Search form

Section 6. Improving Parks and Other Community Facilities

Learn how to improve parks and community facilities to improve quality of life.


Image of a park with trees at sunset


I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Boston, on a busy street of apartment houses. In back of that block, however, was a city park of about 15 acres, where my friends and I spent most of our time, starting at about age six or seven. It had a name, but it was never known as anything but “the Park.” There were a baseball diamond, cracked asphalt tennis and basketball courts, and skating in the winter (the city flooded the ball field), but we spent much of our time in the rest of the park, particularly in the heavily wooded area just in back of our houses.

To us, the park, in the midst of one of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, was the Wild West, the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas. It was hilly, with chunks of granite bedrock poking through here and there, all of which we named, as generations of children before us had undoubtedly done. The three-meter-high rocks became thousand-foot cliffs that we scaled in order to storm the forts on top, or to plant our mountaineers' flags. We rolled down the hills in summer, and sledded on them when there was snow.

Several blocks away was a commercial district where our parents did most of their shopping. For me, however, its main attraction was the local branch of the Boston Public Library. By the time I started school, I already had a library card, and the library was my second home.

When I was a child, in that prehistoric era before computers, a good part of my life revolved around these two community facilities. They exercised my imagination and my body – I regularly walked the half mile or so home from the library with as many books as my arms would hold – and fueled a love for the outdoors and an enthusiasm for literature and learning, both of which I’ve carried with me all my life.

This section is about the importance of parks and other community facilities in the lives of individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities. Although they are often considered frills when budgets are tight, they can be just as important as fire and police services to the quality of life in a community. We’ll discuss what characteristics make for good parks and community facilities, and how you can create or restore them in your community.


MacKenzie lives in the English Avenue neighborhood of Atlanta. Sixty percent of the homes there have been abandoned, but the youth have not given up on their community. MacKenzie has been involved in rebuilding the parks in English Avenue and in the Vine Street neighborhood. Video courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


What do we mean by improving parks and other community facilities?

Community facilities enhance the lives of residents in numerous ways. Parks provide green space and room to move for people in crowded city neighborhoods. Libraries, museums, community centers, and performance spaces open doors to knowledge and ideas, culture, and enjoyment. Medical facilities encourage and safeguard health, and public transportation offers mobility and access to other areas. Without these and other community facilities, life could be colorless and difficult, especially for those who can’t afford to travel or to pay high prices for services.

Most communities, even small rural ones, have at least one public park and some other community facilities – a library, a hospital or clinic, a small museum or historic site. Improving those facilities can mean different things for different communities. For some, the issue may be that adequate parks or facilities simply don’t exist, and need to be created. For others, existing facilities may be old, and speak only to the needs of a community that has long since changed. Still others might find themselves with community facilities that are adequate in some ways, but that have become rundown or dangerous, and need to be revitalized. A less obvious situation is one in which community facilities are in good shape and seem to be adequate, but aren’t being used.

What all these circumstances have in common is that improvement will take some resources and require some work. That, of course, raises the questions of where those resources will come from, and who will do the work. It also raises questions of how much responsibility the community as a whole will take, who will plan the building of new facilities or the restoration or renovation of existing ones, and how to make sure that whatever is created or restored actually meets the needs and desires of the community.

Improving community facilities, then, comes down to determining what the community needs and wants, and working – usually over the long term – to provide those facilities that will enhance the quality of life – socially, intellectually, culturally, economically, politically, and psychologically – for everyone.

Community facilities come in a variety of forms, of which parks are only one. In general, a community facility is a physical feature provided – either by the municipality as a public service, or by a private entity – in the community for the benefit of community members. Depending on the source, the use of the facility may be free, or may involve a charge for users.


Parks can range in size from a few hundred square feet – a bench, some flowers, and a 20 by 20 plot of grass on a busy corner – to millions of acres in the Alaskan wilderness. They can serve many purposes as well, often at the same time. They are the lungs of a city, offering green space and fresh air to people who otherwise might seldom experience anything but concrete and exhaust fumes. They can protect open land, extraordinary landscapes, and historic sites, while also functioning as open-air classrooms and laboratories for school children and others. Some common types:

  • Urban parks. Urban parks can provide formal plantings, grassy lawns, benches, playgrounds, picnic areas, and/or sports fields (as in Central Park in New York or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco) or an experience of the landscape much as it was before the city existed (as in Forest Park in Portland, Oregon). Parks in large cities often have other community facilities located within them or on their margins: Forest Park in St. Louis, for instance, is home to a zoo; the city’s art, science, and history museums; a public golf course; and a theater, among other attractions. They can vary in size from pocket parks tucked into courtyards or the angles of buildings to the 4,100 connected acres of the main property of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.
  • Small-town parks. Many small towns include a central park area – often, in the Northeast, the former town common – with benches, perhaps a bandstand, and a flagpole: a simple open space for town celebrations and gatherings that may include athletic fields as well.
  • County or regional parks. Depending on the setting, these may be similar to urban parks, or may be more like state parks (see below) with outdoor activities and miles of roadless land. They may contain particular attractions – a view, a beach, a gorge – or simply feature a pleasant landscape with little or no recent human intervention.
  • State parks. Most state parks highlight the natural environment. They may stress nature in and of itself – as a wilderness area, for instance, or because of an outstanding feature, such as a waterfall – or for its recreational value, with the emphasis on a beach, cross-country ski trail, or campground. Some are historical parks as well.

