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Whose Park is it?

This story orginally appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of DiscGolfer Magazine

Course approval can be challenging. In every situation, it’s wise to highlight the unique joy, accessibility, and cost-effectiveness of disc golf as eloquently and enthusiastically as possible.

But sometimes you also have to play defense, especially if the proposed site is a multi-use park. Sometimes you’re gonna feel like Derek Billings at the Halloween Classic, putting on a windy day to a basket atop a high knoll, with nothing but bonks and rollaways to show for your effort. But suffering a defeated proposal isn’t just one bad hole. It feels more like a DNF. Nobody wants that.

To be sure, a disc-golf-specific site is ideal, but a multi-use site can also be successful for everyone involved. Below, I’ve shared a few ideas that might increase your odds of approval at a multi-use site. Full disclosure: My ideas reflect direct experience with many failed proposals — I think I have some things figured out, but certainly not everything! — so keep those grains of salt handy.

Functional AND fun

Before engaging in the public process, make sure you thoroughly understand all of the legitimate concerns and constraints at the proposed site. You have to go way beyond “this looks like a fun shot.” You have to account for how the course will function in a park with other users and activities. Keep in mind that you will likely be presumed to be a disc golf expert. So if you’re not yet an actual expert, get as much input as possible from an accomplished designer with experience in the type of course you’re envisioning.

What other activities occur in or near the space you’re proposing? If any activities occur in a park with picnic benches, playgrounds, grassy areas where people often gather, then all disc flights must completely avoid these areas. If there are activities which pass through the prospective course area, where users such as walkers and cyclists move along rather than staying put, then it’s possible to design a safe layout there. But you must account for how every potential shot might be (mis)played, including extremely offline flights by big throwers. You must account for every situation where players and other park users are not visible to each other.

This topic — safe course design in non-exclusive spaces — is both important and complex enough to warrant an article by itself, or maybe a book. (For example, how errant flights are amplified by hole characteristics, such as wind angles, downslopes, and tree ricochets. Also, the speed that pass-through users travel down an existing path, moving from a hidden area into the open. Also, the tendency of disc golfers to underestimate the risk of errant flights if they play a high-risk course regularly, etc, etc.) Suffice to say that you must be thorough and conservative about any potential risk to other park users.

There are other legitimate issues that warrant your proactive assessment:

How will disc golf impact the physical space itself, in terms of habitat and aesthetics?

Although disc golf is more of a passive recreation than an active one — working with the existing natural space, placing minimal stress on the site’s resources — disc golf’s impact is not insignificant. Do your homework on the existing flora and fauna. If there’s a particularly stunning natural element on the proposed site, one that’s popular with other park users, consider leaving it out of your course. Anticipate soil erosion and compaction from paths, tees, and baskets, especially in drainage areas. Anticipate which trees might take a beating, even if just aesthetically. Be prepared to adjust the location of course features and also recommend proven mitigations for potential problems. Think at least five years ahead.

Do the community’s recreational needs match the player base you hope to serve?

If the community is most interested in serving kids from nearby elementary schools, then a long, rugged course is not a good choice. If they’re looking to support small businesses near the park by drawing visitors from around the region, then a short, bare-bones course may not be the right choice either.

How well does the course fit into the near-term and long-term vision of the park?

A new course only has one opening day. After that, somebody has to care for it – not just sweeping tees and moving baskets, but also adjusting the installation and layout as the park’s usage and environment change over time. Some of those changes might be predictable. For example, if the park’s Master Plan envisions a four-field baseball complex where you’re proposing holes 7-12, have a plan to maintain the flow of the remaining holes. Some future changes may be less predictable, such as parking pressure from general community growth. To ensure that the course continues to be a good fit, be ready to adapt.

How do you get this information? For much of it, you’ll need to hear from the community and to the people who manage the park. Which brings us to part two.

Whose park is It?

For me, public parks are an essential service, fundamental to the well-being of a community, on par with water, roads, and public safety. Given their importance, public parks warrant constant vigilance, to ensure that the collective interest of the broader community prevails over the selfish interests of powerful individuals.

Personally, I like it when the people get involved, when they refuse to blindly cede power to anyone, including their own elected representatives. This belief comes from personal experience. About 45 years ago, my Mom, my #1 hero, smelled something fishy in the unreliable trash service in my hometown. She got involved. She spoke truth to power. She helped reveal an actual conspiracy. She led a recall to get the crooks out of office. And then she became mayor – somewhat reluctantly and completely incorruptibly!

So, here’s my idealistic answer to the question “Whose park is it?” The park belongs to the people, baby!

However, as often happens in our democratic republic, decentralized power can get messy. Healthy vigilance can be drowned out by angry vigilantes, energized by an echo chamber of lies and conspiracies. They declare themselves the only true citizens of the park. They storm the council or commission, promising retribution to anyone who dares continue the evaluation process.

