As the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial, it’s time to look ahead and think about how America’s national parks should evolve over the next 100 years. A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues that the NPS will need to become far more inclusive to meet the needs of the mostly urban, majority-minority country we’ll have by 2043. The NPS will also need to identify areas for conservation amid the rapidly-sprawling cities of Western states before it’s too late. Already many poorer Latino and African American communities out west have been under-represented among national parks and have none nearby to enjoy. The key message of the report: put national parks closer to diverse, urban populations, and then further remove barriers preventing these populations from enjoying these places.
A recent poll conducted for CAP found that “77 percent of Americans believe the United States benefits a great deal or a fair amount from national parks. Furthermore, 55 percent of voters believe they personally benefit a great deal or a fair amount from the country’s parks and public lands.” Research from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, confirms the enormous value of the parks: they are estimated to be worth some $92 billion to the American people.
But the reality is national parks benefit some more than others. The National Park Service is still dealing with the legacy of Jim Crow-era laws that enforced segregation in many parks. “In some cases, these laws made parks entirely off limits to African Americans.” While everyone today, by law, has equal access to national parks, “the majority of visitors remain white, aging, and fairly affluent.” And, as has been noted, 80 percent of NPS employees are white.
CAP’s polling found that 55 percent of all respondents to their survey had visited a national park, monument, or other area in the past three years. But if results are broken out by race, it looks a bit different: 59 percent of whites have visited, while 47 percent of Hispanic respondents, and only 32 percent of African Americans said the same thing. And NPS’s own 2009 survey apparently showed similar disparities: 78 percent of park visitors were white, while only 9 percent were Hispanic, and 7 percent, African American.
The report also finds there are differences in visitation among different income groups. “Only 39 percent of Americans with incomes below $40,000 reported visiting the National Park system in the last three years.” In comparison: 59 percent of those who made between $40,000 and $75,000 visited, as well as 66 percent of those who made more than $75,000.
While the NPS is now designating more places diverse populations want to go to, there is still more to do. Only 112 of the 460 designated units of the NPS, or 24.3 percent, have a focus on diverse groups. This is not thinking ahead to meet the needs of a mostly-minority country.
Recent steps — like creating the Stonewall Inn National Monument in New York City, which preserves the site of the Stonewall riots that started the LGBT rights movement, and the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, which honors an important Latino civil rights activist — are steps in the right direction, but the report argues more of these protected places need to be created. This is because “parks aimed at preserving traditionally underrepresented histories and stories in fact attract higher visitation rates than the national average from groups that they aim to honor.” For example, some 37 percent of visitors to the Nicodemus National Historic Site, a park that preserves a western town established by African Americans, are themselves African American, in comparison with around 9 percent of visitors, on average, for other parks.
The report also makes the case for preserving natural area in the West, where development “disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities.” Poorer and minority-heavy communities are typically more developed than average, which means these groups grow up in areas with fewer natural resources — and national parks and monuments.
The report argues these communities need both more small neighborhood parks and more preserved large natural areas. “Congress, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the president should create and enhance public lands in accessible places — so-called frontcountry recreation areas. Frontcountry areas offer close-to-home natural settings and outdoor experiences, which allow people to experience nature without needing to travel to a far-off destination. Emphasis should be placed on accessible frontcountry parks near communities of color, low-income communities, and urban areas.”
A prime example of what NPS needs more of: the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which President Obama designated in 2014 and is just a 90-minute drive for the 15 million-strong, diverse, urban population of Los Angeles.
The moribund Pershing Square Park in downtown Los Angeles briefly came back to life over the past few weeks, thanks to artist Patrick Hearn’s monumental and mesmerizing Liquid Shard, which is made of holographic mylar and monofilament and spans some 15,000 square feet. Riding invisible wind currents, the piece undulates along a span 15 feet high to the top of the park’s tower, at 150 feet high.
According to Hearn, “the inspiration comes from observing nature and the feeling that we are only aware on a very surface level of what is really going on around us. Unexpected things are revealed in time-lapse or hyper-spectrum photography that fascinate me. Like fractals recurring progressively, we feel the currents of air on our skin but do not see the larger movements.”
The video above also shows the incredible capabilities of video-enabled drones. A technology largely unavailable even a few years ago, video-enabled drones now allow artists and designers of all kinds to tell new stories about the places they have created. The value for landscape architects is clear.