Historical parks exist to commemorate or dramatize a historic event, place, person, or period. Sites of historical parks may be urban or rural; may be tied to specific historic events (battlefields, for example) or figures (buildings where historic figures were born, lived, or worked); may be meant to demonstrate and illustrate the history of a particular place or time (parks in New England mill towns dedicated to industrial history); may take advantage of the aesthetic, architectural, and educational value of a well-preserved or restored historic building; or may feature buildings or other sites that are historic in themselves simply because of their age and quality, and the history they’ve seen. These parks may also be dedicated to the history or heritage of a particular group – Italian immigrants, Native Americans – that occupied the community in the past or live there today. Historical parks may be local, state or national, or may be administered by private non-profit organizations, foundations, or trusts, depending upon who owns and has developed the historic site.

  • National parks and national monuments. National parks are usually large – in the thousands, or even millions of acres – and exist to protect natural areas of significance from development, and to preserve them permanently as wilderness and/or for the enjoyment of the public. National monuments are generally (but not always) smaller than national parks and may serve the same purpose, or they may protect historic or cultural sites.

It may seem that national or state parks don’t belong in a section about community facilities. In fact, these parks may be community facilities for those who live near or in them, or the facility itself creates a community all its own (many large national or state parks include towns on or within their borders.) Acadia National Park in Maine, for example, has an active “Friends of Acadia” group that provides volunteers to perform various tasks within the park (from maintaining trails to guiding nature walks), and raises money to supplement the public park budget. National and state parks, notoriously underfunded, are often more at risk in some ways than local parks. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance, is within a day’s drive of 60% of the population of the United States, and overuse (it hosts nine million visitors a year) is a serious threat to its ecology.

  • Other community facilities. While most parks are publicly funded, other facilities may not be. Some, such as hospitals, might be owned either publicly or privately. Others are almost always public, or almost always private.

In the case of private – or even some public – facilities, it can be difficult to decide when cost prevents something from being considered a community facility. The term “community facility” implies a community asset that’s available to all, or most, residents. When the cost of using such an asset makes it unavailable to a large portion of the population, is it still a community facility?

The Public Theater in New York offers free productions in Central Park in the summer, with tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s available to anyone, regardless of income, who’s willing to wait in line at the appropriate time. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the American Repertory Theater’s (ART) least expensive tickets are nearly $40.00, putting them out of reach for most low-income residents (and many middle-income residents as well). The Public Theater is clearly a community facility: should the ART be considered one as well?

For the purposes of this section, we’ll consider community facilities those that provide services at no or low cost, so that they can be used by virtually everyone in the community.

Some examples of community facilities may include:

  • Libraries - in addition to public libraries, many college and university libraries are open for public use (although usually not for borrowing privileges)
  • Community centers - these may be publicly funded, or supported by a private organization, such as the YMCA
  • Theaters, both stage and cinema
  • Museums
  • Auditoriums and concert venues
  • Hospitals and other health providers, both public and private
  • Educational facilities (schools, colleges, etc.)
  • Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious entities
  • Local, state, and federal government offices meant to serve the public
  • Public and other sports and recreation facilities - these might include both facilities for the use of the general public – ball fields, basketball and tennis courts, etc. – and stadiums for the staging of school and professional contests that the public can watch
  • Walking and biking trails. Your community may already have biking or walking trails by public parks. If not, there are organizations like Rails to Trails, which focuses on creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines in order to build healthier community spaces for people to enjoy.
  • Recycling facilities
  • Community gardens
  • Community art centers
  • Child care facilities
  • Playgrounds
  • Fountains and city squares
  • Public lakes, swimming pools, canals, rivers, and waterfalls
  • Boardwalks, beaches, boat houses, and other waterfront attractions
  • Transportation - considerations here might cover the extent of service, both in area (Are all parts of the community served?) and in time (Do subways run all night? Are there frequent buses?); the quality of service (comfort, cleanliness, courtesy, on-time percentage); safety and security of vehicles, stations, and waiting areas; cost; accessibility; and ease of use.

Why improve parks and other community facilities?

