Twice yearly, on It’s My Park Day, National Honor students from Murray Bergtraum High School would organize cleanups for James Madison Plaza in Lower Manhattan. Noticing their efforts, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation allocated $1.9 million in 2007 to redesign and reconstruct James Madison Plaza, a small, triangular park in lower Manhattan, empty except for planter boxes, trees, and benches.

To learn what the community wanted in a new plaza, the honor students – with help from Partnerships for Parks (PFP) – decided to conduct a survey as part of their Spring IMPD effort. PFP staff met with the students to strategize how to best approach the survey. Because most of the students were graduating seniors, there was little time to research and prepare the survey beforehand, nor conduct in-depth analyses afterwards.

So PfP staff suggested the students survey the community using Voting Boards – large foamcore sheets printed with simple questions and pre-selected answers – because they would be the easiest to prepare in advance and evaluate afterwards. The students selected questions after first speaking with the designer, who told them she wanted to learn more about how people used the plaza on a typical day.

For the event, students set up a tent and signs to let people know about the Voting Boards. Given the plaza’s slow weekend traffic, they also split into groups to canvas the surrounding neighborhood.  One group focused on nearby residents. Another targeted local business owners and employees, and two stayed in the park to engage passersby.

A few weeks later, the students presented their results to the designer and the Director of Manhattan Capital Projects. The designer liked that the boards were easy to read, quickly highlighted people’s preferences, and distinguished user groups (e.g., business owners, students, passersby) with different colored stickers. The students also explained what was behind people’s responses, based on their on-the-ground conversations.

For example, they learned that many people wanted more lighting in the plaza, which wasn’t one of the response options originally offered; employees who worked late felt unsafe walking through the plaza after dark. Those employees, as well as the high school students, also wanted more tables, so they could eat lunch in the plaza during the day. One student noted that, “wherever there aren’t benches, there aren’t people.”

Although the Voting Boards documented weekend use, students’ familiarity with the plaza allowed them to explain to the designers weekday use, too: from tai chi practitioners gathering at 6:30 a.m. to local workers and teachers enjoying lunch, to students hanging out after school.

A month later, the students helped again, creating English- and Chinese-language flyers to invite community members to attend the scope meeting, the formal input-gathering session that happens before a capital project moves into construction.

At the scope meeting, people added blue stickers to the boards to distinguish their ideas from those gathered during IMPD.  The Voting Boards, combined with the scope meeting, allowed for discussion about not only what park features people wanted, but also broader visions for the plaza’s future.

The designer was pleased with the PMP process, as were the students, who also learned about landscape design and public space through the exercise. In the end, the students’ outreach helped ensure that the new park reflects the needs and desires of their community, a great present for any graduating senior.

After years of construction, James Madison Plaza re-opened in October of 2013, and is now a gathering space for the community and the students of Murray Bergtraum High School.

Tool used: Voting Boards

Rank people's top priorities for the park's redesign.