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Penin et al. 2014: Amplify Soundview
Electronic Journal of Communication
Volume 24 Numbers 1 & 2, 2014

Amplify Soundview:

Reflecting on the Use of Digital Tools
for Promoting Community Engagement & Stewardship
in the Development and Care of the Soundview Park in New York City

Dr. Lara Penin
Assistant Professor
Parsons The New School for Design
New York, NY, USA

Dr. Eduardo Staszowski
Director, Parsons DESIS LAB
Parsons The New School for Design
New York, NY, USA

Dr. Harriet Harriss
Oxford Brookes University
Oxford, UK
Visiting Academic (Fall semester 2012), Parsons DESIS Lab
Parsons The New School for Design
New York, NY, USA

Abstract: In this paper we describe a project whose principle aim was to “amplify” the engagement and stewardship of local residents in the development and care of Soundview Park, in New York City. The project Amplify Soundview was conducted as a core studio course within Parsons Transdisciplinary Design MFA Program in Fall 2012 in collaboration with New York City’s Partnerships for Parks. The project integrated the Open Locast U platform (created by the MIT Mobile Experience Lab) into four proposals for Soundview Park, developed by Parsons students’ teams. Through the narratives of our students and project partners this paper will describe and reflect upon both analogue and digital tools for civic engagement. In particular, these narratives consider how digital tools such as Locast have the potential to engage the public in a process of asset realization and articulation within an otherwise disadvantaged urban context.

Using a qualitative auto-ethnographic approach (Ellis & Bochner, 2000) grounded in action research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2005; Reason & Bradbury, 2007) this paper will describe and reflect upon the use of the Locast Platform in the context of the project and course Amplify Soundview through the auto-ethnographic (Reason & Bradbury, 2007) narratives of our students and community partners. The basic premise of the Amplify Soundview project was that community-driven social innovation can be an engine for a sustainable urban life, and that it can be amplified through design.

City Parks Foundation (CPF) through Partnerships for Parks (PFP) — its joint public/private partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (DPR) — established the Catalyst Program, dedicated to promoting community stewardship of the waterfront at several sites, including Soundview Park in the Bronx, New York City.

Partnerships for Parks proposed to Parsons DESIS Lab to apply the previously tested Amplify approach into Soundview Park. The Amplify approach was originally defined in a 2009-2011 project “Amplifying Creative Communities” by Parsons DESIS Lab funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund 2009[1]. Amplify Soundview was therefore a spinoff initiative of this previous project.

Located on the Long Island Sound in the Bronx, Soundview Park, with its past as a landfill and still deemed an unsafe area, has yet to become a popular destination for the Soundview community. Currently, around Soundview Park, there is little local recognition of the Long Island Sound as a resource, minimal access to the water, and limited access to private philanthropy or the city and state budget to tap into funds that could improve the waterfront. The Bronx as a whole is usually considered an underserved area in the city.

In partnership with the Catalyst Program team, Parsons DESIS Lab launched the course ”Amplify Soundview” within the Parsons Transdiciplinary Design MFA program in the Fall of 2012 to work with students to find ways to amplify the resident’s engagement and stewardship in the development and care of Soundview Park.

The course’s theoretical and methodological frameworks were structured around principles of Action-Research[2] involving user research probes (Gaver, Dunne, & Pacenti, 1999), and other user testing activities; Service Design, using tools such as user journeys and blueprints; Social Innovation and Sustainability, bringing the idea in particular of bottom-up community-led urban participation; and Emerging Digital Technologies, with the use of Locast as a digital platform that can facilitate citizen engagement in the transformation of urban life.

This paper will describe four different proposals developed by design students and reflect upon the use of digital tools to engage the public in a process of asset realization and articulation within an otherwise disadvantaged urban context. In particular, the paper will reflect upon the potentialities of Locast as a digital tool for citizen engagement. Each proposal looked at four specific aspects of the park: Accessibility and mobility, Peer networks and resources, the community group Friends of Soundview, and the Waterfront.

