A New Approach to Parks and Recreation System Planning to Create More Livable and Sustainable Communities

by David Barth, PhD, ASLA, AICP, CPRP

Book cover
David Barth is the author of the new book Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities.

Over the past three decades, landscape architects and park planners have made great strides in addressing community-wide issues through park design. Parks have been designed to create jobs, store and treat stormwater run-off, provide socially-inclusive gathering spaces, combat climate change, increase property values, attract new businesses, promote health and fitness, stabilize neighborhoods, and generate other community-wide benefits.

Most of these efforts, however, have been implemented on an individual site basis rather than a system-wide basis. The majority of parks and recreation system plans address traditional parks and recreation improvements, rather than community-wide issues. And the typical parks and recreation system master planning (PRSMP) process hasn’t changed significantly over the past century and a half since architect Horace Cleveland presented his Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis in 1883!

In my new book, Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities, I propose a new approach to system planning that not only addresses traditional parks and recreation challenges, but is also robust and comprehensive enough to address broader community-wide issues. Key tenets of this approach include:

  • planning parks and recreation facilities as elements of a larger, interconnected public realm;
  • considering alternative dimensions of parks and recreation systems, such as social equity and climate change, from the onset of the planning process; and
  • planning every site in the system as high-performance public space (HPPS).

This broader perspective encourages parks and recreation agencies to transcend their silos—and leverage their resources—to plan and collaborate with other public and private agencies to meet as many of the community’s needs as possible.

I also propose replacing the traditional linear, narrowly-defined PRSMP process with a cyclical, open-ended process that is constantly updated and integrated with other foundational public realm plans such as long-range transportation plans, stormwater master plans, habitat conservation plans, and future land-use plans. Such an ongoing, collaborative planning process can lead to the development of an integrated public realm that can generate far more benefits for a community than the traditional siloed parks and recreation system. This proposed new approach, illustrated in Figure 1, differs from the traditional approach in several ways.

Figure 1: Proposed PRSMP Process / image: David Barth

First, the new approach proposes that we spend more time in the initiation and planning phase of the project to identify opportunities to generate greater resiliency and sustainability benefits for the community, as well as building the credibility and support needed to implement key recommendations. The eventual success or failure of many plans can be traced to the amount of time spent initiating and planning the process. A key component of this phase is the identification of the desired, alternative “dimensions” of parks and recreation planning to be addressed during the process, as listed in Figure 2. Identification of these dimensions during the initiation phase has direct implications for the make-up of the project team, the scope of work, the areas of focus, and the eventual success of the project.

Figure 2: Alternative Dimensions of Parks and Recreation System Planning

Second, the new PRSMP approach proposes a more thoughtful and nuanced “decision-making framework” to replace absolute standards and classifications, providing parks and recreation agencies with the freedom and flexibility to respond to community issues and needs. Such a framework may include:

  • the agency’s mission and vision;
  • agency and community values;
  • guiding principles;
  • residents’ needs and priorities;
  • community context;
  • desired experiences; and
  • service-delivery models.

Collectively, these components encourage thoughtful, context-based solutions rather than pre-conceived standards.

Third, the new approach emphasizes an in-depth evaluation of the specific dimensions identified in the initiation phase, in addition to the traditional evaluation of existing parks. Each topic requires an in-depth analysis of existing conditions and issues, and their implications of the parks and recreation system. For example, research and discussions with the public works or engineering department may reveal the need for additional stormwater treatment or floodwater storage in certain areas of the community, and the opportunity to meet recreation needs and stormwater needs in the same area.

Next, the proposed approach includes a ‘preliminary implementation framework (PIF)’ to initiate implementation discussions as early in the process as possible; traditional processes often leave implementation discussions for last, which can doom the project to failure. The PIF is particularly important for plans that address numerous dimensions which will be implemented by agencies other than a parks and recreation or planning department. In addition to traditional forms of implementation—such as capital improvements, additional staffing, new programs, and increased maintenance—the PIF may also include updates to comprehensive plans or land development regulations; partnerships with other agencies, businesses, or nonprofit organizations; and changes to organizational structure or staffing, programming, operations, and maintenance.

The new approach also proposes a more rigorous, scientific needs assessment process. If done correctly, a needs assessment is a type of applied social research that involves developing a research design, gathering and analyzing the data collected from various sources, and using the results to inform policy and program development. In our practice we use a mixed-methods, triangulated approach that compares the findings from quantitative, qualitative, and secondary research techniques and data to identify top priorities. As with the evaluation of existing conditions, the needs assessment process should solicit public input regarding the entire public realm, as well as community-wide resiliency and sustainability needs.

Traditional level-of-service (LOS) metrics also need to be revised to reflect each community’s needs and priorities. The new approach encourages public agencies to revisit their core values, principles, and goals; and to develop LOS metrics that effectively reflect their aspirations, including metrics related to resiliency and sustainability.

Finally, the visioning phase of the PRSMP process needs to be much more collaborative, ideally developed concurrently with other elements of the public realm such as streets, bikeways and trails, civic spaces, stormwater treatment facilities, and utilities. Collaborative brainstorming by people with different perspectives and backgrounds can often yield far more innovative and imaginative ideas than can visioning that involves only those of similar mindsets. Similarly, an effective implementation strategy requires that participants transcend the silos of their departments or agencies; identify opportunities for partnerships or joint use; leverage available resources, regardless of the source; and actively look for ways to generate multiple benefits for the community through implementation of projects, programs, and initiatives.

Following this proposed new approach will result in a PRSMP that is more relevant to the needs and issues of a community and its elected officials; more collaborative and credible; and more likely to be successfully implemented and transformative. And adoption of this new approach can yield numerous benefits for communities, including an improved quality-of-life for residents, and increased resiliency and sustainability.

David Barth, PhD, ASLA, AICP, CPRP, is the Principal of Barth Associates, a landscape architecture and planning firm specializing in parks and recreation system planning. He is the author of the new book Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities.

One thought on “A New Approach to Parks and Recreation System Planning to Create More Livable and Sustainable Communities

  1. Jacob Noah February 19, 2021 / 12:19 pm

    Really informative read, David! It is interesting to see how you have developed a unique planning approach to address broader community-wide issues. The parks and recreational areas improve the quality of the air that we breathe, provide vegetative buffers to development, and provide a place for the kids and families to bond with nature and each other.

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