Evaluation of Recreational Resources

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The amount of acres placed in recreational uses, 537 acres, is surprisingly high for a Township that traces its development patterns back several hundred years. During the development of older communities there often was a noticeable lack of emphasis on acquiring recreation and open space lands, and as these communities became developed, the opportunity for setting aside recreation lands was often lost. The fact that 3% of Lower Merion’s land area is today in recreational lands is fortunate, and provides an excellent base to build upon.
A variety of opens space and parkland is available in the Township, although some neighborhoods are not as well served as others. The Township’s total amount of open space and recreational acreage exceeds the standards; however, it is important that this parkland inventory should not be reduced in the future. Once such lands are converted to other uses, it is almost impossible to require them for recreational purposes.
Court sports will probably continue to gain in popularity in the future, which presents a problem in identifying where additional facilities for tennis, racquetball, and perhaps squash, as well as bicycling and hiking can best be accommodated.
- Excerpts from the 1979 Comprehensive Plan

The Township last prepared a comprehensive Recreation Plan in 1996 and completed individual Master Plans for 10 Township Parks in 1999. These documents are still valid and their continued implementation is a goal of this Plan. While the 1996 Recreation Plan is incorporated by reference into this document, the following excerpt summarizes the important findings of that Plan, with particular attention to the evaluation of existing resources and recommendations:

A descriptive list and map of all Township Parks is included in the Existing Protected Lands section of this report.

Lower Merion Township is a premier community valued by its citizens for its neighborhoods, town centers, natural resources, parks and location. It is consistently rated as one of the top communities in which to live in the Delaware Valley and is home to some of the finest institutions for higher education in the nation. Its citizens are well educated, affluent, and progressive in terms of recreation and leisure trends. Lower Merion has always sought to protect and preserve the character that makes it special.

Neighborhood identity is very strong in Lower Merion Township. However, as the Township’s undeveloped land dwindles and resources are threatened, the need to plan and collaborate as a larger community to meet common goals is increasingly important. This is very evident in the protection of natural resources and the search for facilities to meet expanding recreation and leisure interests.

The parks and recreation system of the Township is at a pivotal point in its development. The inventory of parkland, with the exception of the recent acquisition of Rolling Hill Park, has been constant since the 1960’s. The growth in recreation participation and the emergence of new leisure activities has placed a burden on the existing park system that it cannot accommodate. The existing active neighborhood and community parks are fully developed and cannot accept additional facilities. The Recreation Department can no longer accommodate the schedules of expanding sports leagues. Playing fields are completely scheduled. Even with the use of school district facilities, the Township needs more facilities now: playing fields and game courts, trails and bikeways, picnicking areas, community event areas, and year round indoor recreation facilities.

Parks and leisure services are key components in the quality of life equation. Recreation raises property values, stimulates economic development, deters crime, builds healthy families and enhances community pride. This plan will set forth actions to deal with short-term problems and long-range issues. It will provide a framework for discussion and debate. It provides an ambitious, yet achievable, course of action for enhancing the quality of life through parks and recreation for the people of Lower Merion Township

Ashburn Field, the baseball diamond, at the eastern tip of Kenealy Park in Gladwyne provides a bit of active recreation in what is primarily a resource preservation park.

SUMMARY OF
RECREATIONAL ISSUES IMPACTING THE TOWNSHIP:

  1. There is very little open space left in Lower Merion Township.
  2. Land values are very high.
  3. There are not enough active recreation areas, indoor and outdoor. While there appears to be a lot of playing fields, analysis of their use indicates otherwise. Children are playing sports on property other than ballfields; as many as ten teams are using one soccer field at one time; fields are being leased in other municipalities for Lower Merion players; and the school district is busing players to off school sites because of the lack of fields. The Township may be faced with capping participation in the future.
  4. While natural resources are in permanent protection, they are not being managed because of other demands on the work force.
  5. NIMBYs and BANANAs. While many citizens recognize the need for more facilities, the “Not in My Back Yard” or “Build Absolutely Nothing Anytime Near Anything” syndromes prevail.
  6. Single-issue interests are emerging, causing factions in the community to develop.
  7. Decision-makers are being hit with a large number of demands, many of which are conflicting in nature.
  8. Because of the baby boom “echo,” more students are in the Lower Merion Schools since 1970. Portable classrooms need to be installed and the schools expanded. This expansion will occupy space designated for use as playing fields.
  9. The [Parks and] Recreation Department operates in a crisis mode, responding to the demands of the day. As a result, the department has largely been operating in a status quo fashion for over ten years. Although the demographics are changing and affecting needs, programs and services continue to be the same. In 1996, fewer than 5 percent of the children have a traditional home life of a working father and a stay-at-home mother.

ASSESSMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION FACILITIES

There is clear evidence that parks and recreation facilities in Lower Merion Township are at capacity and all recreation needs of the Township are not being met. Analysis based on national standards show that additional parkland and facilities are required to create a park system to meet citizens’ need now and into the 21st Century.

