Columbia's Parks and Recreation Department creates three types of parks: neighborhood, community and regional parks, which are defined by size and types of facilities. Neighborhood parks serve people within a half mile and community parks within three miles. Regional parks, such as Cosmo Park, are intended to attract people from around mid-Missouri.
The process of acquiring land for all types of parks is essentially the same. It starts with the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan, which tracks all the work of the parks department. The department starts by doing an inventory and mapping existing parks, then it pinpoints areas not being served, lists priorities and begins searching for land that might meet its needs.
Once funding is in place, usually through the parks sales tax, the department, with approval from the Columbia City Council, can begin negotiating for property. The council must authorize any final deal to buy land.
Planning differs significantly according to the size of the park. For neighborhood parks, the department holds "interested party" meetings for neighbors interested in helping plan the park. People who attend tell park planners what they'd like to see included in the park. When there's consensus, planners draft a plan and present it to the City Council for a public hearing. If the council approves, the parks department proceeds with construction.
For larger parks, planning is much more extensive. The department starts by holding an open public meeting and presenting information about the property. It tries to refrain from developing preconceived ideas about how to develop the park. After explaining all the natural aspects of the property, the department holds a brainstorming session. Those in attendance break into groups of 10 to 15, each headed by a park planner, and generate a list of features they would like to see in the park. The groups then reassemble and create a master list. At the end of the meeting, each member of the public who attended can vote for the five or six features they most want by affixing stickers to the list.
"It's really very interesting. You can pretty quickly see patterns emerging of what people want," Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said. "It's really a way of prioritizing ideas. You begin to see certain ideas getting a whole lot of votes, and you begin to get a sense that within the group that is here tonight, that is something that is really important to them."
The department also creates online surveys that allow people unable to attend planning meetings to voice their opinions. After collecting data from the public, the department meets with special interest groups, such as the Audubon Society or the Sierra Club.
Planners then take all the information, create a few options for a master plan for the park and present them at several more public meetings. Then, they hand out more surveys. Eventually, the department narrows its plan to one document that incorporates public feedback and presents that as a master plan to the City Council. The plan typically is referred to the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission, both of which hold public hearings. The commissions send recommendations back to the council, which holds a final public hearing on the plan. Once the council approves the plan and money is available, development of the park can begin.
Building a park
Building a park involves more decisions. First, the staff determines the most efficient method for proceeding. Staff members can do some of the work themselves, but other elements can be done more efficiently by contractors. For smaller parks, the department acts as a general contractor, doing some of the work while contracting out the rest. Playgrounds, for example, are usually contracted through the city's purchasing plan. Playground manufacturers bid on the project, and installation and the price of the equipment is included in the contract. After the winning manufacturer installs the playground, the parks staff then adds a safety surface.
Trails, shelters and occasionally basketball courts are constructed by the parks staff as well. Construction for a neighborhood park usually takes 12 to 18 months. Larger parks, such as community and regional parks, take years to fully develop. Construction usually is done in phases, with each phase being implemented as money becomes available.