Two of the driving forces behind this initiative, Anoo Siddiqi of the Hester Street Collaborative and Hillary Angelo of Partnerships for Parks, sit down to discuss the ideas behind it and how it works, probing the nature and underlying assumptions of participatory design practice in New York’s public spaces today. –C.S.
Anoo Siddiqi: How would you articulate the specific goals of the People Make Parks initiative?
Hillary Angelo: What we’re trying to do is to raise awareness in the Parks Department and the design community about the possibilities for participatory design. What we’re doing right now is creating something we’re calling a “toolkit,” which will be a web-based collection of translation tools that will help community groups across the city participate more effectively in park planning. So it’s going to be a mix of input-gathering and hands-on tools, and also really basic information on the capital design process, how the Parks Department works, and how parks get built.
AS: Could you explain what you mean by translation?
HA: In the last several years, there has been a growing interest in getting people more involved in the Parks Department’s capital design process. A capital design project is also an opportunity to get people excited about stewardship. So we want to find ways to turn their ideas into information that Parks’ designers can use. I think what’s unique about what Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) does is the group’s ability to do translation on both sides. They synthesize, analyze, and present information in a way that’s visual, not highly technical, and that makes sense to the people from whom they collected it and also makes sense to professionals. They collect information in a way that doesn’t require people to know a lot about design or necessarily speak the same language by using a lot of fun, visual and interactive tools.
AS: That’s right. HSC is an organization working to involve ordinary citizens in the design of public spaces. If you look at the way that ordinary citizens have been able to participate through the work of organizations — which is an important qualifier, with both positive and negative implications — you begin to see that ordinary people, including the elderly and children, have really been able to leave their mark on parks, at least in the Lower East Side projects that we’ve seen through HSC.
HA: Absolutely. Partnerships for Parks has been doing work like this since 1995. Partnerships for Parks is a joint program of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and a non-profit called City Parks Foundation. It is a public-private partnership that seeks to support community involvement in city parks. We help people learn to work with government, learn to raise money, learn to improve parks and strengthen their neighborhoods. The toolkit is a way to extend these efforts through the design process by taking HSC’s process to parks across the city.
During the City’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s, parks deteriorated significantly. As we emerged from years of disinvestment, awareness grew that a public constituency of park supporters was needed in order to advocate for funding for parks. Partnerships for Parks started as an organization that could rally that community. In addition to building this constituency and getting people involved on the ground, another goal was to improve the way government works with people, to build connections, and help the agency become more responsive to the public.
I’m interested in broadening the idea of who has input on what common spaces look like. AS: That’s really necessary, because the perception persists that the designer or the architect should be the final arbiter of what’s designed and what’s put into the public, and that even though something is designed for the public, the information from the public should be channeled very carefully, if it’s even gathered at all. And I think there are a number of design activist movements afoot right now that are working against these notions. People Make Parks is a way to involve ordinary people in a meaningful way in making public spaces.
HA: And the toolkit recognizes the constraints that Parks Department designers face and works within them. General problems like budget limitations as well as others that are specific to a particular park.
One of the things that’s worked well for HSC is its relationships with a wide variety of neighborhood groups in terms of getting input from people on what parks should look like. The prime opportunity is the scope meeting. That meeting generally happens during the afternoon on a weekday and involves the designer and the park manager and a variety of other people meeting to talk about what they’d like to see in the future. It’s hard to get people to those meetings, it’s hard to make sure you’ve got the right people at those meetings, and in general it’s also really hard for designers to get input that’s helpful. Working with Hester Street Collaborative addressed some of those challenges at Sara D. Roosevelt Park, for example. It helped us get more people to the table, and also helped with the translation work to make people’s input usable to the agency.
AS: One of the successful projects that Charles McKinney [Chief of Design for the Department of Parks & Recreation] worked on in the city is one that I’m intimately familiar with because I take my son there almost every day—Hippo Park up in Riverside Park at 91st Street. This is a park whose design is really quite specific. It’s not at all a general park. It’s small, almost a basin that has a variety of children’s play areas for kids from about age 2 until age 10 or 11. There’s no park like it that I’ve seen in the world. It was somehow made very specifically for this community and my understanding is that there was a lot of community input.
HA: That’s one of the successful projects that the Capital Division looks to in terms of park design. I’m curious to look into this question of politics a little bit—you alluded earlier to the idea that children are non-citizens in certain ways. Could you talk more about that kind of input?
AS: This is one of the areas in which I think Hester Street has made some interesting inroads. In the visioning exercises for these Lower East Side parks, advocacy groups in the neighborhoods reach out to people in different communities who make active use of the parks but who wouldn’t know how to get involved in a process like this, or wouldn’t have the language skills to get involved in a process like this. I’m interested in broadening the idea of who has input on what common spaces look like. Parks are really special kinds of places. All kinds of people use parks. In New York in particular, but in general, parks have a history of being the true civic space. Yet, their design is relegated to such a narrow segment of the population.
HA: One of the things that we have learned is that city agencies might not have a lot of time, nor have the resources to hire or train staff with specialized skills. In that scenario, a very useful strategy can be to work with and through community-based organizations that have strong neighborhood networks. This is an incredibly effective way to cover greater ground. Again, Hester Street Collaborative’s relationships with the Chinatown YMCA, with Asian Americans for Equality, and a number of additional organizations, was really useful.
The hope for the People Make Parks toolkit is that it helps overcome two obstacles. One barrier to reaching people, whether you’re a city agency or a community group, is not knowing how to do it, or not knowing why you might care about doing it. So hopefully the kit will address at least those two issues.
AS: Let’s talk about some of those tools, in order to illustrate that.
HA: Sure. Similar to a survey, but less technical and easier to write up, is something we call Voting Boards. We’ve used those successfully in James Madison Plaza, which is a small Lower Manhattan space. We worked with a group of high school kids who were interested in collecting input around this site. It was just an empty concrete space—a large triangle with some benches and big concrete planters around the outside. This group of kids over the past couple of “Its My Park” days—our biannual citywide park cleanup and celebration event—had painted the ceramic planters and put some flowers in them. So we helped them create these sticker boards—there were three boards addressing three sets of questions about the park: how you use it; when you use it; and which additional facility you’d like to see the most. Each was a large piece of foam core divided into four quadrants and each quadrant had the name of a possible answer for each of these categories—for example, “when you use it” might include early morning, afternoon, etc. These kids, both in the park and in front of businesses surrounding it, went around with the boards and handed people stickers, and just asked them to place the stickers in the appropriate quadrant. We used this tool because we were looking for something that was easy for the kids, and that didn’t require intense effort to interpret the result. We were able to bring these boards to the scope meeting, and make a presentation for the designer. And it was great—the designer could look at the board, look at the four quadrants, see which had the most stickers, and get a great sense of who was using the park and when. The kids were able to fill in some anecdotal information as well, talking about who they’d met, and tell stories about why the space mattered to those people. The designer had a wonderful experience, and the kids feel very committed to the space now.
AS: Designers can be very strong advocates for this kind of process. They have the visual tools that I think a lot of people don’t have. They have an ability to create a visual language for people who don’t necessarily have the verbal language. Translating between different languages becomes a very vital strategy.
Hillary Angelo is a Ph.D. student in sociology at NYU and the former Director for the Technical Assistance Program for Partnerships for Parks.
Anoo Siddiqi is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. She is a licensed architect and a board member of Hester Street Collaborative, an organization working to involve ordinary citizens in the design of public spaces.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.