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:
- People who have limited access to green spaces and come to parks to commune with nature or do outdoor activities;
- People who take action to improve public green spaces; and
- 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 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 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 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 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 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.”
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.