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Engaging Immigrants in City Parks

A unique project in New York City has been devising better ways to engage with immigrant communities. The Immigrants & Parks Collaborative, funded by the JM Kaplan Fund, City Parks Foundation and New York Immigration Coalition, has supported work with ten community-based organizations in eight parks to provide a dedicated staff person for participatory planning, outreach and programs in each park. This on-the-ground effort has helped connect to these communities and literally hear their needs, and in turn, help make their parks successful public spaces. Urban Omnibus (of the Architectural League of New York) provides an overview of the effort, listing the following lessons learned that can be transferred to parks across the city:

  • Parks are tools for immigrant communities. It is a myth that worries about housing, employment, and financial security prevent immigrant involvement in parks and community life—inadequate outreach and improper public processes do.
  • Immigrant social networks are tools for government and service organizations. Government agencies want to allocate resources effectively and provide relevant public services, but they need help from local leaders and service organizations to access immigrant communities. Outreach and policy implementation that connect to existing social networks are more effective than independent outreach through traditional methods, and secure broader input on park programming, services, and improvements. This leads to better suited, well used investments, and builds trust.
  • Precedent-setting affects policy. The types of partnerships the Collaborative supports illustrate ways to use local knowledge and existing social networks to promote inclusivity and integration, rather than creating new programs that may not be as effective. When HSC and AAFE facilitated their participation, immigrants in Chinatown provided input for their playground and pedestrian malls because the process was made accessible, engaging, and relevant. These methods were a striking contrast to the traditional process of presentations followed by a feedback session. The Parks Department is now incorporating more “listening sessions” and opportunities for public input into appropriate park projects. Practitioners can learn from experiences like these to improve existing processes, or learn where obstacles to engagement lie and provide more guidance, transparency, and clarity around them.

Engaging immigrant communities is something that many U.S. cities are dealing with, and their parks are at the forefront of this. Many immigrants flock to the compact neighborhoods of central cities, or live in apartment buildings with little private yard space. In these places, parks are a key place for socializing and activity. The lessons learned in New York can provide lessons for any of those areas. The group has put together a great short video (see below) showing the Collaborative’s partners in action, and an interview with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

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