By Patrick Hoagland
Is your agency constantly perceived as being a lower priority than other services? Do your plans sit on the shelf due to a lack of support and funding? Do the community’s elected officials undervalue parks and recreation services? Do you have difficulty passing tax levies?
These perceptions are most likely due to a lack of consensus among the community and its leaders toward parks and recreation facilities and services. One major key to gaining respect for the value your agency offers and receiving more funding to satisfy park and recreation needs is to have a clear vision and plan of action based upon a true consensus. Without this type of master plan, elected officials’ knowledge base is limited to their specific interests, “squeaky wheels” of organized groups that attend council and board meetings, and the opinions of a few voters as these officials campaign door-to-door. This article will focus on how a park and recreation agency can build a public trust and the community support required to elevate a level of importance among elected bodies, allowing the agency to implement its vision.
Steps For Success
There are four steps to any public-improvement project, whether it is that of a park, city hall, fire station, or any other publicly funded project.
- Identification of a need.
- Development of a plan. This could be as simple as a drawing on a napkin or as elaborate as a system master plan.
- Building of consensus among the community or the body funding the project.
Once there is consensus and community support, the project is much more likely to be implemented. The steps of a master plan are illustrated below. Each step will be discussed in this article, but the emphasis is on engagement.
The Discovery Phase involves the inventory of parks, facilities, programs, and other existing conditions. The findings are shared with the Steering Committee as both the consultant and committee are learning more about the community.
The Analysis Phase involves analyses of programming, facility needs, management structure, operations, demographics, funding, and the gap analysis to identify unserved populations and areas of the community.
The Engagement Phase is the focus of this article and the key to building consensus. A master plan must be built upon a strong foundation of public engagement using a variety of methods. The traditional approach of holding public meetings in city hall is only one of many methods to accurately assess the community’s needs. These meetings are limited to those citizens with time to attend on a single evening. A more successful approach involves several methods:
- An engaged steering committee to work with consultants throughout the process. The committee should consist of elected officials, park and recreation board members, leisure-activity leaders, community leaders, and other recreation professionals who accurately represent the community’s demographics by age, ethnicity, interest groups, and geography.
- Initial public events and workshops that engage citizens in identifying key issues to be explored throughout the process. Traditional public meetings are typically attended by perhaps 50 to 60 interested people. Now, consultants and parks and recreation agencies are using the expertise and creativity of their professional staff to conduct community events in order to attract hundreds of participants. In a recent strategic-plan process for the city of Fairfax, Va., the city staff utilized its event-planning and programming skills to conduct a series of community events with tremendous success. One of the first events was held on a Friday night and included Touch-a-Truck, live music, and stations with steering committee members conversing with citizens on specific topics. Citizens were given comment cards. Even children participated in voting by placing dots on their favorite activities. A recent master-plan kickoff in Westlake, Ohio, used an inflatable slide and bounce house, clowns, a DJ, and face painting to attract families. Over 100 people voted on priorities with play money, and over 50 completed surveys. The event promoted a web survey and online civic-engagement website.
- The importance of marketing. The two communities discussed above used signs in parks, banners at workshop locations and throughout the city, email blasts, newspaper and radio advertising, and local television programs.
- Stakeholder discussions with representatives of key user and partner groups that allow consultants to gain insight into the specific trends and needs of the user groups. Whereas surveys help to identify community needs in general, these stakeholder discussions identify specific needs, such as facility requirements and sizes, the relationship with the parks and recreation agency, management issues, funding issues, and more. Typical groups include athletic organizations, senior citizens, school officials, students, facility and program users, partner organizations, parks and recreation agency staff, police, and elected officials. Questions should be sent to stakeholders prior to the meetings to allow them to confer with their organizations to make best use of the time.
- Needs-assessments of random samples of residents by mail or phone. This is the primary method to reach both current users and non-users of parks and recreation services in order to determine satisfaction levels with facilities and programs and priorities for improved services. Although these surveys are more expensive than other methods, elected officials understand the importance of polling for political office and can thus relate well to their validity.
- Web-based surveys that appraise the needs and priorities of current parks and program users. My recent experience indicates that as much as 98 percent of individuals who take the time to complete a web survey are regular users of parks and programs. These email blasts are sent to program users, athletic-league parents, and other residents, and are therefore an excellent method of measuring the satisfaction levels and needs of persons with experience in programs and facilities. Surveys can also be completed at events, senior centers, city halls, and recreation centers. These surveys allow an avenue for those without access to computers to participate.
- Civic-engagement websites that provide an avenue for responding to changes throughout the planning process. Participants can complete surveys, vote on instant polls, suggest improvements, react to suggestions of others, vote on priorities, comment on draft reports, or upload photos. A recent strategic plan of mine for the city of Fairfax included nearly 2,400 participants and over 19,000 page views; another in Westlake engaged nearly 3,000 citizens and had over 11,000 page views. This level of participation is difficult to obtain by any other method. Another benefit of this approach is that it provides an opportunity for constant feedback to questions and emerging recommendations.
The Vision Phase proceeds at this point with the consultant and steering committee utilizing the results of the public-engagement process to develop a vision for the agency, followed by specific goals to accomplish the vision. Then another public workshop and civic-engagement website are used to review the findings and test the vision and goals. This is a final opportunity for the public to voice opinions prior to the Recommendations Phase, leading to a detailed Action Plan.
The Recommendations Phase puts forth detailed objectives and strategies to implement the consensus vision. After review, this becomes a detailed Action Plan with a timeline for implementing the individual strategies, listing the responsible party, and identifying potential funding sources.
Funding for planning efforts may be difficult to obtain and may take time in order to begin the process. Below are some of the benefits of the master-planning process to use in efforts to fund a plan.
Benefits Of A Master Plan
- The public-engagement process results in clear priorities and builds the consensus necessary to result in implementation.
- The wide variety of engagement methods and sheer numbers of citizens involved in the process validates the results to the elected officials who control the funding and elevates the importance of parks and recreation services.
- The plan provides clear direction for the short- and long-term delivery of parks and recreation services in the community.
- The master plan is an extremely useful tool in applying for grants.
- The master plan provides implementation strategies for facilities, programs, administration and operations, land acquisition, marketing and promotion, and budget, providing the parks and recreation agency with the direction needed to efficiently focus its efforts on improving service delivery.
How do you get started? First, step up public-engagement efforts. Identify potential steering committee members, partner organizations, and stakeholders, and begin to communicate with them concerning their issues and needs. Use the information to identify what you want from a master plan. Determine which services may need to be contracted to an experienced park and recreation planning firm and those that can be performed in-house. Establish a budget for the plan.
Brandstetter Carroll Inc. has a “Master Planning Tool Box” that includes a sample scope of services, steering committee and stakeholder invitation letters, a sample request for qualifications, timeline, and much more, available by contacting the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick D. Hoagland, ASLA, is a landscape architect with the firm of Brandstetter Carroll Inc. in Lexington, Ky., Cleveland and Cincinnati in Ohio, and Dallas, Texas. He has specialized in parks and recreation design and planning for over 35 years and gained this passion from his father, who was a parks and recreation director for nearly 30 years. Brandstetter Carroll Inc. specializes in the planning and design of parks, parks and recreation systems, greenways and trails, aquatic facilities, camps, recreation centers, municipal architecture, and civil engineering. Reach him at email@example.com.