NHARPC CORNER: Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs) and Recreation Planning

Shayna Sylvia (Strafford Regional PC), Jackson Rand (Strafford Regional PC) and Stacey Doll (North Country Council)

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

NHA RPC logo

The primary role of a Regional Planning Commission (RPC) is to support local municipalities in their planning and community development responsibilities. This is done in a variety of ways such as:

  • Assisting communities in preparing local planning documents,
  • Providing technical assistance and general guidance to local land use boards,
  • Helping to secure funding for transportation and other infrastructure projects,
  • Working with municipalities to obtain and administer state and federal grant programs, and
  • Reducing costs to municipalities through regional coordination and intermunicipal cooperation.


    Regional Planning Commission’s (RPC) have a long history of providing data, services, and technical assistance related to the land conservation and protection of natural resources and recreational opportunities. As more data becomes available and mapping technologies advance, the capabilities in which RPCs can support local communities with recreation planning becomes open-ended.  

    Both Strafford Regional Planning Commission and North Country Council have leveraged these advances despite their differences in geographic conditions and the natural resources available. Many recognize the North Country as a mecca of sorts for outdoorsmen seeking adventures in the White Mountains, while SRPC boasts access to the Atlantic Ocean via several rivers and over 300 recreational sites and resources. 

    Strafford Regional Planning Commission has increased its recreation planning program over the last several years with funding through the NH Children’s Health Foundation, and via its Unified Planning Working Program (UPWP) with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT). This increased programming allows SRPC staff to ensure that one of the greatest amenities to the region is widely shared and promoted. 

    North Country Council has been working in collaboration with partner organizations throughout the northern counties of New Hampshire to identify assets and needs for the outdoor recreation industry as part of the Council’s Economic Recovery and Resiliency planning supported by the Economic Development Administration.  The Council has also been researching bike rack locations throughout the region and has created an online crowdsourcing platform to identify bike rack locations through the Council’s Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP). 

    SRPC and Recreation Planning  

    Most recently SRPC has been able to carry out subsequent region-wide projects to analyze recreational resources in all of its eighteen communities. This started with a project called Pathways to Play (PTP) and has continued through Promoting Outdoor Play! (POP!), both funded by the NH Children’s Health Foundation. Historically, most of SRPC’s recreational planning services were related to trail mapping and providing this data in the form of maps for local communities.  

    Pathways to Play (PTP) and Promoting Outdoor Play (POP!) 

    In 2018, SRPC first received funding from the New Hampshire Children’s Health Foundation (NHCHF) to conduct its Pathways to Play (PTP) project. The funding source, supporting projects aimed at reducing obesity in children under 5 and their families, allowed SRPC to conduct a regional analysis and carryout a pilot project.  SRPC’s project approach included examining access to recreation in the region, which in turn highlighted opportunities for increased recreational access.

    Phase one of PTP allowed for the creation of a regional recreation sites data layer which was later expanded during the Promoting Outdoor Play (POP!) project.  

    Phase two of PTP included a pilot project in the City of Somersworth that examined barriers preventing children from accessing parks, such as road infrastructure, safety, signage, and public awareness.  An outcome of the project, the Pathways to Play plan,  provided an overview of the spatial analyses completed as part of Phase I and identified opportunities to improve access to recreation for children under 5 and their families in a concentrated area of Somersworth. The plan identified assets, analyzed gaps, and explored opportunities with associated actions and prospective funding sources. 

    Building upon PTP, Promoting Outdoor Play! (POP!) sought to enhance the recreation site data layer and create a publicly accessible online, interactive recreation guide.  SRPC staff and volunteers visited over 300 regional recreation sites, inventorying and photographing each. All photographs and data were compiled into an online, interactive recreation guide to help those who live, work, and visit the region to discover the abundance of parks, trails, playgrounds, and other recreational resources available.  

    In the coming Summer months, SRPC will be launching a recreation sites passport program that will encourage citizens to get outside and explore the recreational opportunities in the Strafford region.  Physical passport booklets will be given to children while digital passport links will be provided to adults. This will allow families and groups of friends to physically or digitally stamp their passport as they explore the recreation sites available throughout the region. 

     doe farm

    Caption: Photo captured of Doe Farm in Durham, NH as part of the POP! recreation site inventory. 

    Dover Master Plan Recreation Chapter

    In 2020, SRPC worked with the City of Dover’s Planning and Recreation Departments, and a group of municipal volunteers serving on a project steering committee, to update the 2009 Recreation chapter of the Dover Master Plan. This chapter update was innovative in that it integrated public art and placed an emphasis on recreation programming activities in the city.  Content on these topics was largely informed by an extensive outreach process, including events and digital surveys, and received responses from over 1,200 individuals. Geographic data from the Pathways to Play project was used to analyze the City’s recreation sites in this chapter update, and SRPC staff and other volunteers helped to inventory and survey 24 of the City’s 39 recreation sites to assess individual recreation site needs. These surveys helped to inform direct site-based recommendations that were incorporated into the Master Plan chapter. 

