When planning for two new parks, Metro tried a different approach in an effort to encourage the participation of new and culturally diverse voices. Staff played a supporting role, giving control to community partners and empowering members from African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous, and immigrant and refugee communities to sit in the planner’s seat and help guide the park design process and outcome.
For many, the series of workshops were a long overdue opportunity for communities of color to take a more active role in the parks planning process and a chance for their ideas, critiques and aspirations to be heard.
Historically, the people who have turned out to open houses, served on steering committees, filled out surveys, and offered feedback on the planning and design of parks were white. The Connect with Nature initiative seeks to disrupt business as usual by meaningfully engaging communities of color, eliminating barriers that make it difficult for them to participate and letting them take the lead.
“It’s about being intentional about reaching out to community rather than just advertising in the same places, having meetings in the same places at the same times and wondering why we get the same crowds at all the meetings,” said Olena Turula, a Metro parks planner who led the Connect with Nature program.
Metro incorporated the Connect with Nature model in planning for parks at East Council Creek Natural Area in Cornelius and Gabbert Butte Natural Area in Gresham and hopes to replicate some of those efforts with future projects.
“We learned to engage community early and often and to give up some control about how we think a process should be implemented,” said Rod Wojtanik, Metro parks planning manager.
A new guide outlines recurring themes that emerged during conversations about community values and some of the amenities, programs and day-to-day operations that would make people of color feel more welcomed. The guide also offers recommendations about ways Metro and other parks providers, community advocates, and policymakers can more effectively engage communities of color in the planning and design of parks and natural areas.
Turula says the guide is not a substitute for the earnest and time-intensive work of true community engagement and listening, but rather serves as a starting point.
Engaging communities of color at every step of the process meant having a project team led by community organizations, recruiting community leaders to facilitate discussions and act as liaisons within their own communities, and empowering participants to share their ideas. This allows participants to take a more active role in the design of the two new parks rather than choose from a series of pre-selected options.
It also meant making it easier for communities to participate by holding meetings in places that were convenient and familiar to them, providing hot meals and offering childcare, translation services, stipends, and incentives for participants’ expertise and time.
“We’re offering a lot of different tools that people can use to engage, and not everything is going to work for every community, but it’s important to have options,” Turula said.
Turula said Connect with Nature changed the way the department thinks about community engagement and helped implement policies for offering stipends and childcare that have since been adopted across Metro.
Metro demonstrated its willingness and patience to fundamentally rethink how it designs parks and open spaces, said Tony DeFalco, executive director of Verde,
the community organization that led the project team.
“It has given Metro and other jurisdictions a really nice template for broadly understanding the needs and priorities of communities of color in the region and to better understand where they’re coming from when parks are being acquired, planned and developed,” he said. “But it doesn’t exempt planners from continuing to have key partnerships with organizations that serve those communities to understand the nuances of a given group.”