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.”