Many factors are impacting the need for additional parkland and facilities including:

  • Neighborhoods are protective of their park and very resistant to change. Each park should be evaluated through a master plan process that involves citizens in the design process.
  • Neighborhood parks are destination facilities for residents outside of the neighborhood.
  • There is non-resident use of neighborhood parks.
  • Only one active park meets the NRPA suggested size for a community park, other parks are too small and function as neighborhood parks.
  • The parks have been developed over time without a master plan to guide improvements.
  • Active parkland in the municipality is concentrated in the southeastern portion of the community; the northwestern neighborhoods of Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, Villanova, Haverford and Gladwyne are under-served with parkland.
  • The existing recreation facilities are over used. As many as ten teams may use one soccer field at one time.
  • Fields are over-used and are not allowed to rest to rejuvenate the turf. Over-used fields pose a safety concern for users.
  • Parks and open space within the Township are not connected by trail.
  • The informal network of horse trails is in jeopardy.

CONCLUSION

These factors are pointing to a critical need to acquire additional active recreation parkland now. Available parcels are limited and costly and these trends will continue. Land will cost more in the future that it does now. Similar communities have addressed the need for additional parkland by demolishing existing structures to create parks.

RECREATION TRENDS IN LOWER MERION

Lower Merion Township has experienced first hand growth in recreation participation. Waiting lists for sport leagues and the community pool attest to the high activity rates of the citizenry. The private schools and colleges offer a variety of camps and programs. Within the last ten years, new programs began, including soccer, lacrosse, t-ball, roller hockey, basketball and field hockey. Existing leagues rapidly expanded with small neighborhood programs merging into larger township-wide ones. League growth has been as high as ten percent per year. Roller blading and cycling are trends, not just fads. Participation in library programs is up. Interest in the environment and environmental education is evident in the growth of participation in programs at the Riverbend Environmental Education Center and the Lower Merion Conservancy.

Given the fact that Lower Merion’s park system was basically completed more than twenty-five years ago, the ensuing development of new programs, interests, and high levels of participation produced a deficiency in the number of recreation facilities. Neither the Township nor the School District can fulfill all of the requests for facilities and services. Groups have been creative in seeking out alternatives such as leasing field space in other municipalities and gyms in private schools.

Related community trends also have an effect on leisure service delivery. Transportation appears to be an issue. Although the Township runs a bus for senior adults, the Coalition on Aging reports transportation, especially for recreation, is a growing problem compounded by the “graying” of Lower Merion. Two working parent families require summer and school holiday programs that meet their need for custodial care and enriching leisure experiences for their children.

RECREATION PLAN

The goal of the 1996 Park and Recreation Plan was to establish Lower Merion Township as a premiere parks and recreation system in the Delaware Valley. It seeks to preserve the natural resources and open space, to protect the residential neighborhoods, to make service delivery improvements to enhance the overall quality of life for the residents, and to provide management recommendations to move the plan forward.

Lower Merion Township excites the imagination as almost no other place in the region. The Township has the largest park system in Montgomery County; some of the finest universities in the world; a mix of wonderful, strong neighborhoods; riverfront access; a location convenient to a host of cultural resources; excellent schools; and an active involved citizenry. While all of this has been in the making for nearly a century, the parks and recreation system has not kept pace with the intense development, changing demographics; and growing, often conflicting demands for service. A snapshot of parks and recreation facilities in Lower Merion Township from 1996 showed the following:

  • A Township committed to investing in parks and recreation.
  • An abundance of protected natural resources that need effective management.
  • Lack of linkages between parks and community facilities along with existing horse trails in jeopardy resulting from property ownership changes.
  • Insufficient numbers of playing fields and courts to meet the need of the citizens.
  • Very limited indoor recreation space.
  • Public controversy over the need for facility improvements versus the strong neighborhood preservation goals.
  • A host of service providers that operate independently.
  • Township recreation programs and services that have not changed much over the last fifteen years.
  • A park and recreation management system that is fragmented among many units of government and quasi-government units.

Lower Merion Township has what it takes to turn the system around.

  • The Board of Commissioners provides solid financial support.
  • The Township administration is committed to visionary planning and moving ahead with projects and programs to enhance public service.
  • Citizens and community organizations have expressed their desire to participate in the implementation of the plan.

SUMMARY

The Township has made significant progress implementing the recommendations from the 1996 Plan and intends to continue implementation with this Open Space Plan. Since 1996, the Township has recognized the interrelationship between recreation and open space, natural features and historic resource preservation. The strategies presented in this Plan, particularly proposed linkages between resources, are intended to further integrate these valuable resources and achieve benefits from cross planning.

One issue that must be considered is the importance of continued investment and support of maintenance activities, particularly regarding natural features. The interface of natural features with recreation facilities requires constant diligence and maintenance of natural areas to control invasive species and erosion. These requirements will only increase in coming years as new trails are added, especially trails along the Schuylkill River. Natural features maintenance is crucial to preserving the balance between recreational use and environmental conservation.

Another issue to be considered is the projected interrelationship between green infrastructure and recreation in coming years as new public spaces and pocket parks are created in downtown areas and older residential areas. To be successful, these new spaces will need to be highly designed and maintained. Additionally, small residential parks must be designed with community input and may require additional civic participation regarding maintenance. These tasks are largely beyond the scope and resources of the Recreation Department or Public Works. The Township should investigate creating a Green Infrastructure Advocate within the Recreation Department or as an entirely new entity to coordinate future community greening efforts. This recommendation is further discussed in the section on Green Infrastructure.


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