Engaging community around the Bradenton Riverwalk

How can community-based research during the planning stages of a capital project elevate civic life? How can we ensure that diverse community members have the opportunity to share their opinions and help shape the design of public spaces?

CfAD, Realize Bradenton, the City of Bradenton, Kimley-Horn, and the Manatee Community Foundation explored these questions through a community-based survey developed by CfAD and fielded in early 2018. The survey garnered community input on plans to extend the Bradenton Riverwalk, an award-winning 1.5-mile park that spans the Manatee River in downtown Bradenton.

The existing Riverwalk is a vibrant recreation space, incorporating a playground, a splash pad, public art, a skate park, an amphitheater, and abundant seating. With the Riverwalk slated for an additional 0.7-mile expansion known as Riverwalk East, local partners sought CfAD’s support in surveying residents’ ideas and preferences to inform the project’s Master Plan. A total of 884 people completed the survey, representing a diverse cross-section of residents, visitors, and business owners in Bradenton.

Findings Illuminate Community Priorities

The survey illuminated the community’s desire to showcase local identity. Sixty percent of respondents said they wanted more public art on Riverwalk East, and 30% of respondents wanted this art to highlight the history of the area. The survey also revealed a consistent desire for enhancing connections to nature, as revealed by the top preferences for new Riverwalk amenities: 82% of respondents wanted a scenic overlook, and 78% requested shaded areas for sitting and enjoying the view.

A potential boon to local stewardship initiatives, the survey revealed a burgeoning local volunteer corps. Forty-two percent of survey respondents were at least “somewhat interested” in volunteering on the Riverwalk—much higher than average rates of volunteerism nationwide, which typically hover around 25% in most communities.That proportion jumped to an impressive 64% among respondents that lived closest to the Riverwalk East site (see Figure 1).

Survey Fosters Dialogue Around the Master Plan

Transparent dissemination of survey results brought community members together, and showed that their input had been heard. CfAD prepared a full report and Executive Summary for online dissemination, and presented survey results publicly at a well-attended community meeting. Some attendees who were initially concerned about Riverwalk East’s impact on their neighborhood—specifically around parking, crowds, and the potential loss of unique neighborhood identity—were reassured when they saw the results of the survey reflected in the Master Plan design concepts for Riverwalk East.

According to Johnette Isham, Executive Director of Realize Bradenton, “There’s a clear multiplier effect when we bring people together to help shape the city’s future. This process is about building civic pride, stewardship, social connections, and wellbeing—all while sparking word-of-mouth promotion for our fantastic Riverwalk. In the end, this type of evidence-based, collaborative planning helps us attract and retain visitors, residents, and businesses.”

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    The Bradenton Riverwalk expansion presents an opportunity to boost civic trust, participation, and stewardship. Photos Courtesy of Realize Bradenton.