Right The First Time

If you have an active imagination like I do, the term “master plan” conjures visions of world-takeover plots, dastardly deeds, and evil henchman. While a park master plan can require the coordination of many people, hours of meticulous planning, and methodical attention to detail, you should not need a white Persian cat, lasers, or a monocle to put the plan into motion.

A park master plan will represent an approved design with:

  • Supporting illustrations
  • Comparable images
  • A descriptive narrative
  • An approved budget.

The plan should contain all of the improvements as proposed at an airplane level. You may not know if the field has bricks on the back of the dugout, but you know what size the field is, where it will be placed on the site, what age of players will play there, and what else is needed to support the plan. As a general rule, there should be enough detail and thought applied that a realistic budget can be developed, and surprises will be limited to unforeseen conditions or changes in programming. This document should be ready for public review and will become the baseline of future expectations.

The process can vary widely in the effort required. Improvements for small neighborhood parks are relatively straightforward, while improvements along waterfronts or within dense urban areas can be extremely complicated and time-consuming. Whatever the case, success boils down to the following:

  • Gathering the right team
  • Evaluating resources properly
  • Understanding the visitor
  • Investing the resources available for the highest and best use of the site.

Gathering The Right Team

The fatal flaws of supervillains are their need for total control and an egocentric nature. Projects in the real world require a team of talented people for success. Some tasks can be accomplished with in-house talent, but unless you work for a large metropolitan agency, you will likely look to outside consultants. From your in-house talent, however, you will want someone who represents programming and park maintenance, as well as someone with authority on the immediate team. It is also a good idea to have a board member who can serve as a liaison to the elected leadership.

As outside consultants, landscape architects are well-suited for park master plans. They can speak the base language of most design disciplines, making them good facilitators for complicated projects. The team for a small neighborhood park might consist of only an in-house staff and a designer. It is not uncommon, however, for your consultant to lead multi-faceted teams, including surveyors, civil engineers, ecologists, architects, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, and irrigation designers.  Don’t miss the opportunities early on to save money later by including the right people at the table to unearth the true challenges of the project.

Evaluating Resources Properly

Even the most threatening mastermind does not possess unlimited resources. Your park project is no different. Every site has opportunities and constraints that come with the land or the region surrounding it. A good consultant will have systems in place to guide you through the process of evaluating the physical land, including hydrology, topography, soils, geology, and climate.  Topography and soils commonly come into play. For example, putting a flat playing field on a heavily sloped site can be accomplished, but will increase the cost significantly.

Consider the cultural impacts that can affect the plan:

  • History
  • Archeology
  • Existing land use
  • Growth patterns
  • Neighborhood influences
  • Local schools.

People tend to resist change or may already be screaming for change. Navigating the cultural aspects of the site can be tricky and should not be overlooked.

Infrastructure, like sewer, water, electrical, communications, vehicular access, emergency and security access, parking, and pedestrian access to the park, are critical to success. Do not underestimate the costs of bringing any of these services to a site. In Chicagoland, many neighborhood parks want to add a drinking fountain, a seemingly simple request, right? This addition may actually cost between $7,500 and $20,000, which may be a deal breaker on a small neighborhood park budget.

Your property already comes pre-wired with hundreds of rules and obligations. Property restrictions, like easements, covenants, or other restrictions that may have been present with the title when purchased or gifted, can limit uses. A common example is land gifted as part of an estate, with the stipulation that it remain in passive park use. This simple, noble request may restrict you from adding parking, placing a sports field, or adding a nature center to the property.

Building and zoning codes, subdivision regulations, stormwater-management guidelines, and special management area requirements (for wetlands, lakes, and rivers) are in place for a good reason, but can add significant time delays and can drastically change project costs. Be sure the team evaluates these as early as possible to avoid surprises. While you are still required to follow all of the rules, at least you will know about them in order to plan.  

Another key resource is funding. Know where the money is coming from. Each funding vehicle will have different requirements that may affect the design of the project. Capital funding dollars may have minimal strings attached, but grants or partnership funds may have very clear requirements.

