Exploring Ownership of Park Spaces in Austin

Let me ask you a question: what’s your park? Is it the pocket park at the end of your block? Is it a splash pad that your kids frequent on Saturday mornings? Is it the trail on the edge of town where you recharge from the city? No matter your preference, you’ve likely found your place – – your park that feels like home.

For the past month, we’ve been working with Austin Parks Foundation exploring how Austinites develop this feeling of ownership towards park and more interestingly, how those feelings of ownership affect their actions.

Austin Parks Foundation (APF) is a non-profit dedicated to developing and maintaining outdoor spaces in Austin. For a city with a culture so devoted to fitness and green spaces, Austin parks are surprisingly underfunded. APF attempts to bridge the gap between what park users need and what the city is able to provide through fundraising, volunteering, and events.

Our ultimate goal as designers is to present APF with a new understanding of their stakeholders and identify problem areas that they may not be aware of. To achieve this, we are starting with 30 hours of contextual inquiry, interviews, and activities, with 19 Austinites in the park they call home.

With our focus on ownership, we wanted to find folks that have a strong connection to parks, so we posted on NextDoor, Craigslist, Facebook, asked PARD and APF, and ultimately found participants that fell into 3 groups:

  1. People who have limited access to green spaces and come to parks to commune with nature or do outdoor activities;
  2. People who take action to improve public green spaces; and
  3. People who use public space to participate in organized activities.

We interviewed a forager who uses parks as a source for herbs for medicine, a frisbee coach who uses parks to train his athletes, park adopters who dedicate hours of their week to improving their park, and much more. Below is a peek of five of the 19 stories we uncovered — all names and identifying information have been changed to keep our sources anonymous. 

Meet our park goers

Robert

Robert

Robert is an artist whose home studio looks out at his neighborhood park. From this vantage point, he has a clear view of the day-to-day activities of park-goers. However, he doesn’t just observe the park from afar, he’s frequently in the park connecting with other park users and just as often out and about in his neighborhood chatting about local issues.

He has collaborated with several local agencies to fund and park improvement projects and has a few more improvements in mind for the future. In several years of living next to his park and advocating for his neighborhood, he’s learned to navigate overlapping civic and non-profit organizations with the help of more experienced mentors.

He told us about his vision for the park. “We planned on cutting through the bamboo to make it a trail for dog walkers and cyclists… You can walk to the side of the pond, but you can’t do a full circle. So we were talking about putting a bridge across and creating a nice path through the trees.”

As we toured his park with him, Robert pointed out areas for potential improvements and also discussed the complications of balancing the needs of neighbors experiencing homelessness who have at times sheltered in the park with the concerns of neighbors who are worried about impacts on the park and the neighborhood.

Madeline

Madeline

Madeline moved to Austin 9 years ago and found the core of her community by connecting with others in parks. She joined a local community garden and established friendships through time spent in the gardens and creating other opportunities to come together with events like potlucks. 

“A community garden can be like a microcosm of like everything else going on. You have different political affiliations, you have different genders, all different kinds of people coming together. So it’s a microcosm of your community, which is a good thing.”

Now, Madeline is more likely to spend time in parks with her husband and young son. They visit splash pads and playgrounds or just get some fresh air on an evening walk after work. She’s more likely to schedule time in parks around existing friends and family than to meet new people. 

She still highly values parks and their potential to turn strangers into neighbors and friends. Madeline thinks Austin should invest in parks and gardens as spaces for people from all walks of life to come together, learn from each other and share with each other while reaping the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

Bryan

Bryan

Bryan is a native Austinite who has been planning cyclocross events in Austin parks for seven years. A father of two daughters, he wants his cycling events to be more than just a competition — he wants to create a community where attendees can bring their families, friends, and hang out all day.

“I wanted this to be like a Roman Colosseum. [. . .] Music, announcing, basically everything is right here, just going around you. [. . .] I wanted people to be here, and feel no need to go somewhere else.”

To achieve this, he’s put a lot of effort into his events. From hand-cutting ragweed with a machete to booking food trucks and beer sponsors, he’s 100% hand-on. He’s developed a strong relationship with Travis County Parks, too, something he could not do with Austin Parks & Recreation (PARD).

