A Q&A on the importance of community engagement in park planning

Interview by Sheri Hansen

Paul Bauknight is the project implementation director at the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, a donor-supported nonprofit that envisions and executes transformative parks and public spaces by working closely with communities and public partners. The avowed urbanist, who was trained as an architect, focuses on working across sectors and connecting physical, cultural, economic, and social environments. Prior to joining the foundation, Bauknight advanced cultural and design initiatives for several nonprofit and government entities.

The primary philanthropic partner of the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, the foundation has several key initiatives underway along the Mississippi riverfront that will help reconnect neighborhoods and communities to this important urban landscape. Architecture MN sat down with Bauknight to learn more about these efforts and the equitable engagement practices the foundation embraces to build trust and a sense of community ownership.

What Minneapolis Parks Foundation projects are you particularly excited about?
The 26th Street Overlook in North Minneapolis, designed by 4RM+ULA and Ten x Ten, should start construction soon. It’s one of the first real connections for people in North Minneapolis to the Mississippi riverfront. It’s not a large project, but it doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference in how people experience a public space. It’s really well designed, and it gives us an opportunity to connect the community to the river.

Right now, 26th Street ends in a chain-link fence; you’re near the river, but you don’t really know it’s there. That inaccessibility has resulted in many people in the community feeling like the river isn’t “theirs.” The overlook does several things: It’s a place for people to go, it’s a connector, and it creates an end to the trail the city developed that runs from Theodore Wirth Park across Minneapolis. It also raises the importance of east-west connections across the city. But most important, the overlook makes the river feel like a part of the community.

One of the great joys for me in this position is gaining not just an understanding of the natural systems of our parks and riverways but also insight into how these systems weave into and support the urban fabric of Minneapolis. We’re constantly seeking ways to strengthen the connections between the parks and the communities surrounding them, and art and design can be a great way to accomplish that.

We worked with Juxtaposition Arts, for example, to design the railing at the overlook. We’ve had a long-standing and very successful partnership with them; their model of engaging young people and people of the community is a great fit for helping us meet the goals of both the project and our organization. They helped us get past basic interpretation of the river in the design to using art to talk about community and equity. And since many of the apprentices who worked on the project live in the community, they feel strong ownership in the outcome, which can help more people embrace it.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on the river lately, but we’re invested in the whole park system. We understand how important neighborhood parks are to people—and how important the system as a whole is, because it interacts, as I said, with all the other systems that are operating in our city, making Minneapolis the city it is.

Are there ways that architects can be helpful in the work of the foundation?
Parks and civic spaces have to be created, maintained, and sustained; where they are, how we shape them, and what keeps them going all require policy support. It helps when architects and allied design professionals heighten their attention to policy issues and why and where things are happening, as well as who is making those decisions. Public policy is critical to the work we do. More architects and landscape architects could be vocal on policy and its impact on outcomes.

In the first line of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation’s mission statement, we say we aim to “transform human lives”; architects and designers strive to do the very same. It’s absolutely essential that, in that process of transformation, we think about community needs and impacts.

How is working with the community important to your organization’s success? How do you work with communities?
Community input is critical. People in the community know their needs and have innate knowledge of what’s going on and what can produce the best solutions. They may not have the professional expertise to design a pavilion, but they know their history and culture and what they need in their public spaces.

The most important thing to do in community engagement is to be authentic and build trust. You have to earn trust; you don’t just get it. We want to create a space where people can be honest. Ideally, we’re listening a lot more than we’re talking about what we want to do.

In communities like North Minneapolis, there can be a high level of distrust because a number of government and development groups have come in and not listened and gone forward with their plans regardless of community input, if they sought input at all. It places a high premium on our taking the time for meaningful engagement. People need to see that we came to talk with and listen to them, and then the results of the discussion need to show up in meaningful ways in the end project. That builds trust. A process like this opens the door to more trust in future processes, and more community ownership of the outcomes. Ultimately, it will lead to public spaces that better serve our communities.

We’re always crunched for time—that’s always a reality we face. But taking time up front to do the work of community engagement is always a benefit to the project. You can go fast, or you can go far. To go far, sometimes you have to throttle back a bit and say, “Okay, not everyone’s there yet.” You may even have to back up to get the meaningful input that’s needed to make the project work.

It can be hard for designers to bring a blank slate to a new project. But in a good community-engagement process, I’m going to check all the design ideas that are flying around in my head at the door. I’m going to focus on listening, and that may lead to the need for me to throw out everything I was thinking before I showed up.

Architects often see relationships; we want to take disparate parts and put them together into a whole. Real success is when you begin the process with the community in terms of ideas and concerns, and over time all the great ingredients come together without the planners and designers dictating what those ingredients are. It’s the same challenge for the financial arm of the project.

The opportunity for high-impact parks and public spaces—spaces that deepen that sense of community ownership and are valuable to communities for a long time—lies in aligning design, policy, development, and financial visions with community vision. We can’t create that recipe for success without equitable, meaningful engagement with the community.