José Serrano-McClain, Community Organizing Fellow for The World’s Park
Sam Holleran, Participatory Design Fellow for The World’s Park
It was a breezy evening in May two years ago at BRIC in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when we launched our request for proposal, The Energetic City. More than 90 proposals, one big jury, months of community-driven research (carried out by seven stellar Design Trust Fellows and four dedicated partners) later, we were glad to be back at BRIC on January 26, 2016. This time, to step aside with an audience of die-hard urbanists and connect the dots among the four Design Trust projects that came out of The Energetic City:
The Energetic City Forum: Rethinking NYC's Edges featured the two recently completed Design Trust projects: Laying the Groundwork design guidelines for ground-floor retail and community spaces in future mixed-use affordable housing developments; and The World’s Park community design school where Queens residents developed proposals to improve the access and circulation of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
The panel, moderated by our executive director Susan Chin, included Jane Greengold, our Partner for the Opening the Edge project; Monica Valenzuela, Deputy Director of Staten Island Arts, and our Partner on the Future Culture project; Sam Holleran, Participatory Design Fellow for The World’s Park project; Sarah Lidgus, Design Education Fellow for The World’s Park; José Serrano-McClain, Community Organizing Fellow for The World’s Park project and our project partner from the Queens Museum; Janice Melnick, Flushing Meadows Corona Park Administrator, NYC Parks, who was our other Partner on The World’s Park; Arielle Goldberg, Senior Planner/Policy Analyst, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who was our Partner for the Laying the Groundwork project; and Penny Hardy, Graphic Design Fellow for Laying the Groundwork.
Check out some of the highlights from this conversation and stay tuned for our upcoming events!
Susan Chin: Each of The Energetic City projects, namely, Laying the Groundwork, The World’s Park, Opening the Edge, and Future Culture involves an edge, or a boundary, between two or more physical or social zones. Opening the Edge is probably the project that is most explicit about breaking down barriers. Jane, what does it mean to “open the edge” and how do you think breaking down the hard physical edges of a NYCHA development will also help break down social borders?
Jane Greengold: I thought it would be interesting to see how the residents would feel about the possibility of taking down the fence and putting in an interactive part, whatever residents may choose that to be, that would be welcoming to both residents and non-residents as a way of trying to break down social, psychological, political, and physical barriers between them.
It was always important for me to find out how the residents felt about it, and the first reaction was “oh,” and not necessarily embracing it. But after a short time they began to think, “Well maybe we want to invite people and maybe we don’t but we certainly would like to change the space in some way, and investigate how we can do it.”
It will be exciting to explore with residents and members of the larger community how they feel about the idea of breaking down the physical edge, and what effect that would have on the social edge.
Susan Chin: Flushing Meadows Corona Park is another greenspace that has a very strong physical boundary. World’s Park Team, how did the Community Design School address these challenges?
José Serrano-McClain: When we saw the Design Trust request for proposal come out and the theme was Connectivity, it was also a time when many community members expressed concern with the future of the park. The park had become targeted for several commercial development initiatives. We saw an opportunity to build on the community energy to embrace and protect the park. We realized, this could serve as a springboard for a conversation to talk about the socio-political connectivity of the park.
Why not bring the community into a situation where the community is itself addressing the question of the physical connectivity of park and community.
We took on the challenge of the park’s built environment and turned it into an opportunity to actively engage the park’s neighbors in the issue.
Susan Chin: The North Shore waterfront in Staten Island is relatively disconnected from the residential neighborhoods and most residents think of it as a place for work or transportation, not a public space. Monica, how will Future Culture reimagine the waterfront and how will the process help to change perceptions?
Monica Valenzuela: Staten Island has a huge perception challenge. Every time we hear of Staten Island in the media, it’s through a really challenging headline.
Historically, Staten Island has been very connected to its waterfront. The challenge that we’re trying to address is that all these new development projects on the waterfront are happening very quickly, and they are all happening with very little community input.
A large density of the artist community and cultural organizations are located in the North Shore. The perceptions from the artists side were, “Great! All these developers are going to come in and we’re going to be displaced.”
This is the last gold coast, as all of the big articles have been calling it. It makes you feel like they’re bringing all the cool people to Staten Island. Which I think is the challenge we’re looking at, because the cool people are already there! So how do you involve them in the development of their neighborhood? By inviting artists to the table, we’re helping to envision that process.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in trying to change perceptions.
Susan Chin: The ground floor is another sort of an edge, the boundary between the building and the street. Laying the Groundwork Team, how did you think about this interface when creating the guidelines for mixed-use affordable housing developments?