“It’s very refreshing working with them. Travis County Parks has a ‘can do’ attitude. My partners in the parks […] understand that I’m responsible, that I’m willing to go the extra mile when it needs.”

While Travis County is a great partner, their parks are unfortunately on the outskirts of town. He understands the limits PARD faces, but still wishes that he could plan events that are more central. But for now, he’s counting on Travis County expanding their parks instead of trying to work with PARD.

“I’ve gone the path of least resistance with Austin PARD.” — and for Bryan, that means not working with them at all. 

Wes

Wes

Wes is a 24-year-old software engineer who resides on Austin’s East Side. His park experiences are focused around playing basketball whenever and wherever he can. He recently started looking at purchasing a house and told us he was scouting out the neighborhood on Google Earth to see what parks would be in walking distance to any new properties. When we asked him to draw us a map of his park ecosystem, it was no surprise that almost all the parks had a basketball court. He adamantly proclaimed

“It’s a staple of an American Park to have a basketball court.”

He plays multiple times a week, sometimes with friends or at pick up games, but also sometimes just to clear his head. In the past, he and his friends would walk 25 minutes in the summer heat to get to a court where they could play a full-court game. This was because the closest court to his then residence was missing a backboard. This isn’t the only issue he has taken up with the facilities around town. At his now local court on the eastside, he told us…

“One issue with this side is the tree is hanging over the court, you can’t really do a fair, full-court game. Like someone’s going to be a disadvantage on that side.”

When we asked him about reaching out to the city to get some of the issues fixed, he said he had thought about it before, but never actually reached out. He was telling us that he would not be opposed to donating to help improve his local park too, but he wasn’t sure if he would ever see the results.

“I really want to know, how can I make a difference? [. . .] Is it really going to make a difference where I want it to? Is that me being selfish by wanting to improve one park that’s close to me versus improving the parks in Austin as a whole? ”

Summer

Summer

Summer and her partner Jake have been hosting an electric circus in Zilker Park going on their 10th year. They are old school Austinites who embody the “Keep it weird” motto every day. When we were gathering some basic demographic info about them like getting their age, we got the quirky response of

“I’m 14 going on 52.” from Jake, and “I’m 736, but in this life.” from Summer.

They are both really proud of the community that they have built through their park festival which showcases people experimenting with flow arts, like hoola-hoops and rolla-bollas, where the tagline of the party is where you are the star

“That’s how you get to grow the community. You show it to new people. Basically the park is an audience. They don’t know they are the audience, they don’t know they are going to be the participants either.”

They love to share their experiences with anyone who is interested, and use the festival as an opportunity to lead by example. They do a roll call before dusk to get all festival-goers to clean up the site so they can leave the park better than they found it. They also like to leave an emotional imprint on people as well. At another public festival called  The Fairy Trail, Summer told us a story about a mom and her daughter had been coming to see her for multiple years in a row. The little girl came up to Summer and wanted to thank her for giving her fairy blessings every year, so the girl said it was her turn to give Summer a blessing.

“I knelt down there and the little girl gave me a blessing and blew glitter on me and I started crying. It was the cutest thing ever.”

Next Steps

With our research wrapped, we are now focused on finding themes among our participants. With a desire to design with — and not for — our participants, we invited a few into the studio to help us interpret our research. Stay tuned in two weeks as we present our findings.

Considering Time When Designing With or Designing For

AC4D is a ‘practice what you preach’ program — if you haven’t already figured that out. This week, we are knee-deep in design research for our clients, so of course, we are also discussing ethical research methods and the power of designing with– not for– our users.

For me, these readings felt really serendipitous (though I’m sure they are meticulously planned). As we grappled with the implications of interviewing folks suffering from homelessness, our first reading by La Dantec explored the same issue and showed us what a thoughtful, ethical research approach looks like. He also inspired us to avoid ‘cultural safari’ territory, and ultimately, we decided against seeking homeless participants.

As we wrap up our interview phase, these readings also helped me think about what it truly means designing for versus designing with users.

What does it mean to design with?

Our most provocative reading was by Donald Norman, the writer of Psychology of Everyday Things and an advocate for ‘just-noticeable differences’.  He asserts that design research cannot be used to make innovative changes — only inventors can do that. Design research, he argues, is most effective when used for incremental change.

