Building consensus and compiling input requires an organized, yet casual approach. Allowing the public to freely interact with facilitators is important.
Photos: R.A. Smith & Associates Inc. Building consensus and compiling input requires an organized, yet casual approach. Allowing the public to freely interact with facilitators is important.
This site analysis was shown to the public for review of a proposed park.
Photos: R.A. Smith & Associates Inc. This site analysis was shown to the public for review of a proposed park.

Successful park planning requires a lot more than checking off a box on a form or meeting a standard requirement. Getting the public involved at a project's onset makes a significant difference in a park's final plan and overall success and longevity. Citizens and key stakeholders provide valuable input such as expectations and possible solutions for addressing unique problems. Meaningful public participation also gives a voice to those directly affected by decisions such as where new parks are to be located or whether park trails should be motorized.

In order to foster an equitable public participation process, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2, developed guidelines titled, “IAP2's Five Steps for Public Participation Planning.” These steps guide park planning facilitators and the public through a real and meaningful decision-making process. The following summary of these five steps includes practical applications.


The park planning team should work with local government to gain internal support for the public participation process. The park planning team typically includes a park plan project manager, public participation lead, and others. This team should profile decision makers to determine how they approach public participation and what they believe are the benefits of public input. This exercise will foster consensus among the decision makers as they work with each other and the public to determine the scope of the park planning decision and its specific objectives.

The decision makers should keep the scope of the decision-making process broad enough to encourage public input on all aspects of the project. The issues should then be narrowed to those that are of primary concern to the majority of the public. This will enable a timely solution that meets the greatest public needs and objectives.

For example, when considering where to locate a new active park, some residents may be concerned about the impact on natural areas. Public participation provides the framework to determine how broad or narrow the scope of the decision needs to be.


Establishing good relationships with stakeholders from the start is important. Understanding stakeholder concerns and finding some common ground to discuss those concerns helps everyone understand what decision needs to be made and what the objectives of that decision will be. Holding informal stakeholder/group interviews is an effective process in finding common ground. Through the interviews the public's role becomes more real because key issues and concerns are heard. The public grows to trust the sponsor and the project team through open communication and feedback.

A comprehensive list of stakeholders includes local government officials, school district officials, property owners, real estate agents, the development community, local institutions, financial and business leaders, local residents, interest groups, neighborhood groups, and regulatory agencies.


Determining the level of public participation is important since different methods deliver different results and offer varying degrees of involvement. The decision makers should be comfortable with the level of participation selected and should not offer false promises to the public.

An appropriate level of public participation should be selected using a tool such as the Public Participation Spectrum developed by the IAP2. There are five participation levels: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. The city, county, agency, or organization should decide what level of public participation is appropriate for each decision.

If a decision needs to be made about where to locate a new park, the decision makers will want public feedback on issues such as site analysis and alternatives. The public will want to know that their concerns are considered. According to IAP2's Spectrum, the appropriate level of participation in this case would be “consult.” At this level the decision makers will get public feedback on specified issues while agreeing to keep the public informed, listen to their concerns, and let them know how their input influenced the final decision.


The decision-making process of where to locate the new park should be outlined so that it is clearly understood and can be easily shared with the public. The process may already exist as a regulatory process, or it may be created by the project team. In either situation, the process should meet the decision's objectives, which are influenced by the needs of the stakeholders. If the question is where to locate a new park and a stakeholder objective is preserving natural resources, then the process should clearly address this objective.


The public participation plan should present a clear picture of what the problem is, how decisions are made, and how the public participation process influences that decision. Public participation techniques that should be established as part of this step range from newsletters and fact sheets at the “inform” level, to workshops at the “involve” level, to ballots and delegated decisions at the “empower” level.

A strong public participation plan should include a project background and overview, stakeholder issues and concerns, a project scope and process, objectives, and a comprehensive budget.

A comprehensive budget must have elements including technique implementation costs, a project timeline, and defined roles and responsibilities of involved parties.

The important role that parks play in a community's quality of life is a reflection of the values and needs of the community's residents. Following the “IAP2's Five Steps for Public Participation Planning” offers an opportunity for equitable public participation during park and recreation planning.

— Sarah Johnson is a community planner with R.A. Smith & Associates Inc., Brookfield, Wis.

IAP2's five steps for public participation planning

1. Gain internal commitment

  • Identify the decision makers
  • Profile sponsoring organization's approach to public participation
  • Clarify the scope of the decision
  • Identify the stakeholders and their issues of concern
  • Determine sponsor's expectations for Spectrum level.
  • 2. Learn from the public

  • Understand how people perceive the decision
  • Develop a comprehensive list of stakeholders
  • Correlate stakeholders and issues
  • Review/refine the scope of the decision
  • 3. Select the level of participation

  • Assess internal and external expectations
  • Select the level on the Spectrum
  • Assess “readiness” of sponsoring organization
  • 4. Define process and participation objectives

  • Understand the existing decision process
  • Set public participation objectives for each step of the process
  • Compare decision process with public participation objectives
  • Check to confirm objectives meet needs
  • 5. Design public participation plan

  • Integrate baseline data into plan format
  • Identify the public participation techniques
  • Identify support elements for implementation
  • Plan for evaluation