Financially Challenged

By Blake Theisen

For small communities with limited budgets, the struggle to make improvements is real. Maintenance is needed—well overdue, in many cases—but financial limitations too often make these important facility renovations and upgrades out of reach.


Or do they?

As a landscape architect and park planner who’s been providing recreational-facility site analysis, planning, design, and implementation for nearly two decades, I’ve seen it all; I’ve worked with municipalities and park districts—large and small—around the country, and all report the same fundamental challenge: how to take on these park projects without busting the budget. The following are a few strategies that have proven to be successful through the years:

Start With A Plan
Oftentimes, the first order of business when working with communities is to complete a comprehensive outdoor recreation plan (CORP) or park and open-space master plan. This provides an opportunity to review the entire system, inventory all facilities, perform an asset summary, and provide a list of improvement options (including associated costs). The plan should include an implementation strategy of five to 10 years with realistic goals for getting things done. Often, smaller communities don’t have dedicated park-improvement budgets, so this tool comes in handy during a budget review with elected officials.

Having a tool like this also helps from a system-wide planning approach. Let’s say a community has six parks, and they all have common issues. With a plan in place, officials can put together a bid package that includes all of the common issues and obtain a better unit price than they would by taking on improvements one at a time. In many cases, with a plan in place, a community will be better positioned to find supplemental funding sources, such as grants and private donations. These funds can be leveraged to use as matches for capital expenditures, too.

Don’t Overlook Low-Hanging Fruit
Connecting small sidewalk gaps, repairing broken benches, replacing rusted trash cans—these may seem like trivial things, but they go a long way to enhance quality and the aesthetic of park facilities. While dated facilities might be functional, even the smallest improvements help clean up the appearance for patrons (and since the patrons are the ones spending money when they register for programming, that’s important). Many of these basic improvements can be completed by in-house crews or in conjunction with public works or street-department staff members.

Get ADA-Compliant
Meeting ADA standards and ensuring that proper access to facilities is critical. Are the toilet stalls wide enough? Are door openings correct? Is there a single-height drinking fountain? Most people don’t notice things like that unless they have a disability that makes these barriers blatantly obvious. Improving access is an important improvement to add to the to-do list and, fortunately, a relatively inexpensive fix to make. One of the most obvious and easily remedied issues is improper striping and crosswalk geometry in parking areas within park properties. Make sure not to block designated access routes and use proper signage! Paint is cheap and highly effective.


Assess Playgrounds
Playground structures, especially in small communities, are often old and no longer meet National Playground Safety Institute codes or common safety practices. Take a look at your playgrounds. Do they use sand as a safety surface? If they do, they’re not meeting code, and it may be time to replace the surfacing or structures. As a rule of thumb, any equipment that exceeds 25 years is typically no longer in compliance. However, these costs can swell—anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 to replace a basic structure, and much higher with complex, larger arrangements. But little things like replacing belt swings that have worn-out rubber and exposed steel plates are a more affordable fix (more like $180). Make a practice of topdressing safety surfacing (engineered wood fiber or rubber) at least twice a season.

Check Out Signage
Updating park signage is another cost-effective way to put some visual “pop” into the system, and you don’t need expensive custom signs to do it. A basic sign to mount on a 4-inch-by-4-inch post will likely cost $500 to $800. Consistent signage throughout a community’s park system helps establish a brand and unique identity, strengthening the draw for potential patrons. In the age of social media, community residents love to comment about their experiences in public spaces, and you don’t want negative feedback!

Upgrade Lighting
Many park systems have old and outdated lighting fixtures scattered throughout parks and trail networks. Old technology, such as high-pressure sodium (HPS) or metal halides were common in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. New site lighting is now almost exclusively light-emitting diodes (LED) and reduces energy consumption exponentially. The added benefit of LED is that the lifespan of most new lamps is estimated at well over 60,000 hours, compared to traditional HPS at 16,000 hours. When factoring in the cost-per-kilowatt and cost-per-man-hour to maintain, LED weighs in at less than 25 percent of the cost of traditional lighting systems. Do not despair, though. If a community has a pile of decorative or traditional light poles that don’t need replacing, just retrofit the lamping mechanism to a LED upgrade. And don’t forget to trim the trees around the lights.

Look At The Landscape
Another money-saving idea is to reduce the mowing burden. Let’s say there’s a 40-acre sports complex that’s heavily programmed. Chances are it’s not necessary to mow all 40 acres. There are probably pockets between ball diamonds or a pedestrian-way from a main parking lot that could be sent into prairie or planted as arboretum. Shaving off corners here and there can reduce the mowing burden and cut man-hours easily by 25 percent.

Revamping facilities doesn’t have to break the bank. Whatever an individual problem or issue, creative but low-cost solutions are often the answer.

Blake Theisen, a landscape architect with Ayres Associates, has been providing recreational-facility site analysis, planning, design, and implementation since 1999. His project expertise includes comprehensive outdoor-recreation plans, park master plans, athletic complexes, community water parks, skate parks, and custom playgrounds. With a background in botany and ecology, he promotes environmental stewardship throughout facility planning and design. Reach him at (608) 443-1200 or