Because this is seen as such a controversial statement, this helped me to understand one key thing: we are moving towards a trend of designers and companies thinking the gold-standard is to design with their users. But it seems they rarely do because inventors, egos, market research, and/or budgets stand in the way. 

As we’ve learned from Kolko, design research is an investment– in time, money, and resources. It’s an investment in understanding nuance and culture, and leads you towards more creative, future-thinking ideas. His approach feels rooted in long-term strategy — in contrast to Norman who seeks to only use design research to make better buttons. So with Kolko in one corner, and Norman in the opposite — we start to see quadrants emerge:

Assignment 2 Laura Carroll

Designing for short term vs long term

Designing for the short term is purposefully vague here — I applied it to mean either small iterations (like Norman suggests), design intended to please quarterly earnings reports, and design that seeks to capitalize on fast trends.  To me, designing for the short term tends to be motivated by profits.

On the other end of the spectrum is designing for the long term — cultural shifts, social changes, and slow-moving endeavors.  In general, I assume that if you are designing for the long term, you (hopefully) have more time to integrate true collaborative research. The short-term, however, changes so quickly that collaborative research in all processes may prove to be inefficient or too expensive. 

Le Dantec, Kolko, and Sanders all discuss highly-collaborative — and rigorous methods — that both strive for social impact and intimately involve the end-user. 

Gaver and Forlizzi, on the other hand, involve users less. Gaver, as an artist-researcher, leaves a lot of interpretation in the designer’s hand but does seek to understand key cultural insights. Forlizzi seeks to build methods that give power to the designer to look at the effect of products over time — which is why she lands closer to the “long-term” strategy point. 

Norman, as we’ve already discussed, only recommends design research for iterations. Fulton Suri, on the other hand, as a business leader at frog falls more towards the middle — choosing research methodologies for the projects at hand. 

And finally, we have Dourish in a corner alone. His complex focus on context could be applied for both short and long-term, but I placed him more towards the short term because context is ever-changing. He most definitely seeks to involve the end-user, because only they can truly understand their own context.

As I was trying to “brand” each quadrant, I wrote out short sayings (like ‘we’re better together’) that ultimately reminded me of presidential slogans. So, for some fun extra context, here are the quadrants explained with presidential slogans throughout history. 

Bush Corner 2

For reference, here’s the full list of readings: 

  • Designs on Dignity by Christopher A. Le Dantec, W. Keith Edwards
  • A Tale of Two Publics  by Christopher A. Le Dantec
  • What we talk about when we talk about context by Paul Dourish
  • The Product Ecology by Jodi Forlizzi
  • Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty by William Gaver
  • The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation by Jon Kolko
  • Technology First, Needs Last by Don Norman
  • A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design by Liz Sanders and George Simons
  • Going Deeper, Seeing Further by Jane Fulton Suri and Suzanne Gibbs Howard
  • Experience Prototyping by Jane Fulton Suri and Marion Buchenau

Judging Ethics and Responsibility in Design

Over the past two weeks, we have been tasked with reading five prominent writers’ perspectives on design:

  1. Edward Bernay’s “Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and the How” (1928)
  2. John Dewey’s “The Need of a Theory of Experience” (1938)
  3. Victor Papanek’s “Design for the Real World” (1970) and “Creativity vs. Conformity” (1971)
  4. Maurizio Vitta’s “The Meaning of Design” (1985)
  5. Neil Postman’s speech “Informing Ourselves to Death” (1990)

As any good theory should, these writings have truly withstood the test of time. Arguably the most relevant for today was the oldest — Bernay’s piece on propaganda. 

Our ultimate goal with these readings is to identify how each writer views the role of design in society, and then determine which is the least or most important. Before diving deeper, I felt the need to define a) “what is design?” and b) “what does it mean to be important?”.

What is design?

For the purposes of this assignment, I found myself attracted to Papenek’s broader definition of design that focuses on pattern finding and themes, rather than products or consumables. Papanek defines design as “the planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end…” (Victor Papanek. Design for the Real World, 1971). 

What does it mean to be important? 

Rather than focusing on how each writer views the importance of design in society, I wanted to develop my own perspective. Which writer’s principles do I want to hold top-of-mind (most important) as we embark on this challenging mission to become designers? Through which writer’s lens can I start to draft my own opinions? What should drive me as a designer?

