The Immigrants & Parks Collaborative

Parks are one of the most often cited and celebrated aspects of our urban public sphere, heralded by urbanists and designers alike for their ability to contribute to public goods from health and recreation to citizenship. Here on Urban Omnibus, we’ve learned a lot about the diverse kinds of design thinking that go into making parks work. We’ve heard from social scientists plotting stewardship organizations on an interactive map, looked at the unfinished business overshadowing a new park in West Harlem, seen a designer’s proposal to turn summer streets into sustainable event spaces, tested new structures for participatory processes in park design, checked out competitions to make a park-in-a-box and to turn a vacant lot into a putting lot, and heard from Parks Commissioner Benepe about the siting of new parks in formerly industrial or otherwise unlikely places. But the design thinking that goes into making a park successful goes beyond the analysis, location and physical design of the open space in question; it extends into how to engage a park’s users in its ongoing processes of community-building. Starting five years ago, the JM Kaplan Fund initiated the Immigrants & Parks Collaborative to begin to address the challenge of increasing immigrant involvement in eight parks in New York City. Check out some of the case studies in the video below and then hear from two of the organizers who have made this partnership work.

And then get in touch with your stories of immigrant integration, park access and park use. How do you use your local park? What might make you use it differently or more often? Have you recently been practicing Hanafuda, Tai Chi or Capoeira in public? Are you a recent immigrant, a community organizer, a parks enforcement patrol officer, a jogger or a dog-walker with stories to tell? We want to hear from you. –C.S.

Urban parks can be vibrant mixing grounds and places for expression, or isolating spaces of oppression. Their success or failure depends on both their physical design and the networks of community members who use and support them. New York City is often celebrated for its distinct neighborhoods, but traditional civic organizations do not always reflect current neighborhood demographics, and input processes for park planning are often not designed with immigrant communities in mind.

New York’s Immigrants and Parks Collaborative
Immigrants make up 36% of New York City’s population and disproportionately experience high levels of housing overcrowding, making parks New Yorkers’ living rooms and backyards. The city’s uniquely busy streets, sidewalks, subways, and parks bring together immigrants and non-immigrants daily in shared public spaces, making broad, inclusive involvement in those places all the more crucial. Immigrants use and enjoy parks, but encounter language, knowledge, and social barriers to involvement in civic organizations and the parks decision-making process.

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation manages over 29,000 acres of parkland – 14% of the city’s total landmass. The agency depends on hundreds of local civic organizations and volunteer-run “friends-of” parks groups to help maintain, program, and advocate for these 1,700 parks, from urban playgrounds to old-growth forests. The Parks Department struggles to meet the changing physical design needs of park users as populations shift and park activities change, as do languages spoken, programming interests, and foods served. Parks staff is often comprised of seasonal hires with no special language or outreach skills. Without adequate resources or knowledge to do effective immigrant outreach, the Parks Department depends on community-based organizations to help engage immigrant communities.

The Collaborative has provided resources to approach the challenges of immigrant engagement with creativity, focus and support.The Immigrants & Parks Collaborative allows its members to experiment with methods for immigrant engagement, with more focused staff time, resources, and support than are usually available. Funded by The JM Kaplan Fund, it is a joint project of an advocacy organization, a nonprofit, and a City agency: the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), City Parks Foundation (CPF), and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. The Collaborative’s ten community-based organizations are working to increase immigrant engagement in eight parks in New York City. Most have a dedicated staff person, funded by the grant, who carries out the day-to-day work in each park, such as planning programs and conducting neighborhood outreach. The Collaborative works to understand issues unique to local context, while identifying systemic barriers to immigrant access and participation. The aim is to use lessons from this privately funded project to inform the Parks Department’s and other organizations’ efforts to foster more inclusive park engagement.

Two cases exemplify these efforts. In Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, two of the Collaborative’s constituent organizations, the Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) and Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), teamed up to create and employ a more accessible public input process for the redesign of a city-owned playground. In Jackson Heights, Friends of Travers Park approached the Queens Community House (QCH) to partner in efforts to increase immigrant representation in Travers Park activities and programs.

Lessons Learned: Involving Immigrants in Parks Processes and Civic Organizations

The Collaborative has provided a unique opportunity: resources and dedicated staff time that allow small organizations to approach challenges of immigrant engagement with creativity, focus and support. Their activities offer practitioners in local government and civic organizations lessons on rethinking parks as opportunities for integration, regardless of resources:

•  Parks are tools for immigrant communities. It is a myth that worries about housing, employment, and financial security prevent immigrant involvement in parks and community life—inadequate outreach and improper public processes do.

•  Immigrant social networks are tools for government and service organizations.Government agencies want to allocate resources effectively and provide relevant public services, but they need help from local leaders and service organizations to access immigrant communities. Outreach and policy implementation that connect to existing social networks are more effective than independent outreach through traditional methods, and secure broader input on park programming, services, and improvements. This leads to better suited, well used investments, and builds trust.

•  Precedent-setting affects policy. The types of partnerships the Collaborative supports illustrate ways to use local knowledge and existing social networks to promote inclusivity and integration, rather than creating new programs that may not be as effective. When HSC and AAFE facilitated their participation, immigrants in Chinatown provided input for their playground and pedestrian malls because the process was made accessible, engaging, and relevant. These methods were a striking contrast to the traditional process of presentations followed by a feedback session. The Parks Department is now incorporating more “listening sessions” and opportunities for public input into appropriate park projects. Practitioners can learn from experiences like these to improve existing processes, or learn where obstacles to engagement lie and provide more guidance, transparency, and clarity around them.

Integrating new arrivals into existing neighborhoods are crucial social integration efforts that maintain cities’ vibrant, diverse community life. Linking immigrants to civic life has real effects in public space; when people see each other face to face in parks, distant “immigrants” become the neighbor planting next to you, and threatening “government,” your park’s gardener. By making public processes and established civic structures accessible, practitioners encourage immigrant participation that in turn helps create parks and public spaces that reflect the unique character of their neighborhoods.

For more information please contact Silvett García at the Immigrant and Parks Collaborative.

This piece was adapted from an article originally published in Progressive Planning, No. 179, Spring 2009.

Video produced by the JM Kaplan Fund and Supermarché. Images courtesy of the Hester Street Collaborative.

Neerja Vasishta is the former coordinator of the Immigrants & Parks Collaborative and parks advocacy coordinator at the New York Immigration Coalition.

Hillary Angelo is the former director of the technical assistance program at Partnerships for Parks and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Carmelo March 1, 2011

Great work! Will be conducting my interpretive tour of MacArthur Park today. Reading this article gave me another very important point of view to consider and important historical fact to inclued. MacArthur Park is LA’s Ellis Island. The Mac.Park/Westlake District is where most new immagrant groups leaving their lands of origin arrive because of the affordable housing stock, it’s proximity to Downtown and the park. I will share this history. Thank you. Let’s stay connected.