Public Image, Unlimited

Do you know just what you’d tell Rem or Frank if you could hire him? Well, speak up: cities hire architects and landscapers for public spaces throughout the year. And too many citizens consider themselves too tongue-tied to weigh in on how these people contour their spaces. Two projects on Manhattan’s West Side show how public servants can transform civic concerns into civic guidance for unique design choices.

Charles McKinney, whose Arkansas lilt and copper-colored hair would delight a casting agent, ran Riverside Park for 17 years. The four-mile park gained cohesion a few blocks at a time during his tenure, as McKinney scrounged for available funds when folks from block associations alerted him to egregious garbage heaps or promising garden plots. Despite budget cuts, he secured funding for these go-getters and made them gardeners. When neighbors saw these associations brighten their sections of the park and wanted to do the same, participation spread. “Get the right environment operating,” McKinney says. “You’re not asking people to volunteer, you’re creating conditions that they want.” McKinney saw volunteers adopt 80 sites before leaving Riverside in 2001. He now heads design for the entire New York City Parks Department.

Design can also flow from amateur input in quirkier projects. Friends of the High Line , a volunteer organization determined to make a dead elevated trestle into New York’s most distinctive new park, tailors its outreach to different audiences. West Chelsea residents and patrons of nearby art galleries view the High Line as a cause celebre. So the presentations this crowd attends carry the trappings of “event.” They take place in cavernous neighborhood theaters and involve multimedia presentations with High Line leaders selecting written questions. These updates help Friends of the High Line craft plans and help neighbors understand them. Friends cofounder Josh David says tenants in nearby public housing complexes receive more personalized visits. Volunteers host pizza dinners for tenant groups of around ten, and these circumstances allow more “back and forth” discussion to introduce design vocabulary. But in both contexts, design team leaders emphasize the park experience.

Often, these designers calibrate citizens’ language as carefully as their own. New Yorkers for Parks enlists design-school interns to help community groups redesign neglected public space. “We encourage students to reflect what people are saying in their own words,” says Pamela Governale, who runs the program. Robert Hammond, Friends of the High Line’s cofounder, utilized this technique at a recent meeting. He read aloud written questions before making his own comments. This grounded suggestions about access points from nearby buildings, for instance, in the project’s financial reality.

According to David, such input shaped the High Line’s edges. Old rails had presented logistical headaches, and the team had pondered disposing of them. Now, says David, audience requests led the team to retain old rails and to figure out how to map and tag each one. When city workers start removing them next month, they’ll store some on the Line. Those will provide embedded footing for a rethought section near 14th Street dubbed “the preserve.”

Listening to the people who show passion for public space, as McKinney can attest, injects energy into a landscape. This begins with focusing on how citizens picture their space. Advantageous surprises can occur when you try picturing a place through someone else’s eyes. But outdoor spaces, where games or gardens can arise, require openness. Folks who plan these places have to invite the unplanned.

VENTURING OUT: A Bronx group, Greening For Breathing, formed its plan for a memorial mural through New Yorkers for Parks’ process. Such plans have emerged in Chicago and Boston— and probably in your city, too. The Association for Community Design aims to codify principles for working with laypeople. Scholars at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign teach these principles.

SPEAKING OUT: How do vocabulary, design phase duration, and charette prep differ for public projects than for private ones? What would communities gain from a crib sheet for planning? What techniques let design professionals guide communities to dream big and then adjust those dreams to a site’s limits? What techniques elicit crazy ideas? Let us know about how communities aid design—or need to learn how.

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