Tips for Designing a Community-Engaged Project in a Park or Public Space
Do you have an idea for a community event or workshop series? A park you’d like to enliven through artmaking? A social issue or community tension that you’d like to address? Whatever your starting point, here are some important things to think about when designing a creative project for a park or public space.
1. Make it Place Based
Whether you’re starting with a creative concept or a park you want to work in, at some point the two have to come together. Every place has its own unique topography, history and social dynamics, and all of these are important to consider in the initial stages of project design. Whose traditional territories does the park sit on? Who are the communities in the surrounding area? Will the activities and aesthetics you offer appeal to range of local groups? Who currently feels welcome in the park? Who doesn’t? Which parts of the park are already actively used and how?
These are just some of the many questions to ask when designing a project for a park or public space. While you might draw inspiration and ideas from other successful community art projects elsewhere, designing your project with your specific park in mind will ultimately make it more meaningful and inclusive. Not only are you likely to have better attendance and participation in your events, making your project place-based will also help you anticipate challenges before they arise.
2. Think Big
Toronto-based community theatre company, Clay and Paper Theatre, have given themselves an earnest but also tongue-in-cheek mandate, which is to “Change the world. Completely. Irrevocably”. This company has been working successfully in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove Park for over 20 years, offering summer productions, an annual participatory parade, hands-on workshops and more. While their stated goal is intentionally grandiose and may not be in keeping with your style or tone, this kind of big-picture thinking guides their work in important ways. It keeps the context they’re working in and the social systems that they’d like to change top-of-mind. It also helps communicate to audiences and funders why their work is important. These aren’t just playful or beautiful productions—they are meaningful events that are pivotal to community life.
Thinking big is a different process for everyone. Whether it’s envisioning what you’d like your events to look like in 5 years, dreaming of future positive interactions between neighbours, or focusing on a specific goal like making youth feel welcome in your park, it’s useful to think big about the why of your project.
3. Think Small
Planning and logistics are extra important when working in public spaces, as there are lots of players involved and many things that can go wrong. This is why thinking “small” is just as important as thinking big. MABELLEarts is well served by developing specific workshop plans, with lists of the supplies and people-power needed for each step. We develop precise facilitation notes so we can invite anyone who shows up to participate. We also draft backup plans for changes in weather or other logistical hurdles. Developing these plans in the design phase can be very helpful, even though your precise plans are likely to change as you meet participants and discover their interests and needs.
4. Consider the Surrounding Community
Who lives in the park’s immediate environs or even in the park itself? What cultural/identity groups do they belong to? How does the surrounding community currently use the park? Will your project augment that use or disrupt it? How will sound carry from your project out into the neighbourhood? What will neighbours see from their balconies or porches? Will the local community benefit from your project? Designing your project with the surrounding community in mind and directly inviting them to participate will mitigate tensions and help you avoid last-minute complaints from residents. If you want your project to be inclusive and welcoming, we advise assessing community needs while you’re still in the planning phase. What will participants need to comfortably and fully participate? Remember that your needs assessment shouldn’t only be about people you already work with, but also about the people you aspire to work with—whether that’s residents of a particular building, or a specific cultural group or age bracket.
Do you want more tools, tips and insights for creating your own community-engaged projects in public spaces? Visit Placing Parks to learn more and explore our project archive and toolkit! We hope Placing Parks helps you envision artful projects that bring people together in your local park!