The aim of this paper is therefore to comparatively consider the use of the analogue versus digital tools and processes used by the students within their projects as enabling mechanisms for community engagement. In addition, we also aim at reflecting on the pedagogical aspects of this project. For that, we will discuss the premises and benefits of the project scope and methods used in the course as an approach to service design learning.

The paper is structured through a sequence of narratives coming from the different participants of the project, namely faculty, students and project partners. Each of which have specific contributing sections.

While the project was concluded in Fall 2012, the project partner Partnerships for Parks selected one of the projects developed by a students’ team for pilot development in Spring 2013 (phase 3). This paper however will focus solely on the Fall 2012 period (phases 1 and 2) (see Figure 1).

Project Structure and Thematic Frameworks

The project was organized in three phases. It started with a research phase of seven weeks to identify community requirements and generate initial service ideas. The main milestone was the event “It’s My Park Day” organized as a Mobile Lab at the park to conduct early probing of research findings and design ideas.

The Locast platform was introduced early on to students. MIT Mobile Experience Lab director demonstrated to Parsons students how Locast could be used as a civic journalism tool, a repository of communities’ cultural heritage, a tool for conscious tourism among others. These were functional modalities related to previous uses of the platform in different contexts.

The second phase focused on prototyping and testing and last the remaining seven weeks of the academic semester and concluded with a presentation for Partnerships for Parks. Given the complexity of the project, the possibilities for incorporating Locast in the students’ projects became clearer only in the second phase. There were several iterations and user-tests with community partners along the second phase. The results of this phase are described in the following section Student Narratives.

Project timeline
Figure 1. Project timeline

The project third phase happened in Spring 2013, after the course was concluded. On it, one of the students’ projects was selected for further development and testing for pilot implementation[3]. Results of this phase are not included in this paper.

Before the course started in Fall 2012, Partnerships for Parks had already established their presence in Soundview Park and surrounding community. Through their consistent community engagement, Partnerships for Parks was able to capture the main issues at stake in the park, i.e. the main aspects that needed to be addressed if we were to propose ways to increase community involvement and stewardship of the park. These main aspects were synthesized as four themes that were presented as project briefs for Parsons’ students, as follows:

  • Theme 01: Accessibility & Mobility. What are the barriers (e.g. physical, psychological, etc.) that prevent access to the Soundview Park and the development of the community as a whole?
  • Theme 02: Peer Networks & Resources. How can we enable the Soundview residents to share resources, provide peer support and links to needed resources? How the park can become a platform for community engagement?
  • Theme 03: Friends of Soundview Park[4]. What is the identity of the Soundview? How the history of the Soundview neighborhood and the personal stories of Soundview residents can reinforce each other identities? How a park like Soundview can help the community to develop a sense of belonging, identity, shared beliefs and values?
  • Theme 04: Waterfront. How can access to the Soundview waterfront be facilitated? How the connection between Soundview residents and the waterfront can be strengthened in order to increase the community’s environmental consciousness?

Along the semester the themes/design briefs evolved, each team interpreting the initial briefs as they researched and tested ideas. In the first research phase, students visit the park and surrounding neighborhood and conducted initial contextual research. They also worked closely with Partnerships for Parks staff to understand users and learn about previous experiences.

The transition between phases one and two took place during “It’s My Park Day”, a public event planned by Partnerships for Parks, on which students could test their early hypotheses through the use of engagement tools & prototypes. Parsons faculty worked with research assistants and Partnerships for Parks in the design and orchestration of the event. Four tents were set up in one of park main entrances following a layout conducive to public participation. Students designed probes and participatory activities to both test out early ideas or design directions as well as gather more insight on users’ needs. The students’ projects were further developed and tested out with specific groups of users, evolving into four final projects described in the subsequent narrative section. Each team describes their final project and illustrates the significance of a direct community engagement event in the development of their project ambitions.

