Schooled by the Community: Connecting Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Between new (Mets), expanded (USTA), and proposed (MLS) stadiums and ongoing discussion on how the city’s public spaces are funded, Flushing Meadows Corona Park has been on the receiving end of more press in recent years than it has likely enjoyed since its World’s Fair days. Beneath these headlines is the question of how community members and park users should be engaged to decide the future of their park. The Design Trust for Public Space recently partnered with the New York City Parks Department and the Queens Museum on a project, called The World’s Park, to develop a possible answer. Here, design educator Sam Holleran and Queens Museum Community Organizer José Serrano-McClain, both Design Trust fellows, outline the impetus, structure, and future of the project’s Community Design School. In addition, hear directly from Esther Sánchez and Jason Chin-Fatt, two of the 23 Community Advisors, in interviews about the park proposals they developed and their experience in community planning for one of the city’s great parks, located in one of the world’s most diverse locales. –J.T.

Community advisor <a href="">Jason Chin-Fatt</a> looks over a map of Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Community advisor Jason Chin-Fatt looks over a map of Flushing Meadows Corona Park

The design and financing of parks and other public spaces has recently held sway as one of New York City’s hot — and hot button — issues. But what is often overshadowed in the conversation about park inequities and funding of new parks is how community members can express their ideas for improving regional parks and harness resources to realize them. While well-financed groups make architectural renderings that suggest the inevitability of their projects, many ground-up, community-based initiatives have difficulty articulating alternatives to proposed developments and limited access to decision-makers.

With this in mind, the Queens Museum, the Design Trust for Public Space, and the City’s Parks Department collaborated to develop a Community Design School to put forth ideas for Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The project aimed to amplify the voices of community members by asking them to spearhead a visioning process to tackle issues of connectivity (both physical and socio-political) between the park and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Parks Department already has a mechanism for engaging residents on changes to neighborhood parks and playgrounds through its Community Parks Initiative, but this Community Design School sought improvements for a vast regional park that spans 897 acres, straddles half a dozen neighborhoods, and includes major sports facilities and cultural institutions within its borders. (The NYC Parks Framework for an Equitable Future will extend the approach of the Community Parks Initiative to regional parks like Flushing Meadows in the coming years.)

Design Education Fellow Sarah Lidgus facilitates a conversation. | Photo by Sam Holleran
Design Education Fellow Sarah Lidgus facilitates a conversation. | Photo by Sam Holleran

The School was facilitated by three Design Trust fellows: José Serrano-McClain, the community organizer for the Queens Museum; Sam Holleran, a graphic artist and design educator; and Sarah Lidgus, a writer and design strategist. The fellows brought together community members from neighborhoods on all sides of the park with a focus on diversity in terms of age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and language. (All meetings were conducted in English and Spanish and larger gatherings offered Spanish and Mandarin interpretation). Participants in the Design School became Community Advisors tasked with intensely examining the park and coming up with physical projects to help the park better connect to the communities around it. Advisors were also in charge of bringing ideas out of the classroom and back to members of their respective communities and neighborhoods.

“Park and public spaces are really designed for people without any problems. We are forgetting about the people that are disabled but want to come and enjoy the beautiful park that we have.” — Community Advisor Esther Sánchez | Hear more from Esther in English and Spanish

In order to do this, advisors first examined the history of Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the often-contested visions for its future. The vast site was one of the city’s largest ash dumps before it was transformed by Robert Moses into a grand public space for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. From 1946 to 1950, the park served as the first home of the United Nations and then hosted a second World’s Fair in 1964-65. Following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Queens became a magnet for immigrant families. The neighborhoods surrounding the park are still some of the fastest growing in the city (with one of the highest concentrations of foreign-born residents), and Flushing Meadows Corona Park has become a social hub for people from all over the world.

