Don’t just tick the box—think outside of it
Parc Jarry in Montreal. Credit: Charles Olivier Bourque

Most parks engagement conversations start with design. Do we want a splash pad here? A playground? What kind of benches? But for author and placemaker Jay Pitter, who has led projects across Canada and the U.S., this misses an important dimension: the social.

Skipping over a discussion of the social dimension of a park—and the lived experiences and power dynamics of its users—means missing out on the opportunity to create responsive well-designed amenities, Pitter argued, but it also misses larger conversations that might need to happen.

“One might come in with the intent to revitalize or design a public space when the community actually needs to talk about safety concerns or interpersonal tensions pertaining to that public space,” Pitter said, adding that “it’s advisable to begin the conversation in a slower more open-ended manner that invites a holistic conversation exploring the spatial and social aspects of a site.”

To address this, Pitter builds her engagement methods around reciprocity—not just asking questions that “gather data for a particular placemaking project,” but asking questions “in a way that strengthens and unifies communities.”

Take community gardens. “Communing with the earth and growing food have special meanings across most cultures,” Pitter said. “So why not leverage the design and programming of community gardens to build cross-cultural understanding and appreciation?”

This reciprocity is an important metric of success for Pitter. Did the process bring people together who wouldn’t normally interact or see their concerns as overlapping? “If the community engagement process hasn’t served the larger purpose of building bridges across difference and fostering new relationships, then it hasn’t served the community,” she said.

The dialogue about public space is becoming more complex with “people sharing intimate and oftentimes difficult place-based stories that have historically been silenced,” she said. This includes “Indigenous peoples sharing stories to decolonize public spaces, women and gender-diverse individuals sharing safety concerns and disabled peoples sharing a righteous unwillingness to be erased from public spaces due to physical barriers and an erasure of the social parts of their identities.”

“Traditional community engagement processes lack the agility and compassion to respond to these and other complex issues,” she said. “Urbanists must catch up quickly because communities are insisting on shaping public space conversations and the design of their public spaces.”

Start small

Pitter recommends small-group engagement in non-traditional settings like walks or small workshops, which help break down the “power imbalance” embedded in the large town hall format where one person gets the microphone. Pitter often starts engagement in semi-public or even private settings, like small dinners, faith-based community centres, union halls, or the homes of elders.

This is a practice also used by Matt Hickey, an architect with Two-Row Architects who leads Indigenous engagement. “We use talking circles a lot,” Hickey said, which are “gatherings of smaller groups that allow for people to express information in an oral format.” This approach allows for personal interaction that can create a more supportive and comfortable atmosphere for expression.

While small-group engagement can help break down power imbalances, Pitter argued it’s important to recognize that no engagement is “neutral,” and to believe so obscures the power dynamic inherent in an urbanism professional coming into a community.

“When you’re leading a community engagement, it’s important to be mindful of the considerable power and privilege you possess…so for me, the act of going into a community is an act of personal reflexivity and humility,” she said. Urbanists need to recognize “their individual power based on aspects of their identities such as race, ability, and gender” and also their professional relationship with a client like an urban design firm or city government.

Before beginning any engagement process, being vulnerable and inviting the community to “vet” you by asking you tough questions is important, Pitter said. It helps to “level power imbalances” and conveys that “you’re clear that you are not entitled to be in their community.”

“I’m honoured every single time a community vets me and entrusts me to co-lead processes that will not only shape a public space but the quality of their experiences within it,” she said.

Start before the beginning

Too often engagement starts after a project’s beginning, inviting people to provide feedback on already formed concepts. However, it’s important to involve people before any design has been set, said Daniel Fusca, Manager of Public Consultation within Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Division.

Fusca is cultivating a new approach to engagement, involving people in what he calls “primary research” rather than just asking for feedback.

The difference is subtle, he said, but important.

City of Toronto Consultation. Credit: Daniel Fusca
City of Toronto Consultation. Credit: Daniel Fusca

For a project that involved squeezing an off-leash dog area into a small park, rather than getting feedback on proposed configurations, his team divided people into groups and provided them with a grid of the park to design the dog park themselves using sticky notes.

The tactile nature of the exercise helped people think through spatial constraints, making trade-offs on the size of the dog park and space for other amenities. These designs were then posted online where over 500 community members voted.

“Now we have all of this really rich data on what people are comfortable with in terms of the layout of the park,” Fusca said, which will inform the brief for the landscape architect.

