Planning for the Future of Our Parks, Trails, and Facilities
Parks & Facilities Master Plan Seeks Community Engagement
After all of the ups and downs of 2020, it is difficult to even begin to imagine what the future will look like, let alone plan for it. While present challenges deserve attention, envisioning the future and taking steps toward that vision is essential to maintaining hope and building a better community for future generations. Part of this task includes asking—How can our community ensure these visions successfully come to life? One key element in developing proposals for tomorrow and years down the road is community engagement and support. After all, the Town is meant to serve its residents and what better way to serve than by reaching out and understanding community needs.
This exact sentiment is motivating the Town to develop and implement the new Parks & Facilities Master Plan, which is intended to be fully collaborative and community-supported. The Master Plan will outline how to further develop future parks, trails, open space, and recreational areas so as to meet the needs of the community while also investing in the town’s economic and cultural value. Director of the Department of Recreation, Family, and Leisure Chris Silver explains: “We are embarking on working with a consulting group to create a plan for our parks and public spaces for the future, whether that is tomorrow or 20 years down the road. We want to create a community that is more equitable and accessible than what we have now. So representative engagement is especially important.”
What are the benefits of the Parks & Facilities Master Plan?
In developing this new Master Plan, there is emphasis on the importance engaging Manchester residents so that as much input as possible is provided. “The process that will yield the best result will be the one with a representative cross-section of our community,” said Silver. The hope of this endeavor is to create a more accessible and equitable community by making the conscious effort to distribute resources throughout the town, giving everyone equal access to quality services. Manchester is unique in that it has a great diversity of neighborhoods. This plan hopes to ensure that regardless of neighborhood every resident has quality options for public parks and recreational spaces.
Not only is equitable access a benefit of this master plan, but there are many economic advantages as well. “When we plan for the future, we become more competitive and readier for grant-funding opportunities,” explained Silver. Towns who are progressive and actively planning for the future are more likely to receive funding because they have demonstrated they are ready and can successfully fulfill the purpose of the funding.
Director of Planning and Economic Development, Gary Anderson, also highlighted the range of benefits this Master Plan will bring to town. Businesses and people looking for a place to call home are drawn to Manchester because they want to be in a place with a high quality of life and where there are exceptional public facilities as well as an engaged community and government. Investing in parks and facilities means investing in Manchester’s economic development because it draws people to move to town, who in turn contribute to the local economy by shopping, supporting local business, and being active community members. Taking care of the parks and facilities also “builds community pride,” which is an “incentive for people to invest in their own neighborhoods,” said Anderson.
What exactly is a Master Plan? What does it entail?
In essence, the Master Plan will lay out a clear vision in addition to the goals, policies, and objectives that will help the Town to achieve that same vision. This gives direction to Town boards, commissions, and staff on how to go about developing, re-developing, expanding, and enhancing Manchester’s parks and recreation facilities. The plan will guide the decisions and priorities of the Town in regards to parks and facilities for the next fifteen years or more.
Kyle Shiel, Senior Planner in the Planning Department, is project manager of the Parks and Facilities Master Plan, acting as a liaison between the consulting company, BerryDunn, and various Town departments. BerryDunn is a consulting firm that “uses deep experience and a commitment to knowledge sharing to help clients gain control of the challenges and opportunities that drive value.” Shiel explained that the Town selected BerryDunn as the right choice for Manchester after seeing the firm’s work in Burlington, VT and the successful results of their Master Plan.
Shiel also noted the difficulties of building and implementing the Parks & Facilities Master Plan with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this year. “The main benefit to public engagement is getting people in the same room listening to each other and understanding each other’s ideas,” said Shiel. “We need to figure out how to engage people safely during the pandemic and reach out to a broad cross-section of community members.”
Why is community engagement so important?
Finding ways to ensure community engagement despite COVID-19 restrictions is essential because “everyone needs to understand the overall system and its constraints in order to better come to consensus on where to put resources.” This Master Plan presents a chance to get all community members thinking broadly about the whole system of the Town at one time. As a result, future policymakers can rely on the plan to ensure they are making decisions based in community support. With this large of a task, both in timeline and goals, community input from a diversity of residents across local neighborhoods is crucial.
Community engagement has been shown to be critical in building and sustaining cohesive communities, where the livability and well-being of residents are enriched. It is an essential part of building trust between community members and the local governments representing them. When government organizations seek out the concerns and values of the community—and when members in turn share their needs and aspirations with the government—public decision makers are better informed and can better serve the community. In general, community engagement leads to improved outcomes when planning for the future and ensures equitable access and empowerment.
Public Works Director Tim Bockus also emphasized this point. “Master planning will help us align the facilities and services we provide with what the community actually needs,” he said. “Instead of having a bunch of professionals sitting in a room thinking about what the community needs, we want to engage the community to find out what they want.” Through professional analysis and subject matter expertise, feedback and community input are distilled into tangible goals and outcomes. As the Master Plan moves forward, it is critical that residents relay their needs so that officials are not left to predict what communities need.
How can the community engage and voice their needs?
The Town of Manchester is taking steps to make sure this community engagement is possible by ensuring residents have access to channels of communication. As a part of a new communications strategy, local public decision makers are seeking out ways to connect and engage more with residents, as well as offer a variety of ways to inform the public. One of the first initiatives launched as a part of this strategy is a new community engagement tool: Your Voice Matters – Manchester. This platform was piloted in collaboration with the roll-out of the Parks & Facilities Master Plan, as its success relies greatly on the community input.
Your Voices Matters acts as a two-way street. It is not only useful for connecting community members with local officials and providing a direct avenue for voicing perspectives, but it also will be useful in discovering new ways to inform Manchester residents. After signing up and creating login credentials, users can find updates on latest projects, project questionnaires, public surveys, and community forums, in which people can post opinions, feedback, and inquiries.
What are the next steps for the Master Plan?
Clearly, understanding the desires of residents requires a great amount of community outreach as well as other forms of research. This includes focus groups, public meetings, open houses, tours of facilities, and demographic studies. In the current phase of the Master Plan, the consulting company in collaboration with the Town is focusing on connecting with leadership in civic organizations and departments in small focus groups. They are also conducting assessments of existing facilities in addition to further information gathering. The group will then slowly move out into the community more, in the form of focus groups and surveys among other forms of outreach. The project leaders hope to host public engagement in some format, such as an interactive gathering with different stations hosted outdoors.
This combination of online surveys, online platforms, and limited in person public engagement will allow for the community input to be incorporated into the plan. Gaining input from a diversity of individuals across Town neighborhoods is particularly important, so that resources and facilities can be accessed equitably despite the disparate socioeconomic characteristics of the town. This Master Plan is intended to serve all community members and improve accessibility by increasing connectivity and mobility where it is most needed. So, take advantage of this opportunity to play a role in shaping the future of Manchester – the Manchester that you hope to see.
Historical Images provided by the Manchester Historical Society. To view more historical documents and images check out the Manchester Herald Online.