Discussion at a community forum | Photo by William Michael Fredericks
Discussion at a community forum | Photo by William Michael Fredericks

The community advisors then started the ten-session workshop series with a mapping exercise meant to encourage them to see the park differently. Using an outline of the park, they drew their routes to and from the places they used most frequently and noted locations, not just landmarks, that held special significance for them. A second class sought to teach the advisors to see the park from the perspective of others by sharing different ways community members use and navigate the park. A third tackled spatial justice, examining the forces that shape urban spaces and how decision-making can be made to align with the ideals of equality, inclusivity, and empowerment of underrepresented groups. While many of the advisors are civically engaged in community boards, business, and religious organizations, a focus on spatial justice provided the opportunity to identify how issues affecting their communities play out in the physical environment — from extreme overcrowding in Corona schools to the legacies of red-lining in East Elmhurst.

“I’ve been part of a lot of public engagement processes, but this was different because we had a lot more control over what projects we were working on and how we were going to implement those, and even more control over the conversation and direction.” — Community Advisor Jason Chin-Fatt | Hear more from Jason

From there, the community advisors imagined physical interventions in the park that could improve navigation, opportunities for underrepresented groups, and connections both to the park’s past and the communities that surround it. They brought with them the perspective of those who know the park intimately but are not typically part of such decision-making processes. Here, they benefited from an unusual level of access to those who are: the NYC Parks Department. The Park Administrator and NYC Parks staff helped to plan the curriculum, participated in every class and workshop, and offered practical advice on the feasibility of projects. While some proposals still need development and will require funding from local elected officials to be implemented, the Parks Department has already confirmed the feasibility of implementing and maintaining these proposed improvements.

Community Design School proposals for (L) ARTrances, Artistic entrances that reflect surrounding communities and a (R) Cultural Kiosk, an information point with World’s Fair flavor | Photos by William Michael Fredericks; renderings in collaboration with the Community Advisors
Community Design School proposals for (L) ARTrances, Artistic entrances that reflect surrounding communities and a (R) Cultural Kiosk, an information point with World’s Fair flavor | Photos by William Michael Fredericks; renderings in collaboration with the Community Advisors

The community advisors now have a leg up when it comes to visualizing the improvements they seek. The group worked collaboratively to design, sketch, and produce images that can compete with visions of developers that don’t meaningfully involve the community. In 2013, a plan to place a Major League Soccer stadium on parkland was met with widespread opposition. With visual representations of alternative improvements, community-led groups can now move beyond mere opposition to proactively shape their park’s future and preserve its history. Community advisors can amplify the discussions from the Design School, taking them to the park, surrounding communities, and relevant community boards this summer. An exhibition showcasing the visualizations and the design school curriculum went on view at the Queens Museum in April of this year.

As the work transitions from an organizationally incubated project to a self-directed, community-driven one, the community advisors plan to continue working together and creating partnerships with others interested in positive change in the park. The group faces dual challenges: it will need to develop an organizational structure and codify a mission while advancing the proposals incubated in the school. This summer, members of the group hope to stage several family events with the Queens Museum’s Education Department that would help develop a sensory play space in the park. Advisors will also work with a resident artist as part of Studio in the Park, the Queens Museum’s new collaboration with the Parks Department, to prototype related concepts to improve access and navigation within the park and surrounding communities. The group is also providing their on-the-ground expertise to the Department of Transportation for their initiative to install wayfinding kiosks near major park entrances and surrounding transit hubs. The hope is that these initiatives point the way toward increased stewardship and decision-making roles for community members in shaping the park spaces that they use everyday.

Sam Holleran is an artist, writer, and design educator. He works at the intersection of visual art, graphic design, and civic engagement. Sam is a Design Educator at the Center for Architecture Foundation and the 92nd Street Y’s outreach program, and he previously worked at the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP).

José Serrano-McClain is a community organizer at the Queens Museum. He is an art worker and social entrepreneur who started his career as an economic analyst and a co-founder of Trust Art, a community and funding platform to support the growth and sustainability of creative work in the public realm.