In 2006, the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition joined with the Hester Street Collaborative to conduct community input-gathering for the upcoming Hester Street Playground project. In this case study, you’ll learn about the patience, dedication, and outreach required to see a large capital project through from funding to construction.
Spanning a full city block, the Hester Street Playground sits between Hester and Grand Streets within the larger Sara D. Roosevelt (SDR) Park. The park is located between the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
Prior to the redesign, the Hester Street Playground was fairly unique in the city, because it still had its original Timberform play equipment. This equipment – constructed from large, wooden logs – was popular in the 1980s but is no longer used by Parks because it splinters and cracks over time. The playground also has a well-used seating area and pedestrian walkway at its southern end. Though its features had become outdated in recent years, the playground and adjoining area were still heavily used by children and adults every day of the week.
The Capital Project
In 2005, Parks received $4.5 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and $250,000 each from Councilman Alan Gerson and the New York State Environmental Protection Fund to redesign and rebuild the playground and the seating area, and add public bathrooms in the nearby park house. Other areas of SDR had been renovated a few years earlier, without much community involvement. This time, the Sara D. Roosevelt Park Coalition (SDRPC) was eager to ensure that they were included in planning for the new design. In 2006, with the capital process about to start, Hester Street Collaborative (HSC), a member of SDRPC, volunteered to lead a community input-gathering effort.
The playground’s facilities and infrastructure needed major improvement, but SDRPC worried that a renovation without their involvement would replace their unique playground with equipment that neither reflected the neighborhood’s character nor met diverse users’ needs. The challenge was to balance the community’s desire for a distinctive park with Parks’ safety and maintenance requirements to use equipment that’s standardized, reliable, and well-tested.
The Early Stages
SDRPC’s history of park involvement – and HSC’s expertise with participatory design – secured Parks’ approval for them to lead community input-gathering on what the new park should look like. Still, the organizations needed time to get to know one another. For example, HSC was unfamiliar with Parks’ design process, and Parks was unsure how a large, community-driven effort might affect the project’s strict timeline. To make sure the project stayed on schedule, close and early coordination with Parks’ internal design and construction teams was critical to ensure SDRC gathered the right information in a timely fashion.
Even though only a portion of the park was being renovated, SDRPC decided to look at the entire space in order to understand the playground’s relationship to the park as a whole. Parks and HSC then agreed on a plan and schedule for input-gathering, which included a Visioning Day for the general public, followed by two formal design sessions (charrettes), one for adults and the other involving nearby middle-school students. The goals for input-gathering:
- Assess current conditions in terms of what in the park was working and what wasn’t.
- Solicit design ideas.
- Raise awareness among park users and elected officials about SDRPC.
- Garner public support for park activities.
- Involve users in the redesign and let people physically “leave their mark” through hands-on projects.
- Increase park stewardship by creating community ownership of the new playground.
SDRPC held a Visioning Day on It’s My Park! Day in Fall 2006, and used HSC-developed tools to collect community input. SDRPC worked closely with local press and community organizations to promote the event, and invited local schools to bring their students to participate. In the end, the day-long event gathered feedback from nearly 400 adults and 600 youth, and the playground’s designer was able to interact directly with participants that day to better understand community needs.
Below are the tools used, and the information collected, during SDRPC’s Visioning Day:
Design Hoops – Pre-teens and teens cast votes for park improvements by throwing basketballs into tubes or hoops. The activity revealed handball as a favorite sport and the teens’ desire to preserve or enhance the basketball and handball courts in the new design.
Gardening – Though not used to gather input, bulb planting encouraged park stewardship by physically connecting people to the space.
Story Maps – Park users wrote memories and stories about the playground on an enlarged park map. The activity captured people’s relationships to the park and the special role it played in neighborhood history. SDRPC learned that kids invented a game called “Wood Tag” in the park (so called because of the Timberform play equipment noted above), which reinforced the group’s wish to ensure that opportunities for kids to engage in imaginative play were preserved in the redesign.
Model Making – Kids used art materials to design 3D models of their dream playgrounds. SDRPC hoped this activity would encourage continued use of the playground as an open-ended environment. Climbing nets, for example, appeared frequently in kids’ models, leading the designer to include them in his final drawings.
Scavenger Hunt – Youth were asked to survey the park to find features they liked and those they strongly disliked. Youth identified problems such as homeless people using a large concrete slide as a place to sleep as well as things they loved: the same slide used as an improvised handball surface.
Surveys – SDRPC surveyed 300 adults and 200 young people in Chinese, Spanish, and English about how they used the park; how often they visited; their thoughts on issues such as safety and cleanliness; and what park improvements they’d most like to see. Mandarin-speaking volunteers surveyed Chinese women in the seating area, but had more difficulty engaging Chinese men. From the surveys, SDRPC learned that cleanliness and maintenance were primary concerns for adult users.
Voting Boards – People placed stickers on maps of the playground and surrounding neighborhood in response to two questions: a) What part of the park do you use most? and b) Where do you live? This tool unintentionally underrepresented some park users, because more kids than adults participated. The result? The seating area, heavily used by adults, was ignored on the map. SDRPC still advocated to the designer on behalf of expanding the seating area because it knew from regular observation that the space was overcrowded.
