Playing around is serious business in Palo Alto, where praise and demand for parks, playing fields and nature preserves come in equal measure.
The city's recreational offerings consistently win top grades from residents, with 92 percent of respondents to last year's National Citizen Survey ranking the city's parks as "good" or "excellent" and 87 percent giving these top two grades to the city's recreation programs. At the same time, ideas for improvement are constantly popping up: Dog owners, nature lovers, soccer parents and community gardeners all have their own proposals.
Now, the city is collecting, sorting and analyzing these ideas as part of its effort to create a new roadmap for recreation, called the Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan. For the past year and a half, city staff and consultants have been surveying residents, holding public hearings, assessing local playgrounds and crunching data for what will be the city's first recreation master plan since 1965.
Though the effort is still many months, community meetings and heated debates away from conclusion, it has already netted reams of data.
Over the course of their research, the city's consultants from the firm MIG have reached out to more than 1,000 residents, split about evenly between those who live north and south of Oregon Expressway. Each was asked a series of questions about local parks, the types of new amenities that they would like to see and the best ways the city could promote environmental sustainability in its open spaces.
Some of the responses were predictably territorial. Those in the northern half of the city, for instance, were more adamant than those in the south about the need to fix up the Rinconada Pool facilities. Meanwhile, south Palo Alto residents were three times as likely as their northern counterparts to give weight to renovating Cubberley Community Center.
Yet no matter where they live, residents believe the city should give top priority to improving neighborhood parks. And when it comes to which amenities they'd like to see more of at local parks, residents from all over Palo Alto gave the same answer: bathrooms. The survey showed 81 percent of the respondents choosing restrooms as important or very important additions to make local parks more convenient. This was followed by drinking fountains and places to sit (each of which was deemed important by 62 percent).
And while Palo Altans are famous for their technophilia, the survey suggests that many look to parks for escaping from -- rather than enabling -- the digital noise. Fewer than 10 percent of the respondents said Wi-Fi access at local parks is important, while 45 percent explicitly deemed it "not important." Opportunities to buy food and drinks also ranked low on the wish lists of local park-goers, with fewer than 5 percent saying it is important and nearly 50 percent saying its not.
Bicycle and pedestrian connections to local parks are important to residents, the survey indicates. About three quarters of the responders deemed new routes and paths as appropriate or very appropriate for enhancing the heath and well-being of community members (fewer than 5 percent said they are not appropriate). Park trails and quiet areas that allow visitors to connect with nature also proved popular, while outdoor exercise equipment and added recreation or exercise classes elicited less enthusiasm.
Palo Altans also believe that water conservation at local parks is very important, with 73 percent supporting expanded use of recycled water and 77 percent supporting new stormwater-absorbing features. But when it comes to replacing grass fields with turf, results are decidedly mixed. While survey respondents were generally in favor of expanded hours at local sports fields (54 percent supported more hours while 19 percent opposed), 43 percent indicated that it would not be appropriate to use artificial turf to reduce water use and expand playing time.
Dog owners, understandably, voiced their support for adding recreational opportunities for their pets. Nearly 80 percent said that improving existing dog parks is appropriate or very appropriate, compared with about 50 percent of the people who don't own canines. Dog owners also favored designated off-leash hours in parks and additional dedicated off-leash areas within parks (both with 66 percent support). Those ideas that were not nearly as popular among non-dog owners, with only 16 percent and 30 percent, respectively, liking those ideas.
Researchers also asked residents to weigh in on the city's largest recreational opportunity, the 10.5 acres near the Baylands Athletic Center that are designated for future recreational use. The two options of adding sports fields and creating a natural area for hiking and birdwatching received the greatest endorsements, with a new dog park and community gardens garnering support, though to somewhat lesser degrees.
The survey results are expected to inform the new master plan, which will identify and prioritize short-term, mid-term and long-term improvements to parks and recreational facilities. It will also include a funding plan for implementing these improvements and individual plans for each city park and recreational facility.
Last month, the Parks and Recreation Commission formed a special committee to come up with criteria that would be used to prioritize projects -- a list that includes such things as cost and geographic demand. The commission is scheduled to continue this discussion of these criteria at its July 28 meeting.
For some commissioners, geographic balance is among the biggest issues in the new plan. Commissioner Deirdre Crommie noted at the June 23 meeting that dog parks "tend to be clustered in the south of our city," while community gardens tend to be in the north.
"Some people are sensitive about certain services not being available throughout the city," Crommie said.
But even within a given neighborhood, tradeoffs and debates will be inevitable. Commissioner Pat Markevitch pointed to one that already exists at Johnson Park, where the interests of gardeners sometimes clash with those of parents.
"I'm getting pushback from neighbors in the Johnson Park area who are now saying, 'We want more play space for the kids. Can we take it away from the community gardens?'" Markevitch said at the June 23 meeting.
In recent months, the MIG team has used the survey answers to come up with common principles that would be used to weigh actions and recommendations. These principles are: playful, healthy, sustainable, inclusive, accessible, flexible and balanced. While new programs and amenities will not be required to contain all of these qualities, preference would generally be given to those that meet most of them.
Ellie Fiore, consultant with MIG, said one of the keys of the new planning effort is to achieve a balance of uses and accommodate the different types of residents who use local facilities.
"We're not going be expanding and building lots of new stuff or finding new land, so we have to find ways to have multiple uses in the same space but in a way that's balanced so it's not overwhelmed by any given use or any given style of development," Fiore told the commission at the June 23 meeting.