How can communities become more deeply involved in the process of creating parks? How can parks reflect communities’ best vision of themselves? Exciting projects that answer these questions were discussed at the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference on the “nature of communities.”
Communities’ desire for improved park access can result in simple yet effective innovations. Mitchell Silver, the new parks and recreation commissioner in New York City, is piloting a new approach — Parks Without Borders — that aims to remove physical barriers, like chain-link fences, from the city’s parks. The parks and recreation department asked residents which parks would benefit most from improved accessibility. Some 6,000 New Yorkers responded with 692 parks and then 8 parks in all boroughs were selected to test the concept. In these pilots, the parks department will soon test out more accessible entrances, signage, and edges, and better incorporate park-adjacent spaces into parks. As Silver explained, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, said that “the sidewalk next to the park is actually the outer edge of the park.” 150 years later the NYC parks department is taking these words to heart to remove barriers to parks in communities that want greater openness and equity.
Once communities empower themselves, they can also create parks that no designer could make. For Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks and recreation commissioner and now a senior executive at the Trust for Public Land, “cooperative, community-based processes can lead to new and rejuvenated parks” that break down barriers and also reflect local arts and culture. As an example, he pointed the QueensWay in Queens, New York, “the people’s High Line,” which will eventually run through the most “diverse community on the planet,” where some 100 different ethnic groups will line the route. Trust for Public Land, DLANDstudio Architecture & Landscape Architecture, and others are working with the Friends of the QueensWay and the communities to turn 3.5 miles of abandoned railroad track into a “cultural greenway, in addition to a system of green infrastructure.”
In Richmond, California, a poor community of about 15,000 just north of Oakland, there is a high level of gun violence; “in fact, it’s the 7th most dangerous community in the U.S,” said Toody Maher, the founder of Pogo Park. The city plopped down $300,000 worth of playground equipment in a local park, which locals then “tagged” with spray paint and tried to burn down. Where others would throw up their hands, Maher saw an opportunity to design a new park with the community. “We realized we needed to build the park from the inside out. Instead of just hiring a landscape architect, the community built a 3D model, actually measuring out in the space what they wanted. ” With a $2 million grant from the state parks department, Maher and the Pogo Park neighborhood steering committee hired neighbors of the park to build it, even hiring local graffiti artists to become park artists. “Pogo Park is community-designed, built, and installed. It’s now a green oasis that radiates change out. Everyone wants to live near the park.”
Jennifer Toy, ASLA, co-founder of Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), walked us through another bottom-up community park project in North Shore, California, farm country in the Coachella Valley. Toy spent about a year just listening in the community, a 3,400-person ghost town “on the periphery of the periphery,” a place at the edge of the shrinking Salton Sea, which reeks of decaying fish. While the town received some financing to create a small 1/8-acre park, Toy learned that park didn’t meet their needs, so the community and her team co-developed a plan for a 5-acre park over the course of some 150 open meetings over multiple years. The result of all this community building is a park design that features “a shaded pavilion, a restroom/bike shop building, soccer field, skate plaza, sport court, playground, walking paths, and native plantings.” The park is expected to open later this year.
Lastly, artists can also act as agents of innovation in communities and get people to see themselves in a new light. Streets, another form of public space, can become linear parks that connect people. Seitu Jones, an artist based in St. Paul, Minnesota, creates artistic interventions around the food system. He believes any artist working in a community “must leave it more beautiful than they found it.” With Create, which launched in 2015, Jones made St. Paul more beautiful by creating a temporary half-mile-long public space in the middle of a street, featuring a half-mile-long table with healthy foods. It took some two years for Jones to reach out to all the communities, bring them to the table, and get the approvals to shut down the street.
Jones brought diverse communities “who had forgotten how to cook” together to learn and share.