As the temporary installation Liquid Shard comes down, Paris-based landscape architecture firm Agence Ter soon start their work redesigning the unloved park. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, “the French landscape firm’s approach is notable for the ‘town square’ approach taken to the site, where a large canopy located at the western edge of the park will house cafés and other amenities that open onto a grassy knoll at the center of the park.”
Los Angeles city council officials hope the new park will open by 2019.
In Lund, a city in southern Sweden, the MAX IV Laboratory houses a synchrotron, a giant particle accelerator. Unfortunately, scientists there found the facility was buffeted by ground vibrations from a nearby highway. They discovered even the smallest vibrations could throw off their precise studies. Instead of finding a new site, the lab decided to use smart landscape design to create a solution. Working with Fojab Architects, landscape architects with Danish multidisciplinary design firm Snohetta created a 19-hectare park that absorbs vibrations while creating public space, a constructed meadow land, that also captures stormwater.
On their web site, Snohetta writes that ground vibrations are “commonly created by wavelengths between 10 to 40 meters in height and follow the surface of the ground.” If a landscape is flat, their models showed, vibrations could reach the laboratory. But experiments with different types of wave topography found that certain forms could actually absorb the vibrations.
Snohetta used the software program Grasshopper to model the effects of vibrations, defined at 10 to 40 meters at an amplitude of 4.5 meters, on their site. The primary lab building had to be a circle. But they decided to twist and raise it, creating a “dynamic shape based on the Möbius strip,” which is a surface with one side and one boundary. And then they went further, creating a sort of Möbius volume. Landscape wave forms radiate out in a pattern that breaks up incoming vibrations. According to Snohetta, “the more chaotic combinations of waves, the better.”
To build this intricate landscape, Snohetta uploaded the 3D model directly into to the GPS systems guiding the bulldozers who carved the shapes. For the firm, it was like “having a giant 3D printer producing the project on a 1:1 scale.”
On top of blocking the vibrations, the designers also brought a sustainable design approach — soil was cut on site and then filled in elsewhere to create the waves. They argue this will help ensure the site can return to agricultural use if the synchrotron is no longer used.
The waves also help channel stormwater into ponds designed to accommodate both 1-year and 100-year rain events.
And throughout the park, there are native meadow grasses, planted from seeds gathered at a nearby nature reserve. The lab will bring in sheep to help manage the grasses.
Even though the location looks fairly suburban, there is also ample bike parking for lab employees and visitors.
Working to Make Public Space for Everyone in Baltimore – The Baltimore Sun, 8/1/16
“For writer D. Watkins, it’s a sense of exclusion from what he called the ‘new’ Baltimore. For student activist Diamond Sampson, it’s a feeling of being unwelcome around the Inner Harbor.”
Will Replacing Thirsty Lawns with Drought-Tolerant Plants Make L.A. Hotter? – The Los Angeles Times, 8/2/16
“Last summer, a revolution occurred in Los Angeles landscaping: Across the city, tens of thousands of homeowners tore up their water-thirsty lawns and replaced them with gravel, turf, decomposed granite and a wide range of drought-tolerant plants at a rate never seen before.”
How Noted Landscape Architect Jim Burnett Counters Dallas’ Concrete Jungle – The Dallas Morning News, 8/2/16
“The 55-year-old is best known worldwide as the landscape architect of Klyde Warren Park. But he’s also created visions of greenery throughout Uptown and the Arts District and was part of the team that produced the outdoor master plan for Parkland Memorial Hospital.”
Why Landscape Architects Are the Urban Designers of Tomorrow – Curbed, 8/4/16
“For landscape architects, the ground has shifted in serious ways over the last few decades. Earlier this summer in Philadelphia, at a mid-June summit organized by the Landscape Architecture Foundation, members of the profession looked back at the changes the last half-century has brought to their profession.”
Ben Bradlee’s Mausoleum Sets Off a Gossip-Laden Squabble – The New York Times, 8/11/16
“It lacked the pageantry of the funeral nearly a year before, but when the body of Benjamin C. Bradlee, the longtime editor of The Washington Post, was re-interred in a Georgetown cemetery here last October, it had an air of permanence.”
