Part Two: Finding Themes for Austin Parks Foundation

This is Part Two in a Service Design Project for Austin Parks Foundation. For Part One: Stories from the Field, go here

Since August, our team (Kyle, Michelle, Laura) has been working with Austin Parks Foundation to help them better understand the feelings of ownership over green spaces; specifically how those feelings of ownership can develop and drive behavior. 


As students, we are segmenting the design process into small, digestible pieces. In most practical applications, these processes can happen concurrently and are less isolated, but for the sake of learning, we’ve broken the design process down into five clear steps:

IDSE101_themes presentation graphic_vertical_KB 10.2.19


After 16 interviews with 19 participants, we developed 3,031 utterances. To help us make sense of this data, we make it physical. The act of hanging our utterances up on a wall helps in many ways: 

  1. We start to develop a mental map of where things are physically hung in the space. This type of spatial connection cannot happen in a spreadsheet with 3,000 rows. 
  2. The focus is on the idea, not the person. Many of our utterances were hung randomly, rather than organized by participant. As we read through the wall, we start to develop new connections with these utterances that abstract them from the person and allow us to focus on the behavior. 
  3. As we find connections, we physically move an utterance from one side of the room to another, next to other like-minded utterances. We then use this pool of utterances to develop themes. 

The goal is to find emergent patterns among this mass of data that we can ultimately use to derive insights, problem statements, and design ideas. Here’s a sampling of five themes we uncovered as related to us by our interview participants (names and identifying information have been changed):


Park space is public. Austin Parks Foundation doesn’t own it. Park Adopters don’t own it. No one person owns it, yet we observed many actions that may have been appropriate for private spaces, such as someone’s own backyard, but were downright irrational in the context of a public park. 

Madeline told us how ownership can manifest irrationally in Austin community gardens. A large tree that shaded part of the garden was growing even larger. Planning ahead, they realized they would either need to cut limbs off the tree or shift the location of garden plots that soon wouldn’t get enough sunlight. The response from an impacted gardener couldn’t have been more emphatic: “Limb up the tree! I cannot move” (Line 126). She described the attachment of people to their plots saying, “People have a huge sense of ownership because they’ve been cultivating it. I think that’s almost biblical in a way. You’ve been working the soil, there is a lot of energy and ownership that comes out of that” (Line 127).

Another participant, Jim, has spent the last 10 years helping maintain a preserve that is 25 minutes from his house. “For a while, I was coming here every day” (Line 2). He told us he “never goes anywhere without a weeder and a handsaw” (Line 152) — just in case he spots the #1 thing on his “shit list” — an invasive tree, Ligustrum. Although he admits that this battle against the invasive tree is never going to be won, he tirelessly persists in working to restore a more natural balance of native species to this space.

The back of Jim’s car, permanently converted to a mobile toolbox.

Robert lives adjacent to a neighborhood park that has recurring issues with waste left by park users including biohazards like hypodermic needles or condoms. Rather than choosing other places for himself and his family to recreate, he visits his park regularly, often twice a day, and frequently with his son. While we were visiting the park with him, he picked up a needle abandoned in the grass. He’s acutely aware of the risks, telling us, “You don’t know what’s on the other end. One wrong prick and you’re dead…Don’t laugh but I went out and bought welding gloves” (Line 135). Yet he continues to help maintain the park, even getting his son and other neighbors involved. Showing off the results of a recent park clean-up he had organized he told us, “The children are remarkably good [at helping with park clean-ups]. We told them, just don’t touch a needle or a condom. You’ll be fine. Look at this work – it’s great” (Line 80).

Robert heads to the trash with a hypodermic needle.


Despite the city and Austin Park Foundation’s efforts to engage with the community, park-goers regularly expressed a feeling of being forgotten, ignored, and lacking support. Daniel, a lawyer, is concerned about the growth of Austin and the reallocation of funds away from his central neighborhood. “You know, a lot of money it’s been going to this sort of donut around the outskirts of town and trying to get them to spend money in existing parks when there’s new needs and new constituents. It’s always been a competition” (Line 72). He was one of several people who conveyed concern or curiosity about the way that resources were being allocated to parks by the city.


Most of the people we talked to had an awareness of Austin experiencing unprecedented growth. Different people were grappling with the changes in their own ways. Anders, a GIS analyst and East Austin resident, felt growth was positively impacting the parks, but honed in on sustainability and transportation as a problem that Austin was ill-equipped to address as it grows. He blamed newcomers in the suburbs for blocking the spending that needs to happen to improve transportation infrastructure in the city center. “Because the suburbs are only growing…the suburbs are growing faster than everything else and the suburbs are always going to vote against spending on the inner city” (Line 129).

Robert, a long-time Austin resident told us aggressive conflicts between developers and current residents. He explained, “Because we’re sort of in the thick of new development in Austin. Just trying to make sure developers don’t run rampant over the neighbors” (Line 54). He told us about the transition of his neighborhood park from a privately owned parcel to public land. In the process, a developer owned the land, but was stymied by the presence of protected heritage oaks that kept him from being able to convert the lot to a dense residential development. “He tried to poison these trees. Rumor is [company redacted] did it. But that I can’t stand up in court with that. Sprayed it with pesticides to try and kill the trees, then it rained hard, that washed the rain down the hill, and there’s a pond behind you. So it killed off the pond, but saved the trees” (Lines 8-9). While good luck and the right weather kept the developer from getting his way, Robert sees it as the responsibility of Austinites to be proactive in protecting their communities from developers.