Student Narratives

Theme 01: Accessibility and Mobility
Project Title: “Make Your Mark Campaign” (MYMC)[5]

“Make Your Mark Campaign” (MYMC) is a program designed by Transdisciplinary Design MFA students at Parsons The New School for Design in conjunction with the Partnerships for Parks in New York City. The campaign is an agile and scalable youth leadership and mentoring program that incentivizes stewardship in parks that have affiliate groups that do work in the adjacent communities of Soundview Park. MYMC 's goal is to empower youth by giving voice to young people in an environment full of possibility. A park is a place where imagination is welcome - so is the “It's My Park Day” Campaign.

MYMC integrates the Open Locast U platform as part of the application process for youth-led projects, but also as a means of documenting the work of young people involved in the program. Meant as an after-school and/or summer program, the project aims at leveraging existing summer curricula by using Locast and a competition-style incentive to teach skills through experiential learning around stewardship, leadership, and media technology.

With modifications that configure Locast into our webportal and integrate our campaign's visual language, a seamless user experience may be possible. Using the contemporary norm of social media membership, Locast will help young people involved in our program disseminate their efforts in the campaign. This should allow for greater breadth of outreach for the work and a deeper recognition of the value of young people's capacity to lead our communities.

Screenshots of “Make Your Mark Campaign” website (homepage and registration page)
  
Screenshots of “Make Your Mark Campaign” website (homepage and registration page)
Figure 2. Screenshots of “Make Your Mark Campaign” website (homepage and registration page)

Theme 02: Peer Networks and Resources
Project Title: “Taste Sound View”

Built around the idea of a potluck, “Taste Sound View” program aims at leveraging a social gathering around food as a catalyst to ignite community conversation towards aligning interests, facilitating networks, and revealing available resources. The project aims to amplify the involvement of the local Soundview community in the stewardship of their park and to provide the Friends of Soundview with tools that can be used to transform the park into a platform for community engagement. We developed a toolkit aiming at empowering the Friends of Soundview Park community group with the means to initiate scalable opportunities for community intervention while inspiring projects that create and sustain a positive social change.

Our team promoted a prototype event on which common interests were unearthed and connections grew organically. The platform we created worked well to promote community-based ideas and inspire further action. While this analogic toolkit successfully ignited the spark, it seems imperative that a sustained digital platform is available to distribute and archive information while maintaining these new networks and relationships.

In this regard, the potential for Locast is clear. Ideally, all of the relevant details for projects in the “Taste Sound View” program would be accessible from this site. Collaborators, event calendars, photo/video documentation, and resource information would all be visible and easily navigated by participants and interested community members. In this scenario, other social platforms such as WordPress and Twitter could serve as public windows into the “Taste Sound View” Locast page. In every circumstance, the Locast Platform must be able to interface with the various social media platforms that are uniquely familiar to each user but Locast’s real success may be its ability to act as a hub for project information.

“Taste Soundview” pilot potluck event at Soundview Park
Figure 3. “Taste Soundview” pilot potluck event at Soundview Park

Theme 03: Friends of Soundview
Project Title: “Tales of _______”

“Tales of _______” is a set of instructables for storytelling activities that allow residents of the Soundview community to work together in the creation of a park's identity. The goal of these instructables is to amplify the intangible qualities of the park.

The stories that result from these instructables can be manifested in anything from handmade paper puppets to simple animations, to slideshows with narrative audio. No matter the medium, “Tales of ______” produces a series of amusing and imaginative tales about a place.

Locast enables these stories to be collected, shared, and distributed among the Soundview community. In places like Soundview Park that are scarred with a negative history, the use of Locast allows these stories to become part of a larger community than the room in which they were created. It allows a large audience to create associations with place that are less based on rumor and fear, but rather fun and imagination.

