The Master Planning Mindset: From napkin sketches to developing lasting landscapes

Picture of Gerber Rendering

By Douglas Gerber

Whether a master-planning idea emerges from public-outreach efforts, community initiatives, or common needs, an idea takes hold and exploration ensues. These flashes of brilliance may have significant impacts on the built environment, but where to begin? This article will explore how that idea can be developed into a defined program, and then how it can be translated into an enjoyable park, trail, or greenspace. The first step is to recognize an idea and then communicate that to the next person. Often, these next people are friends, family members, coworkers, supervisors, or community leaders.

Welcoming New Ideas

We have all shared a memorable and personal park experience. I have been amazed by the captured vistas, identifiable focal points, and cultural or environmental stories that something like a simple trail in the woods can tell. You can also share these experiences of what future users might enjoy. You do not need to be a professional to recognize a flash of genius. Collaborating while hanging out with friends, accommodating needs, attending family gatherings, conversing with neighbors, or exploring personal hobbies and interests can bring new opportunities to the forefront.

Once an idea takes hold, what is next? Even if it is just a loose sketch on a napkin, write the idea down. This is a powerful step in helping a vision come to life. You only need to draw or write well enough to convey an idea to the next person. Above all, stay loose, capture your brain power, and be willing to listen to yourself and others.

Then What?

After the first lightbulb brightens, determine where the funding will come from. Will grants need to be pursued? At this stage, the program is refined, and the original idea improved; the function, character, goals, and objectives of the design are established, and a project budget is determined.

Schedules and milestones are critical. Determine whether the project will be long-term or short-term. Next, note what timelines for permitting are needed. Working from a base map—a key tool in the design process—can inform the site’s capabilities. The design puts the main ideas and the program onto the site and shows the project’s viability. A cost estimate then informs the budget, and the process runs cyclically to refine the plan.

Public Engagement

Picture of walkway

The required public-engagement process must be genuine. The public, as the end user of a successful park, not only appreciates sincerity but will easily detect insincerity if that group is being ignored or taken for granted.

Social media is a well-tested collaborative resource for getting the word out and inviting others to join. This stage works best when it’s well planned, allows sufficient time, and includes a clear end date. Effective public-engagement tools, which offer a variety of open, honest, and transparent feedback, may include public meetings, open houses, focus groups, tours, and charrettes. In addition, public engagement can be conducted online through tailored survey websites. The goal is to seek public input until “saturation” occurs, and you feel comfortable and informed that the design can be achieved.

Project Phase Run-Through And Consideration Of The Audience

The project phase run-through, described below, explains the process in a generalized way. Think of it as a 30,000-foot approach to help visualize the larger steps. The primary audience at this phase is the community itself, where members’ own efforts become known. The typical phases of bringing a flash of brilliance to life include the following:

  • Base mapping

  • Preliminary design (also referred to as prelims, concepts, or schematics)

  • Design development (DDs)
  • Construction documents (CDs)

  • Bidding

  • Construction

  • Ribbon cutting.

A requirement throughout the master-planning process is informative base mapping. An effective base map provides a clear picture of the site characteristics and the context that informs the design. The map strengthens design alternatives while clarifying budgets and minimizing changes. It also advises the project schedule, informs milestones, and identifies gaps for further field-verification. For a preliminary design, imagine the primary audience is the client. The plans are loose on detail but heavy on illustration of high-level concepts with presumptive order-of-magnitude cost estimates.

Next, the design-development phase is where the primary audience can be imagined as a municipality or public agency. This involves introducing and obtaining buy-in of the client’s approval. The documents are a mix of preliminary and construction papers within overall site plans, along with both moderate and descriptive details that portray the intended work. Unit costs and materials estimates are refined and include an outline of generic specifications.

Next, the audience switches to the contractors, vendors, and builders in the construction phase. The contractor needs precise instructions on which to base a quote to construct the vision. These documents include detailed drawings showing demolition, layout, grading, utilities, planting, and more. Detailed specifications are included to supply a recipe for installing materials.

During the bidding phase, designers and consultants answer questions, while the contractors formulate and submit their bids. The more interest shown and the more bids submitted, the better. The bids arrive by a predetermined time, quotes are compared, contractors are vetted, and the lowest or most appropriate bid is selected. Once the project moves to the construction phase, the first spark of brilliance begins to take form on the ground. There is typically a groundbreaking—often simply ceremonial—followed by construction observation to ensure the project is built as designed, while also meeting the expectations of the designer, the client, stakeholders, and the public.

Finally, it is celebration time with a ribbon cutting so all those involved can take a bow!

Other Factors To Consider

Several key factors come into play in creating a strong master plan:

  • Defining goals and objectives

  • Thoroughly assessing all existing facilities and programs

  • Developing a needs assessment

  • Listening to the community and determining wants and needs

  • Preparing a comprehensive set of recommendations and an implementation strategy

  • Getting buy-in from the community.

The ideas that truly make a project tick are the following:

  • Maintaining momentum

  • Truthing innovative ideas

  • Obtaining community input through sincere public outreach

  • Meeting schedules, keeping budgets, and explaining change

  • Prioritizing community wants and needs.

The master-planning process definitely considers the demographics of potential users and park features. Items like age, socio-economic data, abilities, and cultural influences all come into play. The overall plan will also consider who, what, how big, and desired outcomes.

In short, you can do this. Whether you are an administrator, park staff, or facility group, you can quickly find the necessary resources, including local professionals. Consultants, friends, and family members know the community, and by collaborating, capturing ideas, developing a plan, and translating them into a lasting landscape, you can succeed!

Douglas Gerber, RLA, is a Senior Project Manager at Weston & Sampson’s Design Studio in Albany, N.Y. Reach him at

Published in PBR, October 2023

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