It’s simple. Great communities need great parks. Great parks require great park planning, design, and management, which means great system master plans that are integrated and comprehensive. Achieving this goal requires local governments to break down administrative silos and promote cross-departmental cooperation.
This approach may sound easy enough, but doesn’t come naturally. It must be implemented and promoted with each new local government administration and generation of residents. Successful examples of cooperative planning can be seen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Austin, Texas; and Louisville, Kentucky.
I participated in the National Recreation and Park Association’s Innovation Lab (http://www.nrpa.org/innovation-labs-philadelphia-pennsylvania) in December 2015, at which Philadelphia speakers presented the success of the city’s parks and open-space program.
This included vertically integrated, cross-departmental leadership, including then-Mayor Michael Nutter; Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis (former deputy mayor of parks and recreation); and leaders of the planning, parks and recreation, and water departments, along with the Office of Sustainability. Their message was:
- Develop public policy goals that unite agencies and resonate with the public.
- Develop a policy framework with defined roles and accountability.
- Appoint leaders who support and empower staff to create a culture of collaboration.
- Engage in open and honest communication.
This approach has translated into two major public investments. The city’s unity of voice and collaboration built the case for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of its Green City Clean Waters program(http://www.phillywatersheds.org/what_were_doing/documents_and_data/cso_long_term_control_plan), which establishes triple bottom-line accounting for green infrastructure in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The program includes billions of dollars, a significant part of which will help fund improvements to parks to help in stormwater management (http://www.phillywatersheds.org/what_were_doing/green_infrastructure/programs/green-parks).
Unity of voice also creates a healthy atmosphere for private foundations looking for public works investment opportunities. In Philadelphia, this includes the Knight Foundation and William Penn Foundation, whose amount of funding is pivotal in quantum-leap improvements to the city’s parks (http://civiccommonsphl.myphillypark.org/about). This is reinforced by the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Philadelphia Parks Alliance that help fund and integrate public support for the city’s parks.
It was not always so in Philadelphia and is frequently not the case elsewhere. Administrative tunnel vision can prevent communities from capitalizing on effectively orchestrated efforts. Cross–disciplinary collaboration in science, technology, academia, and business has become an article of faith for innovation. Now it is time to institutionalize this principle in local government parks management.
A Framework for Integration
The solution to the residual silos in many communities may well be the “Sustaining Places:” (https://vimeo.com/116200297) standard promoted by the American Planning Association (APA). David Rouse, APA’s director of research, maintains “comprehensive planning is the nexus of community planning and park planning.”
Rouse notes APA emphasizes integration through six principles: a livable environment, harmony with nature, resilient economy, interwoven equity, healthy communities, and responsible regionalism. These best practices contextualize and reinforce integration of parks into urban systems.
In Austin’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin (http://www.austintexas.gov/department/about-imagine-austin), which Rouse led, an integrated approach wove green infrastructure through the plan as a unifying thread. A master plan (https://austintexas.gov/department/pease-district-park-master-plan) was developed for the city’s beloved Pease Park for the Pease Park Conservancy (http://peasepark.org).
Austin’s parks and recreation department convened an interdepartmental task force to coordinate recommendations outside the boundaries of the park, including better crosswalks, transit access, and other design initiatives, seamlessly through Imagine Austin. It worked, and the master plan was approved by an unprecedented 30 to 0 vote.
A Comprehensive Parks Approach
Sometimes naming a somewhat fuzzy concept helps crystallize it. I have called this practice “parks without borders.” New York City has recently used this phrase quite literally to identify its popular program of removing fences from parks—an excellent application.
As practiced at its fullest, though, parks without borders is a much more comprehensive approach covering aspects that affect parks and that parks can themselves affect, including land use, economic impact, transportation, habitat connectivity, and urban design. An integrated park system and comprehensive plan greatly assures cooperation among decisionmakers.
Some 20 years have been spent on this concept in Louisville, where a form-based land development code (https://louisvilleky.gov/government/planning-design/land-development-code), park system plan, and master plan and design for the megapark called The Parklands of Floyds Fork (http://www.theparklands.org) have been developed.
During planning, a community development strategy was drafted to guide nearby growth spurred by The Parklands, a task that the Louisville Metro planning department is examining again, now that the park is complete.
Alignment has resulted in the combined public and private investment of $125 million into The Parklands, which is already sparking increased development opportunities, guided by the community plan.