  • Good facilities contribute to the general quality of life in the community. A community with good parks and other facilities is a pleasant and sociable place to live, with a lively outdoor and cultural life. Residents spend more time in the community, and therefore are more familiar with one another, and contribute to a sense of community.
  • Good facilities provide exposure to and opportunities for a wide variety of intellectual, cultural, and physical activities. For many citizens, affordable and accessible community facilities have been their introduction to art, a variety of musical styles, the world of books, organized sports, hiking, skating, and any number of other pursuits. People of low income, particularly youth, may have little other chance for these experiences.
  • Good facilities can instill a sense of ownership and community pride in residents. A neighborhood or community rich in opportunities that community facilities can provide is a good place to live, and it engenders pride of place in residents. As a result, they may be more likely to pay attention to the maintenance of the community – keeping it clean and free of vandalism, supporting community events, and generally helping to create a vibrant and satisfying living environment.
  • Good facilities can provide services that help everyone. Public transportation, for instance, can ease the stress of commuting, eliminate air pollution, reduce traffic, and conserve energy. Libraries and museums can enhance the intellectual life of community residents, and expose them to many points of view and ways of looking at the world.
  • Good facilities can help prevent crime and other antisocial behavior. Community facilities can present children and youth, for instance, with places to go and activities to participate in – sports, arts programs, learning and enrichment, etc. – that act as healthy alternatives.
  • Good facilities can increase the level of fairness and equity in a community. When all residents have access to facilities that make life better and more pleasant, regardless of their socio-economic status, communities take a step toward greater equity.
  • Good facilities can help to attract new residents. People are more likely to move to communities with well-kept parks, lively cultural institutions, good schools, and efficient public transportation.
  • Good facilities can improve the economic climate and prospects of the community, by attracting business and tourism. Businesses want to locate in communities with good facilities for the same reasons that individuals do. It helps them attract and keep the best employees, and also tells them something about the management and self-respect of the community. More business means more and better jobs, a higher tax base, and a healthier local economy.
  • Good facilities can make the community more attractive physically. Well-designed parks and buildings, and well-restored historic sites, especially when they’re part of a comprehensive community plan, can add greatly to the pleasant atmosphere of a community.
  • Good facilities can provide gathering places that improve the social character of community life. Parks, plazas, the courtyards or steps of public buildings, even well-designed bus stations, can serve to increase residents’ interaction with one another and create a greater sense of community that reaches across community sectors.

When should you try to improve parks and other community facilities?

Although any time is a good time to work toward creating or improving community facilities, there are some times when it’s either particularly necessary or more likely to be successful.

  • When there is a community need and facilities are simply lacking. A low-income rural community may desperately need safe recreational options for its youth, for instance. Or, it may be important to turn a much-loved piece of open land into a park in order to preserve it from encroaching development. Before starting a project, it’s important to be sure you fully understand the community needs and resources.
  • When facilities are in bad shape or inadequate. The central park, once the pride of the community, has become dilapidated and a haven for drug dealers. The public library is simply not large or well-stocked enough for the current size of the community. These are circumstances that point to a major effort to bring the facility back to the level that the community deserves.
  • When there’s a community development initiative under way. Improvement of community facilities can be built into the development plan. The community can designate a certain percentage of land as a public space or park, for instance, or seek funding to build or add on to a museum or regional theater. It might restore a historic site as a tourist draw. A community plan might include expanded and more energy-efficient public transportation. The possibilities here are limited only by the community’s needs and imagination.
  • When there’s money available – from grants or private sources – that can be used. Grants and other funding often become available as a result of a change in the political climate or a change in the thinking of an individual or foundation. It’s important for communities to keep their eyes open, and to be ready to apply for funds that will allow them to create, upgrade, or maintain facilities.
  • When the community, or at least a group of residents, is ready to take on the task. Sometimes – all too often – the community as a whole, in the person of its officials, may not be ready or willing – or financially able – to take on the task of improving facilities. Grassroots groups may form to take a neighborhood park or derelict building into their own hands, using volunteers and whatever funds they can raise to bring it back to life. The example for Section 8 of this chapter describes how a community group completely revitalized Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto, turning a seldom-used and badly maintained facility into the neighborhood’s living room.
  • When there’s a possibility of acquiring a piece of land or a building for community use. The dilapidated Art Deco office building that could be restored and used as distinctive town offices; the closed-down industrial site that could be reborn as an art museum and riverfront park; the last undeveloped pond in town – all of these and many other similar properties could be revitalized to serve the community. They might be available through the efforts of a community land trust, or might be sold to the municipality or to a non-profit when they seem to no longer be of use. By using historic preservation or land conservation funds, tax incentives, volunteers, and donated labor and materials, the municipality or grassroots groups can often turn them into community assets.
  • When a major development is in the planning or early execution stage. A developer can be offered incentives – tax breaks, permit exceptions, etc. – to set aside a portion of land for a park, or to include particular community facilities – a theater, transportation, a bike path – in the finished development.
  • When there’s a possibility of historic preservation. Historic buildings often fall into disrepair – they’re old, after all – and may be abandoned or ceded to the community for taxes. Yet these buildings are in some ways the heart and soul of the community, embodying its history and its heritage. By getting them listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it’s possible to take advantage of federal tax incentives to preserve them and turn them to community use. Many are rehabilitated as affordable housing, but they can function as libraries, concert halls, museums, transportation hubs, or other public facilities as well, depending upon their location and other characteristics.

Who should be involved in improving parks and other community facilities?

As we’ll discuss in the “how-to” part of this section, the best results for improving community facilities generally come from collaborative efforts that involve people from all sectors of the community. Some of the stakeholders who might be involved:

  • Potential users of the facility. Community residents who will use the facility in question are of primary importance in planning and working on it. They can tell you what they need and want; it’s their sense of ownership that will support the facility over the long term.
  • Community leaders. People who are respected, whose opinions others rely on, are important to get on board. Whether they hold a formal position in the community, or are simply trusted, their support will convince many others to join or support the effort as well.
  • Public officials. In many circumstances, the work of building or restoring a facility is likely to be done by the municipality. Public officials, who’ll approve and oversee it, have to be involved from the beginning – ideally with the understanding that the planning and implementation process is a partnership among stakeholders.

