Municipal councils often have park space and infrastructure they can’t afford to maintain and keep in the long term. By prioritising service and appropriate strategic planning, a workable balance can be struck between infrastructure planning, development and service delivery. Here we provide tips to help achieve this balance.
1. Focus on a development level of service
A mistake many councils make when developing parks strategies is having too much aspiration without a reality check to look at long-term financial sustainability, particularly in relation to operating and maintaining new strategy driven development, explains Xyst and Yardstick Director for Australia, Jayson Kelly.
Parks and other activity strategies (for play spaces, for instance) are often adopted as a separate process to approving ongoing consequential maintenance funding. Invariably, insufficient funding is allocated and assets slowly deteriorate and are eventually removed by the maintenance teams.
The solution? “Councils should place more scrutiny on the development level of service (on the type, quality and amount of assets they have) in a strategic plan because that is where all the cost accrues – new capital, depreciation, renewal capital and operations and maintenance,” says Kelly. “It’s also the area the community is most interested in. By doing this, councils can gradually match their asset base over time to a level that they can afford to maintain.”
This is even more important in growth councils where a gap between the ‘haves’ (new development in subdivisions) and the ‘have nots’ (older areas where assets have been removed due to a lack of operating funding) widens, creating socio-economic divisions in the community. As the peak strategy for the parks, recreation and open-space activities of a council, it’s capable of leading an organisation down the road of no return or steering it towards a bright future that involves equity of provision, consistency of development and long-term financial sustainability.
2. Don’t consult about the provision of land
Defining the provision level of service is a key part of a parks strategy, says Kelly, since it relates to the future provision and distribution of land for parks, sports reserves and public open space, which has become a scarce commodity and/or highly politicised in some council precincts. This is particularly the case in the inner suburbs of Australia’s capital cities where space is now in short supply.
Kelly says councils should absolutely plan for appropriate provision of land over a very long period of time, but land provision shouldn’t necessarily be a focus for public consultation. “The allocation of land is intergenerational and far too critical for today’s community to decide for future generations,” he says. “It needs to be driven by research, benchmarking and best practice instead.”
3. Implement a ‘real’ asset management plan
An asset management plan gives council a reliable data driven understanding about what it can afford to provide, maintain and operate. Kelly says it should be ‘real’ in that it should strongly inform and direct at least a 10-year financial plan for sustainability reasons.
“Nearly every single parks strategy I see doesn’t have this link to long-term financial sustainability – it’s all aspirational stuff like ‘we’ll put a playground in every 400m’. The objective is well intended, but without ‘real’ asset management planning councils will not know how much money they have to maintain and operate their open space network before they make decisions to create more assets.”
4. Differentiate parks into service categories
Councils typically differentiate parks into regional, district and local categories, which is useful for distribution analysis but that has very little meaning for other arms of the business, including asset and operations management. Instead, Kelly recommends differentiating parks into park types, based on the experience sought by the visitor – for example, sports parks, nature parks, linear parks etc. – that articulate the experience (and suite of assets and facilities) the community can expect and plan for on an outing.
This can be further enhanced by further classification into quality standards based on actual levels of utilisation, that in essence translates the regional, district and local terminology into high-, moderate- and low-use sites that everyone can understand, particularly the community.
“A tiered and differentiated parks list can better define the level of effort (and budget) council allocates to them. By doing this, council can better define the experience and then manage and meet expectations,” he says. “Creating parks that are everything to everyone will lead to disappointment for some visitors, generating complaints. An analogy would be like taking some out-of-town friends out for a special lunch, wanting and expecting the cuisine and ambience of an Italian café, but only having food courts to choose from.”
5. Use benchmarking data for comparison
By using benchmarking data like that provided by IPWEA’s Yardstick program, councils can get a litmus test of the levels of service they are providing and a guide to what they should provide in the future.
“For instance, a council can ask the question ‘Have we got too many playgrounds?’ and the Yardstick data will tell them exactly how many playgrounds other councils have per capita, letting you know if you are in the ballpark or not to start with,” says Kelly. “So Yardstick is really a good way of starting council off on a planned, deliberate and proven process of strategic planning driven by industry shared data,” he says.
Yardstick is also delivered through other industry bodies in New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Denmark and Norway with more than 100 organisations participating annually. Approximately 40 of those are in Australia. Further information on the program can be found by visiting www.yardstickglobal.org.