Parks and Recreation Planning for a City

By Dom Nozzi

September 9, 2003

A friend of mine asked if I could help a person with an interesting question: Are there any standards, codes, recommendations for number, location, density of parks? Specifically as it helps with creating more active community environments?

The following is what I told my friend…

Having authored a long-range recreation and parks plan for a college town in Florida about 14 years ago, I can add a few comments about this issue:

  1. A huge percentage of communities can only find the political will to allocate a tiny, token pittance to public parks and recreation — while pouring millions into parking, roads, police, and fire protection. A number of these cities prepare a parks plan that is overly ambitious, thinking that an aggressive parks plan will magically create the money and political will to pay for a decent park program without any political pain such as cutting other services or raising taxes. Such plans are better than nothing, since, on VERY rare occasions, a community might be shocked to learn that a pot of money has come from somewhere – such as a benefactor, a state or federal grant, or a drug forfeiture, etc. A plan in place — even if financially infeasible at the time — would allow such an extremely fortunate community to spend that new money wisely. Mostly though, such plans just collect dust on the shelf because no miraculous Sugar Daddy ever arrives.
  1. Another approach is to define “parks” creatively. I am a big supporter of having a park within walking distance of most homes in neighborhoods. But since communities have spent several decades forgetting about parks (and the public realm generally), there are hardly any neighborhoods that have parks within them. It is unbelievably expensive to retrofit parks into existing neighborhoods. The “creative” approach is to call schools, cemeteries, private fitness clubs, YMCAs, churches and similar facilities “parks.” After all, such places can often be used by the public for recreation. Public schools are particularly appropriate for being called public parks, for a number of reasons. The biggest problem is that public schools tend to be extremely hesitant to have school grounds be considered public parks, since that raises liability and maintenance cost issues.
  1. Perhaps the best hope are these options:

(a) Elect people who sincerely prioritize recreation (i.e., are willing to cut police and fire department budgets, raise taxes, or both.

(b) Establish level of service standards that at least require NEW subdivisions or neighborhoods to incorporate the proper amounts of parks and recreation that is then dedicated to the local government.

National standards from the National Parks and Recreation Association are not very helpful with regard to having parks and recreation facilities within walking distance of parks-161homes. They simply state the nationally-recognized standards for amount per 1,000 people (only quantity is addressed, not location). I do not believe that there are any national recreation standards for walking distance. I suspect that there are only standards at the neighborhood level that have been prepared by some new urbanist design firms, since the new urbanist design is so admirably focused on walkability.

In the end, I’ve concluded that the only real way to have a community properly prioritize recreation in a reactive democracy like ours is to somehow “create the proper crisis.” That is, attempt to convince the community that crime rates are exploding due to lack of parks. Or start calling parks something like the Detroit Police Department Park to leverage dollars from a municipal budget that is bloated already.

 

 

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