The plan delivers a transformative vision for equality and stewardship of landscape to tackle complex and contentious issues that are unorthodox for park system plans, such as homelessness, racial justice, urbanization and air quality. Reimagine Nature is the first public lands master plan in 30 years, charting a course for the future of Salt Lake City’s 83 parks and public spaces, 70-miles of trails, 1,700-acres of natural lands, 108 holes of golf, and 86,500 urban trees.
Reimagine was the most successful public engagement effort in the city’s history. With a focus on inclusion that utilized trailblazing methods, the plan reached 12,000 community members and benefited from elevating the voices of underrepresented populations during the height of COVID-19. The resulting plan is a model for communicating audacious community aspirations and directing equity priorities based on rigorous data analyses. An actionable 10-year vision identifies 92 locations for improvements to ecosystem health and livability. The effort galvanized collaborations across City departments, formed community partnerships, and garnered City officials’ support, increasing yearly capital expenditures on Public Lands by 2,400%.
Salt Lake City initiated the planning process just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, and these public spaces became more essential refuges. This timing coincided with civic protests centered around racial justice and police reform, addressing historic inequalities in city investments, disproportional impacts of poor air quality and climate change, and growing crisis to house unsheltered populations. These topics have broad implications and could have been dismissed as outside the park department’s influence. Instead, the vision was expanded to champion collaborative solutions.
This master plan directs the future of 125 properties that touch virtually every life of the 200,000 residents throughout this rapidly growing city, making it the most important plan in 30 years for Public Lands. Branded “Reimagine Nature,” this project inspired community members to explore how city-managed outdoor spaces can address modern issues centered around core values of equity, stewardship, and livability.
Guiding Decisions Using Social and Environmental Data
Community-driven conversations culminated with five themes for analysis that informed the creation of innovative planning tools:
- Reimagine Environmental Health and Resilience: How can Public Lands contribute to a more sustainable future? Performance of the urban forest and public lands were analyzed under categories of human health, wildlife and ecology, and resilient landscapes. The analysis combined with community input identified the most urgent actions: mass tree planting, increased vegetative diversity, riparian restoration, and adaptation for drought.
- Reimagine Access: How can Public Lands connect people to each other and nature? Analysis of transit, pathways and park walksheds identified gaps in connectivity and informed improvement priorities. Foothills and conserved natural lands are concentrated on the northeast part of the city, resulting in one-fourth of residences, mostly on the westside, located outside of walking distance. The plan emphasizes equitable public investment to create nature-filled recreation opportunities on the westside accessible by foot and transit.
- Reimage Inclusion: How can Public Lands embrace surrounding neighborhoods and create opportunities for exchange? A tool was developed to assess individual park quality and access, including metrics for neighborhood expression and cultural place-making, public safety, and activity levels. University students, citizens and city staff completed audits scoring 22 parks to evaluate equity. The findings were enlightening and led to instituting new standards for neighborhood parks, planning processes and toolkits for grass-roots park design and activation events.
- Reimagine Protect: How can we ensure our Public Lands are sustained for future generations? Operations, staffing, and funding were assessed to anticipate what resources this plan’s implementation would need and to build efficiency into addressing environmental threats. This evaluation showed that in order to maintain current levels of service by 2040, the annual operating budget will need to increase by $5 million and 24 additional staff will be needed. The findings informed hiring a staff member for volunteer organization that has led to exponential community contributions.
- Reimage Growth: What can Public Lands do to provide sufficient public space for future population growth when current standards of acres per population are unrealistic? Salt Lake City would have to add 94 acres of parkland to keep up with anticipated population growth, a real challenge in this built-out, high property value, and landlocked city. Strategies were created for better use of current land holdings such as golf courses, public right-of-way, and existing parks to do more for environmental performance, recreation, and social needs. These changes equate to the park acreage standard, ensuring these actions will result in avoiding overcrowding.
Raising All Voices in Chorus
Known as a “crossroads of the west” and a place of refugee resettlement, Salt Lake City has a diverse population with over 120 languages spoken and large Hispanic and Native American populations. Research showed disparate levels of activity in the outdoors by these populations. It was paramount to gather input to understand representatives’ lived experiences and their needs, interests, and access. However, in Salt Lake City, engagement in civic matters has long been dominated by singular socioeconomic groups.
The project team overcame these challenges with strategic and resourceful thinking, experimentation, and the will of 60 community partners and advocates including partnership with 85 university students that served as ambassadors. Despite challenges of a small project budget and the COVID-19 pandemic, this engagement campaign raised the bar for city planning efforts, exceeding a goal of involving ten percent of all adults. Online and in-person activities combined reached a broader audience than taken individually. Participation demographics were monitored to inform where to pivot to gain representation from the diversity of the city. More critical than quantity, the quality of dialog in focus groups, collaborative workshops, place-making activities, roughly 2,000 individual survey comments, and intercept interview conversations provided a conduit for the community to craft the plan.
How can one plan respond to many points of input and synthesize differing perspectives? The concluding engagement opportunity asked if the planning team had incorporated participation appropriately, if community voices were evident in the vision, goals, and projects. Overall, 87 percent of respondents were satisfied with the plan direction and provided hundreds of suggestions for adjustments that informed the final plan contents. A unified vision maximizes the value of investments city-wide while striking a balance to give focus to subareas and sub-population groups.
Visual Storytelling for Collaborative City Design
To capture citizen attention and imagination, project planners and designers utilized storytelling devices such as emotional narrative, visuals, and data throughout every phase.
The first phase included goals of building awareness about the project, educating about the benefits and urgency for action, and learning from diverse experiences. Project branding and infographic stories about social and environmental imperatives were showcased in locations most visited with stay-close-to-home public health orders in effect, generating thousands of digital engagements. The graphics caught attention at park and trail pop-up booths and intercept interviews, garnering in-person conversations with hundreds of people that typically don’t engage with government.
The second phase was about developing and communicating ideas to gain feedback. Stakeholder collaborations crafted video and image boards depicting a future of possibilities. Following public evaluation of options, the team depicted landscape projects and urban design visualizations within a graphic document including quotes from community members credited with the ideas. These storytelling devices made citizens’ dreams tangible to affect change.
Immediate Results, Generational Impact
The vision is backed with measurable performance goals for annual reporting and a checklist of 146 near-term policy and project action items, many of which were so useful they were advanced before formal plan adoption. Breakout of capital improvement projects by City Council Districts gave confidence to elected officials that their district would not be overlooked. Priorities are validated with rationale for equity zones to minimize political bargaining. As communities struggle to identify how to address inequity, this process and product demonstrates how tools available to the landscape profession can be used to advance environmental and social justice.
Immediate meaningful impact is being made in the lives of citizens. The analysis elevated conversations of transitioning from a city division to a department. The change to a department structure facilitated staff hires including a new park ranger program, Spanish speaking community outreach specialist, ecologists, and capital project managers. The plan has secured alternative funding sources along with discussion of a $75 million bond package. The popularity of Reimagine Nature, including unanimous city council endorsement, has fast-tracked implementation. Volunteerism and citizen involvement in park planning has increased and become more diverse, such as citizen participation developing a new regional park located in a westside equity zone. The community is excited to convert a brownfield into a community wealth building asset, a first introduction to river recreation, sanctuary of riparian habitat, and a source of flood and drought resiliency. In a different park, the first monarch butterfly was spotted in the last 40 years on city property, following the planting of 70 native plant species.
Documents and Media
Planning Docs (if applicable):