Parks and public open spaces are, in a sense, the backyards all people share. Whether the space is a beloved city park or a remote nature reserve, there is often a sense of admiration and ownership associated with the public spaces that collectively belong to us all. As designers of these spaces, planners and landscape architects carry the huge responsibility of responding to the needs of current and future users in order to achieve an inclusive and comprehensive outcome. It is important that we provide a variety of opportunities for people to share their ideas and desires.
For design professionals, it is essential to stay informed about the latest technologies and cutting-edge tools to help improve our designs and process, but in terms of our approach towards engaging the public, we often revert toward what’s expected. In most projects at city and county-level, it is generally commonplace that a project team will conduct a public open house or workshop to present ideas and listen to feedback from neighboring residents and users, and in many cases these events are accompanied by an online survey or questionnaire. While these approaches have seen great success through the years and should continue to be utilized, it is important that we consider providing alternative opportunities for public engagement, in addition to those that are tried-and-true, to receive more meaningful input and to reach more stakeholders.
There are many unique ways in which we can reach out to the public to gather a deeper understanding of their desires. One alternative approach is simply to go to where the people already are. Any existing event or public gathering that is happening in or near the space that designers are studying is a prime opportunity to reach a wider range of people. This could be a booth with project information and brochures or activities that the design team could host at a farmer’s market or festival. Another way designers can go to the people is by conducting an on-site demonstration. This is a great way to engage and interact with current users of a site and encourage people to think differently about a space they may already have opinions about. In fall of 2017, SWT was part of a team that utilized this particular method of engagement. SWT Design assisted in the design and implementation of a temporary mid-block crossing on West Florissant Avenue in Dellwood, MO. This planned Great Streets corridor has explored numerous ways to engage community members ad this temporary demonstration (with funding support from APA and Trailnet) enabled citizens and business owners to “test” a proposed design option and provide tremendously impactful feedback. The event attracted residents who otherwise had not been aware of the project, was captured by local news, and has become a model to other communities considering alternate methods of engagement.
Tactical urbanism is a term that has been circulating through the landscape architecture and design community for several years now, and simply put, it refers to informal strategies and temporary efforts that are meant to inspire change in the built environment. These tactics are usually low-cost and could be initiated by anyone, whether it is a “bottom-up” effort led by citizens wanting to draw attention to problems in their community or a “top-down” effort led by designers or planners seeking to inform and inspire people in a particular area. Professionals should be aware of both origins of tactical urbanism as potential tools to gain design insight. Some examples of “bottom-up” tactical urbanism strategies include citizen-organized community gardens, seed scattering to help vegetate barren soil planting areas, weed bombing where weeds growing in sidewalks or overgrown planting areas are painted bright colors to draw attention to where they have become a problem, and collective public art such as temporary murals or sidewalk displays. Alternatively, an example of a “top-down” effort could be a public input chalkboard placed in a park or space of interest with fill-in-the-blank prompts to encourage people to share their ideas for a space. While many more strategies exist than what can be mentioned here, the key to successful tactical urbanism is that it can appeal to a diverse range of people because of its casual, fun, and creative nature.
Annually since 2015, SWT Design has been involved in Park(ing) Day, a worldwide tactical urbanism event in which community members and professionals transform on-street parking spaces into miniature parks for the day. While the design of each park may vary greatly, the unified goal of the Park(ing) Day spaces is to demonstrate the benefits that can come from transforming car-occupied spaces into people-friendly places. For the past few years, SWT has worked with the City of Maplewood and many local volunteer businesses on Park(ing) Day to offer activities, educational exhibits, and artistic opportunities for community members and passersby. It is a simple and truly effective way to bring people of diverse backgrounds together, build awareness, and something that the community has come to look forward to each September.
In order to make the spaces of the future the best and most lasting they can be, it is key that we are in-tune with what people want. Most of these requests and desires are not things that can be quantified or represented in a chart; it is data based on ethos and a feeling or passion that can only be described. As designers, we cannot underestimate the collective insight of all people and their ability to teach us, and likewise we need to challenge opinions and bring our own ideas to the table. We have a responsibility to challenge the way things are done, in all facets of our process, and the importance of listening to and engaging with the public should never be undervalued. We are in the business of making places for people – their involvement ensures success.