East River Park Celebration Coming Up Saturday

Hester Street Collaborative Wants to Help “People Make Parks”

As we mentioned last week, the city is getting ready to open up the brand new Hester Street Playground in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, after a $5 million reconstruction project. When you visit the playground in the weeks ahead, you might notice rows of distinctive mosaic tiles embedded in the brick walls on either side of the park.

The tiles were designed by 120 students at M.S. 131, the public school located on the playground’s southeast corner.  They may seem like a small design detail, but for many community activists the tiles represent something else — a successful grassroots campaign to transform a neglected public space.

It’s a concept championed by many neighborhood organizations, but especially by the Lower East Side non-profit, Hester Street Collaborative. Last week I stopped by their offices to talk with Executive Director Annie Frederick about the playground and “People Make Parks,” a new initiative to get other communities involved in improving their own shared spaces.

Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) is affiliated with an architectural firm, the Leroy Street Studio.  Shortly after relocating to Hester Street (just a few steps away from Sara D. Roosevelt Park) in 2001, they began working with M.S. 131 to develop art and design projects. Two years later, HSC became a separate entity, “dedicated to improving the physical environment in under-served NYC neighborhoods.”

“People Make Parks” is a  collaboration between the Hester Street Collaborative and NYC’s Partnership for Parks. In a step-by-step guide (available soon online), the organizations detail how neighborhoods can participate in park design.

“Visioning” a new Hester Street Playground. Photo courtesy: Hester Street Collaborative.

The community’s involvement in the design of the Hester Street Playground helped inform the new program. Back then, there were visioning sessions in the park, in which both adults and children took part in interactive design exercises. Many of their ideas were incorporated into the city’s final plans for the playground, including those mosaic tiles.

Frederick believes the process demonstrated the value of engaging residents in the future of their neighborhoods in a very specific context. In the past, communities have been consulted about major Parks Department projects. But that has often meant simply calling a public meeting, in which people are invited to offer input in a very general way.

The “People Make Parks” program, on the other hand, gives communities the tools they need to actively participate in the design of public spaces. The “tool kit” was used for the first time last month by a neighborhood group, the Friends of Gulick Park.

In their ongoing campaign to give the neglected space alongside the Williamsburg Bridge a major facelift, the organization basically turned the park into an open-air design studio. Residents could write on a diagram of the park, indicating what they liked and disliked about it.  There was an oral history station, in which neighbors (including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) shared Gulick Park memories.  People pinned notes about the park’s past, present and future on various landmarks.

Frederick said the Parks Department has been very receptive about the notion of increased community involvement in park design. She hopes other city agencies will also come see the value of engaging neighborhoods in urban design projects.

If you would like more information about “People Make Parks,” visit the Partnership for Parks’ website.  We’ll be on hand for the formal unveiling of the Hester Street Playground next week.