Even if this is a grassroots initiative, and if most of the work will be done by volunteers, or by contractors who are paid through fundraising efforts, it still makes sense to get public officials on board. They can help obtain permissions and clear red tape, generate support for the effort at the municipal level, and take a leadership role in finding resources and recruiting volunteers from various sectors of the community. Depending upon their offices and their clout, they may also be able to free up public money for the effort, or at least to raise the question of public funding for the future.

  • Architects, designers, engineers, developers, and planners. The people who will actually do the work of designing and building or restoring the facility are crucial to the process. Not only can they supply the creative energy and know-how to help the community decide what the facility should be like, but their buy-in will ensure good workmanship and a facility that will last for many years.
  • Community based organizations. These groups may have a direct stake in a new or rehabilitated facility – they might occupy part of the space, for instance – or might simply represent the interests of a group that finds it difficult to speak for itself, such as the homeless or a language minority.
  • Community foundations. These foundations collect and invest money from the community to put back into the community. They often administer several smaller family or corporate foundations, as well as raise money from the general public. They usually have a good deal of flexibility in what they fund, and their grants, as a result, are often available for such efforts as improving facilities in various ways.
  • Community activists. In addition to being residents themselves, community activists may have helped to organize the effort in the first place, may know a great deal about the issue and the facilities in question, and probably also know whom to approach and where to apply political pressure in order to get things done.

How do you improve parks and other community facilities?

Improving parks and other facilities often takes a community effort. In some cases, as we’ve discussed, it may take volunteers and/or donated labor and materials. In others, it may take an initiative that presses the community, or even the state, government to make changes. Often, it takes both, and a good deal of other work besides – assessing, planning, organizing – to get the creation or renovation of a facility off the ground, and then more work to ensure that it’s maintained and managed well over the long term.

We’ll present here a series of logical steps that you can take – as an activist, an official, or simply as a concerned group or individual – to try to improve facilities in your community. These steps assume that you have a certain amount of time to get an effort together, and to do a thorough job on each step. In reality, there’s never enough time, and improving facilities is often a race to fix something before it falls apart altogether, to respond to a disaster that’s already happened, or to take advantage of a funding opportunity. If you’re in one of those situations, take what you need from this part of the section, and use it in whatever way makes the most sense for you. If you have the chance to take your time, however, following these steps can help you get what you need and build a foundation for continuing efforts.

Assess community assets and needs

You may already know what you need: the 80-year-old library is too small and poorly equipped; the neighborhood park is terrifying after dark, filled with the litter of drug paraphernalia, so that no residents want their kids playing there. Even if that’s the case, you still need to decide what the alternatives are. What kind of library do you need, and what already exists in the community that can help you get it? After you clean up the park, how can you keep drug dealers out...and out of the neighborhood? A community assessment can help to answer those questions, as well as to identify other areas of strength and concern, and help you construct a long-term plan for improving facilities.

The ideal assessment here would be a participatory one that involves the community in a number of ways, both as assessors – interviewers, observers, etc. – and as information sources and guides. If they’re involved from the beginning, not only will community members have an obvious stake in the outcome of the project, but they’ll feel ownership of it and work hard to maintain it once it’s finished.

Identify and analyze the parks and other community facilities that exist in the community.

  • Where are they? Are they easily reachable by everyone they’re meant to serve? Are some areas of the community oversupplied and others under supplied? (If so, can anything be done about that? If a neighborhood has very little park space, for instance, are there areas that could be turned into parks, or is the whole area built up so that park space simply isn’t available?)
  • How big are they? Are they adequate to serve all the people that want or need to use them? Will they continue to be large enough for use according to future projections?
  • What kind of shape are they in? Are they well-maintained? Are there parks and facilities that need more than improved maintenance – restoration, or a complete redesign and makeover? What would they need to become useful?
  • What opportunities and services do they provide? Are they well-designed for their intended uses?
  • Who uses them, and in what ways? Are there adequate or good facilities that are underused? Why? How can that be remedied?
  • Are there particular groups that are underserved? If some areas or populations are underserved, what can be done about it?

Are parks in upscale neighborhoods maintained better than those in low-income neighborhoods, for example? If so, why? Is it because those neighborhoods produce community volunteers who put in long hours to keep their parks clean and beautiful, or because the municipality puts more time and money into maintenance in some neighborhoods than it does in others? Each of these possibilities has reasonable, but different, solutions. (In the first case. recruit and organize neighborhood volunteers in low-income neighborhoods, perhaps starting by finding a grant to pay youths to work in the parks; in the second case, advocate with municipal officials for equal park maintenance, and be prepared to organize residents and use the media and direct action to point out discriminatory policies if officials are unresponsive.

  • Are some facilities unsafe?

To feel secure when using facilities, people have to feel safe from accidental injury and safe from attack or harassment by others. Preventing injury means clearing usage areas of harmful plants (poison ivy, nettles), fixing cracked sidewalks, avoiding “sick building” syndrome (which can be caused by a combination of volatile chemicals or mold and inadequate ventilation), providing adequate fire prevention and warning equipment, blocking small children’s unsupervised access to water features, etc. Ensuring personal security might involve increasing usage and traffic flow, eliminating drug dealing, installing more and better lighting, increasing security patrols, and other tactics designed to change the character of the area.