Don’t end when the ribbon is cut

For architect Matt Hickey, how you engage people after the project is “finished” is almost as important as what happens before it starts.

Hickey, who has led Indigenous engagement in parks, noted that parks may be designed with Indigenous programming and cultural spaces, but there is little thought to how those spaces will be continually used afterwards. The “if you build it, they will come” mindset may work sometimes, but other times these amenities may sit underused or, worse, not used at all.

“When a park is designed to facilitate cultural communities or cultural happenings or ceremonies and gatherings,” Hickey said, the question should be “how does that get programmed into those spaces in the future so they don’t just get designed for it, but they’re actually used for it?”

For Hickey, it’s about relationship building with vendors and service providers that provide cultural activities within their own spaces or buildings and inviting them to bring that programming to the park.

Another key element is assessing how already built designs are performing and being open to alterations in response to feedback—a practice the City of North Vancouver does.

Chief Mathias Joe Park post-occupancy study. Credit: City of North Vancouver
Chief Mathias Joe Park post-occupancy study. Credit: City of North Vancouver

“Typically most organizations do not do evaluations or review once a facility is open to the public,” said Adam Vasilevich, the city’s Parks and Greenways Planner. “In the past we did public engagement before or during design, but it should be carried through to the space being used.”

The city has begun doing post-occupancy evaluations, which involve behavioural observations of use patterns and conducting on-site park user surveys. Vasilevich said the evaluations offer critical information that can be used to modify designs and make better decisions about future parks. By focusing on studying off-leash dog areas and children’s playgrounds specifically, he said the city has been able to better inform designs for play equipment, shade, and social spaces.

Go beyond the online survey

Digital engagement is often relegated to online surveys or project websites. While these can provide important information, they miss out on the potential of collaborative online tools.

Toronto’s parks consultation manager Daniel Fusca said that COVID-19 has necessitated reaching new strategies for digital engagement, likely changing the way cities will engage permanently. “Even when this ends, we don’t know how comfortable people are going to be with meeting other people in groups,” he said.

The city is looking at tools that allow for online meetings that include break-out discussion groups and others that facilitate digital mapping. While the best engagement still happens in person, it’s important to try to bridge that quality gap between online and off, since so many people participate in civic life online, he said. “I think we’re going to see that there’s a lot of benefits to engaging the public in this way.”

However, there are equity implications—something the city is still working through, Fusca said. Given that libraries and other public places where people access the internet have been closed, “it’s really hard to think about how you’re going to engage people online, when there are some people who don’t have access to the internet.”

Engage people where they are

We’ve all seen the flyers. Come to a school gymnasium or community centre on a Wednesday night at 6pm in the middle of February for a public meeting.

For some, this works well, but good engagement meets people where they are: whether that is physically (in an apartment building lobby, for example) or whether that means meeting a language, accessibility, or childcare need.

  • Pop-up in the park. Cities including Hamilton, Halifax, Kingston, Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto are directly reaching park users in parks. Kingston has hosted meetings in community gardens and Calgary has even outfitted a mobile engagement van.
  • Decide on funding together. Participatory budgeting processes involve residents directly in proposing projects and making funding decisions, as Longueuil does with $100,000 per project.
  • Talk to kids. Toronto is considering providing schools with classroom assignments about local playground designs and has held engagements in playgrounds to directly get ideas from kids, not their parents. Similarly, Prince George engaged a local seven-year old to help design a new playground.
Toronto playground pop-up. Credit: Daniel Fusca
Toronto playground pop-up. Credit: Daniel Fusca
  • Give homework. For Vancouver’s VanPlay master plan, the city created downloadable workbooks so people could host their own community engagement. Over 450 participants completed workbooks that included discussion guides and activities. The Park Board is also developing decolonizing toolkits to support community groups and partners to decolonize their practices and programs.
  • Be culturally and linguistically relevant. Calgary has a cultural marketing plan that is used to reach audiences in linguistically diverse neighbourhoods. In 2020, the city will be using infographic signs and educators who speak specific dialects.
  • Engage internally, too. It’s not just the public that should be engaged, but a city’s own staff across multiple departments. Gatineau hosted an internal parks forum with speakers and brainstorm sessions to kick-off their parks master plan process, inviting city councillors, city staff, and non-profit partners to help shape the vision.
  • Provide info online—and keep it up to date. Most cities offer project updates online, but many leave a lot to be desired in ease of use and up-to-date information. Ottawa’s online engagement website provides key project information—meeting dates, maps, design materials—as well as direct staff contacts.