The pond that Robert says was poisoned from a developer’s attempt to kill heritage oak trees on this property.

An APF employee admitted that these concerns are commonly expressed to them when they are working on east side park improvements:  “[Eastside residents said] ‘if you do something then it will be nice, and then everybody will want to move here. And then we’ll be priced out.’ I mean, it’s not an irrational fear” (Line 132). Many people we spoke to were acutely aware of decades of unfair treatment of and disregard for existing communities, especially in redlined neighborhoods. These residents are justifiably skeptical about “improvements” happening in their parks.


In pursuing threads connected to feelings of ownership, we talked to many people whose sense of ownership sparked them to take action. Consistently we heard that the experience was cumbersome, slow and opaque. Even Daniel, who had considerable experience navigating local government told us:

“We have folks come out to join us for the meeting, or we’ll send a delegation down, a committee that come and meet with our council members. But, it’s also working your reps, saying you’re unhappy, moaning and groaning. It seems to work, but it’s pretty slow” (Line 99). His naivete about which of his many actions actually produced the intended result  was common, as was the approach of trying as many things as possible in hopes that one will actually be effective. Even at the end of navigating the process, people were still not sure what worked, how they arrived at the final outcome, or why the city or APF supported their vision for the park.

When Bryan was trying to plan a free cycling event in a park, he felt the hurdles were too great and opted out. “The person who was directing it told me about the amount of paperwork he had to fill out just for a free event with no money tied to it in any form or fashion…When he told me what he had to go through I thought, ‘No, sorry, no’” (Line 53). This story was one of many missed opportunities of people who tried to improve the experience of park users, either through physical improvements or community programming but were thwarted by the bureaucratic dimensions of the process. Within the organizational structure of PARD and APF we found even more “black boxes,” processes that were so complex and opaque that employees could not explain them to us and that slowed or undermined their ability to do their jobs.


There were substantially differing opinions about what is acceptable park behavior — and who are acceptable park users. Park users conveyed complicated hierarchies about who belonged using criteria like class, geography, ethnicity, and age. These were often hard to tease out, as people were generally aware of not wanting to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people in front of a live microphone. People were less shy about telling us about behavioral criteria. Behaviors like bike riding, car driving, dog walking, drug use, and drinking, and unauthorized camping had both vocal supporters and detractors.

Daniel told us that he feels his park is being “usurped” by outsiders. “Because of the size of this park, it’s considered a local neighborhood park. It’s not like Zilker, a citywide park. But the people who really love it don’t live here.They tend to be Hispanic. They have grown-up parties in the ballfield, and kid birthday parties down here. Year after year, the same kids come back and have their pinatas.”  (Line 131

He was certain these visitors were not from the neighborhood because his neighbors mostly drive “European cars”, whereas these other park visitors “drive trucks and minivans”. Changes that he was advocating for in the park would reduce parking, and make his park less accessible to people from outside the neighborhood. He said, “I don’t want to be harsh about it, but we pay our taxes. We chose to live here because of the parks. We should have some sort of first dibs on what happens in those parks.” 

Amongst those considering behavioral criteria, by far the most common concerns were about homeless people living in parks. People generally felt strongly about the issue–either in favor of making parks safe and inclusive for all people, especially vulnerable populations like those experiencing homelessness; or convinced that the use of parks by homeless people is incompatible in most or all circumstances with other park use and can’t be prioritized. 

An abandoned camp in one of the parks we visited.

Park Adopter Rico is concerned about their impact: “There are homeless people here and they’re chopping down trees. And I’m like, ‘Heck No!’ The one that was hoarding–remember I told you about all that trash–not only was he hoarding, but he was drug dealing. Zero tolerance when it comes to stuff like that.” (Line 128) He and many others made negative assumptions about the actions of those they perceived to be homeless or poor, with or without evidence, and felt that “normal” park use should take precedence.

On the other end of the spectrum, PARD employee Oliver felt that all are welcome in parks – even homeless park users.“Another thing that I think people really don’t accept on a subconscious level in Austin, is that homeless park users are part of the community of users. There is no right way to enjoy a park.” (Line 137

As Austinites grapple with the issue of homelessness in parks and beyond, many have come to understand homelessness as a state that many are at risk of experiencing, not a lifestyle choice or the natural consequence of poor decision-making. This more nuanced understanding leads to a view that park use can be judged primarily by the impact of the use and in the context of the users’ needs. Parks can meet the needs of housed and unhoused users. The stereotyping of users based on appearances leads to behaviors that make the lives of homeless people even more difficult. Oliver explained compassionate approaches to support those who have nowhere else to stay in ways that honor that person’s humanity and also provide them opportunities to lessen their environmental impact in parks.


These five themes are just a sampling of the patterns we uncovered. We’ll continue to use this data to make sense of our problem space.  Over the next three weeks, we’ll reference the same interviews to help us get a “birds-eye view” of the entire park system to develop service slices. Stay tuned!
Want a deeper look at our interview process and stories from the field? Go here.