  • What, if anything – positive or negative – is unusual about the community facilities?
  • What kinds of support are provided by the community or by other sources for the establishment and maintenance of parks and other facilities? Is there money available for both capital projects – new buildings, walkways, plantings, etc. – and their upkeep over the long term? Are there volunteers to supply labor for work on the facility if there isn’t adequate funding for a staff (or enough staff)? Is there a commitment from community officials, citizens, or someone else to maintain parks and facilities in good condition? Is anyone paying attention?

Assemble a participatory team to plan for creating, restoring, or upgrading the parks and other facilities

This might be a “Friends of...” or other grassroots group, a public initiative coordinated by the municipality’s planner or Parks Dept., a community-wide citizen initiative funded by grants, a citizen-action coalition, or some other type of effort, depending on who feels the need to organize it and whether there is resistance from the municipality or anyone else.

Whatever its origin, a participatory process is most likely to help it be successful. All the stakeholders – those named above and any others who might be important in your community or in light of a particular project – should be included or represented, and the planning process should be a collaborative one, where everyone has a voice, and is listened to.

Actual users are tremendously important, and a cross-section of them is the ideal. If a park is going to be used by youth, seniors, and families, then of all three should be represented in the planning, so that the park will speak to all of their needs, as well as integrating them where feasible. Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto does this by placing flower beds and chess tables next to basketball courts, pulling basketball-playing teens into playing chess and tending plantings with seniors and young parents.

Municipal or other officials also represent an important element in the planning group. Their support can help obtain public funding and support. They may also be able to provide or help bring in funds for professional designers and planners who can translate the group’s plans into physical reality.

Many parks and facilities – from national parks to local libraries and museums – have “Friends of...” groups, most of which form spontaneously to preserve and support what they see as a valuable local resource or treasure. They might fundraise, supply volunteers, coordinate maintenance and other volunteer efforts, advocate, advise the facility, or all of the above. Some gain a 501(c)(3) structure so that they can solicit tax-deductible donations. They’re often spearheaded by an individual or a small group who loves the facility, and has the drive and skills to mobilize others behind a vision for it.

Some keys in putting together such a group are:

  • Inclusivity. Try to reach out to as many different sectors of the community and groups of people as possible, both because that will broaden your support, and because the more constituencies are represented, the more likely your efforts are to both meet the community’s needs, and be effective.
  • Structure. Even though the group may be small at first, it needs a structure within which to operate, so there is a mechanism for decision-making (although it may be shared), clear oversight to make sure things get done, coordination for volunteer and other activities, a system for communicating, etc.
  • Planning. Use your group to create a strategic plan to identify and accomplish your goals. “We have to do something about getting a community center in this neighborhood” isn’t a plan. You have to know what the community needs and how to go about getting it.
  • Community support. If you can enlist the media early on, it can make the job of gaining public support easier. It’s also important to try to recruit opinion leaders, whose presence will attract others.

Determine what is needed to meet the needs of the community, and plan a top-notch facility around that need

The planning team uses the results of the assessment to design a facility that speaks to them. But a facility’s existence or renovation doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. It has to be appropriate for its users, its site, and its community, as well as being well-designed, well-managed, well-maintained, and well-funded.

Many communities and organizations have formulated criteria for good parks and facilities. (A good example is the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), a British government advisory group).

A set of standards for the development of good community facilities might include:

  • Facilities should meet the needs of the community. Assessment and evaluation should be based not just on numbers (how many park acres or hospital beds per 10,000 residents, for instance), but on how well served a neighborhood or community is, and whether its needs are addressed. Will the facility do what residents hope it will? Can it be used in the ways they want to use it? Is it accessible to all? Is it in the best place for its purpose?
  • Facilities should involve the community in all aspects of their planning and development. Perhaps the best way to ensure that a facility meets community needs is to involve the community in planning and designing it, whether it’s being developed from scratch or renovated or restored. A participatory process in which all stakeholders have a real voice is the best assurance that the community’s needs will be identified and met, and that the community will feel ownership of the finished product and take care of it.
  • Facilities should take advantage of the assets and culture of the community. Any community facility should represent the community. A community center in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, for instance, should highlight the cultures of the countries of origin of its users in the programs it offers and the design of the building itself. Facilities might emphasize the historic character of their buildings; parks might act as agents for the conservation and preservation of unique landscapes.

 Forest Park in Portland, Oregon uses and connects the city to its natural environment, as well as reflecting Portland’s environmental concerns and outdoor lifestyle (elements that led to the protection of the park’s 5,000 acres in the first place.) 

