Since August, our team (Kyle, Michelle, Laura) has been working with Austin Parks Foundation (APF) to help them better understand the feelings of ownership over green spaces; specifically how those feelings of ownership can develop and drive behavior.
WHERE WE ARE IN THE DESIGN PROCESS
Through contextual inquiry and the sense-making process of theme-finding and service slice creation, we’ve developed a better understanding of how Austinites at multiple levels interact with the park system. Up until now, we’ve been in observation mode — interviewing participants, finding patterns in behavior, and mapping complex systems.
Earlier this month, we presented our themes and service slices to APF, which sparked a deep conversation around these themes and behaviors. While APF has a deep understanding of their stakeholders, presenting this data in a way that was both new and visual helped open communication around their blind spots of the problem space. As specialists in the arena, they were also able to help guide our insights by providing additional context and allowed us to gain empathy with their unique challenges.
Now we start to apply a critical lens to develop insights and a problem statement that will be the foundation for our design criteria.
WHAT ARE INSIGHTS?
An insight is a definitive, provocative statement of truth about human behavior. It is a bridge between research and design. An insight should include both an inferred observation and a provocation — a “should” statement. Good insights reflect our data (it should be true) while also sparking conversation (it can be debated).
To get to an insight we:
- Start with a theme.
- Rewrite our theme as a “why” statement.
- Individually, we each create a provocative, definitive and complete answer to this “why” question.
- Then together, we review each answer and combine into a single statement — and dial up the provocation. The more provocative, the more unique (and challenging) our design ideas can be.
We applied this process to 64 themes and created 119 why statements. With such a high volume, we gravitated towards insights that continued to spark conversation and provocation and chose those as our primary focus. From here, we developed a core problem statement.
WHAT IS A PROBLEM STATEMENT?
All of this sensemaking and insight development culminates with a problem statement — a succinct statement that describes the core opportunity area.
Oftentimes businesses jump right to an assumed problem. They focus on the same metric or the same process or goals — when the biggest problem area is yet to be uncovered. Simply put, they can’t see the forest for the trees. That’s where design research comes in. It allows us to take a step back, revisit the system with fresh eyes, and find latent needs or unmet expectations.
A problem statement is a succinct description of the issue that’s worth solving. It provides a foundation for ideation. For APF, our problem statement is:
People need Austin Parks Foundation to provide leadership, not just create consensus.
LACK OF DEFINITION RESTRICTS ACCESS
In many ways, APF acts as an extension of the city. Where Austin Parks and Rec Department (PARD) lacks funding and manpower, APF seeks to fill that gap. Because of APF’s close ties with PARD and the city, they use many of the same community-focused initiatives to come to a consensus among park adopters, visitors, neighborhood associations, conservancies, city departments, and their own goals as a nonprofit. All of these groups look to the community to drive their strategy — rather than one leading the charge.
While, in theory, this community-led strategy should encourage access and opportunity for all, we found that often this lack of focus creates confusion and, paradoxically, feelings of being left out or ignored when an opinion is expressed, but not brought to life. We also saw that despite massive investments of time and energy in communicating with the public, most park users didn’t have awareness of those efforts. The rarified few that were aware were small politically connected subsets of the population such as leaders of neighborhood organizations or people active in non-profit work. To those not involved, these processes do not seem inclusive or transparent.
This is seen clearly among the largest, yet least engaged stakeholder group for Austin Parks Foundation — park visitors — which leads us to our first insight:
Not defining how a park should be used leads to assumptions about who belongs in a park. APF should actively foster interactions across geography and demography to reduce negative judgments between users.
We heard many times from park leaders that there’s no “right way” to use a park — parks are for everyone. Yet park users did feel there were “right ways” to use a park — and oftentimes those “right ways” are conflicting.
Amanda, a new eastside resident, enjoys when families from outside of her neighborhood use her park throw events. In direct opposition is Daniel, a longtime park advocate, who felt that his neighborhood park was for his neighbors — and expressed judgment about outside visitors throwing events in his park. Because “ideal park behavior” has not been defined, visitors create their own expectations which lead to conflict.
We saw this pattern across park users of different types (cyclists versus dog walkers), with each group making negative assumptions about the impacts of the wrong types of use. Most glaringly we saw this problem manifest in attitudes and behaviors about park users perceived to be homeless.
This misunderstanding continues to the next most engaged cohort, park volunteers. We saw a wide range of volunteerism in our interviews, from physical labor to park advocacy to community organizing and event planning. All manifestations of the Austin Parks Foundation mission, People + Parks. We also heard from people who had talents and passions they wanted to share, such as web development, outdoor activity instruction or environmental education, but either didn’t believe that there was support for their contributions, were unaware of the entry points to volunteering, or even perceived parks as a hostile environment for their type of volunteerism. APF has not clearly defined and supported roles for the myriad types of volunteerism that park users feel inspired by. This led us to our second insight:
People believe that volunteering in parks must be physical, which limits the potential impact of volunteer efforts and restricts APF’s ability to engage the community. APF should diversify its support for volunteer engagement beyond current programming.
Sally, a retired disability advocate and active forager, values her neighborhood preserve and wants to help maintain it but her back injury has kept her from volunteering. She told us “You know what I would love to do? Organize neighborhood cleanups or put up signs to identify trees.” She also wanted to lead nature hikes and teach ethnobotany, but given her current understanding of park volunteerism, she didn’t believe it was possible.
INEQUITIES MUST BE CONFRONTED MORE DIRECTLY
Several park visitors and adopters felt that their park was underserved and blamed this on funds being diverted elsewhere. This tension was most often seen as a battle of “old Austin versus new Austin” or an “East versus West” mentality. Because park users felt funds weren’t being divvied correctly, it made them less likely to contribute at all.
Park users want to hoard resources for their park rather than contribute equitably to funding parks across Austin. APF needs to build more robust safeguards into their systems to counteract this tendency.
Wes, a regular user of Austin basketball courts, wanted to improve his park rather than Austin parks as a whole.
“I really want to know: how can I make a difference? Does my money … really 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?”
While APF and the city want to see all parks improve and park users shared this sentiment in theory, ultimately park users want to see their park improve the most. This was seen at a heightened level among park adopters.
The Park Adopter program amplifies existing inequities by matching highly privileged adopters to parks in their own affluent neighborhoods. APF should proactively manage this program to deconcentrate existing social capital and ensure equal access to funding and support.
The Park Adopter program turns citizens into advocates for their parks, so it’s a logical step that they would feel their park is most deserving of limited resources, whether from APF, the City of Austin or other grant-making organizations. But in this scenario, educated, wealthy and well-connected park adopters in affluent neighborhoods have the time, experience and access to divert funds to their park in creative ways.
10+ year park adopter Daniel skillfully maneuvers using his neighborhood association, city representative and lobbying methods to get funds for his neighborhood. Meanwhile, new park adopter Rico has less time, funds and access, which leads to his park receiving less over time.
While APF wants to serve historically underserved areas of North, South, and East Austin — the “Eastern Crescent”, they still have adopters and systems that have been in place for nearly a decade that continue to reinforce power for the already powerful. Everyone feels they deserve more, and the current model for grant approval favors the squeakiest wheels. And the folks with the most time to squeak are often the most privileged.
Now that we have a clearer focus of the problem area, we will work to provide recommendations and design criteria. These design criteria should empower Austin Parks Foundation to be able to develop its own programs, services, or even products that truly answer the problem area we uncovered.