Updating Your Zoo's Master Plan

With animal care and human engagement central to the mission of most modern zoos, it is important that your master plan reflect the latest AZA accreditation standards. The experts that visit your zoo want to see evidence of a carefully thought out vision and a realistic plan for making it happen.

The term “modern zoo” is not easily defined; but as one presenter at the 2018 AZA Conference put it, “you know it when you see it.” Modern zoos universally demonstrate priority for animal care and enrichment and a commitment to conservation and human education. For institutions that have a lot of demands on limited funding, master planning can feel daunting. It doesn’t have to be, though.

 Why and when does a zoo’s master plan need updated?

If your master plan is more than five years old, your priorities and AZA’s priorities have likely shifted. Each year AZA standards for best practices are updated, and it makes sense that your master plan is updated as regularly as possible to keep pace with evolving standards.

Of course, there are other reasons why your master plan may need to be updated. Perhaps the economic reality under your existing plan has changed. Maybe there is only one area of your zoo that needs an update; or, if you are lucky enough to have donors calling for specific projects, you may have several on the boards now that need to be properly integrated. Or, if your collection has slowly evolved, you may have had short-term renovations that contributed to a general loss of cohesiveness.

When we approach master plan updates, we focus on four main areas concurrently: vision and goals, budget, collection planning and physical infrastructure. Coyle & Caron’s first master plan design was in 1987, and though the zoological world has changed, we still work within that framework.

 The process of updating your master plan 

As a designer, I begin with the current master plan goals and client’s vision. We have worked with clients that have both strong visions for their institutions and those who look to us to inspire or help to evolve their own vision. As a 3rd party, our firm is often able to help clients build consensus and give voice to a philosophy that will guide the strategic and master plans.

Next, we consider concurrently: the physical site, collection plan and fiscal goals. We look for opportunities to strengthen what works well while identifying areas that either need to be completely updated and/or no longer meet the goals of the master plan or are in conflict with current AZA standards. We deliver plans that are elegant in their solutions, while maximizing the organization’s existing assets for the benefit of the critters that live there and the people who come to visit. 

The process usually begins with an initial site visit where our team becomes familiar with the existing animal collection and physical infrastructure of the zoo. As part of this initial visit we prepare a tailored scope of work and proposal to meet specific requirements that may be narrowly focused or more encompassing. Our proposal includes a detailed outline of the process, timeline, number of meetings, costs and final products.

A master plan update typically takes somewhere between 4-12 weeks. Some projects require only one workshop, others several multi-day workshops. We collaborate with our clients through revisions by web or phone conferences as needed. One of the things I enjoy most about our work with zoos and aquariums is helping these institutions realize their larger visions; in the early workshop stages, we are often able to open up possibilities for our clients that they hadn’t thought possible.

As an example, we just completed a master plan update for an AZA accredited organization. The original master plan was more than 25 years old. It was thorough and thoughtful and addressed the complex facets of the particular place – history, neighborhood, topography, and collection planning. The design recommendations in the original plan centered around expansion because the plan was created at a time of economic growth and the promise of a large infusion of municipal funding that never came to fruition. This meant that priorities changed from expansion to ‘getting their house in order.’

The client’s vision had changed only slightly, so our workshops focused on scaling back the master plan by prioritizing animal collections that would be true to the interpretive plan and make the most out of the existing footprint. Our design addressed plans for new exhibits, updates and renovations, clarifying the interpretive sequence, improved ADA and service accessibility, as well as guest services and experiences throughout the zoo. Their master plan is now viable, with realistic budgets and achievable fund raising goals to take the zoo to the next level; I believe their progress and updates including greater economic sustainability through increased revenue sources will attract interest from future donors.

Addressing accreditation standards can be stressful, but it is also one of the most fruitful times for any zoo or aquarium. It’s a time to really dream big and bring your team together in crafting plans. If you’ve got more urgent needs for facility updates, I’ve included a few tips for your team here. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re facing any of these challenges. We’ve been part of the AZA community for over twenty years and are always happy to chat.

Sally Coyle