David August Williston is a name little known today, even in the world of landscape architecture. But according to Dr. Douglas Williams, Student ASLA, Ph.D graduate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he is one of the trail blazers of the field. One of the first African American landscape architects, Williston designed some of the major campuses of historically African American colleges like Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In his lifetime, he never experienced full integration, having passed away in 1962 at the age of 94, but managed to accomplish a lasting legacy of built work.
In a talk at Howard University’s School of Architecture, Williams wondered why Williston is so little celebrated. In part, he blames the lack of diversity in core landscape architecture texts, like the Landscape of Man, published in 1970, and Landscape Design, in 2001. “Where are the black people in these texts?”
Referring to Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that geniuses are less isolated phenomena than important nodes in deep and rich social networks, Williams argued that Williston also collaborated widely. He tried to imagine Williston’s African American contemporaries, many of whom remain unknown. He tried to imagine how Williston was able to create an entirely African American system to achieve his landscape designs in the segregated deep South. And he tried to imagine how Williston, without access to white-owned nurseries, could have sought out native plants in the woods and cultivated them on his own. (Williston was one of the first African Americans to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cornell University; there, his love of plants grew into a considerable expertise on plant propagation and cultivation.)
Williston taught horticulture to African American college students while also serving as a campus landscape architect for numerous historically black colleges. He spent 20 years at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he also worked with African American architect Robert R. Taylor to lay out the physical campus. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, he then settled in Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Great Depression, where he started his own firm. He designed the expansion of Howard University, and numerous other colleges, working well into his early 90s.
Williams’ hope is to completely digitize Williston’s archives and make them accessible online for future researchers, using them as a basis to create 3-D models of now-lost planting schemes, so more people can experience a Williston landscape.
The National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate its centennial on August 25. One hundred years after its creation, the U.S. national park system stands as the “best national park system in the world,” according to National Park Service (NPS) director Jonathan Jarvis, who spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. But he insisted that future success should not be taken for granted.
“Our centennial goal has been to create the next generation of visitors, supporters, and advocates for our national parks and our public lands,” Jarvis said. Failure to do so will result in losing the parks to “selfish interests,” or private development for short-term gain.
One way that Jarvis and the NPS have tried to create this next generation of park enthusiasts is by advertising the parks as part of America’s story.
“When I became director in 2009, we recognized that there were gaps in the American narrative as told by the national parks.” During Jarvis’ tenure, the NPS has taken into its stewardship 22 new sites, including several that speak to the contributions of minorities to America and America’s history of slavery and oppression. The latest place to be designated a national monument is The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, considered the birthplace of the gay liberation movement.
With a backlog of $12 billion needed for park services and repairs, Jarvis was asked how the NPS considered taking on even more sites into its stewardship.
“In almost every case, we have minimized the actual amount of land or resources we need to take care of, and we have brought in philanthropic partners to assist with that. It does add to our overall responsibility, but I think we’ve been very judicious in ensuring it does not add significantly.”
No one can suggest that the park system has not been successful under Jarvis’ leadership. 2015 saw 312 million people visiting the park system. That is more than the visitors to Disney, the NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS, and NASCAR combined, according to Jarvis.
Still, support for the NPS has been steadily declining in congress. According to the Center for American Progress, members of Congress filed at least 44 bills or amendments that attempted to slash protections for parks and public lands in the last 36 months.
Jarvis said that he and his team are doing their best to partner with corporations and philanthropic bodies to offset certain costs. “The basic operation of a national park is the responsibility of appropriators. Philanthropy gives us that margin of excellence on top of that.”
Jarvis smiled as he waved off suggestions that sponsorship of parks on the part of private partners might lead to signage reading, “The Grand Canyon, brought to you by Exxon.”
“We have always had relations with corporate America. It was the railroads that built most of the major lodges. We are protecting these assets from branding and labeling.”
Asked where he sees the future of the NPS heading, Jarvis reiterated the importance of inspiring a new generation of conservationists and preservationists to “bring the concept of conservation back into their own communities. Many of the initiatives that we have launched, like the studies around the contributions of Latinos and women and Asian American Pacific Islanders, and LGBT community, will be carrying on into the next administration. I don’t see this ending.”
Cleveland’s Great New Public Spaces Helped Make RNC 2016 a Success– The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7/22/16
“The Republican National Convention, where Trump gave his acceptance speech Thursday night, was a great, crashing success for its host city – and especially for the revitalized public spaces that framed the event and made it possible.”
