ICYMI: A Virtual Forum on the Future of Parks and Play

Social distancing circles in a park
Circles in a London park mark appropriate social distance. / image: Winniepix licensed under CC BY 2.0

On July 15, right in the middle of Park and Recreation Month, three of ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks (PPNs)—Children’s Outdoor Environments, Environmental Justice, and Parks & Recreation—collaborated to host an open dialogue on the future of parks and play.

ASLA members were invited to take part in this virtual forum as an opportunity to converse with peers about their observations and experiences, new developments being planned or currently underway, and what they are seeing locally in terms of park and play space usage or changes in use.

PPN leaders and members came together for small-group discussions within Zoom breakout rooms focused on what’s happening in parks and playspaces, and what landscape architects are hearing from clients and stakeholders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Forum Facilitators:

  • Ilisa Goldman, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Co-Chair
  • Ken Hurst, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Co-Chair
  • Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer and past Co-Chair
  • Heidi Cohen, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer
  • Missy Benson, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer
  • Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments and past Co-Chair
  • Chingwen Cheng, ASLA, Environmental Justice PPN Co-Chair
  • Tom Martin, ASLA, Environmental Justice PPN Co-Chair
  • Bronwen Mastro, ASLA, Parks and Recreation PPN Officer
  • Matt Boehner, ASLA, Parks and Recreation PPN Officer

Four discussion topics and prompts were provided to spark discussion and input from attendees, who ranged from students to firm principals who came from across the U.S., along with a few based internationally. Below, we recap key points, recurring trends, and takeaways from the conversation.

Keeping Playspaces Equitable

We asked:

  • How can parks be designed to address issues of social equity?
  • How can universal access for all users be maintained and inclusiveness enhanced while also meeting new safety guidelines?
  • How has your community engagement process changed? How can the design process be kept participatory and equitable while limitations on public gatherings are still in place?
  • What are some strategies that you have employed and how have they worked?

To address issues of social equity, it is imperative to have an authentic and engaged community design process that is clearly defined and shared with community groups. Through cross-agency coordination and by applying an equity lens, resources may be best allocated to serve different interests and communities such as casual recreation, fitness, and people experiencing homelessness. Designers must take the time to carefully listen to the community to find ways to meaningfully engage with different segments of the population and to know what is important to them and what their needs are. At this time, issues related to trauma, different communities’ varied experiences of the pandemic, and addressing systemic racism and injustices are especially urgent.

Universal design principles may be applied or enhanced to reach new safety goals, such as wider paths and larger and longer ramps. In terms of retrofitting existing playgrounds, the minimum standards may no longer be sufficient: landscape architects must approach the design process in a more holistic way, looking beyond the limited project scope to the whole space. Inclusivity must connect with accessibility, and playground design must go beyond providing a ramp to nowhere in order to create more equitable and meaningful play opportunities for all.

In addition to pushing beyond the minimum ADA requirements, landscape architects should also keep users’ sensory and interoceptive systems in mind (using a color palette that is suited to those that are colorblind, and providing for shade, for example).

In some areas with otherwise limited access to parks, private citizens are looking to form their own recreational areas, such as. transforming a street end to be a play space during COVID-19. These can be inequitable for those unable to get there, and streetscapes often fall short as a substitute for nature.

With this spring’s shift to virtual engagement came many challenges related to limited Internet access amongst disadvantaged groups. One Philadelphia-area firm is going back to robo-calls and posters placed in strategic locations to get community input. Other firms have had to get more creative to still engage with the public successfully. Strategies include: bilingual websites (including dialects in Spanish), teaming up with medical professionals, using local contacts and existing connections (and identifying a trusted navigator: organizations already invested in the community), and also reaching beyond those already-established connections through drive-in events or distributing information sheets along with free meals.

Landscape architects note that there is also inequity in trying to get to equity of the typically marginalized voice. We hear from those who are less marginalized, yet the voice of the marginalized is often quiet or silenced.

The game area at Jones Beach State Park is open (with restrictions in place), but quiet on a weekday afternoon. / image: Alexandra Hay

Maintenance and Operations

We asked:

  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped your design decisions (material choices, maintenance plans, etc.)?
  • Are there additional safety and hygiene features you are considering (like hand-washing stations), and how are you integrating them into existing parks?
  • If you have integrated new features, what have you observed thus far? Have the new features increased usage of the parks?

