SALT LAKE CITY — What should the future of Salt Lake City’s parks, trails and forestry look like?
That’s a question city officials are now asking residents as they compile the city’s public lands master plan for the upcoming decades.
It’s all a part of the city’s program, "Reimagine Nature," which launched a public feedback period last week. City officials have not only sought feedback on projects online, but they also began a series of popups at city parks to seek feedback in person.
City public lands leaders hope it will help shape the future of open lands in the city over the course of the next 20 years. It comes during a year where the COVID-19 pandemic — especially in the first few months — led to more use for city parks, and outdoors in general.
"We feel like this is the perfect time to engage with people because we’re seeing so much more use of our parks and natural lands, and I think people are looking at their immediate environment and nearby parks in new ways," said Nancy Monteith, a landscape architect at Salt Lake City’s public lands division.
"We wanted to have a combination of in-person, digital (input) and provide as many alternatives as we can to engage with the project while respecting the safety measures we need to for COVID-19," she added.
Seeking public input is a follow-up to a 2019 needs assignment compiled by the city. The report, released in the spring last year, looked at what the division owns and any gaps it may have. One of the top takeaways was that residents viewed parks and public lands as one of the more important aspects that makes the city unique and desirable.
City public lands owns 2,688 acres. Nearly two-thirds of that is natural lands, including 1,100 acres of nonurban natural lands ike the city’s foothills. A little more than a quarter of the city's public lands belongs to regional, community or neighborhood parks. The final 11% belongs to various things such as the city’s cemetery, which is 121.3 acres in size, landscapes surrounding buildings, and retention ponds.
Since the city’s development continues to grow, there aren’t as many options to grow. It also found that improvements needed to be made to make parks more accessible for pedestrians and bikers.
There were also several interesting tidbits within the report, including the finding that residents tended to use parks and natural lands more for running, hiking and walking than for sports courts and fields; so, the draw of parks was they provided exercise and nature. Those polled at the time said they would also prefer to see increases in urban farms or nature education centers. A climbing park and canoe trails were other popular possibilities respondents said.
It also found that users generally felt safe at parks and trails during the day and less safe at night. Users also tended to want more restrooms and were considered top-desired improvements for parks, but maintenance and signage were preferred over restrooms and trailheads on natural lands and trails.
Respondents also said they were "more likely to support" funding of current parks and public lands than endorsing new park improvements or new programming and events.
With the start of the new surveys, public lands officials are trying to figure out if there was anything that had changed since the report came out about 1 ½ years ago and refine some details of the previous report. The agency received about 200 responses on the first day the survey was posted online, Monteith explained.
COVID-19 altered some of how the data is collected. For example, nearly all park events, where officials normally would have surveyed park users, were canceled. The pop-up events, about three in every Salt Lake City council district, will provide residents in all parts of the city to provide feedback. More than 200 organizations were also contacted as possible stakeholders for the future.
"I think there’s a lot of interest around the themes we’re talking about in the project — equity, livability and stewardship — and those are kind of ringing true in the responses we’re getting from the stakeholders," Monteith said. "And then from the public, on site, we’re hearing very specific things — like they want more trails or the kids have lots of great ideas about kinds of new features and playgrounds.”
A portion of the survey asks for feedback on specific projects, such as a paddle trail along the Jordan River Parkway trail, possibly enhancing Pioneer Park for public and neighborhood gatherings or better connecting trails from the mountains to the Great Salt Lake. It also asks if someone has additional ideas for a specific project that could be implemented.
The division hopes to have trends determined by the time they wrap up public feedback in early October. After that portion is complete, it plans to release rough drafts of about 10 projects that would tactically address trends brought up from the surveys. These drafts are expected to be released either by the end of 2020 or by early 2021, according to the division’s website.
The community can provide feedback on those projects with the final master plan for the next 20 years possibly released in spring or summer of 2021.
"We know that the most important thing is to have the public really be advocates and really be excited about the projects and about the plan, and that makes the biggest difference in realizing a vision," Monteith said.