Understanding Master Plans

Ordinary community parks are created according to a typical process. It’s important that skatepark advocates understand this process in order to save time, avoid mistakes, able to engage the Parks agency on professional terms, and prevent becoming impatient during particular stages.

There is incredible pressure on Parks Departments everywhere to provide more for the public with less money. When the opportunity to create a new park or—as is more often the case—refurbish a dilapidated space, the Parks Planners create what is known as a Master Plan for that plot of land. The master plan is a document, (or a collection of documents), that describes what should be in the park and how it should look when it is complete.

Because parks can take a long time to build and be very expensive, many are created in stages. Each stage may introduce a new set of features as money is available to build it. The master plan is the document that keeps that park development on track even when the it is built over the course of several stages.

Public Meetings
When the Parks Department announces that it will be developing a master plan for a new or existing park, it is a great opportunity to get the skateboarding community’s needs heard. Every master plan includes a degree of public opinion. These public meetings are used by the Parks Department to gauge public interest in different designs and park features.

These meetings are often lively—sometimes cantankerous—and should provide you with an opportunity to talk about the need for a new skatepark. If you’re fond of speeches you can prepare something but these meetings are often more casual than a Parks Board or City Council meeting. What will make the most impact at a master planning public meeting is numbers. Show up with LOTS of skateboarders, their parents, their kids, and so on. These kinds of meetings may have the attendees vote on different park attributes. If it’s just one skateboarder, the skatepark idea will probably get a few votes. If you have 25 skaters, and friends of skaters, in the room that skatepark will get a huge number of votes. This sends the Parks Department an undeniable message that this community wants a skatepark!

The series of public meetings will often span several weeks, sometimes months, as the planners and architects work with the public to present designs and concepts. For most skatepark advocates this is a fun part of the process though it can also be aggravating to see your group’s vision be whittled down through compromise and worn down by other powerful interests.

By this end of this first meeting it should be evident that a skatepark feature is a “major interest” for this park. This is also when any anti-skatepark neighbors will start looking for ways to dismantle and undermine your efforts…though it may not be at this first meeting, particularly if you’ve packed the room with “pro-skatepark” supporters. The next public meeting may be more confrontational as a neighbor set against a skatepark will have had time to raise concerns from other folks in the area. (They may even launch letter-writing campaigns to the Parks Department directly to avoid having to confront the pro-skatepark supporters face-to-face. These people are sometimes called “NIMBYs”…Not In My BackYard!…for their firm resistance to any development in “their” park that they do not understand.) As you might guess, it won’t do your skatepark project any good to get into public arguments with these people. Instead, listen politely to their concerns and address those that seem reasonable.

“I think skateboarding is great but…”
Concerns about noise, behavior, parking, and the “character of the park” are all within your domain as a local expert and you should be prepared to talk to these concerns directly and without emotion. Other ideas about skateboarders, (and skateboarding culture), may emerge that might feel like personal insults directed at you and your friends. Let these slide and take the high road.

Steering Committees
The planners and their team of architects may put together a “steering committee” to work with directly on the smaller refinements of the design. This committee will be comprised of different people from the community and the planner will try to have someone on the committee to represent each of the primary interests. Steering committees are easier to schedule and work with for specific considerations than a full-blown public meeting. If you don’t see the opportunity to be invited to participate in that committee, it would be reasonable to ask the planner and architect immediately after the meeting if a steering committee is being formed and—more importantly—if you could be on it. (Without a skatepark-friendly member, the skatepark that was so popular in the public meeting can sometimes go missing from the design the next time it’s presented.) The committee may meet once or twice between each public meeting, so if you end up on a steering committee, lucky you…lots of meetings. Remember though that your contributions will a great impact on the final skatepark, and without your presence the skatepark could easily be forgotten.

The first meeting will often introduce the parks planner and the landscape architect. They will have a large map of the park or plot of land to be developed so that people can point out certain characteristics and desires based on specific locations. They may also bring pictures of other parks that they think might be interesting to the neighbors. During their presentation they will talk about what they see there as the “important parts” of the space…things like water access, a pond or stream, old-growth trees, or even the need for athletic facilities. Eventually they will get around to asking the attendees for their suggestions. This is when you introduce the skatepark idea. (If you showed up with a bunch of friends all carrying your skateboards, they probably guessed this was coming.) The word “skatepark” will get written on the board along with the other suggestions. Later, this list may be voted on by attendees and whittled down. (Any idea, even if it’s obviously silly or impractical, will get added to the list so seeing “skatepark” written up there is no guarantee that the skatepark will happen. It’s merely the first small step in a long process.)

You may hear lots of good ideas from the other attendees. It’s important to remain polite and be open-minded about their contributions. You want to avoid creating a panic about the skatepark idea; there are so many misconceptions out there about what a skatepark is that any negative impression they get from you will be associated with the skatepark idea. So, be cool…be smart…be nice.

Refining the Plan
The planners and architects will return with concept drawings at the second public meeting. There will usually be two or three different versions, each one tailored to a different type of park. One version might be designed for fast physical activity and sports—so it might have ball fields, a swimming pool, climbing rock, skatepark, and bike paths. Another might be designed as a quieter, more passive space and have things like water features, seating, big meadows, a sculpture garden, or a community center. Another version might emphasize the natural environment and feature trails, interpretive signage, vista views, an estuary, and an educational center.

All of these concepts obviously can’t be included in one park so some tough decisions need to be made. Sometimes arguments erupt; the person dead-set on having quiet trails may not care about a place to let a dog run free, or the coach who wants to see a baseball diamond may not understand the need for a skatepark. Eventually the details get sorted out and the community decides on one of the versions with a list of changes. Again, nothing is final at this point; the goal is to establish a vision for the park space.

Wrapping It Up
The third public meeting—remember, there may have been many more steering committee meetings between the public meetings—will incorporate all of the community changes and those technical requirements that the structure of the space might mandate, such as natural drainage, vehicle access, topographical landmarks or wetlands, and so on. The drawing should look like a park ready to be built and is essentially the park’s master plan. The specific number of public meetings may vary according to the complexity of the project.

After the final concept proposal is approved by the community—generally at a meeting held for that sole purpose—the planners will establish a strategy for building the things in that plan. These are known as “capital improvements.”

When the park development strategy is drafted it is sometimes submitted to the public for approval. The skatepark may be on the master plan but there’s no guarantee that it will ever be built. The development strategy may have put the skatepark into a “phase 2” stage or even later. Some advocates call this “phase never” as it can seem like a Parks strategy for putting off projects they have little interest in creating. If the skatepark gets put into a later phase, it may be a way for the Parks Department to put pressure on the skatepark advocacy group to provide additional funds, or because their professional opinion is that skateparks are a fad, or even postponing the skatepark to appease annoying NIMBY neighbors.

Putting the Plan Into Action
When the development plan is approved, fundraising begins. The Parks Department may look to the skatepark group for a fundraising contribution or commitment that might be anywhere between $5,000 to $100,000. This is because they feel that skateparks are a special interest and that the facility cannot be used by anyone other than skateboarders, yet skateparks typically don’t generate revenue, (as ball-field rentals might). If the skatepark advocacy group agrees to a fundraising plan, the skatepark is inevitable.