“Tales of _______” project: simulation of Locast as a repository of stories
            about Soundview Park (top), pilot storytelling pilot workshop at Soundview public library (bottom)
Figure 4 . “Tales of _______” project: simulation of Locast as a repository of stories about Soundview Park (top), pilot storytelling pilot workshop at Soundview public library (bottom)

Theme 04: The Waterfront
Project Title: “Thematic Trail Maps for Bronx Compass School”

The project brief was to engage the Soundview community with the waterfront at their nearby park, where the Bronx River meets the Long Island Sound. We partnered with a local public high school, Bronx Compass, and created “Thematic Trail Maps,” using a playful analog map-making toolkit deployed in Soundview Park, entering the acquired data via a Locast interface accessed in their classroom.

The Bronx Compass high school students were highly engaged with the analog toolkit and equally enthusiastic to translate their experience digitally. The phases of the activity were seamless, from classroom discussion of waterways and ecological consciousness, to a class trip to experience the park in all its potential, to bringing their experiences back to the realm of information technology, an aspect of the school’s curriculum. 

Even if during the development phase, the team did not distribute the digital maps generated by Locast to a larger audience, the hypothesis is that this step would integrate well and enhance the high school students’ overall learning experience. Communicating and sharing their new perspective on the park and its waterfront with a larger community of friends and family through Locast has realistic potential to bring a greater sense of engagement, and stewardship, to the residents of Soundview.

“Thematic Trail Maps for Bronx Compass school” (top) pilot map use at the
      Soundview Park with students of Compass school (bottom)
“Thematic Trail Maps for Bronx Compass school” (top) pilot map use at the
        Soundview Park with students of Compass school (bottom)
Figure 5. “Thematic Trail Maps for Bronx Compass school” (top) pilot map use at the Soundview Park with students of Compass school (bottom)

Partner Narrative: Partnership for Parks

Partnerships for Parks is a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation which helps New Yorkers work together to make neighborhood parks thrive. Partnerships for Parks works to start, strengthen, and support neighborhood park groups; to link them together, so they can learn from each other and be stronger collectively; and to promote parks in general, so people will join in efforts to restore and preserve them. The Catalyst program is a multi-year initiative that works in historically under-served neighborhoods to galvanize support for and commitments for community building and improved parks. The current focus of the program is on “Reclaiming Waterfront Parks” with communities near East River Park in Manhattan, Kaiser and Calvert Vaux Parks in Brooklyn, and Soundview Park in the Bronx.

Although this was their first time working with an outside consultant, the Soundview community partners were receptive to the public participation activities and the design services proposed as part of the Amplify Soundview project. The goals of Amplify Soundview were to design activities and services which could be easily used by the local partners and which could further the groups’ goals of fostering increased engagement and stewardship in the development and care of Soundview Park. In the case of the project “Taste Sound View”, a set of web-based tools and activities were developed which allowed long-term partners and potential new partners to share resources and make connections through a series of user-friendly charettes which took the form of community potlucks. The groups are following-up on the success of the potlucks and the ensuing conversation and as a result the Friends of Soundview Park and other collaborators are pursuing funding for community projects, such as the butterfly and memorial garden.[6]

Additionally, the Catalyst Program has selected the project “Make Your Mark Campaign” (MYMC) to be piloted. The intent is to refine the existing curricula — designed for Soundview Park — and create a program that can be replicated in any New York City park or any youth user group.[7]

Educator Narrative: MFA Transdisciplinary Design

Critical to the development of the course, was the coordination between Parsons and the Catalyst Program, and the role the later played in bringing students and community partners together. The service design approach was essential to structure the teams’ project development. In particular, it was essential to consider community interactions as experiences that evolved over time, resulting in ever-evolving projects, in other words, the projects are considered processes rather than final static outcomes (Kimbell, 2011; Meroni & Sangiorgi, 2011). To enable these processes, the use of tangible artifacts and evocative engagement tools[8] are critical (Stickdorn & Schneider, 2010; Turkle, S., 2011).

