Our Zoo Design Architects Conquer the Master Plan Madness

March 7, 2024 • Drew Jordan, RLA


We are coming to the end of another March Madness and the best college basketball teams will be fighting it out for the championship. A lot has been made of the teamwork and chemistry of these teams, and how that comes together to create excellence. Watching these talented teams work together to achieve a common purpose parallels my professional life in seeing the importance of a successful zoo master planning team and what they can do for a zoo.

Zoo design architects are known for the exhibits their team creates. But it is the way they fit into the overall master plan that ultimately makes their projects successful. It is like a well-executed game plan that results in a blow-out win, versus a half-court desperation heave at the buzzer.


Teamwork, Communication, Goals

The key to zoo master planning is teamwork. Teamwork not only on our architectural team, but also between the zoo design team and the zoo’s leadership team is critical. At the heart of effective teamwork is collaboration—the art of using communication to create ideas and produce results.  You hear this in the NCAA Tournament. “This team communicates well together. They are all on the same page.”  It means everyone is in synch and trusts what their teammates are doing. At WDM, we take great pride in our ability to team with a zoo and create uniquely tailored master plans for their institution.

Large zoo or small, master planning is crucial to long-term success. When a zoo building project is completed, it has a “ripple-effect” throughout the entire park. What may seem like a simple change can ripple throughout the entire zoo and cause “madness” if not planned correctly. It will obviously directly effect staff, attendance, maintenance and promotions. But it will also directly effect other areas such as infrastructure, traffic flow, surrounding exhibits, feeding schedules, and amenities to name a few. In other words, the overall business model is affected by a new or renovated zoo project.

An experienced design team will look at all aspects. They will inventory and analyze a number of factors including buildings, exhibits, traffic flows, maintenance patterns, guest needs, and amenities. The team can then determine what the effect will be on the overall business model. The “madness” is replaced with a unified roadmap of prioritized projects that ensure long term success for the zoo.


Roadmaps to Long Term Success, no Matter How Large or Small of Zoo

In many cases, large zoos have more capital dollars to spend, but can spend haphazardly if not planned carefully.  They can also leverage capital campaigns or bond initiatives to fund major exhibits, often relying on conceptual renderings produced during the master plan phase to raise donor support.

Developing a master plan for a smaller zoo is many times a different animal entirely.  Though some of the inherent complexities might be lessened, the importance of creative and strategic planning is heightened due to their lack of space and budget. The projects are generally smaller in scope, but with proper placement and creative conceptual design, their intrinsic value can far outweigh the cost. Proper species selection is also important.  While some of the control comes from Taxon Advisory Group recommendations, many times it is in the master planning stages that those decisions on what biomes and which animals to exhibit are made.  Holding capacity and space are sometimes limited so these decisions can have a huge “ripple-effects” and completely change the look and feel of a small zoo.




WDM’s Master Planning Experience

  • Phoenix Zoo Initial Tropics Trail Master Planning led to a successful private funding drive that led to creating a new entry, admin complex, event/education building, amphitheater and many updated animal habitats.  Building on this success, the zoo also partnered with us to create a new vision for their African Trail and a long-range master plan to foster continued growth.
  • Blank Park Zoo Master Plan re-energized zoo with new exhibits, guest amenities, and support facilities.  We are currently working with them to implement these projects as their vision evolves.
  • El Paso Zoo Master Plan document positioned the zoo for a larger share of a quality-of-life bond which then funded projects like the amphitheater, touch tank, sea lion show, Chihuahuan desert exhibit, playground and carousel.
  • Western North Carolina Nature Center Master plan improvements included new entry with better parking access, improved traffic flow, new exhibits to generate renewed public interest and play areas designed to engage young visitors.  These improvements fostered incredible growth and attendance more than doubled in the ten years following implementation.
  • Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Master Plan work focused on assessment of multiple sites for relocation of several species to improve animal welfare and guest experience.
  • Seneca Park Zoo Master Plan phases have included updates and expansion to Africa and Cold Asia.  It also includes a vision for a new Tropics building and zoo entry that is currently in design.
  • Butterfly Pavilion Master planning provided an opportunity for new private and public partnerships and resulted in a new facility at a new site.
  • Alexandria Zoo Master Plan goals include providing a high-quality, fun and educational guest experience, adding new habitats that enhance animal well-being.
  • Magnetic Hill Zoo Master Plan work included a focused look at the African region of the zoo and the surrounding zones that complement it to make an improved guest experience and animal welfare.

What’s the next project for your local zoo? A tiger exhibit? A new administration building? Maybe a behind-the-scenes maintenance facility?

Regardless of the project, to avoid the “madness” of ineffectual spending or development, it should be in your zoo’s master plan. If you are operating a zoo and need some assistance in long-term planning, WDM Architects have the collaboration, experience, and passion needed to create a master plan with championship potential.