What can you do when other citizens, most typically NIMBYs who live near the park, object so adamantly and so unreasonably to your proposal?

First and foremost, you have to accept that you’re not going to change most opponents' minds. Also, as galling as their ridiculous claims may be — my goodness, I’ve heard some doozies! — it doesn’t matter whether you set the record straight on every claim they make. Instead, you need to focus on how you conduct yourself in this difficult situation. You need to convince the citizens on the fence, and especially the decision makers, that you’re knowledgeable, honorable, unselfish, and kind. You need to convince them that you have the same values and goals as they do.

Having said that, here are a few counterpoints to common opposition arguments, arguments that do have some basic merit. These arguments are likely enough that you might consider making your point, doing your best to frame the issue, before opponents bring it up.

Claim: “Disc golf is dangerous. People have been badly injured.”

Counterpoint:  “World-wide, there are roughly 8,000 courses in multi-use areas, (including these examples near your proposed site). If we assume 30 rounds per day, 50 throws per round – that’s 12 million throws per day. Over 4 billion throws per year. And each year, yes, there are reports of a few injuries that require medical attention, and every five to ten years a very serious injury. Ten injuries a year equals one injury every 400 million throws. At this rate, an average course would have one serious injury every 800 years. And yet, we’re not satisfied with these numbers. We know how to design this course to ensure it is much safer than average.”

Claim: “Disc golf is bad for the environment. It damages trees and destroys habitats.”

Counterpoint: “At nearly every course in the world, (including these examples near your proposed site), disc golf’s environmental impact has been almost entirely limited to foot traffic and nicks on trunks and branches. Even at the busiest courses (such as these examples near your proposed site), you’ll see just as many birds and other animals as before the course was installed. The baskets and tee pads have extremely small footprints on disc golf courses — roughly 50 square feet per acre, around 1/1000th percent of the space — a much smaller footprint than the existing pathways, restrooms and other park features. The additional foot traffic and the course installation elements will not upset the environmental balance any more than the park’s existing features have done. “

Claim: “Disc golfers will take over the park. Nobody else will be able to use it.”

Counterpoint: “A popular disc golf course typically has 10-20 players playing at a time. 20 players is roughly one person per acre. Even if the course is completely full – a foursome on every hole – that’s four people per acre. Four people per acre is not crowded.”

Claim: “The park is just fine the way it is. We don’t need some outside group coming in here, changing everything.”

Counterpoint: “Yes, this park is already amazing. We think that disc golf just adds something different, something that will build an even bigger community of people who also love and support the park. As we’ve seen at (course near your proposed site), disc golf is just an addition to the existing activities in the park. The people who were already enjoying the park have continued to enjoy the activities they like. (Testimonial of a non-disc golfer would be great here.)” Note: Don’t say the park is “underutilized.” Even if it’s true — and even though achieving high usage of parks is a core goal of any district — this term will be perceived as dismissive of current users.

Claim: “This proposal has gone way too far without getting any input from the community. Somebody is trying to hide something.”

Counterpoint: “This is just a proposal. We greatly appreciate community involvement, it’s essential to the success of this course. That’s why we’ve already sought out community input informally many times before this more formal discussion. (Give examples.) I understand that this proposal may seem more detailed than some people might have expected. We wanted to provide more than just a vague concept, to provide at least some specifics. But we’re in no hurry. We’re happy to continue this discussion, adapting the proposal along the way, as long as it takes for everyone to have a complete and accurate picture of how disc golf fits in this park.” (Note: If you’re presenting a map in the first official public discussion, probably best to show only the rough routing and maybe hole numbers – but not all the tees, basket positions, and distances.)

Claim: “Discs are metal and sharp like a saw blade.” “There will be big tournaments with 10,000 cars every weekend.” “You’re going to cut down all the trees.” “You’re going to put a fence around the course to keep everyone out.” “Your private group is just trying to make lots of money by using a free park.” “You’ll kill all the animals.” “I think disc golf is lame.” “Disc golf is the anti-Christ, but it would be fine somewhere else.” (Ok, yes, I exaggerated that last one. But only a little.)

Counterpoint: “Thank you for your input.” Or, if you can’t say nothing, here are a couple responses. Again, use with caution, as unreasonable people tend to get more upset when they feel they’re being criticized: “Some people are suggesting that the worst thing that ever happened at any disc golf course, or the worst thing they can imagine — things that have never actually happened anywhere — are all definitely going to happen here. If that’s the standard our parks are supposed to meet, then we probably shouldn’t have bike paths or playgrounds or swimming pools or baseball fields.” You could also say: “If disc golf is so terrible, then why are other communities adding so many courses (local examples are good here), hundreds of courses every year? I’m sure the people in those communities also have the internet. I don’t think everyone in those communities is stupid or corrupt. It’s not some sort of grand conspiracy. It’s just a fun, inexpensive recreation and it’s getting more popular every day.”

