Great Parks Work: From parks planning to placemaking

Mary Vandevord

CEO/President of HeartLands Conservancy

Parks are among the most important places within a community. Great parks do not have to be filled with soccer and baseball fields. Many of the nation’s most incredible parks feature quiet woodland spaces, open grassy areas to stretch out or play frisbee, or well-connected walking trails.

Southwestern Illinois and the greater St. Louis region have a wide variety of parks. Ranging from sports complexes to nature preserves to sculpture parks and in-between. But what makes some parks so beloved while others flounder? The HeartLands Conservancy staff pulled together our collective knowledge, experiences, and education to highlight the things that make parks work!

Superb Park Management. It is highly noticeable when a park isn’t managed beyond just cutting the grass. Woods and nature areas in parks need stewardship and care to continue looking attractive and maintain their health for decades to come. We recommend creating management plans for parks, especially for nature areas or parks or natural area-type parks. These plans provide guidance and schedules for identifying and controlling invasive plants, like bush honeysuckle, and plan out trails, creek health, and tree care. To stay on top of this, some parks departments use conservancies to work on the management. Conservancies (like HeartLands or Forest Park Forever) can lead fundraising and volunteer efforts to manage spaces in parks that need extra attention. This adds to a park department’s capacity.

Provide programming and interactive elements. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently completed a study that found that offering structured physical activity and social interaction opportunities in parks is critical to health. Many people today need structure to engage in their community’s parks. What do we mean? Structured programming includes offering a guided walk or tour, hosting an activity (e.g., yoga, race), or having a festival. Other ways to help people interact with the public space include interactive art, play spaces, and space for games, such as chess. Water also naturally draws people to it; if people are allowed to splash in the water, more will engage in the space.  

Flexible park layout, but have a plan! We cannot stress enough how having a master plan for each park is essential to creating successful parks. However, that plan should provide a flexible park layout so many different activities can happen. Designing spaces that can accommodate diverse uses will help a park thrive. A great example is City Park in Edwardsville. The park’s open layout with lots of shade and focal points in critical places allows for many activities – art in the park, a concert, a festival, a picnic, and areas to read.

Provide amenities or activities for the different groups of people who will use the park. How do you know what amenities people need or want? Ask them! Often communities undervalue residents’ knowledge and understanding of their community parks. Community members are great partners in making fantastic parks. The people that use the park – or want to use the park – will be the best experts in what the park needs.

Synergy. Providing multiple focal points and activities in place creates synergy. The International Project for Public Spaces calls this the “Power of 10”. Parks thrive when users have a range of reasons (10 or more) to be in a place. Examples of “reasons” include places to sit, art to touch, music to hear, playgrounds to play on, people to meet or watch, food to eat, or history to experience. This synergy works best when the activities in that place reflect local culture or history.

All-Seasons. Parks that provide activities and reasons to go there in any season, including winter, are the most successful. Why should people not visit your parks in the winter? Snowy countries like Canada and Sweden have parks that accommodate winter activities, such as sledding and ice sculptures. As an example, the Village of Bethalto hosts a Christmas Village at Bethalto Park each year. People come from all over to see little villages on display, grab some hot cocoa and enjoy the wintery night. Glen Carbon sets aside a part of Miner Park for sledding.

Circulation. We’re not talking about vehicles here! People of all ages and abilities need to be able to move around your park on foot, skate, skateboard, scooter, wheelchair, or bicycle. Often we see parks that prioritize parking lots. While having a parking area is necessary for community-wide or regional parks, it should not be at the expense of the pedestrian experience. People will want to stay in your park longer when they feel safe from vehicular traffic and can easily get to the different focal points.

Natural landscaping. We would go so far as to say native and adapted/non-invasive plant landscaping is ideal. Parks are some of the best spaces for wildlife habitats, pollinators, and stormwater management. Designing a park to accommodate these elements will make it a lovely space to visit and help your community.

Food. People gather around food. Where appropriate, provide places to get and eat food and drinks. A monthly food truck event, a nearby restaurant that can provide carryout or picnic foods, or a small concession stand will add to the park’s attraction (and provide a revenue source).

Access – If it’s hard to get to the park, people won’t go. The most successful parks are on or near a transit stop, have great sidewalk or trail access, and/or are close to community attractions and neighborhoods. Connecting the park’s attractions with community attractions should be a top priority in your park’s master plan.

Parks are essential for community health and resilience. HeartLands Conservancy works with communities, counties, and districts in our area to conserve, create, and facilitate nature-rich and welcoming parks and trails. We work with communities, residents, and organizations in our region to make great parks that incorporate community-centered plans, conservation and ecology, placemaking, and programming.

Edwardsville City Park

O‘Fallon Sports Park Fountains

Fishing at Swansea Clinton Hills

Bohm Woods Nature Preserve Hike

Sophia M Sachs Butterfly House