The success of the action research approach could be largely attributed to the nature of the interactions between students and project partners including community leaders, based on designed situations such as the, “Its’ My Park Day” event, that proved conducive to achieving collaborative participation. (Smith and MacGregor, 1992; Innes & Booher, 2004).

“It’s My Park Day” event
Figure 6. “It’s My Park Day” event
“It’s My Park Day” event
Figure 7. At the “It’s My Park Day” event, the Accessibility and Mobility team used probes such as badges with roles and costumes (champion belts, star glasses, knight swords, etc.) to test out the idea of young people getting involved in the park by playing specific roles

Collaborative participation proved essential to evolving subsequent analogue/non-digital collaborative interactions such as the potluck of “Taste of Soundview” project and the writing workshop of “Tales of _______” project, where the teams developed and ran additional community engaged activities.

Locast was introduced as the digital platform within later interactions (in the second phase), and therefore its use by the community has been only envisioned and simulated rather than tested. There is evidence of the potentialities of some specific users of Locast in some projects, such as the project “Thematic Trail Maps for Bronx Compass school” where Compass students manifested excitement in getting engaged with an online mapping tool.

Exploring how Locast could be embedded both technically - as demonstrated by an embedded map within the project website within the “Make Your Mark Campaign” as well as programmatically — as demonstrated in the “Thematic Trail Maps for Bronx Compass School” project — proved pivotal in understanding how Locast could be used as a tool rather than a destination or site.

Furthermore, by situating Locast within an existing site and/or curriculum, implementers could leverage Locast’s key strengths and remedy the more complex aspects of interfacing with a broad community in offline spaces.

Finally, we identified that Locast can be leveraged as a tool for project leaders (including Parsons faculty and project partners) prior to the community engagement activity taking place. It offers a useful set of features including functioning as a repository of local content as well as capturing process narratives & development. In the case of this specific project, this approach has the potential to reduce hurdles and build better understanding of how Locast could later be implemented for use with the community.

Conclusions

As evidenced by the student-authored project testimonies contained within this paper, the educators teaching & research strategy enabled students to set their own research and engagement agendas for their group projects. This pedagogic approach resulted in some valuable and even surprising findings:

Firstly, the educators’ emphasis upon the students adopting self-directed, peer-led, co-creation-focused processes empowered students to set their own research agendas. The students response to this was to often adapt and reinterpret established research methods and tools to suit their enquiries. One example of this is in the case of participant observation — where students joined the public when sharing food or interacting with the data gathering tools (at the My Park Day event between project phases one and two as well as at other public events promoted by each team individually). This helped to facilitate the public sharing more informal and intimate knowledge.

Secondly, the range of playful data collection tools (design probes designed and implemented by teams) used by the students meant that the public were able to share their thoughts and have them captured in a number of different ways. From a data analysis perspective, using triangulation allowed for greater comparative analysis, thereby ensuring higher levels of validity in their qualitative enquiries.

Thirdly, by asking students to provide auto-ethnography of their research strategies and outcomes, they succeeded in providing educators with pedagogically useful insights and feedback on their teaching and research approach.

Fourthly, the educators decision to support the development of the new generation of civically engaged researchers and their pioneering new data collection tools enabled the students to create a body of data that the educators could more objectively examine and critique.

Fifthly, Amplify Soundview revealed that the students were inclined to self-select a combination of both digital and non-digital tools to conduct their participatory enquiries. What this revealed is that Locast proved most useful in the context of these projects is in its ability to offer a digital presence for the non-digital, tactile elements of the students’ research — providing not only a useful early-researcher palimpsest for future research, but a form of “presencing” for the community participants, who can refer to the digital platform for evidence of (the recognized value of) their own engagement in the enquiry. An analogous outcome is also valid for the project partners Partnerships for Parks, who have gained insights of digital mapping to inform future decision making.