  • Facilities should be designed to be as beautiful, exciting, and functional as they can be, rather than merely adequate, regardless of the resources available. Good design doesn’t necessarily mean expense – it means the best design possible for the use of the facility, given the resources at hand. That takes creativity and an understanding of the community and its needs and desires, as well as a commitment to making sure that every part of the community has facilities that are absolutely first class.
  • Facilities should be accessible and welcoming. Parks, spaces, and buildings should be accessible in all senses – easy to reach, physically accessible, welcoming – to all who want or need to use them. That means that entrances are obvious and look inviting, and that they’re easily reached from the street. Spaces and buildings are accessible for people with disabilities, and have signs in the languages that the facility’s users speak. Where there are historic markers or murals, they should refer to the cultures of the facility’s users as well as others, so that all feel that the place is theirs. Whenever possible, use of the facility should be free, or of low enough cost not to exclude anyone.
  • Facilities should be healthy and safe. They should not be built with hazardous materials or volatile organic chemicals (VOC’s – often found in glues, paints and other similar materials) that could cause health problems. Previously polluted sites should be cleaned up or permanently capped so that they pose no health risks. Playground equipment, water features, and similar elements should be constructed to minimize the risk of serious injury. Consideration should also be given to how to prevent behavior that will threaten the facility’s users, either because of its recklessness – teenagers playing tackle football among picnicking families – or because of its potential or actual violence – drug dealing or gang activity. Resident or police patrols, increased lighting and surveillance, programming that assures a high volume of use and traffic, and recruitment of potential troublemakers as planners and stewards are some of the ways to address this issue.

In Philadelphia, where taggers – teens writing their names in graffiti – were defacing walls, subway cars, and fences throughout the city, Mayor Wilson Goode started the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network in 1984. Soon after, Jane Golden, an artist hired to help staff the program, began teaching local youth, most of them taggers, about mural art. Ultimately, through the Mural Art Program (MAP) that she founded, she has involved thousands of taggers and other children, youth, and adults, in painting hundreds of neighborhood murals on walls around the city. Mural artists sign a pledge not to create graffiti, but, more important, they – and the community – value and protect their work. One project, a 300-foot-long “healing” mural on a railroad retaining wall at the junction of three neighborhoods with different ethnic makeups, attracted painters of all ages and backgrounds. The act of working together creating the mural helped heal racial and ethnic discord among the participants, and to ease them among the neighborhoods, and resulted in a football-field-sized statement of shared humanity painted on a railroad wall.

  • Facilities should be clean and well maintained. This makes them attractive and thereby encourages use. But it also encourages use by showing that the facility gets attention, and is therefore more likely to be safe and healthy, and to serve its purpose. Regular cleaning and maintenance also picks up real and potential problems, keeps the facility in good shape, and encourages users to take care of it.
  • Facilities should be marketed to potential users. Marketing is important here; if a facility wants to attract people, people have to know it exists and what it offers.
  • Facilities should be as flexible as possible. The community’s needs and desires may change over time, and new ideas for a facility’s use may also arise tomorrow. Facilities should be designed to incorporate different kinds of spaces and activities –community gatherings, small meetings, folk dancing, lectures and classes, walking, picnicking, sports, etc. The more possibilities a park or facility can offer, the more it’s likely to be used and supported by a diverse group of community members.
  • Facilities should seek to benefit the community in as many ways as possible. A community theater can do more than presenting performances by offering acting workshops to neighborhood youth (or all residents), presenting programs in schools, etc. Many community facilities provide educational and enrichment programs to the community in addition to their “regular” functions. Even facilities with few resources can usually extend job-shadowing or volunteer opportunities. It’s a two-way street: the more the facility can offer, the more committed the community will be to it and the better its chances of long-term sustainability.
  • Facilities should have a mechanism for regular monitoring and evaluation, and a mechanism to act on their results. Conditions, populations, and communities change, as do the society’s and experts’ ideas about what works best and what is important. Some procedures, financial schemes, and programs work...others don’t. Serious and honest monitoring and evaluation allow a facility to identify and build on its strengths, pick up on and correct its mistakes and weaknesses, and try out new ideas.
  • Facilities should be sustainable over time. Sustainability here can refer to a number of different aspects of a facility. It should be environmentally sustainable – for example, it should use energy and resources efficiently, not require an unreasonable amount of maintenance, and preserve open space where appropriate. It should be able to sustain the use it’s expected to get without damage – playground equipment, for instance, should be tough enough to stand up to years of rough play and abuse. It should be sustainable through the inevitable changes in needs and social norms that come with time – a building or park designed in 2000 should be adaptable enough to still be useful in 2050. And it should be financially sustainable, with money available for maintenance and other ongoing expenses.
  • Facilities should be well managed. Facilities, whether they run on volunteer efforts or with a professional staff, take management to make sure that regular and appropriate maintenance is carried out, that bills are paid, that budgets are developed and followed, and that whatever else has to be done is accomplished well and on time. Someone has to be in charge of keeping an eye on the overall operation and making sure these and other details are attended to.

The question of financial sustainability and fiscal management can raise difficulties. Often, the community will rally around getting a facility built or restored, by helping to raise funds, providing volunteer labor, and advocating with officials and others. But once the initial job is done, people may drift away, not realizing that getting the project built is only the beginning. It takes money and effort to maintain it as well, even if most of the work is done by volunteers (and keeping a volunteer effort going over decades is challenging.)

A responsible fiscal plan for a facility, whether new or revamped, has two parts. The first is for raising the funds to do the initial job – planning, designing, and building or restoring the facility. This may involve applying for grants, seeking donations from businesses and individuals, staging fundraising events, and making general appeals, and it can take time – two to five years isn’t unusual, and many efforts take longer.

