With Palo Alto preparing to unveil a new vision for recreation, some residents are calling for more nature, including new neighborhood parks or enhanced pathways at existing preserves.
But for many others, the more pressing issue is where to go when nature calls. With more than 80 percent of respondents to a recent survey placing bathrooms on top of their list of desired park amenities, the City Council is considering the best way to respond.
In their Monday discussion of the city's new Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan, council members considered the wealth of data that has already been gathered by staff and consultants, including assessments of every local park, detailed surveys of more than 1,000 residents, and proposed principles for evaluating new projects and facilities.
During the wide-ranging discussion, council members took issues with some of the proposed principles for evaluation, including one calling for "balance," and questioned the projections that were used to determine the city's future population growth.
Ryan Mottau, consultant with the firm MIG, which is assisting with the master plan, told the council that the extensive input process, which included more than 1,100 responses to both online and in-person surveys conducted at local parks, allowed staff and consultants to identify "a universe of possibilities" for improving what has already been recognized as a great park system.
Many of the respondents focused on "nature," Mottau said, whether it's better access or new enhancements to the city's park system. For others, the concern was "really expanding the usefulness of parks through restrooms," he said.
The survey showed 81 percent of respondents calling restrooms an "important or very important" additions to local parks. Drinking fountains and places to sit, by comparison, only earned 62 percent support.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said Monday that he'd like to add his voice to those calling for restrooms in "all our parks that aren't pocket-sized." This, he said, is both an issue for the people who need to use the facilities and for public health in general.
"I know one of concerns in adding restroom facilities to our public spaces is that it may attract people who don't have access to other restroom facilities," Wolbach said. "Judging by what we've seen in community, frankly, if they don't have access, they'll do their business elsewhere.
"I'd rather them do it in a proper restroom facility than in public, which is what we're seeing. It's just a good public-health policy."
Wolbach also said the city should be "proactive and opportunistic" in finding spaces and funding opportunities for new parks. Councilman Pat Burt made a similar point, saying the city should consider creative ways to re-purpose city-owned land, like power stations or other sites that people "take for granted."
"I think engaging the community and asking where they perceive not only the need but opportunities for asking, 'What is that plot of land over there that nobody uses?'" Burt said. "I think we will find some opportunities. They won't be total solutions but they'll be valuable ones at $10 million an acre."
Burt and other council members also emphasized that the proposed principles should more explicitly recognize and consider nature preserves. The term "open spaces" in the title of the plan doesn't go far enough, both Burt and Mayor Karen Holman argued, noting that the term can just as easily refer to soccer fields. Holman said that while the work to date has been helpful, it left her "hungry for more."
Holman and others also suggested that staff take a fresh look at the seven principles that had been proposed for evaluating projects: playful, healthy, sustainable, inclusive, accessible, flexible and balanced. Holman said there should be some reference to habitats, ecosystems and education.
Councilman Tom DuBois concurred and said that "nature" should be more explicitly called out in the principles.
Councilman Greg Scharff took issue with the word "balanced" and said he wasn't sure how this principle would be applied in the real world in evaluating projects.
Staff and consultants from MIG plan to complete the plan in the first half of 2016. The consultants are now in the second phase of analyzing data, prioritizing improvements and developing recommendations, according to staff. Once completed, the master plan will assess the city's short- and long-term recreation needs and consider the possibility of acquiring new parkland or expanding existing parks.