More Fun, Less Funding

By Lydia Major

Public agencies that develop and maintain parks and trails are under constant pressure to spend money wisely. Most industry professionals understand that dollars spent on parks and trails directly and positively impact property values so that, in many cases, they eventually pay for themselves in increased tax revenue. There is also research that shows that parks and trails support the health of community members to the degree that it may be “paid for” by reduced healthcare costs. However, in most cases, those long-term cost benefits do not ease the difficulty of paying for the initial improvements, nor do they translate into more money for maintenance and operations long-term.

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Landscape architects are frequently asked to find more cost-effective ways to design and build great parks and trails, and they bring unique ideas and tremendous value to those efforts. Careful planning—including engaging with the public to ensure that what is built is what the community really needs and can be maintained long-term—is certainly key to getting the most bang for the buck. That is particularly important in larger projects where planning and design costs are a fraction of the construction costs. The good news is that there are strategies you may be able to undertake on your own.

1.       Put people first.
First, think about the people who will use the site and what they want and need. Many communities in the United States are aging, and the question of what seniors want to do in public spaces comes up frequently. Luckily, the answer is that seniors often want what everyone wants—a variety of fun and active experiences that are logical and accessible. Trails and benches (preferably comfortable ones with armrests) are the most commonly requested and least expensive investments you can make to keep everyone happy in a park system. It is also important to realize that one of the activities seniors love to do most in parks is play with grandkids! So, money spent on accessible playgrounds with a few good benches is a great investment for all ages.

Millennials and Gen Z, with their spending power and value in the workforce, are another demographic that many cities are looking to attract. Again, these folks are heavy users of trails and other park basics, but they also grew up with heightened environmental awareness and, of course, the internet. Protecting natural resources resonates with them and coupling that with mobile digital play can be extremely cost-effective, as illustrated by outdoor gaming adventures, such as geocaching and Pokémon Go.

Beyond the site facilities and environments that people engage with for recreation, don’t forget that a little money spent on comfort and convenience goes a long way. Shade, water, seating, and trash can make the difference in how usable (and used) a park or trail will be. Better yet, create an environment for sharing a meal (or even consider allowing food trucks or similar vendors). Eating together is a common value across multiple cultures and encourages community gathering. Basic amenities focused on human needs make a park inviting and help keep it clean, which encourages the next user to feel equally welcome.

2.       Work with your site, not against it.
Existing topography, such as hills and flat areas, naturally lend themselves to certain types of activities, and trying to flatten the former or raise the latter is likely to be expensive. You can, however, add a little hill or depression on a flat site to create a play feature that may be much less expensive than conventional equipment. Steps and slides (or sledding in snowy climates down a hill) are fun for all ages and inexpensive to set up.

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Similarly, protecting existing vegetation—especially large trees and unique habitats such as wetlands and prairies—has a great return on investment. Many experts now agree that people significantly benefit from being in outdoor spaces where trees and other plants help reduce stress naturally. In most urban and suburban areas, these spaces are less common, so simply preserving them (or making the relatively low-cost-per-square-foot investment to rehabilitate them) creates public value.

Also think about using light and shade from surrounding trees and buildings to provide comfort and protection. Surrounding buildings can energize a park edge with various activities and provide a sense of security if there is a perception that people are watching the space—a much less expensive and more effective solution than cameras.

3.       Instill play value.
There is a lot of exciting equipment in catalogs, but few things that adults design and build can hold up to what a kid can imagine. Research shows that imaginative play—the type where kids manipulate their environment at will to create an immersive world—is incredibly beneficial to cognitive and social skills. It is also remarkably cost-effective. Gather a few stumps of varying lengths, some long sticks, and some rope, and a group of kids will quickly create something completely unexpected. Most of these found-object play strategies are fine for park staff to implement, but if you create any features taller than 30 inches, where a child could fall—or if you just want to be sure you’re not creating a safety concern—be sure to talk to a Certified Playground Safety Inspector.

Sand and water are also rich environments for imaginative play. A large sandbox is incredibly inviting to the under-age-eight crowd (and quite a few adults, too). Mixing a few pieces of high-quality, freestanding equipment, such as spinner and diggers, into the sandbox can immediately increase the fun. When working with sand, it is important to use non-toxic material, and consider accessibility since that surface is harder to navigate than with grass or mulch. Providing an accessible edge and play value near accessible routes is very important.

Arguably, the best feature for imaginative play is water, which can be costly, but there are relatively inexpensive options, like simple hand-pumps that are perennial favorites for all ages. Of course, natural water features on the site (assuming they can be safely accessed) are extremely valuable and even water features that can’t be physically touched add pleasant views and sounds that invite lingering and gathering. Keep in mind that positive interactions between people are the most rewarding activities within parks, so simply birdwatching over a marsh together can bring value to a community.

4.       Make it happen (and keep happening).
Park professionals know that many decisions are made based on the cost of construction, but the life of the park and trail system depends on maintenance and operations. Managing first costs (design and construction) has a lot to do with choosing the right amenities in which to invest, but it also has to do with figuring out how to install and take care of them. Several of the items mentioned above might be within the skills of park maintenance staff to install. Some of them might even be something that a carefully led group of volunteers can work on. While volunteer efforts can be time-consuming for staff members, the sense of ownership they create can reduce long-term maintenance costs. Clean-up, planting, and invasive species-removal events are especially volunteer-friendly activities and can be coupled with responsibilities like mowing, snow removal, and others that are typically done by park staff.

It is also important to not confuse spending money wisely with buying inexpensive stuff. In most cases, park and trail systems are installed by the same agencies that will operate them for decades to come, so look into the long-term costs of various types of amenities—especially considering paints and finishes. High-quality equipment is worth the investment if it’s easy to maintain and has a longer replacement time frame.

When considering any new park investment, the key is to stay focused on how people will use it. Thoughtful choices will be evident for years to come and careful planning leads to years of increased value for the community. By combining creative solutions with the unique skills of a great team, you can create the most fun possible on your budget.

Lydia Major, PLA, LEED AP, is a Landscape Architect Project Manager with LHB, a multi-faceted design, planning, engineering, and architectural firm in Minneapolis, Minn. Reach her at (612) 752-6956, or Lydia.Major@lhbcorp.com.