Sunday, November 25, 2012

Community Design Involvement through People Make Parks

What is People Make Parks?

People Make Parks (PMP) is a joint project of Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) and Partnerships for Parks (PFP) to help communities participate in the design of their parks. When citizens engage with government and weigh in on park design, government builds better parks, and the public continues to enjoy and care for places they helped make.
PMP supports collaboration in park design between invested communities and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (NYC Parks), encouraging a diversity of participants to lead in the creation of meaningful places.

Weighing in on a park’s design and celebrating the opening

In 2004, two Brooklyn moms learned that New York City Councilman Bill de Blasio had allocated money to renovate their beloved neighborhood playground, the place they went daily with their toddlers to meet, greet, and socialize.

Julie (left) and Amelia (right) at Greenwood Playground.
Wanting to have input into what the new park looked like, they took it upon themselves to start an informal survey of other park users, to find out what people might want in a new park.
For a few weeks, they observed playground use and interviewed park users – from young moms to teens to seniors – to understand how people felt about the playground. Through interviews and observations, they learned what park features people thought were problematic or unsafe, and which were popular and well-used.

Greenwood Playground before renovation.
After collecting their data, they set up a meeting with the Park Manager to discuss what they’d learned. Eager to make a difference, they even brought playground equipment catalogues, to show him what they wanted. That’s when they got their first lesson in park redesign.

Greenwood Playground awaiting new ideas.
The Manager explained that there were better ways than picking items from a catalogue to share with Parks the insight they’d worked so hard to collect. Instead, he offered to set up a meeting between them and the Park designer assigned to the project.

The same area today.
The Manager also suggested that, if they formed a Friends group, Parks would take their contributions more seriously. They were already deeply involved in the park, and had gotten to know other committed park users through their interviewing process, so starting an official group was a logical next step.  In 2007, Friends of Greenwood Playground (FoGP) launched.

The logo for Friends of Greenwood Playground.
Now, with six members instead of two, FoGP met with the designer.  That’s when they discovered that he wanted to install adult exercise equipment in the park, to make it more accessible to older park users. FoGP, however, told him that, according to what they’d learned, there was a greater need for improved children’s play equipment, and that the playground should be separated in distinct sections for younger and older children.

The older children's play area in the redesigned playground.
With that information, the designer went to work, and by the time the community met at the scope meeting with Councilman de Blasio, the Brooklyn Capital Liaison, the Park Manager, and the designer, FoGP members were thrilled to see that the community feedback they’d gathered had impacted the design, bringing it closer to what they had envisioned.
FoGP hosted a party to celebrate the new playground and bring more neighbors into the fold. One mom said, “We really felt ownership, because we’d participated in the design process, and the party was an opportunity to celebrate the new park we helped create.”

A painted bench at Greenwood Playground.
To ensure the new playground stayed clean and safe, FoGP organized a group of neighbors to lock it each night, and began hosting an annual neighborhood party in the park each Spring or Fall.  In 2008, they added programming, using a Partnerships for Parks Capacity Fund grant to launch Art in the Park, a free summer program of environmental and arts education for kids.

Art in the Park classes at Greenwood Playground.
Though the two moms who started FoGP have since moved on to other neighborhood projects, the group is still active, with a new set of parents working to bring programming and stewardship to the playground.
Friends of Greenwood Playground today
The moms of Greenwood Playground today: Alyson Campbell, Dari Litchman, Stacy Boyd, Jasmina Nikolov, and Lisa Origlieri, with most of their children.
From a pair of mothers hearing word of a capital project and navigating how to get involved, FoGP continues to make a difference in their community and, now, their even more beloved park.

Walking the neighborhood to learn what people want

In 2007, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation allocated $1.9 million to redesign and reconstruct James Madison Plaza, a small, triangular park in lower Manhattan, empty except for planter boxes, trees, and benches along its edges.
James Madison Plaza
James Madison Plaza
For a number of years, the park had been cared for by students from Murry Bergtraum High School’s National Honors Society, who twice a year planted flowers and organized cleanups for It’s My Park Day (IMPD).
The Community Board suggested using the money to bulldoze everything except the trees and start a new plaza from scratch. So for May 2007′s IMPD, 10 students – with help from Partnerships for Parks (PFP) – decided to learn what the community wanted for the plaza, before renovation began.
PFP staff met with the students to plan the input-gathering process. One of the first challenges was that most of the students were seniors graduating in a few weeks who had little time to prepare in advance or conduct complicated data analysis afterwards.

Students meet with PfP staff and the designer.
So staff decided that Voting Boards – large sheets printed with simple questions and pre-selected answers – would be the easiest and quickest way for students to gather information.
The students next met with the Parks designer to find out what she wanted to learn about the plaza’s use by the community. Based on that conversation, PFP helped the students create four 2′ x 3′ Voting Boards.
The day of the event, students set up a tent and sign to let people know about the Voting Boards. Given the plaza’s slow weekend traffic, they also split into groups to canvas the area.  One group focused on nearby residents.  Another targeted local business owners and employees.  And the final two groups stayed in the park to engage passersby.

Teens are important contributors to a People Make Parks project.
A few weeks later, the students presented the Voting Boards to the Parks designer and the Director of Manhattan Capital Projects. The designer liked that the boards were easy to read, quickly highlighted people’s preferences, and distinguished user group (e.g., business owners, students, passersby) responses with different colored stickers. The students also included explanations for the responses, based on their on-the-ground experience.

Counting the results from Voting Boards.
For example, the students learned that many people wanted more lighting in the plaza, which wasn’t one of the response options originally offered. Students explained that those requests came from nearby employees, who worked late at night and felt unsafe walking through the plaza after dark.
Those employees, as well as the high school students, also wanted tables in the plaza, so that they could eat lunch there during the day. One student noted that, “wherever there aren’t benches, there aren’t people.”
Although the Voting Boards documented only weekend use, the students’ familiarity with the park meant that they could inform the designer about weekday use too: from people doing tai chi at 6:30 a.m., to local workers and teachers gathering for lunch, to students hanging out after school.
A month later, the students helped again, by creating English- and Chinese-language flyers to invite community members to the scope meeting, the broader community input-gathering session that takes place before a capital project moves into construction.

Students talk to local residents and business owners to expand their outreach.
There, people added blue stickers to distinguish their input from the yellow and green ones gathered during IMPD.  The boards, combined with the scope meeting discussion, let people offer input about not only the park features they wanted, but also their broader visions for what the plaza could become.
In the end, the designer was extremely happy with the process, as were the students, who also learned about landscape design and public space through the exercise. And, whether they realized it or not, their outreach helped ensure that the new park accurately reflects the needs and desires of their neighbors.

Students created art work inspired by the Voting Board activity.