Finally, by pushing Locast beyond its original capability as a mapping tool towards an accessible data collation resource — a decision largely led by the students and not the educators — community members could access, use and event comment on content, thereby offering the students a vital feedback loop on the efficacy of their research and crucially — the representation of their data. Both educators and students were subsequently able to critically examine the efficacy of Locast in attracting site hits indicative of levels of community engagement in their online cultural asset.

Acknowledgments

Authors of Chapter Student Narratives, Theme 01: Accessibility and Mobility, written by Rashid Owoyele; Theme 02: Peer networks and resources, written by James Clotfelter; Theme 03: Friends of Soundview, written by Christopher Patten; Theme 04: The Waterfront , written by Emily Santoro.

Author of Chapter Partner Narratives (Partnerships for Parks): Carlos Martinez.

Contributor to Chapter Educator Narratives: Matthew Willse (project research assistant).

Students Transdisciplinary Design MF: Siri Betts, Marie Boegly, Danielle Christophe, Min Chung, James Clotfelter, Amanda Greenough, Sophie Hou, Jinghang Huang, Elsa Kaminsky, Helena Kjellgren, Nelson Lo, Cristobal Oltra, Rashid Owoyele, Christopher Patten, Emily Santoro, Jie Wang, Lauren Wong.

Faculty: Lara Penin, Eduardo Staszowski, Harriet Harriss.

Research assistants: Clarisa Diaz, Matthew Willse.

Partnerships for Parks: Carlos Martinez, Melissa Garcia, Carla Robinson, Beth Bingham, Anthony Feliciano, Deane Hare.

Friends of Soundview Park: Lucy Aponte, Laura Alvarez.

Community participants: Destiny, Tyler Sinks (teacher at Bronx Compass), participants of the event “It’s My Park Day,” participants in the pilot storytelling pilot workshop at Soundview public library (project “Tales of ____”), partcipants in the pilot potluck at the Boat House, Soundview Park (Taste Soundview project), Compass School students partcipants of the pilot Thematic Trail Maps activity.

MIT Mobile Experience Lab: Federico Casalegno, Katherine Chin.

The UK Higher Education Academy: Internationalisation Award 2012, and

Oxford Brookes University School of Architecture, Oxford, UK

End Notes

[1] The 2009-2011 project Amplifying Creative Communities project by Parsons DESIS Lab involved the following kinds of activities: (1) identification of local assets and positive social innovation initiatives, data collection based on ethnographic research; (2) production of films, or other image-based media with the synthesis of research; (3) promotion of exhibitions, workshops and/or other public events as a community engagement strategy to debate and advance local social innovation; and (4) the development of toolkits through participatory methods, aiming at facilitating social innovation initiatives.

[2] Action-Research defines a broad range of academic and non-academic social science research practices, or rather a “family” of "forms of inquiry which are participative, experiential and action oriented" (Reason & Bradbury, 2007, pp xxiii).

[3] In the end, the project selected for the phase 3 pilot was tested in a different park (the East River Park, another waterfront park under the Catalyst Program) and in partnership with the Grand Street Settlement (GSS), a historic, Lower East Side-based social services provider.

[4] Friends of Soundview Park is a nascent voluntary community group that supports the programming of the park. Partnerships for Parks aimed at leveraging this existing initiative.

[5] This project was selected by Partnership for Parks for further development and piloting in Spring 2013. The pilot ended up being developed in a different park in Manhattan's Lower East Side and involved a community-based organization (Grand Street Settlement) with approximately 150 young people in summer programs. Results of this development are not included in this paper.

[6] These developments took place after the course was concluded in Spring 2013. The butterfly garden was an idea emerged during the prototype potluck promoted by the team “Taste of Soundview.” It has been implemented in 2014.

[7] Again, developments of this pilot are not described in this paper.

[8] Principles defining service design include the notion that whole experiences can be designed, with users at the center of these experiences, who should perceive them as a coherent whole even if it involves different touch-points, and happen over time. (For more see Stickdorn & Schneider, 2010).

References

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