NORMAN — The community that plays together stays together.
“Sharing joy, laughter and fun with others promotes bonding and strengthens a sense of community,” according to helpguide.org, a nonprofit dedicated to psychological wellness and suicide prevention.
Multiple sources confirm that play is crucial for the healthy development of children, and many studies indicate that play fosters creativity and productivity in adults.
It’s no surprise, then, that in a university community like Norman parks are important. In 2009, the city completed a Parks Master Plan and Community Survey to facilitate planning for the future of Norman’s parks and recreational facilities.
“One of the highest priorities indicated by the citizens during the master plan process was the renovation of the existing city parks,” Parks and Recreation Director Jud Foster said. “The survey also indicated a desire for more pedestrian trails.”
Now, the Norman City Council is piecing together a plan upgrading and expanding those community amenities.
Norman has about 65 parks and 1,140 acres of park land. Those numbers do not include Legacy Park, which has not yet been built, but do include nearly 283 acres of neighborhood parks and recreation facilities, 512 acres of community parks and recreation facilities, about 290 acres of special purpose parks and recreational facilities and 56 acres of linear parks.
Much of that park acreage is undeveloped, some of it intentionally, as is the case in Sutton Wilderness. Ruby Grant Park and John H. Saxon Park are undeveloped park land that have been designated but not developed and opened yet.
Some of the neighborhood parks are small. Consider the tiny Centennial Park, 411 W. Symmes St., which is one-fifth of an acre — likely the smallest Norman park. Other neighborhood parks such as Northeast Lions Park, 1800 Northcliff Ave., are fully developed parks with amenities.
Lions Park includes 35 acres with a playground, a disc golf course, a pavilion, 10 benches, nine picnic tables, eight barbecue grills, a drinking fountain, a bridge, a restroom and a water feature. Lions is the largest neighborhood park listed in the master plan.
Foster said primary use and purpose determines the difference between neighborhood and community parks as designated in the master plan. Community parks tend to be larger and have more parking, restrooms and other facilities that can be used by residents for holiday gatherings, festivals or sporting events.
Developed community parks include Andrews, Griffin, Little Axe and Reaves. Griffin is the largest with 158 acres, which is home to 16 soccer fields, nine baseball fields, five softball fields, a dog park and a disc golf course. Ruby Grant, 146 acres, and Saxon, 96 acres, are planned as community parks.
Special purpose parks include Sutton Wilderness, with 160 acres of undeveloped nature reserve, and Westwood Park, with 130 developed acres. Westwood is home to a golf course, tennis center and swimming pool.
Norman’s three linear parks include the urban Legacy Trails system and the Doubletree and Hall Park Greenbelts.
“Those (Doubletree and Hall Park) are mostly passive areas for walking or jogging,” Foster said. “They’re greenbelt sites.”
Norman’s newest park is not included on the city’s master plan. That’s Monroe Park, which was created in cooperation with Norman Public Schools and was built using money freed up by a city charter vote in 2011. That money also is paying for upgrades of Colonial Estates, Colonial Commons, Sunrise and Adkins Crossing parks.
Money collected by the city over the years in lieu of park land dedications was freed up by the charter vote, which allowed the money to be used for improvements in cases where there is no more available land to purchase. The money is used only in area parks where the development fees are paid.
Funding for Legacy Park is coming from the TIF. As the city council plans future park upgrades and expansions, funding will be the big question.
The city also operates six recreation facilities, many of which need new gym floors or other improvements.
Foster reported to city council members recently that about $450,000 worth of maintenance equipment needs to be replaced. There are staffing needs, as well. The city’s hiring freeze during the recession has left three vacant positions in park maintenance.
“It’s important that we get those filled,” Foster said.
But the council is considering outsourcing maintenance for Legacy Park when it comes online and may do a cost comparison to see if other park maintenance needs should be contracted out.