The Secret Behind the Floral Mural of Fiddler’s Green’s Living Walls– The Denver Post, 7/22/16
“Live music isn’t the only animate attraction at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Greenwood Village. The concert venue, owned and operated by the Museum of Outdoor Arts (MOA), also boasts North America’s largest living walls. Picture vast, lush gardens with a total of 25,000 plants tipped on their sides, an aerial Eden.”
Changing Skyline: New Dilworth Park is Busy with Everything but Protests– Philly.com, 7/22/16
“You only have to spend a few minutes in Dilworth Park to see what a people magnet it has become since the Center City District completed a dramatic, $55 million makeover two years ago. Besides regular attractions, like the cafe and sparkling fountain, there is something special going on 186 days a year – that’s every other day – ranging from concerts and farmers’ markets to bocce tournaments and Lupus Awareness booths.”
What It Takes to Clean the Ganges – The New Yorker, 7/25/16
“The Ganges River begins in the Himalayas, roughly three hundred miles north of Delhi and five miles south of India’s border with Tibet, where it emerges from an ice cave called Gaumukh (the Cow’s Mouth) and is known as the Bhagirathi.”
Obama Chooses Historic Jackson Park as Library Site– Chicago Tribune, 7/27/16
“Rejecting a rough-edged urban site for what could be a showcase near the lakefront, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have selected Chicago’s historic Jackson Park as the site of his presidential library, sources said Wednesday.”
The Obama Library Is Going in Jackson Park – What That Means – The Huffington Post, 7/28/16
“The last major remaining question about the Obama Presidential Library—which Frederick Law Olmsted-Calvert Vaux-designed park would become the building site for the facility—was answered yesterday when news leaked out that the First Couple had decided on Jackson over Washington Park. This is a good-news/bad-news result.”
City Parks, Clean Water: Making Great Places Using Green Infrastructure, a new report from The Trust for Public Land (TPL), makes a strong case for leveraging public parks to manage stormwater. The report offers several useful case studies that explain the challenges and opportunities involved in designing parks to act as systems for storing or absorbing excess stormwater.
The problem of stormwater, as many readers know, originates with the vast amount of asphalt and concrete used in urban areas. Where once stormwater would have filtrated into the ground, asphalt and concrete shed it toward sewer systems. That water, toting pollutants and grime from streets, gets conveyed to rivers, lakes, and other water sources that people use. It is never cleansed by soils and plants, never replenishes groundwater, and often overburdens sewer systems and local waterways, causing flooding.
A potential solution to this problem, according to report, is to use parks to do the work of traditional grates, pipes, and sewage and stormwater treatment facilities. Parks are ideal for providing this service because they already exist in most cities and can be designed from the beginning, or even retrofitted, to serve both recreational and ecological functions.
The report offers five case studies of cities that deployed parks as green infrastructure and were rewarded with working landscapes that beautify their neighborhoods and allow for recreation:
The award-winning Historic Fourth Ward Park, which is part of Atlanta’s Beltline, sits in a lowland, industrial area that was heavily prone to flooding. One of its major features, a 5-acre storage pond, serves the function of what was intended to be a $40 million underground tunnel, according to HDR Inc., the landscape architecture and engineering firm that designed the park. The pond can handle a 500-year flood.
Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect for the Atlanta Beltline, said the stormwater storage function of the park is working well: “We’re in the position where the city has allowed two additional developers to tie their runoff to the pond.”
The park does not infiltrate or clean stormwater, its only job is to store it. The report strikes on this point repeatedly, that stowing and slowing water outflow with green infrastructure goes a long way to preventing flooding and lifting the burden off treatment plants.
The report also highlights Railroad Park in Birmingham, Alabama, designed by Tom Leader Studio, as another economic success. The park has incentivized $185 million in development in the area and receives 500,000 visitors annually. Many of these visitors come expressly to see the birds and wildlife that flock to its water-managing wetlands, according to Railroad Park Foundation director Camille Spratling.
“When the lake was built, it was the first time we saw the Birmingham skyline reflected in the water,” Spratling wrote. “That was a real point of pride.”
