Homelessness in Parks and the Role of the Designer

After spending the last few years working to clean up local parks with volunteers, I can easily say that homelessness in parks is a heated issue in Austin. The below comic is partially based on true events that I experienced mixed with ideas from design experts.

Homelessness in Parks




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The general public often sees the homeless as the sole reason that the parks are trashed, dirty, or unsafe. After hearing a lot of complaints, the park department decides to close the bathrooms and showers in the park. Hobbes would say that the park department’s solution of closing the bathrooms and showers is one that will have unintended consequences. It is clear that the park department is not thinking about the system as a whole. Instead of addressing the root of the problem, their solution of closing the bathrooms, furthers the issues of trash because it leaves the homeless community with even fewer options to fulfill their basic needs.

Margolin argues that designers should be working to solve wicked, complex social issues. I agree that designers should use their process to help with wicked problems instead of mass producing useless products. Designers should work towards complex problems that benefit society, especially marginalized communities.

Unlike Pilloton, I don’t believe that designers need to commit their life to immersing themselves into a community, however, in depth, qualitative research is a must. Not being fully immersed into a community allows researchers to bring a new perspective to the issues. That new perspective combined with conducting rigorous and deep research will lead to empathy for the group, which will lead to strong insights and solutions.

As Spears suggests, the homeless face lowered cognitive decision making and willpower due to the fact that they have to make many important decisions throughout the day just to fulfill their basic needs. I think that addressing some of these large decisions first will assist in helping them to make decisions about smaller things in their life, such as disposing trash properly.

After talking with the homeless, I found out that they typically love the park and want to help keep it clean. I discovered that they like helping out when cleanups come through because he feels like he is contributing to his community. Whenever I encountered the homeless community in parks where we were conducting cleanups, I mentioned that they were welcome to join us. While not everyone that we came into contact did that, they often would take trash bags and cleanup their own area.

While that situation happened to me before I started learning about these new design ideas, I think that there are certainly ways to work with this population and address pollution in parks. The can for showers was an one idea that may help keep parks clean and allow for the homeless to address one of their basic needs.

As with any idea, I think that if this idea were taken to fruition, there would have to be check ins on the project periodically to understand how it affects the system at large, to see if it continues to deliver on it’s purpose, and to see if there were any unintended consequences of the introduction of this product into the system. All of these need to be looked at before scaling up and care needs to be taken before introducing these ideas in other populations or locations. Not every solution is a solution for everything.