The second part of the plan is a strategy for generating regular income over the life of the facility that will cover staffing, maintenance and upkeep, emergency repairs, and whatever updating might be called for – expansion, replacement of worn-out equipment or furnishings, design changes to reflect changes in the neighborhood. It’s often harder to carry out the second part than the first, both because it involves a longer period of time, and also because it’s not as exciting as building or rebuilding something, and doesn’t offer a clear accomplishment or a clear end-point.

There are a number of possible sources of regular income:

Most facilities that manage to survive financially over the long term use some combination of these sources (and may also find others), as well as taking advantage of volunteers and in-kind donations. The point here is that long-term financial sustainability takes energy, planning, creativity, and flexibility, and should be part of any strategy for improving community facilities.

Assess and work to obtain the resources available to you

Assessing resources is actually part of the planning process. Your plan should be for the best facility you can create with the resources you expect to be able to raise.

Assessing resources has to take into account sustainability as well as building or renovation costs. If you can get the funding and other resources to build a gorgeous facility that you then are unable to maintain, you could have a well-designed, expensive ruin on your hands. It’s far better to plan something more modest that serves the community’s needs, and that you know you can maintain in good condition over the long term.
Developing a plan for a facility is one thing; carrying it out is another. You’ll have to find the resources to bring your plan to life, or the new or renovated facility will never be more than a drawing or a computer file. Although the term “resources” refers to more than money, funding will almost undoubtedly be important, especially if the issue is the building of a new facility

It’s important to think about how much money you need, how much a given fund-raiser can be expected to produce, and how much work it will take (e.g., bake sales and tag sales can be fun to organize and run, but they often take a lot of work and generate relatively little money).

Another valuable resource – perhaps more valuable even than money – is people. In the case of a public facility, we may be talking about staff (who may be paid by the community, or by a private organization that operates the facility); public employees (such as Parks Department workers); or community volunteers, who may either add to what staff and public employees do, or actually do those jobs in situations where there isn’t money to pay personnel.

A third resource includes materials and equipment – maintenance, office, and educational or program supplies; seeds, plants, and planting supplies; building materials; tools of all kinds; machinery needed for specific jobs; furniture; etc. Some of these may already be available – elsewhere in the city park system, for example, or in another municipal department – or may be in a municipal budget. Others might be obtained from in-kind donations from business and industry or private citizens, or on loan (particularly in the case of heavy machinery and similar items that are only needed for one-time or occasional use) from another municipality or from a business.

Where possible – in seeking major contributions, for example – the best approach is personal. A large donor is more likely to respond to an appeal from someone he knows and likes than to one from a stranger or from a form letter. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for fundraising letters or phone calls: they’re both valuable tools. But you’ll get the best results with a personal approach.

You’ve probably already started gathering resources by assembling a planning group. Another appeal you might make early on, if you don’t have access to the expertise or time needed for the task – is for someone to write grant proposals and/or fundraising materials. You may also be asking people to contribute physical labor (maintaining a park, building a pavilion, shelving books in the library), expertise (meeting facilitation, landscape design), products (brochures, artwork), materials (old office furniture, plants, fabric for theater costumes), or their services in approaching others for donations of time, money or materials.

Don’t forget to contact businesses and industries in the community: they’re community members, too. They’re often more than willing to help, both for the good will it generates, and because their owners and employees will be able to use the facility.

If few resources are available, start on what you can do with what you have

Perhaps the community can’t afford that half-million dollar price tag to make over the park, but a group of volunteers can certainly clean it up. They, or another group, might also be able to collaborate with the police and other municipal officials on strategies to prevent or eliminate dangerous behavior through neighborhood patrols, regularly scheduled “park-ins,” frequent activities that draw large numbers of people to the park, donations of lighting equipment and installation, etc. A group of dedicated volunteers might even take over regular park maintenance.

In a similar vein, a number of small donations could provide the means to buy computers for the library, and the local high school or college might be willing to give students community service credit to provide technical assistance and troubleshooting for them to users and the library staff. Volunteers, small donations, and the use of town land could create a community garden. Stage sets for a community theater are often built by volunteers with donated materials. Projects that start out in this way – with few resources except dedicated volunteers and a small amount of money – can sometimes result in major facilities being created over the long term. Start where you are, and who knows where you’ll go.

Collaborate with other groups and organizations

Partner with other neighborhood groups, churches, community agencies, interest groups, schools, etc. to find ways to use and maintain facilities, to get the word out, to keep a finger on the pulse of community needs, to gain volunteers, and to engage in advocacy.

Enlist the media

Work with the media and on the Internet to publicize your efforts, to drum up support, and to solicit information, donations, and volunteers.


One of the most effective things you can do to improve parks and other facilities in your community is to advocate with decision makers and the public. That means getting to know your city councilors, the mayor or town manager, your state representative and state senator, perhaps even your Congressman, and/or their aides. It isn’t hard to make contact with most of these people if you’re a registered voter in their district, or if you represent others who are. They’re the ones who have some say in controlling funding and civic projects, and can be tremendously helpful in getting facilities into public consciousness and making sure they’re funded. But they have to be convinced, and that’s where you come in.

If you’re a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, there are rules about what you can and can’t do in the way of lobbying and advocacy. You can’t, on the organization’s time, work to elect a specific candidate, for instance, nor can the organization endorse a specific candidate. Advocacy is allowed, but make sure you know what the limitations are, or you could lose your tax-exempt status.