The report acknowledges it’s important to think out all the options, asking decision makers to consider the following about gray vs. green infrastructure: “Do both approaches work equally as well? Is one less expensive? Can they be combined? Are residents willing to put up with years of tunneling under then neighborhoods? Conversely, does the city have enough unbuilt land to capture water on the surface?”
Other questions to answer before turning to green infrastructure: should the park also absorb stormwater? If so, what is the cost to amend the soils of existing parks so they can better infiltrate stormwater?
“The mere presence of a grassy park does not guarantee water infiltration,” the report states. Water runoff rates of urban soil, which is often heavily compacted, can approximate that of asphalt. Factors such as budget, precipitation patterns, native soil porosity, and depth to water table must be considered when amending the soil of parks, the report suggests. Maintenance of parks and their water management features can add to the cost of green infrastructure.
But, according to Burke, the investment was well worth it: Historic Fourth Ward Park has spurred hundreds of millions of dollars in development in the neighborhood.
Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.
In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?
Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.
If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.
To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.
Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.
What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.
EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.
Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.
It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.
How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?
The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.
I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.
Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?
We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.
We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.
Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.
It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.
The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.
About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.
About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.
How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?
We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.
Some 7,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?
If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.
The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.
How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?
Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.
You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.
Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?
We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.
We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.
After a couple of days happily playing the game, my answer is a qualified yes. The qualification: it is possible to play a circumscribed version of the game while sitting at your desk or sofa. But the game is really designed to get you out into streets, parks, and plazas. It got me out into two public places — the town square in downtown Rockville, Maryland, and Pershing Square Park in Washington, D.C. — where I had different yet intriguing experiences.
Pokémon Go, which may be downloaded on iOS and Android devices, is a free, location-based augmented reality game in which players capture adorable-looking creatures called Pokémon. The game is played not from a comfy sofa, but out in the real world.
The app provides a map of the player’s real-world surroundings. Players move outside in order to find Pokémon and capture them using Poké-balls. The map provides a handy way to locate Poké-stops, which are found in such public spaces as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments and contain additional Poké-balls and other items. Poké-gyms, where players unleash their Pokémon to fight, are also located near prominent local businesses and other attractions.
I spent my first afternoon playing the game at Rockville Town Square, a 12-acre suburban public plaza that opened in 2007, part of a larger master plan to create a “daytime, evening and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.” Not only is it home to shops and restaurants, the square also includes a number of Poké-stops. The large crowd who congregated there on a Sunday afternoon included many Pokémon Go players, smartphones in hand, searching for virtual goodies hidden in the colorful public art.
The game turned into a communal experience as we chatted with strangers along the wide sidewalks. We all certainly benefited from Rockville’s cohesive pedestrian policies and were able to crisscross the square and surrounding streets safely with little interference from traffic. While it may be facile to urge landscape architects to create Pokémon-friendly landscapes, they should continue to design high-quality and lasting public spaces that accommodate ever-evolving recreation preferences and pedestrian safety.
A couple of days later, I felt the urge to play the game at D.C.’s Pershing Square Park, a multi-level park designed by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners that opened in 1981. It features a monument to General John J. Pershing as well as a bronze sculpture of an eagle by Lorenzo Ghiglieri — both, unsurprisingly, are Poké-stops. I spent half an hour in the park on a Thursday afternoon and quickly gathered items from the statues (this is done on the app by spinning a photo of the public art or feature).
After capturing these Pokémon, I found myself with nothing to do. The park was seemingly devoid of Pokémon, no matter where I stood, so I gave up and sat down to enjoy the calm retreat from the noisy traffic streaming on all sides. Tree branches shook in the breeze, and a parade of Falun Dafa supporters marched by. One woman paused in front of the Pershing monument, not to admire its historical significance, but to retrieve items for the game. Once she finished, she quickly walked away.
Later, a family of tourists arrived with cameras. They stood in front of the monument and photographed it and each other as they spoke in their native language. Clearly they were savoring a moment to be remembered later — a traditional experience of a public space that still serves a time-honored purpose.
My experiences with Pokémon Go, and observations of other players, show that the game may not fit the traditional definition of outdoor recreation, but it certainly creates enthusiasm for exploring your environment and engaging in physical exercise.
And perhaps this new enthusiasm for augmented reality games can be tapped to generate more creative designs of public spaces that integrate real and game worlds. Similar games are sure to come in the future.