Arielle Goldberg: How do we really make these spaces attractive and inviting? How do you make sidewalks places that people want to walk down? And then, what is the connection between that and the building itself?
You want to have transparency, so people want to and can peer into windows. Signage comes into play here. Walking down the street, you should be able to connect what you’re seeing to something you can buy. All those pieces were coming together in an important way. We didn’t always agree – we talked about benches, and there were different opinions.
Often we’re working in communities where there isn’t a lot of retail, or it’s not active. We want to create spaces that people are attracted to and feel comfortable in.
Susan Chin: Design Trust projects rely on the expertise of Fellows and Partners and the deep knowledge of community stakeholders. How do you equip and empower communities to participate in planning and design to strengthen the outcome while also respecting professional expertise?
Sarah Lidgus: The first thing you need to do is bring the right people to the table.
We’ve been talking a lot recently about 'Phase 0,' and what it actually takes to make civic projects happen. Relationship building that Janice has with folks from around the parks is not trivial, it’s imperative. So if you can’t make those relationships, it’s a non-starter. We talked about in-reach, not outreach. That was the fifty percent of the project.
The other fifty percent is creating an inclusive curriculum and getting those folks to collaborate. So you take this really diverse group of people and you want them to make some stuff. How do you do that? You obviously have to set them up for success and create this inclusive experience for them.
Janice Melnick: Public has great ideas if you let them talk about it. At the same time, we were careful with managing expectations.
Susan Chin: Many of our projects aim to remedy information gaps between different communities — having developers learn about MEP systems or helping Community Advisors understand the city government’s capital process. How do you bridge these gaps?
Penny Hardy: In the Laying the Groundwork Design Guidelines, a lot of the information is very basic. What was amazing about the project was to get all these different groups, which is what the Design Trust does so well, to talk to each other who normally don’t talk.
We broke down these boundaries in conversations with just basic facts that the people never get together to actually talk about. In the end it was very simple, rudimentary things, but it was key to provide this tool including all the must-have information in one place that people often don’t have time to seek separately.
Sarah Lidgus: For me it was about breaking down the language of expertise. We all have these preconceived expertise perspectives and that’s really useful, but we all have to be able to speak the same language. We talked about breaking down the language of design, and breaking down the language of government.
There’s so much jargon that we bring to the table, all of us are guilty of it. If that happens and someone misses the point, we’re all of a sudden not on the same page and now we can’t collaborate in an effective way.
Susan Chin: Artists seem to be particularly adept at negotiating borders and a few of our projects include artists as Fellows. What are the special skills that artists bring to the planning process and how can those skills be complemented by the expertise of other Fellows?
Sam Holleran: Artists make things exciting. They create compelling ideas to start the much-needed conversations.
Susan Chin: This forum provides the opportunity for the two projects that are about to commence to learn from the two projects that have just finished up. The World’s Park and Laying the Groundwork Teams, what was the biggest lesson learned over the course of your project and what is your advice for Monica and Jane?
Sam Holleran: Highlight to your project participants that it’ll be an opportunity to connect with the decision-makers.
Janice Melnick: And assure them that you will achieve something concrete at the end.
José Serrano-McClain: Bring interpreters, special-needs experts, to foster community dialogue with the maximum participation possible.
Sarah Lidgus: Be visual. Visual tools can be the most effective language overcoming a lot of barriers.
Arielle Goldberg: Create a realistic balance between the aspirational and the practical. Know what’s feasible and what’s above and beyond.
Congratulation to our Project Partners and Fellows on their pioneering work. Thank you to the Energetic City jury for their thoughtful selection of these projects.
Many thanks to the Energetic City Advisory Committee for their guidance over the past year, including. M. Blaise Backer, NYC Department of Small Business Services; Robert Balder, Cornell University AAP; Theodore S. Berger, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Joan Mitchell Fund; R. Darby Curtis, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Curtis + Ginsberg; Ann Harakawa, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Two Twelve; Natalie Jeremijenko, xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at NYU; Zack McKown, Design Trust for Public Space Board and Tsao & McKown; Jeff Merritt, Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation; Larisa Ortiz, Larisa Ortiz Associates; Nancy Prince, NYC Parks; Damon Rich, Hector Design Service; Edwin Torres, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs; Ruth Anne Visnauskas, NYS Homes and Community Renewal; and Andrea Woodner, Design Trust for Public Space Founder and Founder’s Circle Chair.
And a big thank you to the Design Trust Founder’s Circle and the National Endowment for the Arts for their generous support, with additional support from NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and NY State Council on the Arts.
Public has great ideas if you let them talk about it.