Start with Hope: Articulating a Shared Vision for Public Spaces
By Andrew White, Park Pride’s Director of Park Visioning
Park planning can sometimes be messy work! As public spaces, parks are inherently political, each with its own hidden minefields of competing constituencies and entrenched interests. As a professional landscape architect and Director of Park Pride’s Park Visioning Program, it can sometimes feel like I’m more of a park therapist than a park designer. One of the tools we have developed over the years is the establishment of guiding principles at the outset of every visioning process to get communities to focus on a shared vision.
The idea is simple: take time at the beginning of each planning process to examine and articulate the hopes of each person in the room – their hopes for the visioning process, their hopes for the park, their hopes for the community. It is an exercise that encourages community members to share their own motivations and aspirations, while also listening to others. Through this process, participants learn that many of their hopes are, in fact, shared by others in the room. Listening is one of the most powerful things we can do to bridge divides and negotiate a constructive path forward.
“Sure,” you may be thinking, “sharing hopes makes everyone feel good at the beginning, but how do those hopes stay relevant and influence the outcome once the ‘kumbaya’ of park planning is over and difficult choices have to be made?” Excellent question, dear reader. Park Pride’s visioning team makes sure the community’s hopes remain important by transforming them into a set of guiding principles. These guiding principles become a touchstone for the community if conflict arises during the park planning process. Every specific choice that is made in the planning process must support one or more of the guiding principles. These guiding principles can also help calm fears that the park planning process will result in changes that are contrary to the desires of the community.
As the visioning team has worked at various scales and in different types of parks over the years, we have developed many sets of guiding principles that reflect the unique hopes and aspirations of the communities who steward their parks, and we’ve seen some common trends emerge in the parks in which we’ve worked. These trends give us insight into the cross-cutting park issues and values in Atlanta.
One such value is trees: most every park vision plan includes protection and enhancement of their mature trees as a guiding principle. Atlantans love their trees and the many benefits these trees provide, including habitat, shade, erosion control, and aesthetic beauty. Given the breakneck pace of real estate development in the region, public parks are an important part of the comprehensive plan to protect our city’s tree canopy.
Communities also prioritize safe pedestrian and bicycle circulation to and through their parks. Due in part to our burgeoning population, access to parks is a growing issue in Atlanta. Where parks lack welcoming and well-marked access points, adjacent sidewalks, crosswalks, bike racks, and other supportive infrastructure, communities tend to prioritize these improvements over others.
Adequate park maintenance is another theme we hear about frequently. With parks competing with police and fire protection, for example, parks are often the first budget to get cut when difficult budgetary choices need to be made. Without adequate funding for maintenance, parks can fall into disrepair, creating a backlog that never goes away, even when budgets are later restored.
In a time when conflict and misunderstandings swiftly take root and drown out more reasonable voices, starting with hope proves to be an invaluable way to articulate shared priorities as groups develop a shared vision for their unique neighborhood parks.
The City of Atlanta’s Department of Parks and Recreation will soon kick off their 10-year master planning process to increase access to exceptional programming, foster community connections through beautiful parks and greenways, and improve the health and happiness of all Atlantans in all neighborhoods. Due to our deep connections with communities across the city, Park Pride has been tapped to support an unprecedented public engagement effort to make sure all voices are heard. Stay tuned opportunities to let your voice be heard through public meetings and surveys!