     Dover outreach

    Caption: Outreach event activity for the Dover Master Plan Recreation Chapter 

    Trail Mapping and Promotion 

    SRPC has long provided local communities and conservation commissions with assistance in trail mapping so that others can enjoy the abundant natural and recreational resources in the region.  

    In 2021, SRPC, in conjunction with the Town of Durham Conservation Commission, completed trail mapping for eight Town-owned conservation properties. These maps, which show the locations of trails, parking, scenic viewpoints, picnic tables, and other features along the trail, can be found on the Town of Durham’s webpage and are in the process of being posted at the eight trail areas. 

    The planning commission has also taken a role in promoting trail systems in the region. For the May 2021 Bike/Walk to Work month activity, SRPC partnered with Rockingham Planning Commission (RPC) to create a digital passport program featuring nine trail areas between the SRPC and RPC regions. This trail passport was promoted by both RPC and SRPC and will include lottery drawings for gift card prizes for everyone who participates in the passport program during the month of May. 

    In addition to these specific projects and outreach activities, SRPC can provide trail mapping services for single trail systems, like it did with snowmobile trails for the Lee Conservation Commission in 2018 or be involved in the process of creating and mapping new trail systems with multiple routes like it did with the Plummer’s Ridge trail system. Located in Milton, this resource links the NH Farm Museum, Branch Hill Farm, and McKenzie's Farm. SRPC is also able to assist with data on trail usage, using its pedestrian counter to track the number of people using a trail and most popular days and time.  


     biking on trail

    Caption: Trail photo captured by participants in the Bike/Walk to Work month passport program. 

    North Country Council and Recreation Planning 

    The Council’s primary role in recreation planning in the region has been to support, and bring together, the various organizations who provide outdoor recreation in the region and facilitate collaboration of efforts and identification of regional needs. 

    North Country Rising 

    Through the support of the Economic Development Administration (EDA), North Country Council received CARES Act funding to complete an economic recovery and resiliency plan for the region and identify needs that cross multiple economic sectors.  The Council recently completed the first round of focus group meetings with various sectors of the economy including a focus group for Outdoor Recreation and the Environment.  The North Country is often a destination for so much of our travel and tourism, and the tourism industry is growing in support of outdoor recreation.  With expansion comes the necessary planning needed to build capacity within the region to support the increase of outdoor recreation while also preserving the natural spaces that attract so many visitors to the area. 

    The Outdoor Recreation focus group highlighted that need as the most important priority for the industry – to support building capacity within the industry, meeting the basic needs of our Outdoor Recreation workforce, and creating messaging and on-going stewardship of our natural spaces.  The Council is taking the input from the focus group and integrating it into Storymaps through ArcGIS for the North Country Rising Plan for Recovery and Resiliency of Community.  Assets within the Outdoor Recreation economy will be identified and mapped included the industries strong social capital, natural and historic resources, and skilled, experienced workforce.  Case studies from outside of the region as well as stories of local resiliency and leadership will also be a part of the Storymaps providing guidance for meeting the industry’s needs. 

    Human-Powered Recreation Value Chain 

    In an effort to address the balance between economic growth in the outdoor recreation industry and the need to protect natural resources and a sense of place in the North Country, a network of partners in the industry are working together to build value and connection at the local level to support a local outdoor recreation economy. 

    The Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, while recognizing opportunities to use a more holistic approach to community wealth, provided grant support to two organizations already working in the region to identify and create value chains within human-powered recreation.  The Conservation Fund and the Appalachian Mountain Club, who led this effort with many partners in the region, held several meetings and outreach workshops to explore the relationship between supply and demand in human-powered recreation including mapping the value chain and its partners as well as hosting informal gatherings. 

    “The value chain stakeholders identified opportunities to create locally rooted economic development by expanding existing businesses and establishing new ones that provide products and services directly tied to human-powered recreation. These local businesses that benefit from a growing economy include outfitters and equipment rental, equipment repair and services, outdoor recreation guides, and others. Many visitors to the region come for overnight trips, so hospitality businesses such as restaurants, lodging, and breweries provide other economic expansion possibilities,” Wealthworks Case Study on New Hampshire Recreation.    

    Contributors: (PC= Planning Commission)

    Shayna Sylvia (Strafford Regional PC) ssylvia@strafford.org

    Jackson Rand (Strafford Regional PC) jrand@strafford.org

    Stacey Doll (North Country Council) sdoll@nccouncil.org.

    Learn More

    Want to learn more about your regional planning commission and the services offered? Visit the NH Association of Regional Planning Commissions online at www.nharpc.org where you can read about services, find your region, and take a virtual tour of the planning commissions.