Putting the public back into public spaces
We need to think about how we make public spaces actually the publics’ - that was the challenge issued by Knight Foundation Director, Benjamin de la Pena, to a gathering of over 1,000 parks professionals at the Greater and Greener conference held in San Francisco in April.
The theme of engagement and developing spaces with the public, not just for the public, is one that resonates strongly through our Rethinking Parks programme. We’ve been working with all our 11 teams to get under the skin of what people really need and want from their public spaces. We’ve also been building the 11 teams’ understanding of how to engage the public and target audiences in the early stages of a project, using techniques such as prototyping and co-design.
Meaningful development with the public is an easy thing to suggest, but a more difficult thing to do. Through both Rethinking Parks and from further afield, here are four examples of how we might start to put the ‘public’ at the forefront of our public parks:
Adopt-an-alleyway, Chinatown, San Francisco
Reverend Norman Fong knows all about feeling disengaged with public spaces, having grown up and got into trouble (his description, not mine!) in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But instead of keeping kids off the streets, the Adopt-an-Alleyway project in this densely population area (50% of residents live in single occupancy households) opens up the alleyways as spaces for teenagers to call their own. Student volunteers help beautify the small thoroughfares in the area and now these once unloved spaces are community assets - truly public spaces - rather than no-go zones.
Key learning point: Flip spaces assumed to be no-go zones on their head. Through giving permission to the public to reclaim them as their own, magic can happen.
ParkHack, Hackney, London
When the Rethinking Parks ParkHack team wanted to know more about how the public would want to engage with and use the four city squares in London’s Shoreditch, they didn’t undertake a ubiquitous e-mail survey (useful as this technique can be). Instead they provoked responses through installing large white cubes in each square featuring a simple question mark and featuring prompts such as ‘How would you use this park?’ The response was amazing and has culminated in a group of community and local business advocates (Park Hack Innovators) who are now in the process of installing a tree office (yes, your childhood dreams can combine with grown-up reality), food markets and other ideas.
Key learning point: Open up to people early on without a preconceived idea of what’s needed to get meaningful buy in.
Library Parks in Medellin, Colombia
The transformation of Medellin from drug run city to model of inclusive development is well known to city planners. Much of the development has been centrally-led, and architecturally driven; with new transport, schools, centres of research and community services being located in the areas of deprivation, rather than beyond the reach of the poor. There’s more at play than that however. At Greater and Greener we heard from David Escobar-Arango about how both large and small acts have transformed the life chances of residents. As just one example, contents of libraries are not just informed by a standardised list of academic texts, literarily significant works and best sellers, but also through understand the interests and expertise particular to each community so books and other resources can reflect local preferences.
Key learning point: Understanding peoples’ wants, needs and preferences can help ensure whatever public space you create resonates with locals.
Heeley Millennium Park, Heeley, Sheffield
Heeley Millennium Park in Sheffield is a community park managed by the Heeley Development Trust. As a result of engagement carried out within the Rethinking Parks programme, some assumptions about public perceptions of the space were challenged however. The Trust had transformed the park over recent years into a viable community space yet locals did not attribute this success to the Trust nor realise it was a community (not a local authority) maintained space. People also didn’t appreciate how much of the park was available to use and enjoy – from allotments sites for growing vegetables to accredited climbing boulders. As a consequence of the engagement, the Trust are now working to reframe the space as Heeley’s People’s Park, improving way finding as well as taking a more active approach to engaging the public in what and how improvements are made.
Key learning point: Even community managed spaces aren’t perceived as ‘the communities’ by default. Truly public spaces are not outputs in themselves; they are both the process and product of a series of continuous democratic encounters.