Participants were eager to hear about what rules have been put into effect regarding access and cleaning. Carrying capacity for recreation facilities has been something many parks and recreation agencies are looking at more closely, as they make decisions about which parks and facilities can open and which will remain closed.

Hand washing stations and restrooms are being considered more for all playground renovations. Previously, only certain community parks and larger were considered for restrooms facilities. Restrooms and hand washing stations that are outside of enclosed buildings are going to be more essential. Portland Loo is a good example of an equitable, low-cost solution, with outdoor hand washing that’s nicer than some other options.

In terms of materials choices, what agencies say they want will drive decisions from manufacturers. Material studies are being conducted to see what is easiest to clean, and what types of surfaces best repel bacteria and viruses. One maintenance challenge has been setting open and closed hours to allow for cleaning.

Installation of a new school playground continues in Washington, D.C. / image: Alexandra Hay

Schools and Schoolgrounds

We asked:

  • How might schoolground usage be enhanced as children transition back to school (for example, expanding spaces for outdoor learning)?
  • Have you seen schools request new types of spaces, like pop-up outdoor classrooms?
  • What would you envision pop up outdoor classrooms looking like? Would you see the value of working with classroom teachers and students to create these spaces?

While most schools’ reopening plans remain in flux, the uncertain situation is a great opportunity to open up dialogue about more outdoor spaces with schools, though it can take some finesse to get in the door with school districts to be a part of the discussion.

There has been increased interest in designing and constructing outdoor classrooms due to COVID-19, with most interest coming from private schools and nonprofits rather than from public school districts. Administration-level staff are reaching out with requests, and everyone wants them done and in place by this fall. A key challenge is determining what is feasible to build within that time frame, and also what is feasible for school/park staff to realistically maintain over time. One attendee mentioned that they are looking for ways the traditional process can be streamlined, with less red tape for larger school districts.

While schools with courtyards have the advantage of a protected, secure space for outdoor classroom areas, many different schools are looking to utilize their outdoor areas for teaching. Landscape architects are looking at many factors while envisioning what these new learning spaces may look like, including materials, scale, permanence (or not), how to make temporary spaces meaningful, how to provide shelter, addressing the seasons, and imagining how these spaces may transcend the current public health crisis and serve a purpose post-COVID. These spaces must be fully-functioning classrooms without walls; designers should have tactical outdoor classrooms in mind as their aim, keeping these spaces easy to realize, temporary, and affordable to implement. A handbook with design guidance for this situation would be welcomed!

Signage and hand sanitizer abounds on the Jones Beach Boardwalk on Long Island. / image: Alexandra Hay

Challenges and Solutions

We asked:

  • What are the challenges you’re facing in terms of codes and regulations that are slowing down implementation?
  • What would you like to see change? How can COVID-19 be used as an opportunity?
  • Should new codes and regulations be developed?

Once new features are implemented, a challenge going forward will be quantifying and qualifying progress, and determining how to measure the success of new designs through post-occupancy evaluation and other landscape performance studies.

With regard to play ground manufacturers and equipment, it was suggested that looking to manufacturers to help lead innovation is a good way forward. Some indication is that this is already happening, for example via stickers/information on how to clean and sanitize equipment. Another shared having seen some playground equipment and furniture suppliers start to market their products to work for smaller groups outdoors in response to Covid.

Attendees noted that, on the one hand, there is the danger of overdesigning in response to COVID-19 and social distancing: being hyper-focused on spacing could detract from enhancing the experience of being outdoors. Others ask themselves: are some of these changes here to stay? With climate change affecting disease transmission and public health, pandemics may become more frequent occurrences, and design changes implemented in response to COVID-19 may become the norm as opposed to short-lived measures.

Based on this hugely successful conversation, we look forward to more forums like this to share our thoughts and ideas on important topics as they pertain to outdoor environments.

Thank you to all who participated!

Additional Resources:

From ASLA and ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks (PPNs):

Guidance and Recommendations:

Articles and Webinars:

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