The Importance of Conscious Design

November 26, 2019, Department, by Gina Mullins-Cohen

Gina Mullins Cohen 410

We’ve all been there. You have a great idea that transforms a problem into a solution, only to realize upon presentation, you hadn’t considered one fatal flaw. Sometimes, it’s not until you’ve implemented your idea that the unintended consequences come to light.

If we were to identify one tragic flaw of park design and development, we might argue that it would be the exclusion of community input. This lack of communication can be especially damaging in underserved areas, leading to results that ultimately harm the very communities we set out to help. One of the most cited examples is New York City’s High Line, which began as an innovative design project to transform an abandoned railroad into a public space for residents of the Chelsea neighborhood, but resulted in an influx of tourists and designer high-rises that overran the population for which the project was intended. In an interview with Citylab, the park’s cofounder, Robert Hammond, says, “Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’”

The feature story, on page 34, “Greening Without Gentrification,” by contributors Alessandro Rigolon and Jon Christensen, offers recommendations on ways in which park agencies can work with residents, developers, nonprofits and other stakeholders to “green” marginalized communities to provide benefits to the people who need them most, without displacing them. “It has become clear that it is everyone’s job to worry about ensuring that parks are part of equitable community development,” the contributors say, “so that the people who most need the benefits of parks are able to stay in their communities and enjoy those benefits.”

The feature, “Adventure Parks: Breaking the Fear Factor,” beginning on page 40, by author Shannon D. Gordon, ASLA, PLA, talks about why introducing risk into play is important, and how park and recreation departments can create controlled environments for risk-taking to provide cognitive and developmental benefits. “The lack of risk in the play environment could lead to children who are ‘risk-averse,’ never having learned how to effectively manage everyday situations…” says Gordon. “Mental health professionals also agree the lack of risk in play can lead to a lack of resilience.”

Whether it is greening cities to provide physical, mental and economic benefits to residents, or designing park amenities that provide greater developmental benefits, one thing is clear: We must be intentional in the design and development process and ask for input from those individuals we are building for. Behind beautiful and fun creations are the people who use them. At the core of our process should always be the questions, “Who is this for?” and “How am I helping?” Only when we practice conscious design can we truly innovate to advance and strengthen communities.

Gina Mullins-Cohen is the Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Publishing and Editorial Director of Parks & Recreation magazine.