Wish Objects – This tool made the event feel festive and playfully drew in passersby. The hopes most frequently expressed by the many people who decorated and constructed colorful paper lanterns as Wish Objects that day were for: a) places to gather, b) chairs, c) tables, and d) green space.
The Design Charrette
HSC compiled the information collected at the Visioning Day and used the results to inform two charrettes. A charrette is a more formal design meeting, often involving maps and blueprints, that the designer attends in order to get specific recommendations for what people want to do in a space and how that might be achieved. But for this project, HSC asked participants to also brainstorm how programming and advocacy, rather than capital improvements, could achieve the same goals. SDRPC hoped to use the information to better respond to community recommendations after the capital project was completed.
The charrettes included:
Adult Charrette – Over the course of a three-hour evening, HSC presented the Visioning Day results to approximately 60 community members; Mandarin interpreters were available for non-English speakers. HSC divided charrette participants into small groups to brainstorm solutions to four different issues identified during the Visioning Day: a) cleanliness and maintenance, b) games, c) playground equipment, and d) safety.
Student Charrette – HSC spent two days visiting nine classes of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the public middle school next to the park to get students’ perspectives on the findings, using the same format as the adult charrette.
The Scope Meeting
HSC took the information from the Visioning Day and charrette and wrote a report that detailed existing conditions, problems, and design recommendations. The report was then given to Parks staff in the Manhattan borough office and capital projects division.
In the report, HSC summarized the tools used during the Visioning Day and presented results in a way that Parks could easily understand and utilize. For example, by using:
- Bar graphs – Surveys, Design Hoops, Model Making
- Drawings – Scavenger Hunt
- Maps – Scavenger Hunt and Story Map
- Word Bubbles (Circles sized from small to large based on how many written responses were received)
HSC also prepared a one-page wish list for the scope meeting, summarizing specific facility needs requested by the community. These included restrooms in the park; play equipment for a variety of ages; nighttime lighting; and covered seating areas. More general ideas included preserving the different levels in the playground to create a feeling of distance and protection from the street and maintaining flexible play equipment and ball courts so that they could be adapted for multiple uses.
The scope meeting took place at the edge of the playground, near a noisy street, making it difficult for participants to give extensive input. Fortunately, the designer’s observations from the Visioning Day and adult charrette, along with the report and wish list, ensured that he had the critical community input to inform his preliminary design.
In January 2008, Parks organized a meeting with SDRPC to present its first schematic design. Scheduled during the work day, the meeting was attended by a small number of key stakeholders to provide them with an opportunity to share their remaining concerns and feedback. The designer then revised his drawings, based on information he gathered at the meeting. Changes included a more inviting pathway through the playground, better preserving the different levels, varied play equipment, and more flexible seating.
Parks hosted a second meeting to present the revised plan to the larger community. This took place at night and was well-attended. People were satisfied with the design and happy to see that many of their needs had been addressed; they were especially glad to see that public bathrooms had been added to the park house.
Still under discussion, however, was how to incorporate the neighborhood’s cultural identity and history into the design. HSC wanted to organize a community art project that would lead to a permanent art element in the new playground, but there were few precedents for this, and Parks had not approved HSC’s proposal. Parks was also concerned that the inclusion of permanent art would lead to additional review of the design by the city’s Public Design Commission, which could add significant time to the project. Because the design process was still new to HSC, it hadn’t known that Parks needed to be consulted much earlier if permanent art was to be part of the conceptual design.
In mid-2008, Parks presented the final playground design to the Community Board. HSC again presented results from the Visioning Day and charrette, and highlighted ways in which the designer had responded to community input. It can be difficult to secure Community Board approval for a park design, but this one had no trouble: a number of SDRPC members and charrette participants attended, the early meetings between Parks and SDRPC ensured community buy-in, and Community Board members, seeing the design for the first time, could see how Parks had heard the community’s feedback.
Final Stage: Art in the Park
After months discussions, Parks and SDRPC finally agreed that HSC could lead local schoolchildren in creating a mosaic tile installation for the playground’s walls. HSC then worked with Parks to secure the necessary approval from the Public Design Commission.
On August 6, 2009, members of SDRPC, HSC, and local children joined Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and community members at the official groundbreaking ceremony. The Commissioner called the visioning and design process “a textbook example of collaborative design,” because of leadership from HSC and the SDRPC, who “solicited ideas from community residents – youths and adults – and involved them in helping design the new playground.”
Beyond the new playground, perhaps the most important outcome from the input-gathering process was the positive relationship formed between SDRPC and the Manhattan Borough Parks office. That relationship continues today, even with the new park, and includes monthly operations meetings where Parks and SDRPC come together to solve maintenance and safety problems that affect the park. Input collected through the Visioning Day and charrettes related to programming and maintenance also inform discussions and have created new possibilities. For example, the popular lantern-making Wish Object activity held during the Visioning Day has been transformed into an annual Lunar New Year lantern installation.
SDRPC demonstrated its commitment to the park, and HSC learned to plan and execute a community input process that is responsive to Parks’ timeline and constraints. And the trust built through the redesign of the Hester Street Playground laid the groundwork for a similar process with the Allen and Pike Street Malls’ renovation now underway.