If we want to redefine community, we first need to listen to community. This approach is the work of Public Agency at WMCAT, our human-centered design consultancy that scales WMCAT’s mission of equitable access to opportunity by impacting the world in which our students and families will thrive.

Public Agency and Grand Rapids Parks team members present prototypes in response to the prompt, “What does GR Parks look like 10 years from now?”

Public Agency worked with Grand Rapids Parks staff on community engagement this summer to help inform the department’s strategic plan. In the past, when residents were asked how they engage with parks, they often thought about amenities: play structures, trails, picnic tables. But we took a different approach: step back, center community members, and ask a larger question. Does everyone feel like they belong in their local parks?

“Organizations might hesitate to take on these types of projects because they fear the complexity. But we at Public Agency want to work with people who recognize this work is too important to avoid.” – Director of Public Agency Trudy Ngo-Brown

A prototype imagines how parks could be more accessible to the community in the future.

After building an understanding of design methods and mindsets, the parks team gathered feedback from the community. What emerged from their interviews was this: we shouldn’t be designing for “things” (a playground, for example), we should be designing for a “need.” In the case of Grand Rapids Parks, the needs that surfaced were safety, belonging, connection, and recreation. The Parks department now has a road map with opportunities for redefining community engagement.

Public Agency Project Associate Chantal Pasag reflected on the importance of the partnership. “Our hope is that this process is a way forward in creating a parks system in Grand Rapids that engages the community deeply, so that our efforts towards more equitable and inclusive Grand Rapids Parks are sustainable and become a reality.”