Listen To The Community

By Darren Meyer
Photos: MKSK

To create a park that is embraced by residents and becomes a beloved part of a community, the plan and design must be a process of building relationships. Public parks are often planned for a lifespan of decades—if not centuries—and the creation of these civic spaces represents a milestone in the life of a community. Those who create a park must move beyond thinking of public engagement as just a step in the planning process and begin to think of creating a new chapter in the narrative of a community.

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In the city of Greenville, S.C., MKSK is working closely with the community in planning and designing Unity Park—a public space with tremendous social and cultural significance. The approach to partnering with the community in this effort is guided by the core social commitment that MKSK makes in each of its projects with the goal of knitting the park experience into neighborhood life.

1. Engagement starts before the project is even conceived.
One of the values at MKSK is to be intimately involved in local communities. Besides the intrinsic value of giving back, this allows the firm an opportunity to build deep, authentic relationships with the people in the communities it serves.

Being relatively new to Greenville, the firm was lucky to discover that city staff members had done an amazing job of building these relationships over the years. They were able to introduce us to the “champions” of the community—those people who can mobilize their neighbors to get involved.

MKSK built relationships with these individuals first, and then let them introduce us to their networks. That lent credibility and trust to what would have otherwise been an unfamiliar situation.

2. Go where people are comfortable.
The other major advantage of getting to know a community is finding out where, when, and how residents gather. We tried to fit into their routine.

Is the community meeting at church on Sundays or at high school football games on Friday nights? Are their community events more or less formal? Are there divisions in the community to overcome in order to truly engage and build consensus? Knowing the answers to these questions allows the planner to design engagements that feel natural and comfortable to a community.

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3. Determine the community’s strengths.
Every community—no matter the demographics or built environment—has a unique culture, history, and pride. Traditional engagement tends to focus on what’s wrong with a particular place. This is understandable—as design thinkers are always looking for a problem to solve; but focusing on what’s wrong sets a negative tone that ignores the authentic history of a community.

Asset-based community engagement is just the opposite—it asks people what they love about their community, how they spend their time, and what their favorite memories are. This approach leads to more positive conversation and respects the pride of a community, and it gives the planners a much deeper understanding of the context of the project.

4. Focus on experience, not things.
Take notice that the assets in this section are emotional rather than physical. Many engagement sessions start with questions like:

  • “How many basketball courts do you need?”

  • “Where will the playground go?”

Instead, the conversation should focus on experiences:

  • “What is your favorite weekend activity?”

  • “How do you currently spend time with friends and family?”

  • “What kind of memories do you hope to create in the future?”

These questions are far more personal than questions about the actual built environment. In reality, the planners, designers, and engineers are going to site equipment based on existing conditions and technical considerations. The public is not the technical experts, but they do know themselves. No planner, designer, or engineer can divine the heart and soul of a community without the residents’ input.

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5. Show the community that “the planners” are listening.
The first visuals of a proposed project have deep implications for the rest of the process. If the above steps have been followed but the first renderings don’t reflect that engagement—you have lost credibility with the public.

Make sure the emotions and activities collected are obvious in this first round. There will be a time for fancy architectural renderings, but making sure a community sees the family reunions and free play in the creek are far more important than the architectural details of the footbridge.

The goal is for the visuals to permanently attach the park to each user’s perspective—users need to see themselves when they see the visuals. This isn’t just about the people in the rendering being reflective of the make-up of a community (although that is also very important)—it’s about each scene showing a specific experience that is enhanced by the park, rather than showing the park as a thing that needs to be “activated” by a community.

6. Don’t stop when the design phase is over; build a feedback loop for constant, ongoing engagement.
Too often, community engagement ends when the physical design phase is finished. But as we all know, there is often a long time between final design and ribbon cutting. How does one continue the momentum from the design phase all the way to implementation and operations?

One way is to phase the project in in a way that allows the community to begin to use the space while it’s under construction. At Unity Park, a cookout was held at the site to wrap the initial design phase, thank the community for its help, and lay out the next steps in the process, including ongoing input in the next phases.

In this case, next steps include forming a committee to participate in the programming, implementation, operations, and evolution of the park, even after it’s built.

So how did this process all work out at Unity Park? We will have to wait and see—the park is scheduled to open in 2020.

Darren Meyer is a landscape architect, planner, and Principal at MKSK. MKSK is an integrated collective of nearly 100 planners, urban designers, and landscape architects. He leads the Greenville office, one of MKSK’s seven regional metropolitan studios. Reach him at dmeyer@mkskstudios.com.