork and collaboration, and work towards resolving the problem without blame. The vision for all projects becomes clearer as the project comes out of the ground, so allow for changes. Be fair with the big changes, and be willing to barter a little to balance the process.

Lowest Common Denominator
Recognize that not everyone will use the park as it is intended, so plan for this. Evaluate everything as a potential hazard, obstacle, or opportunity for mischief. Contact the police, your risk carrier, or your favorite 13-year old to assist with identifying potential challenges. Once discovered, don’t be discouraged; use this as an opportunity to be more creative.

Plan For Success
Many parks become victims of their own success because amenities are selected that cannot withstand the traffic the park receives. The project may have begun with a comprehensive plan that included the desired improvement, public buy-in, staff and board support, a great design, and a vision that held it all together. Of course, it was going to be a success. But make sure that decisions made along the way account for appropriate investment in size, shape, and durability of amenities and systems. It is usually better to complete one entire section of the plan than to merely do a surface job on the whole plan. Assume that people of all ages and abilities will swarm the park and need amenities to support their visit.

So what happens when the designers leave? If all went well—exactly what was expected.

Eric Hornig , ASLA, LEED AP BD+C, is a principal and landscape architect with Hitchcock Design Group’s Recreation Studio, and can be reached at Hitchcock Design Group is a landscape-architecture and planning firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill.