Tools for Equitable Park Planning and Design: Digital Workflows to Enhance Park Access and Quality

by Matthew Wilkins, PLA, ASLA, APA

Rio Hondo Park Concept
Rio Hondo Park Concept / image: KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning

This last year has provided an awakening on issues of equality and our environment. One issue in particular that impacts communities nationwide and can be enhanced by landscape architects, is the ease of access and quality of parks. This topic of access to quality parks and open space has been given emphasis throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as parks and open space became vital places to work, live, learn, heal, and seek refuge. Coupled with looming environmental challenges and the ability for parks and open space to help protect and mitigate these impacts, there has never been a better time to focus our attention on the topic of creating healthy and equitable parks. This is our call to action.

Throughout the COVID pandemic, communities of color and those in stressed socio-economic areas have suffered from the inability to social distance and recreate in a safe and therapeutic environment. This adversity has compounded existing health issues impacting these communities, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity which are intertwined among various other environmental health hazards and conditions. Many of these communities are also at higher risk of adverse environmental impacts and are typically at a higher risk of displacement or damage due to extreme weather events. Considering the current impacts of COVID and future challenges they face from changing environmental conditions, one thing is evident, that immediate attention is needed to address our equity and abundance of parks and open space for the health, safety, and wellbeing of our communities across America.

Though parks and open space may seem like a low priority in budgeting for cities and agencies, it’s time for a paradigm shift to seeing these resources as significant or equal to vital social and healthcare services, as these spaces help to bring communities together and allow for therapeutic opportunities to increase health and physical enjoyment and to connect people with nature. Furthermore, park and open space areas serve as vital green infrastructure for communities facing intensified challenges due to climate change, because they serve as critical space to combat and lower the impacts of potential storms and natural disasters.

Although increasing parkland space is encouraged, there are situations where available land is sparse and the parks that are available may be unevenly distributed, resulting in areas where park space is unavailable within a convenient travel distance. Park access and quality is not a quick or easy matter to resolve as it requires intimate understanding of a park system, its users, the operational and programmatic elements, and various other factors and needs which may result in unbalanced access and quality. One universal guideline is to provide equal access, park amenities, and quality of experience throughout a community as effectively as possible, while allowing parks to serve as a green infrastructure buffer for climate change where applicable.

To achieve this, various elements of a park system need to be assessed; however, two major factors have significant impact: access, or quantity of parks and their distribution, and the quality, or design and capacity of amenities or open space. These are the quantitative and qualitative elements needed to assess a park system’s level of service and are paramount to park planning. As such, they require specific technical tools and techniques to understand the needs and make equitable design and planning recommendations. Let’s focus on tools and techniques to help analyze the access and quality of our park systems.

Central Park, New York / image: Carl Newton on Unsplash

Access to Parks

In its simplest form, access represents how easily a person or family can get to a park. Geographic distribution analysis (GDA) is a term used to define a strategy in which park planners/designers can examine the time it takes to walk, bike, and drive to these facilities. Historically this was done by drawing circles on a map of a specific distance, typically a half mile. Though some practitioners may still use the circular trace overlay method today, a more accurate Geographical Information System (GIS) based parkshed analysis may be used to leverage the tools and capabilities of this technology.

A GIS parkshed analysis is a series of GIS generated polygons representing either a 10-minute walkshed or a 5-minute driveshed/bikeshed. In both cases, a speed is associated with the correlating mode of transportation to determine a parkshed. The resulting service catchment areas are overlaid on a city or community base map to see which areas have better park access and to quantify the number of residents served by park type. A park’s GDA analysis considers the percentage of the population being serviced by the various park types (i.e., mini park, neighborhood park, community park, regional park, etc.). GIS technology offers quick and attractive ways to develop parkshed maps and the information that it generates sets the tone for planning and design decisions; however, the information can be skewed as a result of improper methods or workflows. This method of using circles around parks has inherent inaccuracies for reasons which will be further described and is one with potential impact, causing inequities in park planning decisions.

KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning in Southern California has established a series of tools to help with equitable park planning, including an in-depth method of analyzing the distribution of parks. Instead of using the traditional circle methodology, the system established and deployed by KTUA uses a method that takes into account actual walking, driving, or biking distances by using an augmented street grid surface as the basis of the parkshed. By using a street grid, augmented with trail and other mobility systems, the distribution can be much more responsive to the patterns of travel which a typical person or family uses to get to these parks.

Radial Buffer vs Street Network example / image: KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning

This integrated network method is more accurate because it puts attention on the need to improve the local network to improve and increase access to park facilities. Standard circles are especially inaccurate in determining access for areas that have significant barriers such as freeways, highways, rivers, rail lines, or steep topography, which are all barriers to easy access. Furthermore, it may skew the overall planning results by margins as high as 10-40% since the mapped area does not represent the actual way that people travel to parks. Until some form of direct transport is possible, the primary way people get to parks is by the street/sidewalk grid or formal/informal paths and our analysis should examine the parksheds in this way.

The GDA is important since most planning decisions are based on a park acres per thousand goal which many cities utilize to help continue park growth and use impact or developer fees to help with this equitable distribution. But without the accuracy, some planning decisions may impact communities, especially those who have access issues due to physical or natural separators. These are historically neighborhoods that need the most park land due to potential environmental impacts and past inequitable decisions that negatively impacted these communities.

Existing parks and parksheds, City of Ontario / image: KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning

Quality of Parks

Park quality deals with how useful a park or park system is, via its design, and ability to serve the community it’s built for. A population-based service analysis (PSA) is a method used to study the quality of a park and its amenities. The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) produces an annual Agency Performance Review Survey that can be used as a starting point to access the PSA. However, close listening to a community, with an understanding or analysis of regional recreational amenities and trends, along with current recreational uses within a community can be used to further tune the PSA to the given community.

Another key component to the PSA is to perform a qualitative analysis of the amenities within a park system. This is done to assess the quality of specific amenities or infrastructure in order to determine how effective they are at serving the community and if they are no longer performing as needed or are out of date given amenity’s current standard. This is usually the case for playground equipment, where the environment in which they are assessed and certified is fast-moving and equipment may become obsolete after several years and deemed unsafe or not to code.

Failing playground equipment / image: Matt Wilkins

In order to understand these amenities, an in-depth survey and assessment must be done. KTUA uses advanced GIS tools along with on-the-ground surveying of the equipment and amenities to assess them. This is enhanced by an expert staff of landscape architects and planners which includes individuals who are CPSI and irrigation certified and understand local and regional code requirements to meet the needs of the communities they serve. The team also uses advanced tools to gauge the community’s preferences on amenities and leverage their strong community engagement tools such as statistically valid surveys to further refine this input.

Park pressure is a mapping study that analyses park size in relation to population density and quantifies how population density affects parks by capturing the potential demand. This study assumes that each resident is using a park closest to them. Park pressure is generated by defining a “parkshed” around each park, which is in turn defined by a polygon containing all the households in the area. The population within each parkshed is then calculated to estimate the number of potential park users within each parkshed. The acreage of the park may then be used to calculate the number of park acres available per 1,000 people within the parkshed.

Areas within a city with fewer park acres available per 1,000 people within the parkshed are more likely to have heavier use, while those with more park acres available may be used less heavily. Population density can greatly affect park pressure analytics. So as the city densifies, the parks serving those areas will be more impacted and will experience greater park pressure.

Montebello Park Pressure Map / image: KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning

This factors directly into the quantitative realm of park planning, it also significantly impacts the qualitative aspects of the park as the use, frequency, and demand requires more focused and efficient design to accommodate increased uses while preserving vital green space and urban canopy/open space. It also helps convey the importance of new green spaces in the public realm in areas such as gray fields, parking lots, infrastructure systems including utility corridors, channelized rivers/drainageways, and the various other areas within a city or urban area.

The study Park Congestion and Strategies to Increase Park Equity by Chona Sister, John Wilson, and Jennifer Wolch, part of the Green Visions Plan for 21st Century Southern California, looked at various park equity gaps in the greater Los Angeles area. They observed through a comprehensive and in-depth study that there are correlations to park pressure and racial/ethnic groups. Their studies found a distinct trend in park congestion relative to race/ethnic groups. Per this study, “A larger proportion of the White population live in park service areas with relatively lower park pressure” compared to LatinX and African American communities by margins as high as 60%.

The correlation is most likely tied to the economic gap between racial groups that have resulted in a variety of past and current factors. This impacts the health, safety, and welfare of all surrounding community groups as parks are known to help improve debilitating mental and physical health conditions which can be prevalent in these areas. These same trends are found in greater magnitudes throughout the United States and require effective planning, leadership, and design to create more equity. In a presentation by Mitchell Silver, former park and rec commissioner for New York City, he explained the importance of enhancing the qualitative aspects of parks in urban areas as new park spaces are difficult to find and lack the size and physical conditions to accommodate larger park amenities. His example of Garrison Park in New York City showcased the qualitative outcome of converting an older park space that’s underused into an appropriate and equitable space for the community. This highlights the importance that studies of park pressure and community driven population-based service analysis help find through the equitable park planning process.

Environmental Overlays

One method to further enhance the access and quality of our parks is to augment environmental filters to GIS data. This may include applying layers of man-made environmental impacts such as pollution, pesticides, wildfires, or other layers. It can also include natural seasonal or periodic environmental impacts such as flooding, storm surges, sea-level rise, or other natural conditions. In any case, these additional filters help assess where critical park and open space infrastructure may be needed to help with the equity and safety of a community.

Using a GIS workflow, the team gathers accurate environmental data from reputable sources and sifts through it to find the appropriate data for the desired environmental factor. Agencies such as CalEnviroscreen, EPA, and other local government bodies typically provide this information. Layers for the 100-year flood plain or more complex environmental screening layers for pollutants, pesticides, or other impacts can be overlaid and assessed in a digital McHargian method. These are used to further understand where parks should be placed due to their additional ability to resolve the identified environmental impact.

As many neighborhoods are impacted by environmental justice issues, it’s critical to consider approaches that mitigate these within the context of park planning and design as parks play a vital role in green infrastructure, air quality, and other health and welfare issues associated with environmental impacts. Parks have demonstrated an ability to dampen the severity of storms and storm surges. As environmental conditions are projected to become more extreme in the coming decades, parks and open space should be designed to help defend various at-risk communities from climate changes. This is also the case in urban areas where pollutants, contaminants, and other environmental conditions can be positively mitigated by parks and open space.

Chula Vista Bayfront Sweetwater Park Wetland and Habitat Map / image: KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning

Case Study: Montebello Parks & Facilities Master Plan

KTUA recently completed a Park & Facilities Master Plan for the City of Montebello which is located eight miles southeast of Los Angeles. The City of Montebello prides itself in providing high-quality parks and recreation facilities to its citizens and is focused on creating more uniform park level of service and accessibility for the community. A comprehensive park facility inventory and assessment revealed that some of the facilities are currently underserving the community and there are some amenities distributed unevenly, a finding which is not uncommon in Southern California.

The City of Montebello has constraints in finding additional open space since the City is practically built out. Furthermore, research on trends and analysis of where the City’s projected growth may increase due to various transit-oriented development areas, showed the demand for the existing parks in these growth areas may substantially increase and planning should consider strategies to build out additional amenities to meet the future demands. The City’s Park and Recreation Director, David Sosnowski, and other leaders at the City are credited with their vision of creating a more uniformly dispersed park system that’s equitable to all users. The KTUA team took this vision and created a plan to make it a reality.

Entering the project, KTUA did some close analysis of the park system, including a thorough assessment of the current conditions of various assets to understand the quality of the overall park system. Using innovative mapping techniques and astute planning foresight and research, the team determined which areas of the City would be in higher need for park acreage and amenities due to transit-oriented development, increased land value, and Southern California’s regional housing needs distribution. By involving the community in a series of workshops, online surveys, and stakeholder meetings, the team confirmed the resident’s desires in forecasting the future needs for park land. The team developed a series of complex maps to study future park pressure due to increased growth. Recommendations were developed to prioritize future development areas and consider new park land, increasing the access throughout the city. Further recommendations for linear parks and green streets were also suggested to aid in the connectivity and experience in traveling to parks along with helping improve local air quality.

Park Needs Score Map / image: KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning

The team conceptualized re-using a large flood basin for parks to increase available parkland while maximizing the use of green infrastructure within the City. This allows these systems to maintain the needed environmental buffer for flooding, while meeting the growing demand of the City and surrounding communities for open space. Other existing infrastructural corridors that weave throughout the City were also studied and recommendations for repurposing these to provide additional trails and linear park opportunities were provided.

At the site scale, the team analyzed various parks to identify improvements in their use and accommodate local population growth. A small park in the southern portion of the City located next to a railroad and adjacent to a known disadvantaged community became one of the focused master park designs for the final report. The team focused on how to balance various needs of the community to create more equity all while enhancing the local character and providing opportunities for residents to better connect with nature. The previous park design focused on placing a singular baseball field in the park, which didn’t match the growing demand of the community’s use of the space.

The team explored how to combine multiple use facilities in the park, creating increased overall amenities to address the qualitative uses for the site by offering additional sports and recreational amenities. Solutions such as multi-purpose sports fields and courts enhance capacity for a lawn or court to be used throughout the year by multiple activity programs and participants. Combining activities such as soccer, baseball, softball, rugby, and other rectangular sports allows for an increased number of users to access open lawn space, which is an asset growing in value and demand by local residents. Court sports such as futsal, tennis, pickleball and basketball are overlaid to provide the optimum flexibility and use of the court spaces.

Furthermore, the team examined thematic elements which contribute to the aspects of placemaking or creating a sense of home of belonging. Elements such as a community garden, walking trails and fitness stations, entry elements, public art and a large family gathering area were included in the final conceptual plan. Combining the qualitative and quantitative aspects of public park uses are critical factors in addressing current day demands and expectations for use. Developing a strategic approach that is achievable, practical and feasible helps accomplish these projects within the budget and funding restrictions that cities face. Another major design benefit is the preservation of the intrinsic qualities of a park that make it a desirable place for the community to use, while maintaining greenspace and augmenting local character and placemaking.

Reggie Rodriguez Park Plan / image: KTUA Landscape Architecture and Planning

Conclusion

It is evident that the challenges of the next decade and beyond must be addressed by increasing and enhancing equity in available park space while adapting for climate impacts. Landscape architects and planners are well equipped to handle these complex tasks, but only those who embrace state-of-the-art processes and tools should be engaged to help achieve proper solutions. This includes those with the proper balance of technical mapping and GIS skills, knowledge of recreational elements, a strong ability to understand and utilize community insights and needs, and an aptitude for advanced planning and landscape architectural topics and ideas.

The ability to focus from a regional or city scale down to the site-specific level is critical in enacting change within our communities. Change should be part and parcel to a city or regional park planning process and equitable, socially justified decisions should be made at the site-specific and community, city, or regional levels. Technical tools and workflows have the ability to create more even handed planning decisions and can provide support for why improvements should be made, regardless of income, racial background, or other factors. Although improvements have been made in how planning and design are done more equitably compared to the past, much more work is needed to continue to move the needle forward. As we encounter more extreme climate changes, the impact to various underserved neighborhoods will increase and our need to address these areas is urgent. This is our call to action and challenge for practitioners in the coming years, but one thing is certain, that landscape architects and planners alike can influence these changes and help solve these challenges to build a better future.

Matt Wilkins, PLA, ASLA, APA, is a licensed landscape architect and leads KTUA’s California Central Coast office. Matt has worked in interdisciplinary groups throughout his career and brings valuable knowledge of planning, design, construction, and digital technology to his colleagues. He has led the discussion on practical use of technology within the practice and has co-chaired the Digital Technology Professional Practice Network (PPN) for ASLA, served as the vice president for his local ASLA chapter, written and contributed to many professional articles and papers, and presented at various national conferences, including the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture. With his passion for building a better tomorrow, Matt is dedicated to building healthier communities.

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