A People’s Park Re-envisioned by the People

By Susan Chin

Susan Chin, FAIA, Hon. ASLA, Executive Director leads the Design Trust for Public Space, a nationally recognized incubator that transforms and evolves the city’s landscape with public agencies, community collaborators since 1995.

Aug 10, 2015 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

What good is a park or any other kind of public space if you can’t find your way into it? While Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the former World’s Fair ground in Queens is one of the most diverse and heavily used parks in New York City, it’s also hard to find the entrance and easy to lose one’s way within the park. The Design Trust for Public Space joined forces with NYC Parks and Queens Museum to engage the local community in improving access, circulation, and connectivity to this flagship park.

The Community Forum held following the opening of the You Are Here exhibition. Photo by William Michael Fredericks. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

The Community Forum held following the opening of the You Are Here exhibition. Photo by William Michael Fredericks. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Twenty-three community advisors, supported and led by the Design Trust fellows team, the NYC Parks administrators, and the Queens Museum, have developed ideas in a four month-long rigorous collaboration, called the community design school, as part of The World’s Park project.

Thanks to the efforts of our Community Organizing Fellow José Serrano-McClain, the project’s community advisors are comprised of highly enthusiastic individuals, ranging in age from 16 to 70, and diverse professional and cultural backgrounds. They are getting equipped in organizing skills, design, architecture and art in public spaces, and want to take part in choosing potential improvements for Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Some of the participants have been living in Queens for decades. Others called it home more recently, thousands of miles away from where they were born and grew up. Some speak Mandarin or Cantonese; others, Spanish; and some others Korean as their first language.

Design pedagogy was at the center of the ten-session workshop series co-developed by our Design Education Fellow Sarah Lidgus and Participatory Design Fellow Sam Holleran. The Park Administrator and Parks staff also planned the curriculum, participated in every class and workshop, and offered practical advice on the feasibility of design ideas.

Design concepts by The Worlds Park Community Advisors displayed in the You Are Here exhibition. Photo by William Michael Fredericks. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

Design concepts by The Worlds Park Community Advisors displayed in the You Are Here exhibition. Photo by William Michael Fredericks. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

From the get-go, Sarah broke down ‘design’ for everyone. “Design is both a noun and a verb. We’re going to be doing both. A lot,” she announced. “Design as a noun might be a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made. Design as a verb, on the other hand, is a strategic approach for someone to achieve a unique expectation in solving a problem.”

We tackled the design process next. “It starts with research to understand the problems and opportunities. Ideas are born making these concepts visual and tangible. Then other people are asked for feedback. The design gets refined; it evolves and ideas get eliminated to reach the best answer,” Sarah summed up.

The community design school precisely followed this methodology. Midway through the term, we held an initial forum where the community advisors shared their preliminary ideas with the larger public and received critical feedback to their design concepts. The advisors were encouraged to see the park from the perspective of others, examining different ways community members use and navigate the park, as well as how decision-making can align with the ideals of equality and inclusivity of underrepresented groups.

The iconic Unisphere from the 1964–1965 New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, as seen from the Queens Museum. Photo by William Michael Fredericks. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

The iconic Unisphere from the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, as seen from the Queens Museum. Photo by William Michael Fredericks. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space

A final exhibition displayed the collective design concepts of the community advisors at the Queens Museum in May 2015 to help advocate for the design improvements in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The concepts on view ranged from information kiosks and art installations, to way-finding landmarks, and play areas for children with special needs. The advisors’ creative ideas targeted improving the connectivity between Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the neighboring communities, focusing on the access points and circulation patterns within and around the park.

This summer, members of the group have staged several family events with the Queens Museum’s Education Department to further develop a sensory play space in the park. Building on The World’s Park project with the Design Trust, advisors have also been working with a resident artist, as part of Studio in the Park, the Queens Museum’s new collaboration with the Parks Department, and ArtBuilt’s Esther Robinson, to prototype related concepts to improve connectivity.

The group is also providing their on-the-ground expertise to the NYC Department of Transportation for their initiative to install way-finding kiosks near major park entrances and surrounding transit hubs. We’re hoping that these initiatives point the way toward increased stewardship and decision-making roles for community members in shaping the park spaces that they use everyday.

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