For many years, the Brooklyn Borough Parks office has hosted successful Listening Sessions to gather community input about capital projects before starting construction.
In October 2008, they hosted one about potential capital improvements at Thomas Greene Playground, located in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Listening Session was requested by Friends of Douglass Greene Park (FoDG), whose name comes from the playground’s Douglass and DeGraw Pool, a popular swimming spot that’s filled to capacity every summer.
The Brooklyn Borough President had allocated $900,000 for the project. But when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation suspected potential contamination in the ground beneath the playground, Parks quickly realized it would have to be addressed and resolved before they could start construction.
The Chief of Staff for Brooklyn Parks, who leads the borough’s Listening Sessions, knew that if contamination was discovered, the playground’s pool and basketball courts would have to be demolished and totally reconstructed. In the meantime, the $900,000 could be invested in redoing the less complicated playground and seating areas.
Parks wanted to use the Listening Session to explain the complex project to the public, and develop a conceptual plan for the entire park, using the playground and seating area renovation as Phase I.
FoDG wanted a broad cross-segment of the community to attend the session. Knowing the park was popular with skateboarders – who wanted a skate park component in any future plan – they did extensive outreach to bring skateboarders to the session, and explained how important their contributions were to the discussion.
As attendees entered, they were assigned a color and instructed to sit at a table marked with it; a seated color system is often used to separate groups that arrive together to ensure each table has a diverse range of opinions. At each table was a map of the playground and an easel pad for recording ideas. A note taker from the Brooklyn Parks Office was also at each table, to help facilitate the evening’s discussion.
Each table then spent 15 minutes brainstorming ideas for the new park. After the discussions, note takers presented their table’s ideas to the other attendees. Brooklyn Parks then kept the notes to inform their discussions with designers.
While the skateboarders clearly wanted a skate park, they also wanted the park to serve the whole community and include a range of activities. If an anonymous survey had been used, they may have focused on the skate park alone. But by interacting with other park users, the skateboarders were able to imagine flexible spaces with multi-purpose elements, such as tree guards, benches, walls, and paths, that would be fun to skate on, while serving other park users’ needs too.
The meeting rewards went well beyond collecting ideas for park improvement. Now, the skateboarders are more active participants in park programming, and with FoDG have expanded their involvement, including teaming up recently with community members to repaint 82 benches in bright, neon colors, which attracted positive press and sparked further redesign momentum.
The newly renovated park is now open to the public, including a state-of-the-art playground and spray showers!