Public participation is critical in helping clients deliver on what they promise to the community
I was recently forwarded an email from a municipal client in which a resident praised the restoration of one of the city’s premiere parks. Referring to the restoration, the resident said she “loves it” and “is spreading the word.”
As a landscape architect, nothing is more rewarding than that kind of feedback, regardless of the size or visibility of the project. Real users, in real life, enjoying and celebrating a public space you helped create. This email came within days of the opening of another project, Heritage Field in the Bronx, where thousands of kids and adults are now able to take advantage of public park space on the grounds of the former Yankee Stadium. In a recent New York Times article about the park, a resident notes that “everything is better.” Again, great feedback that validates years of dedication from the owner, planners, designers, and builders.
Seeing these projects unfold so successfully really reminded me why I do what I do. As landscape architects, we are committed to creating great public spaces for the communities who use them. It’s the community that matters most. I must say that I, like many landscape architects, actually enjoy interacting with and engaging the public in the course of our work—during planning, design, and implementation and long after the ribbons are cut. In our practice, public participation is vital. It inspires, informs, and validates everything we do.
Especially with controversial projects, making that connection with the community and striking a balance is imperative. A group that may come into a planning process with a good helping of skepticism often becomes a tremendously positive supporter of a project once they realize we can serve as their advocate. It can take some time to build that trust, but it comes. As designers, we want to help the client deliver on what they promise to the community, so we welcome that opportunity to engage them, hear their concerns, and then see them addressed as their projects come to fruition.
Another project we’re working on in Nova Scotia has had this effect. The dialogue between the community, project owner, and the landscape architects has turned what seemed like permanent cynicism into exciting anticipation for a new park that will transform a former contaminated industrial site. The site has been the center of debate for some time; working together with the community and the owner on the new concepts for the park has resulted in some of the most positive responses to anything previously proposed for the site.
Just this week another sensitive revitalization project we’ve been working on was approved in Connecticut, after months of public participation and strategizing how to best balance public recreation needs and protection of sensitive natural areas. The design team was able to show the community that we were with them—we want something positive to happen there—but we have some regulations and conditions we need to work around. Once that message got across, the whole interaction was positive.
That’s a strength that a landscape architect brings to the table—we tend to intuitively understand people’s needs, what they’re looking for, and what’s sustainable, and then we’re able to build on that to find solutions and compromise. And when someone recognizes our efforts, it’s truly one of the most rewarding aspects of our profession. There’s nothing more gratifying than applying creativity, design aesthetics, and functional awareness to meeting public needs.
As professionals, we have the privilege of employing our expertise every day in our quest to create the next great space . But, I must say, it’s best when those that we plan, design, and advocate for express to us their sincere appreciation for what we do.
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