Understand The Visitor

Public agencies have an obligation to support the needs of the community, and what better way to find out than to listen. Every community has a different attitude about preservation, acquisition, development, and maintenance. Some communities favor one particular sport because of longstanding traditions or the physical resources available. Whatever the case, some investigation is required, and a multi-pronged approach will gather the most relevant data.

Depending on the nature of the project and the potential impact on the community, a good mix of potential public-input methods may include open meetings, focus-group meetings, random opinion surveys, statistically valid surveys, online engagement, or my favorite … staff members with clipboards. For the best results, engage the public before anything is drawn to see what that vision might be and then again once design options are ready for feedback.

Investing Resources

So you’ve gathered the right team, evaluated the resources thoroughly, listened carefully to the public, and emerged with a master plan that everyone supports. Of course you are going to be successful, so keep that in mind as you develop the details. Should the sidewalk be reduced from 6 feet to 5 feet? No, you are going to be successful, and patrons will appreciate the extra room. Should you upsize that control panel just a little to have a spare for the future? Yes, you are going to be successful and will need it for the lights to be installed to keep the facility open later. Should you plan on increasing staff members or at least staff rotation to take care of the new improvements? Well, you get the idea.

Budgeting Into Perpetuity

Designers will likely not work for the glory of your master plan and charismatic presence, so plan to set aside 10 to 15 percent of the project budget for a design fee, with slightly less if the project is extremely simple or very large, and more if the project is overly complicated, very small, or has heavy permitting entanglements. The master plan might represent 15 to 20 percent of the total fee, depending on the amount of public involvement and research expectations.

Just as in the movies, something unexpected will happen that attempts to foil the master plan. Smart leaders set aside contingencies for the unexpected or undefined. Consider setting aside:

  • 10 percent for design
  • 5 percent for bidding
  • 10 percent for construction contingencies.

You can reduce these amounts as you approach the finish line, but decisions will be made that eat away at these amounts, so do not forget to include them.

On opening day of the park, hard elements (paving and structures) will begin deteriorating, and soft elements (planting and turf) will begin improving, both of which will fight for attention. All elements should receive periodic review with key features getting safety inspections and operating audits as appropriate. Don’t forget to consider time for mowing, weeding, fertilizing, watering, picking up trash, and generally keeping up the park.

Each product or material is different, and some may last longer, depending on use, wear, climate, maintenance, and a host of other conditions that are out of your control, but consider the following guidelines. Within 3 to 5 years, minor repairs will be needed on moving parts and high-wear areas. Patching, painting, sealing, staining, and replenishing worn material are common. Within 7 to 15 years, major replacements may be needed. It is not uncommon for safety rules, codes, or accessibility guidelines to render products non-compliant within this window, even if the material itself is holding strong.

If you have the ability, allocate some of the budget for longevity. Some private entities have set aside 10 percent of the project budget as an endowment for perpetual maintenance and minor repairs in between capital expenditures.

Most parks are not intended to generate revenue; they are there to serve the community in one way or another, but because they are publicly funded, it is important to consider elements of cost recovery. Finding ways through programming, fundraising, and special events to recover the costs of operating a park can go a long way toward balancing the demands of the park users with the financial expectations of the community. Cost recovery goals vary across the country from 15 to 80 percent and can be even higher on special facilities like golf courses, aquatic venues, and recreation centers.

Coming Together

As you gaze out the window, ringing your hands, you take in the majestic results of your meticulous planning. You can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment for having created this new destination for the community. A true team of experts (heroes) was called into action, the resources (super powers) at your disposal were utilized for maximum impact, the visitors’ (citizens’) voices were heard, your contingencies (plan B’s) were stretched but not broken, and you have set programs in place to keep the park going while you are away fighting other battles. Yes, everything has truly fallen into place, and your good and pure master plan has come to fruition. What a boring movie that would be!

Eric Hornig is a Principal and landscape architect with Hitchcock Design Group’s Recreation Studio and can be reached at ehornig@hitchcockdesigngroup.com. Hitchcock Design Group is a landscape architecture and planning firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill.