The Possibilities of Parks: Thoughts After a Creative Placemaking Colloquium

by Yolanda Wisher, USDAC Chief Rhapsodist of Wherewithal

On Thursday, June 2, 2016, I attended the Nature of Communities: Parks and Creative Placemaking Colloquium at FringeArts in my hometown of Philadelphia, PA. The colloquium was part of an NEA/Our Town funded project led by The Trust for Public Land and City Parks Alliance. One of the major goals of the project is to “advance the practice of creative placemaking in creating and sustaining parks for people and strong communities.” The Trust for Public Land defines creative placemaking as “a cooperative, community-based process that leads to new and rejuvenated parks and open spaces reflecting local identity through arts and culture.” (For another take, see “Human Rights and Property Rights: Placemaking and Placekeeping.”

The colloquium, the first of its kind held in Philadelphia, gathered locally and nationally known experts and practitioners in the fields of art, culture, design, creative placemaking, city planning, transportation, and parks and recreation to share knowledge and best practices through five breakout group tracks: Partnerships & Communication, Community, Big Ideas/Advancing the Field, Process & Governance, and Funding. Lily Yeh, Urban Alchemist on the USDAC National Cabinet was in the house! The collective wisdom from the breakout groups as well as the learnings from an earlier disseminated Creative Placemaking Awareness & Experience Survey will be compiled into a field guide on parks and creative placemaking to be published next summer. Artists, cultural workers, park leaders, and community organizers are the target audiences for the toolkit which promises to be a treasure trove of both emerging and tried-and-tested strategies for envisioning, initiating, stewarding, and sustaining creative placemaking in parks.

The kick-off of the colloquium involved a panel of folks already doing this work around the country: Jennifer Toy of Kounkuey Design Initiative, Toody Maher of Pogo Park, Mitchell Silver of New York City Parks & Recreation, and Seitu Jones, an independent artist. I was reminded by this extraordinary panel that good parks have always been the best chill spots, the gathering grounds for family reunions, the nostalgic landscape of music festivals, the impromptu battleground of the masses, and the breeding grounds for artistic innovations like hip hop. Mitchell Silver, a city planner turned park big boss, said that for many who didn’t grow up with backyards or decks, parks were an “outdoor living room” where one learned to play ball or had a first date or that first sloppy kiss. He encouraged the design of a “seamless” city full of “parks without borders” (like those high fences that seem to hold the trees hostage), parks that are unique to their neighborhood culture, parks that are designed with future generations in mind, our descendants who are bound to experience public space in different ways than we do now.

Elm Playlot, a pilot project of Pogo Park in Richmond, CA.

Elm Playlot, a pilot project of Pogo Park in Richmond, CA.

All of the panelists affirmed that this democratic and visionary planning can’t happen without community participation, buy-in, and leadership. As Toody Maher said, “parks have to be built from the inside out.” Maher, in full force with community members in Central Richmond, California, founded Pogo Park in what is known as the “Iron Triangle,” a neighborhood with a reputation for being a high-crime “warzone.” Once a place avoided by children and families, the park has been transformed into “a green oasis,” where family and community events flourish. Maher, an entrepreneur and inventor, assisted members of the neighborhood in building real architectural models of their plans for the park rather than having an outside planner come in to interpret their ideas. They also built and installed park fixtures and equipment themselves. Maher said that the process “made everyone an expert” and later led to a truly unique and collaborative park design, which the community continues to take pride in and preserve.

This feeling and reality of community ownership and investment is critical to sustaining parks, and artists and cultural workers can be part of the spark that lights this fire, working with, in, and around community alliances and divisions to help unlock individual and group creative potential. In my breakout group on Partnerships & Communication, we talked a great deal about the training and credentials artists need to do this work of inclusive community building and engagement that brings all of the local demographics to the table, understands the strengths, expertise and knowledge of a community, and helps to guide an emergent, flexible, ethical project process.

Garden beds being installed in St. Anthony PPS, a project led by Kounkuey Design Initiative in Coachella, CA. 

Garden beds being installed in St. Anthony PPS, a project led by Kounkuey Design Initiative in Coachella, CA. 

Here in Philly we have the big diva Fairmount Park, one of the largest parks in the country. Fairmount Park started out of the estate of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the park system includes such landmark sites as Boathouse Row, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, and Bartram’s Garden. The park is legendary for the way it’s been preserved despite the city’s infrastructural development and community boundaries. It’s a model of urban planning in which it would seem the park won more than it lost. There’s a little piece of the park in every neighborhood. But it’s the not the only park in Philly. There are lots of other smaller regional and neighborhood parks that get varying amounts of love and attention. Last week, I made a visit to both the Morris and Awbury Arboretums here in Philadelphia and reflected on the incredibly beautiful and pristine sanctuary of these protected and curated spaces. They remind me of the garden stroll scenes in Masterpiece Theater movies. They also remind me that not everyone was and is permitted such beauty. Parks have been contested spaces. Parks haven’t always been for everyone, and there’s still plenty of policing of parks around the country, whether it’s close to home with Philly musicians being booted out of Rittenhouse Square or next door in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, where a basketball court is the site of neighborhood conflict and illustrative of a larger narrative of gentrification and displacement.

Despite being one of the “experts” who were well-fed and air-conditioned in exchange for my infinite wisdom, I left the colloquium determined to spend more time with my family and do more work as an artist around the corner in my own local parks and open spaces. Something of the DNA and the raison d'etre of cities lives in these beautiful nooks and crannies that we all create and maintain with our goodwill. They could be some of the most unsegregated, authentic and liberating spaces that exist in our cities. They could be free and accessible meditation rooms and gyms for our spirits to be renewed and our health improved. These efforts to activate parks with art and culture shouldn’t be considered lightly and must involve the voices of many. It’s about time for all of our parks to become truly open spaces, where local culture and creativity not only survive but thrive.

Visit the Trust for Public Land to find out about local park campaigns near you and subscribe to its blog to find out when the field guide is published next summer.