A Democratic Approach to Park Planning
By Andrew White, Park Pride’s Director of Park Visioning
Parks and politics? Most people don’t see the natural connection between the two, but they are inextricably linked. Especially within the park planning process, which is something that I think a lot about in my role as the Director of Park Visioning at Park Pride.
As public spaces, parks are inherently political, each with its own hidden minefield of competing interests that come to light when working with communities to build consensus around a shared vision for their neighborhood park. However, this park planning process doesn’t have to be divisive, as much of politics are. On the contrary, when park planning fully engages the community (as we have experienced through Park Pride’s longstanding Park Visioning Program), it is not only democratic and fair, but it can actually strengthen communities.
South River Gardens community members provide feedback on park designs as part of Park Pride’s park visioning process. Their input is reviewed and incorporated into subsequent drafts as consensus is reached.
One of the tools Park Pride has developed over the years to elevate democracy in community park planning is the establishment of guiding principles at the outset to lay the groundwork for equity and a shared sense of community. These values help to ensure that the comprehensive park plan that results from the visioning process meets the needs of the community.
The idea is simple: take time at the beginning of each planning process to examine and articulate the hopes of each person in the room – their hopes for the visioning process, for the park, for the community. It is an exercise that encourages community members to share their own motivations and aspirations, while also listening to others. Through this process, participants learn that many of their hopes are, in fact, shared by others in the room. Listening is one of the most powerful things we can do to bridge divides and negotiate a constructive path forward.
Park Pride’s visioning team then ensures the community’s hopes remain important throughout the months-long park visioning process by transforming them into a set of guiding principles which become a touchstone as conflict arises.
The visioning team has worked at various scales and in different types of parks over the years, and we have developed many sets of principles that reflect the unique hopes and aspirations of the communities who steward their parks. Common trends have emerged, providing insight into cross-cutting park issues and values across the city. Two examples are included below.
Cedar Park (DeKalb County)
Community members around Cedar Park established the below guiding principles through the park visioning process in 2020. View the full park vision plan HERE.
A New Park in South River Gardens (City of Atlanta)
The South River Gardens’ community completed the park visioning process for the first park in their neighborhood in 2022. View the full park vision plan HERE.
One prevalent guiding principle that we’ve seen time and time again is the prioritization of safe pedestrian access to and through parks. Due in part to Atlanta’s burgeoning population, access to parks is a growing concern. Where parks lack welcoming and well-marked access points, adjacent sidewalks, crosswalks, bike racks, and other supportive infrastructure, communities tend to prioritize accessibility improvements over others.
Adequate park maintenance is another frequent theme. Without appropriate funding for or attention to maintenance, parks can fall into disrepair and actually discourage visits from community members. Well-maintained parks, on the other hand, are welcoming parks, and they’re what every community deserves.
In Park Pride’s opinion, a successful park is one that serves all members of the community. Achieving this status requires that all voices—all members of a community—are heard in the park planning process. In a time when conflict and misunderstandings swiftly take root, we’re proud of the work accomplished through the Park Visioning Program to advance a more democratic approach to park planning.