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Weaving a community park: Assessing parks and engaging the community

Max Brandon ParkFlint, Michigan, is full of urban agriculture and many active living efforts, such as Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School. However, 63 parks in the city have been long neglected, making parks improvement a natural focus of the HKHC project. The broader HKHC partnership is comprised of a diverse group of youth-focused, neighborhood-based organizations, government, and University partners and operates in an advisory board capacity for the HKHC parks assessment and community engagement process. The HKHC grant period aligns perfectly with Flint’s Parks Master Plan renewal process. Project Director Lauren Holaly and Project Coordinator Sarah Panken are hopeful that the work being done by the HKHC partnership will lay the groundwork for an improved parks plan for Flint.

Park Assessment
With so many parks in the city, it was unrealistic to work on improvements for all of them. Instead, the partnership undertook a rigorous parks assessment – taking into account neighborhood capacity, park condition and location, and resident health status – and focused on three parks. An innovative and multi-faceted process of assessment and community engagement helped to narrow the priority parks to a short list of three focus parks: Brennan, Max Brandon, and Whaley. Because there is so much need for park improvements and a small city parks staff that can only do so much, discussion about parks in Flint can be a difficult topic, but an objective parks assessment protocol and intentional ongoing community engagement have been key to the partnership’s success.

There were several facets of the assessment process. First, partners developed a survey, which was distributed around the city and completed by over 500 Flint residents. Project partners also conducted focus groups with youth. Both the surveys and focus groups helped to gauge perceptions and attitudes about the parks, as well as usage patterns. HKHC partners also completed an equity assessment of the parks, which showed where residents live in relation to various parks; revealed demographics and community amenities; and took into account results from the “Speak to Your Health Survey,” which measures multiple dimensions of health status, including mental health, health promoting behaviors, spirituality/religion, and sleep. The parks scoring process was standardized, justified, objective and transparent from the beginning. After the assessment phase, the results of the process were compiled onto posters, which were hung up at the locations where the survey had been available. Results were then used to help develop action plans specific to the focus parks. The community engagement process – from gathering input to sharing results with the community – was strategic, yet flexible, relying upon conversations with partners about the best and most effective ways to get residents involved and to get the word out.

Now that results have been compiled and the parks have been selected, Project Director Lauren Holaly is working directly with community groups to develop and implement park action plans. These plans incorporate the top priorities identified through more focused community engagement in the neighborhood surrounding each park. During meetings to move the plans forward, community members guide the process and the ongoing prioritization of action items, participate in some physical improvements (such as repairing picnic tables and building benches), and take responsibility for researching new initiatives (e.g., finding out what it would cost to install security cameras or emergency phones). The HKHC partner that is located closest to each priority park – for example, Salem Housing is located near Max Brandon Park and a community center partner is close to Brennan – has helped to connect existing groups of community members to the parks improvement process.

Lessons Learned
Lauren Holaly and Sarah Panken say that this process has provided many lessons learned. First of all, building capacity and creating tools that can be used later on (such as the parks assessment documentation and the survey) is important. It’s also important to “meet people where they’re at,” and to build relationships by making personal connections. While it’s easy to get lost in getting the work done, it is important to see how community members’ days are going when you see them at a meeting. Similarly, it is important to be present and available to partners and community residents throughout a process like the one the HKHC partnership undertook in Flint. A final lesson is that while organizational leaders often think in terms of strategic plans – doing these activities today will help us meet the goals we set out in our plan – residents are often new to planning, but are now starting to embrace the concept in order to help them meet their park improvement goals. Sarah says, “Residents we have been working with are action oriented and help us balance planning with tangible action!”  It’s a good thing that concrete action steps are being developed and implemented now to make sure that Flint’s children have safe places to play.

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August, 2011