Engaging everyone. How design can help build an equitable 21st century community park. by Petra Geiger

DISCOVER Moakley! builds equity and engagement into the design process | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

DISCOVER Moakley! builds equity and engagement into the design process | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

For South Boston’s new Moakley Park Vision Plan, civic engagement was crucial.

If parks are the ultimate in public open space, then by nature they absolutely must be equitable, accessible, inclusive and sustainable. Conceptually—and oftentimes in the real world—parks serve as great equalizers, melting pots, places where people of all cultures, races, socio-economic backgrounds can gather, mix, play and learn. Unfortunately though, poor planning, legal statutes, disinvestment, and blatant racism have instilled cultural bias in significant populations. Many people have grown up not going to parks because parents determined they were unsafe, unwelcoming or just plain derelict. On the flip side, people have extreme passions around parks often determined by the sports they play or their cultural practices—like hosting multi-generational family barbecues. Managing the diversity of constituents and opinions is challenging, but nevertheless engaging a broad mix of the community when designing public space is crucial—especially if your goal is to build a park that will delight, engage, inform and inspire everyone—and most importantly make them feel a sense of belonging.

Reimagining the Civic Commons, an initiative focused on, “transforming public spaces to foster engagement, equity, environmental sustainability and economic development in our cities,” is making this a priority in places like Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. The organization lists ‘socioeconomic mixing’ as one of their pillar goals stating, “we fundamentally believe shared civic assets should be places where everyone belongs and where different people can share experiences. We believe that by boldly welcoming people of all incomes and backgrounds into public places that encourage human interaction with others, we can rebuild trust within communities — and maybe even rebuild our democracy.”

So, the question becomes, how do you attain civic engagement goals, ensure that a broad constituency is involved, and based upon what you learn, design a park that is inclusive, equitable and sustainable? Toni L. Griffin, Professor in Practice of Urban Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Founder of The Just City Lab, asks a similar question, “how do people who have been marginalized in urban neighborhoods and cities gain equitable, inclusive access and the opportunity to live productive lives in safe, beautiful, and flexible environments?”

Our recent work in South Boston can serve as a case-in-point. Moakley Park, Boston’s largest waterfront park, is a 90 acre park that is situated between the waterfront and two low income housing projects. For the Boston Parks and Recreation Department (our client), protecting the residential communities inland of Moakley from future flood events and climate change impacts was critical. Yet, the goals for this vision plan were broader. Climate work would in fact be the catalyst to provide an exceptional 21century park for the residents of this community. Retaining and enhancing Moakley as a key active recreational amenity for South Boston through elevated ball fields, a revamped stadium, destination sport courts and play areas with improved stormwater management, along with expanded ecological value, new programming, and places where community members feel safe and comfortable simply ‘doing nothing’ in a shady, green space, were explicit goals. As well as creating equitable access to the harbor, one of Boston’s greatest natural resources.

Moakley Park is a gateway to the Harbor for the communities south of Downtown; South Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester and the South End. In addition, communities further afield have easy access to the park and harbor via nearby subway stops, a 5-10 minute walk from Moakley. Yet, despite its proximity to train stations, Moakley Park is left isolated from its immediate communities through busy roads that span 4-6 lanes of fast traffic. Rotaries at either end exacerbate safety issues and are difficult to navigate. Therefore, an additional goal was to increase the linkages between these communities, park access points, the harbor, and the islands beyond.

Clearly a deep and meaningful community engagement process was critical, something that is deeply embedded in our process at Stoss. Reimagining the Civic Commons sums up our perspective. “We don’t just want to hear people’s opinion about public places, we want them to participate as stewards and advocates in shaping their community’s future. This kind of civic engagement should be central to how communities reinvent and manage civic assets as public places that serve everyone — because that’s the way you build deep and long-lasting support for these places in the first place.”

In designing our public engagement approach, the team considered a broad mix of outreach, both formal and informal, in-person and online. It included open houses and one-on-one interviews (held at or directly adjacent to the neighboring residences), a community advisory group, a bike tour, and on-site activation. Our strategy has always been to take a human-centered approach, engaging individuals, families, stewards and leaders in ways that are enjoyable and fun for them, that let them relax, feel included and empowered to contribute. In-person events had to be accessible and planned at various times/days and publicized through different kinds of media to attract all generations; we were both interested in hearing from those who use the park on a regular basis and from those who, for one reason or another, do not. And, it must be acknowledged that civic engagement is an ongoing and continuous process, garnering detailed and actionable data as the vision plan becomes a reality.

One event of note, a daylong extravaganza named DISCOVER Moakley!, was dedicated to bringing fun and energy to Moakley Park. Numerous public and nonprofit agencies teamed up to demonstrate how simple activation of the park can connect people to the space for a diverse range of activities. The event spanned beyond Moakley’s perimeter and included a beach-themed inflatable installation, live music, acrobatics on the beach, exercise classes in the park, local food and beer, skateboarding, and parkour. Visitors were also asked for input and to participate in activities that exhibited green infrastructure and coastal resilience strategies. This fun event showed participants how the park could evolve into a multi-functional urban waterfront park that combines athletics with resiliency efforts and new program to better suit and connect its diverse community and beyond.

Throughout the planning phase we listened. And learned. The most common improvements requested included flood mitigation to increase field use, improved safety through lighting and road improvements, public bathrooms, and spaces for non-sport exercising. The most common additions included new diversity in play spaces for all ages, new areas for passive recreation like sitting in the shade or community gardening, and winter and nighttime programming.

What we heard significantly influenced the design. A berm and raised landscapes, central to our resiliency strategy, does much more than simply protect the community. They provide significant new social and recreational opportunities as well as physical and visual access to the waterfront. Access to this resource is of great importance for populations with limited resources and for whom the park and waterfront serve as their backyard. While more amenities and diverse programming are key, the design team also carefully considered ways to break up spaces, ensuring that users are encouraged to circulate through the park, to meet, mingle and connect, creating shared experience among people of all incomes and backgrounds. Vehicle free zones, like a pedestrian-friendly promenade to encourage walking and cycling, further enhance connectivity, support social interaction and cohesion, as well as promote cultural diversity.

Zones were established that create environmentally friendly places with increased access to nature and access to all points in the park were carefully considered. The envisioned circulation through Moakley Park is designed to connect with major neighborhood streets to maximize access for the community. Paths extend into the park from major entrances and thread through to allow both easy access to key areas and yet allow people to meander and stumble upon new spaces they might not have otherwise encountered—encouraging the interaction of people using the park.

Moakley Park’s new vision plan takes ardent strides in listening to the community and designing a place where all can feel welcome, included and involved. However, this is just the beginning of the journey. Discovering new economic opportunities for the surrounding community, uncovering ways to sustainably support such a rich and varied park, and ensuring that current residents are not displaced as the community changes are all critical issues to be grappled with, not only by designers but by city planners and the community itself. Legal, policy and regulatory frameworks must be reconsidered and work to guarantee equity, enhance participation and serve to support, maintain and create a diverse and varied community.

NRPA defines inclusion as, “removing barriers, both physical and theoretical, so that all people have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of parks and recreation...reaching the most vulnerable individuals and families—those who suffer from higher rates of health disparities and a diminished quality of life.” We couldn’t agree more.

Petra Geiger is Communication Director at Stoss Landscape Urbanism.