Lessons Learned: Dynamic Participation & Actions in Public Space

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While some landmark public space projects, like New York’s Highline, produce a great deal of excitement and participation, other projects mainly attract the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) crowd, while most small scale neighborhood public space projects with low potential for generating economic growth fail to generate the kind of participation that would benefit not only the design of the project, but also the ongoing community engagement vital to sustaining the public space over time. These observations led me to the question: How does a design professional engage people to participate in the development of neighborhood public spaces in such a way that they see those spaces as an integral and ongoing part of their daily lives? Last fall, I coordinated two projects, Framing Lafayette Park and Share A Chair, in two parks in Salem Massachusetts that begin to explore this question on site.

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Framing Lafayette Park

On a Saturday morning in late October, a couple friends and I hung five picture frames from trees in Lafayette Park. The bright, orange frames seemed to signal the high tourist season for Salem, with Halloween just days away.

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Lafayette Park is not on the tourist circuit, however. The park and its dominating feature, a granite, obelisk-like monument, do not feature on Salem postcards. The frames prompt passer-byers to take a closer look at the park and perhaps even take a photo – of friends or the framed view – of a place with few “photo opps.”

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Booklets, hung just below the frames, say “Cheese!” and offer a space to comment on what this green space might be with the prompt: “I imagine this park could be…” Could the frames engage people in such a way that they might re-imagine the park?

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The frames and booklets were up for just over 24 hours; I removed them due to the high winds produced by Hurricane Sandy. In the short time they were installed, many comments were made and people imagined the park could be a variety of things from the practical – “cleaner and drug-free” –  to the seemingly improbable – “a museum.”  Some of the frames were placed “inside” the greenery of the park to entice people to cross the apparent edge posed by the sidewalk. The number of comments by each frame shows that most comments were in fact made along the sidewalk where most people already walk, especially to the bus stop.

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Casual discussions with Salem residents imply that few people imagine a great future for the park. Lafayette Park, a ten minute walk north from my house in Salem MA is an example of a space with a bad reputation. William Legault, a long-time resident of Salem and contributor to the Salem Patch, has the park at number two on his list of the “five things that [he finds] to be dragging Salem down,” mainly due to the people, who are

spoiling this park on a daily basis have no real interest in being helped. I know most of them by name.  They don’t want work, and they don’t want services. They want money to drink.

While some of these characterizations have some basis in real occurrences, their proliferation create an overall negative image that inhibits other views of the park and makes it difficult to imagine improvements. From 40 comments gathered during the project, five stated not what the park “could be,” but what the park is currently perceived to be with such remarks as: “a place that I don’t walk around” and “a good drug spot.” What could make people see beyond a space’s established image towards new possibilities?

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A couple summers ago, I did some simple photo surveys at the weekly farmers’ market: I asked people if they could recognize photos of public spaces in their small city. Many participants mistook the image of Lafayette Park, known to denizens as bum-park and hobo-ville, for the Salem Common, an open green space that fronts some of the best real estate in town. While Lafayette Park looks “beautiful,” it’s negative image inhibits future prospects, despite big changes in its immediate surroundings. This shows that seeing something with fresh eyes can bring a new perspective untethered to old conceptions.

Getting to know a space requires  time, an open mind, and the suspension of previously held beliefs regarding the character of the space. While some spaces are literally unknown to many due to geographic seclusion, many more are branded by commonly held images that prevent other interpretations in the present, or the imagining of possible transformations in the future.

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Framing Lafayette Park began a dialogue with the people who use the park or simply cross it on their way to other destinations. The project introduced a new element into the space that prompted people to look at the space with fresh eyes. The next step in the budding dialogue would include the incorporation of some of the comments into new questions for the park users to answer.

Reading poetry, at sunset, beneath the pine tree.

Reading poetry, at sunset, beneath the pine tree.

Share-a-Chair – A Poetry Reading and Chair Offering in Mary Jane Lee Park

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, over a dozen participants marched nine bright blue chairs down Lafayette Street (1A), a main thoroughfare in Salem, and along Massachusetts’ North Shore. The destination was Mary Jane Lee Park in Salem’s Point neighborhood. The small park is virtually unknown by residents outside the area’s borders, but within the neighborhood, Mary Jane Lee Park is considered the heart of the community. Salem residents that do know the park have a negative image of the space since it is within the “dangerous” Point Neighborhood – roughly twenty-two motley blocks that have served as a transition zone to generations of new immigrant communities to the area. As a result, most project participants had never been to this park, although many grew up in the area and currently attend Salem State University less than a mile away.

The half mile march to the park.

The half mile march to the park.

As participants set up the chairs to prepare for the poetry reading, I invited the middle-school aged children by the swings to join and listen; it was the small kids that came. Participants sat in a semi-circle as one person followed another to the pine tree that acted as our stage for the group reading. The children were instantly engaged. One girl asked me if this was to happen every day. Some made noises, others quieted them. They wanted to read, and sing, but they were too shy. I am sure if we could stage poetry readings more than once, they would eventually participate.

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After the readings, participants named the chair they had carried over, and placed it in the park, in a particular space that seemed to need a chair. The park has no flexible seating. During previous research, I learned from resident interviews that park benches had been removed to discourage use by “undesirable people.” Currently, the park has two stationary benches by the playground and five picnic tables chained to three mature trees, sending a rather hostile message to park users. The chairs we left would not be tied down, but flexible to be placed at will.

The children were excited that the chairs would stay; they were also somewhat confused, and a couple warned me that the chairs would be destroyed by “the big kids.”

The children inspect the chairs.

The children inspect the chairs.

The young quickly appropriated the chairs for a game of musical chairs. Then the older kids took them to watch the basketball game underway. The chairs were successfully offered and belonged to the park to use or destroy.

A straight line of chairs.

A straight line of chairs.

On the following day, my husband and I returned to the park.

As we crossed the long asphalt stretch, we could see the chairs lined up next to the playground. Why is it that the simple arrangement of these in a straight line is so moving? A line shows a certain level of care. I counted the chairs: eight. It had been less than twenty-four hours since we marched with over a dozen people to read poems in this neighborhood park. When we left, most of the chairs were on the basketball court; adolescents used them to sit and watch the game, but also as a step up to the slam dunk.

Re-attaching the tags.

Re-attaching the tags.

As I reached the chairs, I noticed a little girl that had been there at the reading. She told me that the older kids, on the court, broke one of the chairs, so she, and the other young kids “rescued” the chairs to keep them safe by the playground. While the reasons for destruction are undeniably complex, the saving of the chairs is simple and heroic.

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On Tuesday morning, on my way to the train station for the workday commute, I stopped by Mary Jane Lee Park to check on the chairs three days after their deployment. I initially spotted no chairs at all as my eyes scanned the horizon. Finally, I looked down and saw them, all in pieces and all over the park.  These chairs were transformed; they embodied anger, frustration, or perhaps just teenage play? Appropriated fragments, piles of blue bones, not simply broken, but systematically dismembered. The work I put into fixing and painting them now had a new layer of work infused into the old wood – the work of destruction which tells stories as much as the act of creation.

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I found a couple of the tags on the ground; the tags inform:

Meet ___(name)_________, the chair.

Place  ___(name)_________, where
you need a place to sit – in the park, on the sidewalk, anywhere in public space.

and in Spanish:

Conoce a ____(nombre)__, la silla.

Coloque a ____(nombre)__, donde
se necesite un lugar para sentarse – en
el parque, en la acera, en cualquier
lugar en el espacio público.

The Point has the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in Salem. In some ways, I thought I was trying to relate, but I knew I would be missing things – perhaps big things.

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Questions tumble forth unchecked: What are the tangled narratives strewn in all four corners of this park – this self-contained world? Anger at people foreign to the space coming in to perform unwarranted? To give what is not wanted? The young received and appropriated the chairs. I wonder what could be given and received by all?

As questions abound, I realize that the dialogue has been nudged forward.

Lessons Learned: Dynamic Participation and Actions in Public Space

In exploring the initial question, ( How does a design professional engage people to participate in the development of neighborhood public spaces in such a way that they see those spaces as an integral and ongoing part of their daily lives?), I find that the first step requires people to look at a particular space with fresh eyes. The second step requires the dynamic participation of the resident with the space through certain actions.

Dynamic Participation is facilitated by Actions in Public Space.

Actions in Public Space are objects and/or events offered in a public space to facilitate unexpected and unaccustomed interactions and “fresh eye” observations from users; actions stimulate a response.

Dynamic Participation is the on-site engagement with the users of a space in an effort to research, sustain, or improve that space. Good dynamic participation includes the following three procedures:

A. Participation should be for all public spaces in a neighborhood and not just for “exciting landmark projects.”

B. Participation should be a sustained effort over time and not just for a specific time frame.
C. Participation should happen on site as a complement to official community center rooms.

As I have reflected over the two projects described above, I can pose the following hypothesis which I will continue to test with projects on site. The preliminary engagement between the users and the space has several advantages over the typical community meetings used to discuss particular space problems at a removed location:

Open Engagement: The engagement begins an open-ended dialogue between the users and the facilitators. At the beginning, there is no agenda other than to get to know the space in question. This is an advantage to the current practice of targeting a particular space for a particular problem or pre-determined project, which can overlook some of the good currently on site, as well as other more subtle and complex problems.

Local Participation: Since the engagement is to happen on the specific site in question, this ensures local people in the immediate surroundings have the best opportunity for engagement, even if they are unaccustomed to or don’t have time to attend community meetings.

Personal Observations: People are prompted to reflect on the space with the opportunity for personal observation in their own time. Personal Observation is more difficult in the community room setting where, even if models and plans are employed, the engagement between the space and the individual are abstract; if the individual has been to the space, the engagement is still removed as it is not immediate and based on remembrances. If the person does know the space well, then memory probably serves him well, but he/she does not have the advantage of perhaps looking at the space with fresh eyes, which would be prompted by a foreign object or situation, if on site. This is not to imply that the current method of practice for the transformation of a space through information gathering and remote participation does not have it merits, it certainly does, as it is often organized and focused. More spontaneous, individual participatory process would complement the current process.

Sustained Exploration: People might be prompted to walk over to other close public spaces and begin to see them as part of the system of public spaces that make up the neighborhood.

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