From this point of view, I plotted each writer from least important to most important. With the top writers being the ones I want to keep in my ear (cheering me on or scolding me) as we interview users, come up with ideas, and become true designers. 
EthicsResponsibilityinDesign_AC4D

At the bottom is Bernays. While I think he’s deeply important to read and understand, he views the public as holding all the power which dissolves designers of their responsibility. Although a nice sentiment, power is not equal and we need to be conscious of inequities when designing. 

Vitta again does not take enough responsibility for what designers create. I wholeheartedly agree that individuals are overwhelmed with goods and the act of consumption is really a process of communication. But ultimately, he lacked a call-to-action that I want to drive me as a young designer. 

Postman and Papanek, on the other hand, have equally urgent pleas for the public to break free of the patterns and distractions that bind us and focus on what truly matters: bettering humanity. Society is broken, and rather than “creating” using worn-out traditions or researching more information for information’s sake, we should use design as a powerful way to enact meaningful change. 

Dewey ultimately builds on all of this by saying not only should designers consider ethics and what’s best for humanity, but we should also create experiences that are unique and foster growth.

These readings have already provided an interesting reflection into the goals of AC4D; some are radical, provocative ways to think about design — a seeming core tenant of the school. I chose AC4D for a reason — a huge part being ethics and social impact — and I’m happy to see that both are incorporated in every step from the start. 

As I’ve heard a lot over the past two weeks, we get a major mulligan as students, so we should experiment and use it to our advantage. With the freedom to flex and get weird, I got hope to keep these principles top-of-mind so I don’t accidentally flex in the “wrong” way.

Personal Reflection: The Highs and Lows of AC4D Bootcamp

Our 3-day bootcamp just wrapped, and I’m invigorated, excited — and exhausted. We condensed big ideas we’ll use throughout the entire program into three days: user interviews, theme finding, insight development, ideation, sketching, and presenting. 

I’m not exhausted for obvious reasons: our days weren’t long, we didn’t have reading homework, and most of our tasks were fun. I’m tired because this week forced me to stay present, get uncomfortable, and challenge my “normal” thinking patterns.

Stress Graph - Week 1

My “anxiety graph” this week

Normal first-day jitters were high, but I quickly calmed down when Ruby reminded us why we are here: to make things, build empathy, and trust our intuition — the three pedagogical tenants of AC4D.

So what did I learn?

I need to think bigger. After working in corporate environments for the last six years, I’ve taught myself to value feasibility, profitability, and efficiency above all else. 

Our bootcamp was centered around exploring challenges specific to food trucks. We cold-intercepted users, transcribed interviews (something I thankfully have experience with!), created utterances, found themes, and then the hard part began: creating provocative insights. 

My first  “provocative statement” was “food truck owners should make prioritize making SoPs to avoid serious issues”. Not so provocative, right?

After some nudging from Jon and a lot of discussion, we landed on:

“Food truck owners resist delegating responsibilities in a highly transient workforce for fear of operational breakdown. Management should be non-hierarchical and compensate all workers equally.”

Is it feasible? Is it profitable? Is it efficient? We don’t know, but it definitely inspired us. 

Then came the hardest part of the week: ideating three hundred ideas from this one insight. 

 

We got our first flood of ideas out quickly. Then we had to challenge ourselves: is it a product, service, policy, environment, or system? How, where, what, who, when, or why? 

We recommended a lot of accidental big-brother, socialist, capitalist, ethically questionable, idealist, and random ideas. Then came sorting. 

To find our “best” ideas, we used three criteria:

  1. Impact: Does this impact the people we are trying to serve?
  2. Feasible: Could this exist – on earth?
  3. Mission: Does this reflect our “should” statement?

Through sorting, we stack-ranked 15 ideas, and then sketched out five. As someone with limited sketch experience, I struggled to not constantly critique myself. (How do people draw hands really?) Luckily, we were constantly reminded to not judge ourselves. 

Then we listened to our classmates’ concepts, shared our sketches, and from there — we could relax. The rest of the afternoon we spent learning Sketch, which has been a breeze (so far). I’m sure I’ll struggle more once I move beyond circles and rectangles.

Ultimately, I feel really excited for the months ahead. And I hope to fulfill AC4D’s promise of autonomy — and never feeling stuck again.