GREENSBORO — Whether it’s designed that way or not, a park often becomes the heart of the community it’s in.
Greensboro could do a better job of encouraging parks to be essential parts of their neighborhoods, a new report suggests, and should work over the next 20 years to turn humdrum neighborhood parks into “community hearts.”
That’s just one idea in the draft of a 182-page report called “Plan2Play” that lays out the city’s proposals for parks and recreation over the next two decades.
“This is a much-needed update to our master plan that was originally drafted in 1998,” said Nasha McCray, the director of Greensboro Parks and Recreation. “We’ve had so much growth as a city population-wise and land-wise. This gives us an opportunity to set a new vision.”
Greensboro has more than 8,500 acres of parks and trails, lakes and greenways, and countless other areas that could be enhanced, expanded and connected better to the community, the report says, and it offers key examples to reach those goals.
Hundreds of residents and scores of volunteers compiled ideas and hopes for the future of the city’s parks system, suggesting the kinds of programs and structures they would like to see added. The report is packed with maps and statistics, but some of the standout ideas lay out programs that could transform corners of the city.
The study’s authors compared Greensboro with eight peer cities with populations between 200,000 and 300,000 people.
Greensboro compared favorably in the amount of park space per 1,000 residents, with 10.2 acres. Wichita, Kan., had the most acres per 1,000 at 12.7, while Arlington, Va., had the fewest, with 7.9.
In Greensboro, the most well-known parks often overshadow the smaller ones. “Magnet parks,” as Bryan Park is called, can attract regional sports events and bring big money into the city.
“Just last year we had over $50 million in economic impact for events at our facilities that we had a hand in hosting,” McCray said.
The city has about 100 neighborhood parks that are typically smaller than 15 acres but they can have a big impact on the neighbors they serve, McCray said.
The report offers one neighborhood as a case study.
The neighborhood park and recreation center that could benefit from all of those strategies is the Windsor Community Center-Nocho Park area in a neighborhood off East Gate City Boulevard. The community center is across East Gate City Boulevard from the Vance Chavis branch library. Nocho Park is on the same side of Gate City and includes a baseball field and basketball courts.
All of the strategies of “enhance, expand and connect” could be applied to this area to make it a new “community heart,” the report shows.
Though no budgets are attached to the plan — McCray said it’s going to be a document that the department can use to advocate for more money in the future — it comes with a list of ambitious suggestions.
The Windsor-Nocho area, for example, could be better connected through well-marked crossings and an underpass across East Gate City Boulevard.
The city could create “flexible spaces” in the park that allow for more activities like pickleball, yoga classes or other programs and classes.
A mural might be painted on one of the buildings.
Better signs and even more attractive park furniture at this, and dozens of other smaller parks in the city, could make them more useful and attractive for people who may only think of them today as vacant spaces, the report says.
Another suggestion: extend hours in the buildings for programs at night including midnight basketball for youth and get the city to provide better lighting to make the whole area safer.
McCray added that more programs at the Windsor center and the Vance Chavis Library could attract people from the neighborhood and get city services to the people that need them.
“That’s a good example of how we can do a better job as a government entity in bringing services into a community and embedding them into communities and go to them instead of having them come to us,” she said.
But there’s so much more that needs to be done, the report says.
The department alone, and the number of people it serves, is massive. Parks and Recreation employs 148 people over four divisions. In the past fiscal year alone, the report says, 3.8 million visitors came to parks and facilities.
Beyond expanding what the city offers, maintenance issues are a big part of the city’s ongoing budget for parks and recreation.
The plan addresses that too.
The “enhance” portion of the report said that improving the basics is key to taking many parks out of their decades-old designs and making them fresh and attractive for present-day needs.
The financial parts of that include expanding the ongoing capital improvement budget to the department’s annual city allocation.
In addition, the city should pursue regular bond financing to do more major park improvements and enhancements, the report suggests.
The City Council and voters will want to know what they’re getting for that money, and the report offers a strategy to lay out the “return on investment” for a parks system.
One study cited in the report, for example, shows that parks can increase neighboring property values by as much as 15 percent.
And while Greensboro hasn’t compiled a detailed report on the economic impact of its parks, a national survey by the National Recreation and Parks Association showed that local parks created more than $154 billion in economic activity in 2015.
Those operations and capital spending supported 1.1 million jobs, the report showed.
In North Carolina, local parks have an economic impact of $2.8 billion with 24,000 associated jobs.
“Plan2Play” is not finished yet.
After a public comment period that will last through the end of January, Parks and Recreation will present the report to the Greensboro City Council for review and approval.
It’s an ambitious plan, McCray said, but one that is designed to be accomplished over a long period.
For the first five years, the department already knows what specific changes it wants to make.
For example, the city will continue upgrades to regional parks including Barber Park, Hester Park and Keeley Park.
Another goal: Create a senior center in western Greensboro.
In five to 10 years, the city hopes to begin such projects as acquiring land near parks that will assist in connecting them.
The city also wants to get into the “makerspace” business by establishing a place with tools and equipment at one location on park property somewhere in the city.
In the second decade of the plan, city officials want to make broader impacts and create more “community hearts” across Greensboro, complete major greenways around the city and complete accessibility upgrades at all community centers.
One idea could be simple: Print a paper program guide that collects all of the department’s programs into one, easy-to-read document.
Believe it or not, the city doesn’t offer that now.
“That has sort of been replaced by the electronic and social media,” McCray said, “but (a program guide) is important because people like to have a document in hand that they can use and even share.”
In coming years, the city may not be the only group paying for parks and improvements.
McCray said Parks and Recreation would like to find sponsors for buildings and programs from nonprofits, civic groups and corporations.
“We may not necessarily make an immediate impact through implementation — my approach is to hopefully use this (report) as dialog to advocate through city funding, through the budget or by developing more partnerships to support our operations.”
Presuming City Council approves the plan in February, the department will begin moving forward.
“If all goes well and it gets approved,” McCray said, “we will take a breath for a moment and then we will get started on the implementation.”