The Olympia Parks, Arts & Recreation Department is integrating equity and climate action in proposed updates to its chapter in the city's 2045 Comprehensive Plan.
At Monday's Olympia Planning Commission meeting, Parks Planning and Maintenance Director Sylvana Niehuser presented the Parks' draft updates establishing new goals prioritizing climate resilience and equitable access.
Niehuser said the revisions incorporate public input from the online surveys and a random community survey they conducted.
As part of the public engagement process for the master plan update, the department conducted online surveys and handed out paper surveys to the community in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, receiving 252 responses.
The Parks Department also hired a consultant for a random sample survey with 515 responses in winter/spring 2021.
Besides climate, equity, and safety, Niehuser said some of the themes they heard throughout that public engagement process was that the public wanted the Parks to have a balance of investments between acquisition, maintenance of current infrastructure, and development of new parks and amenities.
Niehuser noted that trails and a public swimming pool are always at the top in the surveys. The community also considered restrooms at park facilities important.
In developing its climate goals, the Parks Department worked with Olympia Climate Program Director Dr. Pamela Braff and crafted goals for the park system to be resilient against climate impacts and provide benefits that mitigate climate change through reducing emissions.
The following are the Parks' climate goals and policies:
With the help of a consultant, the Parks Department developed an aspirational goal stating, "Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation is an industry leader in equity and inclusion, where all people feel safe and are provided equitable access to engage in parks, arts and recreation services."
Niehuser said they developed some policies around the goal:
According to Niehuser, they conducted a separate survey specific to the comprehensive plan chapter on Engage Olympia, receiving feedback from 94 community members. The survey showed that increased safety in parks and facilities was the highest and most important for people.
When it comes to safety, Niehuser said 47% of the responses said they did not always feel safe in the parks and they had concerns about open drug use in public. Respondents had concerns for those with mental health crises, homelessness, and encampments.
About 87% of the respondents felt welcome in the parks, arts events, and programs.
When it comes to climate, the Parks maintenance director said a majority of the respondents believed that parks have a role in climate mitigation. The focus areas were carbon and education.
"There was a lot of expression around valuing natural areas and trees. And 84% of the respondents agree that we must mitigate the impacts of climate change and build a climate-resilient park system to serve future generations," she added.
Commission Greg Quetin inquired if the department had any empirical data on park safety incidents. He noted that it is essential to understand how people feel versus actual reported incidents and that having report data could provide feedback on safety trends.
Niehuser responded that they tried to obtain information on police and fire calls for service related to parks. However, accurate data has been difficult to compile due to addressing issues associated with parks. She noted that they have worked with dispatch to update data and installed trail markers. While they don't have reliable quantitative data, qualitative safety has improved since hiring park rangers in 2017 to address issues at a lower level before escalation.
Noting that access to parks seems fundamentally like an issue of fairness, Commissioner Mike Burnham asked Niehuser if the number of people near parks would be factored into the equity and inclusion goals. He wondered how the plan's equity and inclusion goals and policies would relate to ensuring equitable access.
When developing the park's plan, Niehuser explained that they took demographic data like age, race, and disability status and overlaid it with areas that did not have a park within a 10-minute walk. She said this analysis found that the northeast area along Lily Road had the highest priority for new neighborhood park development among historically underserved populations.
Niehuser said they secured a grant to begin planning a new park on the Lily Road parcel once construction starts on the Yelm Highway Community Park, incorporating some equity considerations into their planning process.
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