The Soul of Washington Square Park: What the NYC Parks Department Left Out of their Redesign Plans

While looking up articles on Washington Square Park earlier this year, I came across a research paper by a student at SUNY(State University of New York) Syracuse College of Environmental Science and Forestry entitled: “Searching for the Soul of Washington Square Park: Employing Narrative, Photo-Voice and Mapping to Discover and Combine Pragmatic Issues of Urban Park Design with a Community’s Emotional Needs” (May 2007). It was written by Yamila Fournier as a senior project.

Spending time at Washington Square Park working on her research, Ms. Fournier interviewed Park users as well as Parks Department “officials.” She investigated people’s routines at the Park and what they loved about it as a public space. She explored what the Parks Department procedures are for redesign of a park (the answer: there are no protocols in place).

As she delves into the history and process of the redesign of Washington Square Park and the interactions between government agencies and the community, she ties together themes in ways that have not been fully explored elsewhere. I have excerpted parts of it here.

Excerpts from “Searching for the Soul of Washington Square Park” (note: the formatting is all mine. It’s a 52 page+ paper so this is condensed.):

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When the idea to renovate Washington Square Park was first introduced, the general consensus was that the park is in need of much repair.

That is where all agreement ended. Since the plans for the redesign were unveiled in 2001, there has been no harmony.

The proposed redesign specifies:

*a closable 4′ fence around the perimeter;
*bringing the central fountain up to grade with the road;
*moving the central fountain 22′ to the east to create an axial relationship with the newly renovated arch;
*relocating dog runs;
*enlarging playgrounds;
*adding an adventure playground to replace the highly contentious mounds;
*creating a new building for Parks Department offices and equipment;
*relocating statuary;
*eliminating seating areas;
*adding light fixtures; and
*renovating bathrooms, among other changes.

Every portion of the design has its critics. One thing that almost all the critics can agree on is that the community felt left out of the design process.

  • Meetings with George Vellonakis at the Park

In approaching this redesign, the Parks Department feels it has made every attempt to include the public, holding what landscape architect George Vellonakis calls an “unprecedented number of public meetings.” Aside from the formal public meetings, starting in April of 2005, Mr. Vellonakis set up an office in Washington Square Park where, from 9 am to 4 pm each Wednesday he was available to answer the public’s questions about the redesign. Despite these efforts, many of the residents feel the redesign is still a violation against “their” park. The fault may be found in the nature of the public meetings and the open office hours. Both were used primarily to explain the design decisions made by the Parks Department, not to solicit design input from the community.

  • The Park as It is Today: What Works Now

Since it is the intense gathering of people that has made Washington Square Park so special, this research supposes that no design of the park could be successful without taking into full account the community and their attachment to this park. They are the heart of the park, and through them a designer can begin to understand the soul of the place, but this requires a different type of inventory and analysis than is typically employed by the city’s Parks Department, one relying heavily on historical details, materials on site, and use patterns. … By not taking deeply enough into account the emotional aspects, the soul of the park, the Parks Department has alienated the very community it serves.

  • New York City Parks Department

Covering 52,938 acres, the New York City Parks Department is responsible for over 1,700 parks. Despite this huge responsibility the bureaucracy of Parks Department has no delineated protocol for designing its parks or for including public participation in the design or redesign of parks.

What does come up more frequently is the renovation of existing parks. With existing parks there is the possibility that community members will have developed place attachment and have a sense of ownership. By not having a consistent, transparent procedure that permits public participation of the public in the design process, if they so choose it, Parks Department leaves itself open to suspicion and even hostility from the public. In the case of Washington Square Park, it has led to litigation.

  • Parks Department’s Management of the Design

*No Administrative Continuity: The redesign was first initiated in 2001, while the Parks Department was led by Commissioner (Henry) Stern. At the time, a “scope meeting” was held to decide basic priorities for the park’s redesign. Mr. Vellonakis was assigned to the redesign and created a schematic. (WSPB note: This was put aside for two years and resumed with new Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.)

*Vague Guidelines: The “scope meeting” served to give the designer some very general guidelines. According to Mr. Vellonakis the results of the scope meeting indicated that “sympathy to the historic details” should be the driving force behind the design. The next four priorities were more green, new bathrooms, better play areas, and improved landscape (Vellonakis 2006). Those directives are vague and leave much room for interpretation.

*A single design concept: Washington Square Park is a nationally and internationally recognized place; its redesign would be a challenge and an honor to any landscape architect. A multiplicity of design concepts from various landscape architects, whether generated via a competition or an RFP may have led to richer possibilities for the park.

*No public participation in the generation of the design: The general public was not invited to comment on the design until after the first schematic was completed. Had the public been invited into a participatory process from the beginning, the sense of violation, of something being imposed on “their” park could have been avoided or minimized.

*No implementation of contemporary public participatory processes: The Parks Department believed it was doing right by the community by hosting many community meetings and keeping storefront hours to meet Mr. Vellonakis. This community demands more meaningful participation.

*No public discourse about the design process: The Parks Department created a design concept and has been steadfast to that single concept for the last five years. Even with changes to items such as the fence height and the dog runs, the redesign plan is essentially the same as it was in 2001. There have been many loud voices questioning the fundamental design ideas as evidenced in the Vellonakis plan, yet the only publicly-requested changes that have been made are the ones that do not alter the fundamental plan.

  • What the Process Might Have Been

In the end the management of the redesign has been riddled with problems, some though not all, of the Parks Department’s own making. Six years of debate and litigation have cost the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation over $250,000. .. A loss that cannot be quantified is the way the Parks Department’s relationship with the community has been damaged. …

A process, such as the one that is the subject of this research, could provide a means for the Parks Department, or any organization dealing with public park design, to gain meaningful input from a public in their field of expertise – their own feelings. Once respect for users’ attachment to a place and their values are established, a landscape architect can engage his or her expertise to interpret those values into landscape.

If instead of using their usual tactics, the Parks Department had engaged in a public participatory action research project such as this one, with meaningful attention to the community, they could have potentially saved millions of dollars, built trust with the community, and created a redesign of Washington Square Park worthy of its dynamic history, while designing for the future.

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1 thought on “The Soul of Washington Square Park: What the NYC Parks Department Left Out of their Redesign Plans”

  1. i feel personally violated by the demolition of the fountain and the trees in washington square park. as i pass by it looks like a bombsite. i will avoid it. it brings back the loss of lives and destruction of the twin towers on 9/11. it was a place of winter and summer peace where i brought my kids to play and then my dog. all i wanted was better restrooms.

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