Along the way, it’s easy to wonder about the motivation of the opponents. Are they cynical disc golf haters or are they sincerely doing what they think is right? Are they acting out because they feel powerless? Is the proposal caught in the middle of some political feud that has nothing to do with disc golf itself? Yes. Or maybe no. Who the bleep knows?!

Ultimately, what really matters is this: Once the opposition demonstrates that they will say and do anything to block your course, once they’ve gone insane in the NIMBrain, how will the decision-makers respond?

So, here’s my pragmatic answer to the question “Whose park is it?” The park belongs to the decision-makers!

The decision-makers make it happen

Recently, I’ve spoken off the record with public officials — parks staff and commissioners, city council members, those who were the decision-makers for contentious disc golf proposals. Among other things, I asked for their thoughts about the course proposal, how it was perceived by the community, and whether the decision-making process was fair and effective. Generally, they considered the course proposals to be fairly solid. One suggested we target some pages/slides to the general community, for example: easy to learn, affordable to play, popular with kids, testimonials from community people, and target other pages/slides to the parks department: excellent ROI, getting youth involved, supplanting undesirable activities, testimonials from other parks departments. One said, “The people and the parks department are looking for different things. Testimonials are persuasive, especially from people that the community can relate to. Get them from people who aren’t affiliated with the group proposing the course.”

Where course previews were part of the proposal process — a casual, one-day temporary setup open to the community — all the officials loved them. Often, parks staff/commissioners became more eager to support the proposal when they noticed that the preview event was enjoyed by city council members.

Was the decision-making process fair and effective?

In my experience, the decision-making process in most communities does not provide for constructive dialogue. Instead, the “discussion” consists a bunch of emails and 2-minute speeches which do very little to increase understanding or achieve consensus. Often, the commissioners and council members keep their thoughts to themselves, asking few questions, challenging few falsehoods, before rendering their decision. One told me: “I became a commissioner because I love our parks. I’m a volunteer, I don’t get paid. But if people are going to make something into a big headache, then, sorry, I don’t want to deal with it, even sometimes if it was a good idea. There are other things I can do for our parks without the headache.”

What are the decision-makers really looking for, what do they need to support your proposal?

If the NIMBYs are fired up, they need two things. First, they need political cover. This could take many forms: strong support from a popular politician or community leader; project ownership by Eagle Scouts, Rotary Club, or another unassailable group; unanimity on the board or council. Again, having a preview event is a good way for them to say “We hear your concerns. Let’s see what a course would actually look like before we make any decisions.”

Second, they need to be confident that they know the difference between legitimate concerns and ridiculous claims. This requires working with them one to one, going carefully through all the issues and mitigations. It gives you the opportunity to demonstrate that you’re flexible and resourceful, that you’re committed to making the course fit as well as possible.

When disc golf is seen as some weird sport that only appeals to a small group of people, the decision-makers need to reframe the discussion. They need a different story to tell. Frequently, the most effective story is “This solves a problem in the park that the community has been concerned about for a long time” – e.g., homeless camps, dumping, trespassing, other criminal activity. Or it could be “look how many people are enjoying the course in (rival community), all the economic benefit going to those small businesses. We need to get those benefits for our community too.”

Here are a couple other things that might motivate a decision-maker. They may take pride in doing something unique, like helping to establish the first disc golf course in their community.

Final thoughts

Disc golfers are not immune from ignorance, selfishness and power-for-power's sake. Sometimes we’re the first ones to utilize a public space and we’re the ones to act entitled and rude when other community members want to share the space. Let’s do our best to embrace the community spirit, the idea that our parks are best when they provide joy and health to as many people as possible — including people who don’t enjoy the same things we do.

And let’s be honest and humble about our proposals. Sometimes disc golf is not a good fit, or barely feasible, in a park. Sometimes it’s not the right thing for that community. And that’s ok — right?

Also, yes, I’m aware – and fully-supportive! — that disc golf course development is trending toward dedicated and/or private spaces. My guess is that, 10 to 20 years from now, the idea of a new course in a multi-use public park will seem anachronistic. But that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice good opportunities to share our fair game with our community wherever we can — as long as we do so safely and sustainably.

Finally, it’s worth repeating: Bringing in some experts – people with proven success on similar proposals and designs – will increase the odds of your proposal getting approved. And working with them will accelerate your learning curve toward becoming an expert too!

Leonard Muise #3974 is a 60-year old Frisbee player with a 90-year old's memory and a 30-year old's energy. He likes to shake things up in California.