by Kaitlyn Poehlein, Designer, SWT Design
Parks and public open spaces are, in a sense, the backyards all people share. Whether the space is a beloved city park or a remote nature reserve, there is often a sense of admiration and ownership associated with the public spaces that collectively belong to us all. As designers of these spaces, planners and landscape architects carry the huge responsibility of responding to the needs of current and future users in order to achieve an inclusive and comprehensive outcome. It is important that we provide a variety of opportunities for people to share their ideas and desires.
For design professionals, it is essential to stay informed about the latest technologies and cutting-edge tools to help improve our designs and process, but in terms of our approach towards engaging the public, we often revert toward what’s expected. In most projects at city and county-level, it is generally commonplace that a project team will conduct a public open house or workshop to present ideas and listen to feedback from neighboring residents and users, and in many cases these events are accompanied by an online survey or questionnaire. While these approaches have seen great success through the years and should continue to be utilized, it is important that we consider providing alternative opportunities for public engagement, in addition to those that are tried-and-true, to receive more meaningful input and to reach more stakeholders.
There are many unique ways in which we can reach out to the public to gather a deeper understanding of their desires. One alternative approach is simply to go to where the people already are. Any existing event or public gathering that is happening in or near the space that designers are studying is a prime opportunity to reach a wider range of people. This could be a booth with project information and brochures or activities that the design team could host at a farmer’s market or festival. Another way designers can go to the people is by conducting an on-site demonstration. This is a great way to engage and interact with current users of a site and encourage people to think differently about a space they may already have opinions about. In fall of 2017, SWT was part of a team that utilized this particular method of engagement. SWT Design assisted in the design and implementation of a temporary mid-block crossing on West Florissant Avenue in Dellwood, MO. This planned Great Streets corridor has explored numerous ways to engage community members ad this temporary demonstration (with funding support from APA and Trailnet) enabled citizens and business owners to “test” a proposed design option and provide tremendously impactful feedback. The event attracted residents who otherwise had not been aware of the project, was captured by local news, and has become a model to other communities considering alternate methods of engagement.