Keeping Special Interests from Hijacking Park Projects

Posted by Steve Machesney
Steve Machesney


John Courtney, Managing Director of LPA Design Studios, recently shared his thoughts around the importance of including the right kinds of resident feedback when planning large Park projects. John generously shared his process and insights from using FlashVote scientific surveys to help local governments better meet the needs of all residents, not just the noisy few.

The Challenge of Inclusive Park Planning

When Parks departments begin planning a major project, recreation center, or other large investment, getting community input is essential. Traditional outreach methods like public workshops or town halls are useful, but they tend to draw input mainly from engaged, vocal minorities in the community instead of being truly inclusive of all residents. This can result in facilities that do not adequately meet the needs of the broader population.

The challenge of the noisy few.
John Courtney from LPA Design Studios.

So how can planners and Parks departments design a feedback process that gathers input that accurately represents their whole community? This guide offers tips and best practices for inclusive community outreach based on proven methods.

What’s at stake with Park project planning.
John Courtney from LPA Design Studios.

Key Outreach Tools 

There are two classes of outreach tools that, when combined, result in comprehensive public feedback  - quantitative tools and qualitative tools.

Quantitative: Scientific Community Surveys

The first step is to conduct a scientific community survey that surfaces residents’ priorities and preferences. These representative surveys provide input from the ‘silent majority’ which often looks quite different from what you may be hearing from the ‘noisy few.’ The trick here is to avoid accidentally introducing bias into your questions and to get enough feedback to be meaningful.

How to engage under represented residents.
John Courtney from LPA Design Studios.

In this case, it’s worth employing an end-to end scientific survey service like FlashVote that conducts 100’s of custom surveys a year and will work with you to:

  1. Design a concise and unbiased survey that will provide the actionable data you need and that takes 1 or 2 minutes to answer
  2. Recruit a scientific sample of people to answer survey questions from a random sample or an unbiased reusable panel
  3. Send the survey via email, text and phone call as appropriate
  4. Collect and anonymize the responses
  5. Provide a full interactive results page with filters within 48 hours

As an added bonus, survey responses are geo-tagged so you can choose to focus on your own residents (or sub areas of town) or include border service areas for input, depending on the project. This quantitative survey data, gathered through statistically valid sampling, makes it a defensible source of data for big decisions.

Don’t let special interest hijack park projects.
John Courtney
from LPA Design Studios.

Qualitative: In-person Workshops

Broad-based scientific surveys are then complemented with in-person workshops. Scientific surveys are good for community percentages and workshops are good for ideation and local knowledge.

In-house Staff Workshop

Staff workshops, conducted early-on, provide invaluable input while building buy-in with the Parks team. These interactive sessions look to surface needs, challenges, priorities, options, and opportunities. These early discussions, set against the backdrop of budgets and other constraints, build trust and limit surprises down the road.

Stakeholder Interviews

In-depth stakeholder interviews provide indispensable first hand information straight from the community members and partners who will be impacted by and engaged with the future park project. Specifically, these interviews identify perceived needs and priorities, uncover concerns and expectations, gather diverse perspectives, build relationships and trust, and gain community/political buy-in.

The value of soliciting public feedback.
John Courtney from LPA Design Studios.

Community Workshop

Here interested members of the public can attend, learn details of the potential project, provide open-ended input, react to the survey findings, and give further suggestions. This qualitative input gathering at workshops allows planners to hear thoughts and ideas directly from invested community members to complement the survey's wide reach.

Topic-Based Focus Groups

Focus groups provide qualitative inputs from community members while providing indispensable “on-the-ground” insights that deeply shape both the overarching vision as well as critical details. Focus groups allow the team to test concepts, explore needs and ideas, uncover shared priorities, and enhance community representation.

Conducting Effective Surveys

Keep the survey concise at around 2-3 minutes max for highest response rates. Well-crafted questions should cover people's priorities, needs assessments, initial reactions to early concepts or project features under consideration, and for large investments probes into willingness-to-pay or market viability.  

Throughout your engagement process, continually present the latest survey results at public workshops and share findings online on your website as well so citizens see their collective input actively incorporated to shape the plan. As you analyze community feedback, use a matrix to compare survey responses and the workshop suggestions side-by-side, to pinpoint consistent priorities the data indicates. Then you can confidently make planning recommendations backed by inclusive public input data.

Additional Considerations

When devising your engagement plan, carefully balance information gathering while avoiding outreach fatigue by over-surveying residents. You want participation but not annoyance. Also develop realistic cost estimates for construction along with long-term operational expenses. Sharing honest projections sets proper expectations around what is achievable. When drafting RFPs to hire consulting help, include requirements such as scientific surveys, willingness-to-pay analyses, and detailed operational costs so residents are aware of the total cost of ongoing maintenance.

Residents need to know the total cost of ownership.
John Courtney from LPA Design Studios.

Using the best practices above, Parks departments can gather the input they need from their whole community for accurate, inclusive planning grounded in broad public priorities. Please reach out for guidance tailoring your specific public outreach program.

Tags: parks and recreation, master planning