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The Makings of a Successful Park
April 2010

By Ashley Cullen

Now, more than ever, parks are an integral part of the community. Parks can provide personal, social, environmental, and economic benefits to the community it serves, not to mention inexpensive or free entertainment and recreation for children, young adults, and families. According to a recent study by The Trust for Public Land, the economic downturn has spurred a sharp increase in public park and playground use among families with kids, especially those with children younger than six years old. However, not all parks are created equal, so we wanted to explore what elements make a successful community park.

Active and passive activities. Sometimes kids want to run around on a playground, while adults might like to take a leisurely stroll through autumn foliage. Covering a wide range both active and passive activities, such as playgrounds, walking trails, and athletic fields, may lead to a broader range of people who want to visit the park.

Safety first. Most of the time, people don’t venture where they don’t feel safe and it’s no different for parks. Incorporating safety and security principles, like those of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) are key to a successful park. For example, on a trail, there should always be a line of sight to what is up ahead.

Wide open spaces. Although playgrounds, trails, and trees are all very important to a successful park, it can be equally important to have open areas for activities like organized sports, or something more casual like playing catch or throwing a Frisbee. This, again, will attract the widest range of people to a park.

Enjoy the space. It’s always important, when creating a park space, to keep aesthetics in mind. People are more likely to enjoy a park when there is inviting landscaping (like shade trees on a playground) and attractive materials used (like a stone retaining wall instead of a concrete one). And, when people enjoy a park space, they will be more likely to visit again in the future.

Where’s the restroom? Although this element may seem rudimentary, it’s actually a very important aspect of a park. People don’t want to have to cut their activities short to leave and use another facility with a restroom, so it should always be considered for a successful park.

Ease of accessibility. Every feature of a park should be easily accessible to the person who will be using it. Not only do all newly constructed park facilities have to be compliant with federal accessibility guidelines, but providing connections to and from elements within the park is equally as important. Providing close parking to areas of use, such as bleachers, playgrounds, and fields is essential.

Community involvement. One way to design a successful park is to let the members of the community have a say in what they think will make it successful. By incorporating their ideas into the design of the park, community members will have a sense of ownership and pride when the park is completed. Who wouldn’t like to go to a park and say to their neighbor, “That was my idea”?

Although these are only a handful of ideas, they certainly contribute to the development of a successful community park. All of these elements were incorporated into two recently designed and completed parks in the City of Fairfax. Draper Drive Park was a renovation that now includes artificial turf fields, sports lighting, and an updated parking and gathering area. Stafford Drive park was a new park construction and includes Northern Virginia’s first barrier-free playground, artificial turf fields, restrooms, play areas, and parking lot. Draper Drive Park and Stafford Drive park were recently awarded the “Best New Renovation/Addition” and “Best New Facility”, respectively, by the Virginia Recreation and Park Society (VRPS).


Ashley Cullen is a Marketing Coordinator with William H. Gordon Associates, Inc., a Washington, DC Top 20 Engineering firm located in Chantilly, Virginia. Services offered include athletic design, civil engineering, land planning, landscape architecture, surveying, and site security consulting. She can be reached at .

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