You may be advocating simply for recognition, for support, or for actual funding. If officials are unresponsive, you may have to advocate with the public to put pressure on them. (Here’s where establishing a relationship with the media comes in handy.) One way or another, they’re the people who have to be swayed if you want any substantive backing from the community in the form of money, public policy, the help of municipal workers, the use of municipal property, etc.

Advocacy can be as low-key as meeting occasionally with your city councilor for breakfast to discuss an initiative to clean up the neighborhood park, or as dramatic as confronting the mayor on the steps of City Hall with hundreds of citizens demanding a branch library. You should usually start with the most collaborative, least confrontational form possible. An advocate’s work is never ongoing, because parks and other facilities, even after they’re established, need support and maintenance if they’re to continue to benefit the community.

Keep at it

And that’s the last word for improving parks and other community facilities as well. Whether it’s a matter of maintaining and extending the progress you’ve made, of realizing and trying to fill the need for other community facilities, or trying out new ideas and programs, your work is never done. If you want the community to continue to receive the benefit of the parks and other facilities you’ve helped to create, you – or someone – must be there for the long term.

In Summary

Parks and other community facilities are important to the life and well-being of communities. These services bring residents together and actually help create the sense of community that defines a place. For that reason, among others, most municipalities fund at least some of these community facilities, but adequate funding for all of them is seldom available. As a result, it sometimes falls to citizens to take the lead in protecting, restoring, or creating needed facilities.

When you’re in that situation, one of the most important aspects of the process to consider is the necessity of involving all stakeholders in the assessment, planning, and design of the facility. That involvement will help ensure that the end result will truly meet the community’s needs. When it’s appropriate, collaborating with other groups and individuals in the process and soliciting help from the media can make the task go more smoothly. And advocacy, with both policymakers and the public should go on not only before and during the process that leads to a facility being restored or created, but throughout its life. Taken together, the actions will lead to community improvement for the benefit of all.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

The City Project believes that all people should have access to healthy, livable communities. Their multicultural, Latino-led team works with diverse allies to ensure equal access to (1) healthy green land use through planning by and for the community; (2) climate justice; (3) physical education and schools of hope as centers of their communities; (4) health equity and wellness; and (5) economic vitality for all, including jobs and avoiding displacement as communities become greener and more desirable.

From 1999 to 2011, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) gave independent advice to help people create better buildings and spaces.

The copyright of Public Space discusses the copyrighting of Millennium Park in Chicago.

The Curb-Cut Effect by Angela Glover Blackwell. Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.

The Fairmount Park Restoration in Philadelphia was a five-year special initiative was initially funded by a $26 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, characterized by a spokesperson for the Park Commission as the largest single gift granted by a private foundation to a public park or recreation agency in the country.

The mission of The Forest Park Conservancy is to protect and foster the ecological health of Forest Park, maintain and enhance the park's extensive trail network, and inspire community appreciation and future stewardship of the splendor of this iconic urban wilderness as a gift for generations.

Frost-Kumpf: Reclamation Art is a series of pictures of reclamation art – “artworks that have been proposed or constructed by contemporary artists as a means to reclaim landscapes that have been damaged by human activities.”

Build Healthy Places Network's article Green Spaces Can Encourage Social Connectedness in Cities discusses the social benefits of urban green spaces.

Hey! I’m Walking Here! How New York (and Other Big Cities) Should Solve the Traffic Problem,” an article by Carolyn Curiel, NYTimes, Sept. 13, 2006 that discusses how transportation alternatives and how to solve the problem of traffic in cities.

Inclusion in the Outdoors - Working to make outdoor spaces more welcoming for all in the Fox Valley (Wisconsin).

The Intersect of Community Development & Mental Health is a handout from the Build Healthy Places Network and NeighborWorks America that highlights common aims and evidence base, and what works for health and community development.

Los Angeles River Revitalization highlights the development of the L.A. River and the amenities it offers, making it a vital public resource that has revitalized the area. offers a series of reports on Green Access and Equity for Southern California.

Nurturing Healthy Neighborhoods: Communities Affect Health is a resource from the National Institutes of Health about how the environment around us influences our health.

NYC in 2016: High Line is a NY Magazine article on the High Line park development, and how it could revitalize neighborhoods along it.

Privately Owned Public Space discusses public spaces created as a result of the NYC Incentive Zoning Program, granting density bonuses for the creation of public space within or outside of private buildings.

Project for Public Spaces works with communities to transform underperforming spaces into great parks.

Rails to Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., whose mission it is to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.

In the video Rigoberta Menchu on Children's Health, Happiness, and Play, the Nobel Peace Laureate, a Mayan woman from Guatemala, calls on public officials to create parks and open space for children's health and happiness, speaking at the Tournament of Peace and Hope by Anahuak Youth Association and The City Project.

Urban Parks from The City Project is a valuable resource featuring many examples.

Which Direction for Our Parks?” is an essay by Kathy Madden and Benjamin Fried that explores how to create parks that people will love and use.

In Changing the Landscape: People, Parks, and Power, the Prevention Institute and Alessandro Rigolon of the University of Utah propose an approach to addressing park and green space inequities that prioritizes building power among people closest to the problem so that they can drive policy change solutions.