Comprehensive Park Master Planning for Future Growth

Robert W. Zolomij
Land Design Collaborative, Inc.

Article appeared in the January 2007 Annual Park &
Recreation Issue of elevation:, newsletter of the Illinois
chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects

As growth continues in many communities at approximately three to five percent per year, existing parklands will not meet the expanding needs of residents. Easy and equitable access to parks and recreation facilities is an expected and an attractive element in any community. Quality parks, recreation and cultural opportunities improve the physical and mental health, create opportunities to develop and build community, add to community pride and provide positive opportunities for use of leisure time.

Most park and recreation agencies are faced with a number of challenges, including limited financial resources due to tax caps; aging physical facilities and the need to meet standards, such as ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) and CPSC (Consumer Products Safety Commission). Growth and diversity in population are creating demands for more parkland and new facilities. In many older communities, where growth is slower, the availability of parkland is very limited due to build-out. In new communities, donation of land, acquisition and development of new parkland exceeds the agencies resources, as is the case with numerous Chicago western suburbs. In far western Hampshire, for example, a town of 4,500 is projected to grow to 20,000 by the year 2020. Existing parkland is expected to increase from 35 acres to well over 300 acres.

In order to meet these challenges, park and recreation agencies need to develop a Comprehensive Master Plan. The development of a Comprehensive Master Plan is a guide for land use as it relates to parks, trails, open spaces, conservation lands, and recreation facilities and opportunities in the community. A Comprehensive Master Plan is envisioned to serve as a "blueprint" to assist the community in guiding the future growth of the park agencies' park facilities and leisure programs and services. The Plan defines short and long term park and open space use, needs, new facilities, costs and preservation direction.

Since many park agencies in the State of Illinois are separate taxing districts from the municipality in which they provide park and recreation services, cooperation with the municipality is critical. Park agencies need to coordinate their Comprehensive Master Plan with the municipality's Land Use Plans. In addition, since many park agencies are pursuing acquisition and development grants, such as OSLAD Grants (Open Space Land Acquisition and Development) from the State of Illinois, the need for a Comprehensive Master Plan is considered essential in order to justify the need and costs for acquisition of new park land and improvements to existing parks.

Process and Elements of Plan

Developing a Comprehensive Master Plan begins with an inventory and understanding of existing park facilities and recreation programs. The inventory of existing parks generally includes the number of parks, types of facilities, the condition of facilities and acreages. The national guideline of 10 acres per 1,000 people is a means of comparing acreage of existing parkland (active recreation) to population served, and thereby determining the need for additional parkland. The type, number and condition of facilities will be important to determine the need for new facilities, improvement to existing facilities, and related costs. Along with the location of existing parks, the service areas for each type of park can be evaluated. Typically, a neighborhood park may service residents within a one-half mile radius of the park, while a community park may service residents within a one mile radius. Where gaps or voids occur in the service areas, this may justify the need for additional parks, as well as indicating the general location of new parks based on future growth patterns.

Besides an inventory of facilities, an inventory of recreation programs offered by the park agency is beneficial in identifying the types of programs and number of participants. Recreation programs offered and those that could be offered will affect the need for maintaining existing physical facilities and/or developing new facilities. As an example, recreation programs for soccer and baseball are in greater demand today and appear to be increasing, necessitating the need for sport fields; whereas the need for tennis courts has diminished.

It is critical to understand the needs of the users. This may be accomplished with a number of techniques, including an attitude/interest survey mailed to residents, phone survey, and/or public meetings. Whatever technique is utilized, it is essential to determine what residents use, how often they use the recreation facilities, and what new facilities may be needed. Such a user survey may identify an excess of existing facilities and/or the need for new facilities.

Demographics and recreation trends provide another element in developing the Plan. Community census data, typically for 1990 and 2000, will indicate changing trends in population profiles or age groups.

Trends such as aging populations or increase in pre-school and school age children may be indicative of needs for recreation facilities to meet these population age groups in future parks and/or renovation of existing parks. Local and national trends in recreation also provide a foundation for determining the needs for maintaining existing facilities and/or developing new facilities. For example, based on several recent surveys both regional and national, people have expressed the greatest participation in walking, cycling and jogging activities; As a result, there is a greater need for more trails throughout parks as well as establishing linear greenways or trails throughout the community.

An important part of the Comprehensive Master Plan is the "Open Space Plan" which delineates existing parks, future parks, greenways and trails and conservation areas. This illustrative plan becomes the guide for shaping the community's land use and open space system for future growth and development. Before land is permanently lost to development, park districts can acquire and/or work with developers to donate needed parkland.

With goals, objectives and standards established for development and acquisition of parks, the Plan also establishes a Capital Improvement Program (CIP). The CIP identifies and prioritizes annual improvements with costs for five to ten years. The CIP may also identify sources of revenue, such as grants, sponsorships, and donations. In the case of the Hampshire Plan, Land Design Collaborative developed several scenarios of the CIP in order to accommodate different growth trends, availability of funding, and the need for additional taxes.

Need for Special Facilities

The Comprehensive Master Plan allows the agency to evaluate the potential for new facilities due to changing recreation and demographic trends. The potential for special facilities could also be warranted for their revenue-generation, thereby supplementing operating and capital budgets.

As an example, the past ten years have seen a tremendous growth in Community Recreation Centers. These centers have ranged from 25,000 to over 200,000 square feet with a wide range of facilities, requiring substantial costs, land, and commitment by the public in the form of increased taxes. Other such special facilities include golf learning centers, skate-board parks, sports complex, swimming or aquatic centers, and nature and historic facilities. The feasibility of any of these special facilities must be carefully evaluated as part of a Comprehensive Master Plan, since their success is dependent upon their use by the public and the financial resources of the park agency.

Guide for Future

The development of a Comprehensive Master Plan by a park agency is essential in meeting the challenges of today's demand for the public's expectations for park and recreation facilities. Park agencies cannot haphazardly plan for new parks and their development of facilities to meet the recreational needs of the community. With limited financial resources, disappearing suitable land for parks, changing trends in recreation, and growth in population, park agencies must carefully plan for their future by accommodating for the needs of their constituents.