by Nancy Derrig

Superintendent of Parks
Providence, Rhode Island

From Parks As Community Places: Boston, 1997, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.

Derrig conducted an evaluation exercise with her staff at Roger Williams Park, based on the place performance evaluation game developed by Project for Public Spaces and initiated at 1996 Urban Parks Institute in Austin. In the “game,” evaluators are asked to observe specific areas for a period of time, interview users, and then make specific short and long-term recommendations for improvements to the area.

In 1996, after the conference in Austin, we wanted to use the evaluation game to look at Roger Williams Park. We called together the directors of all the major programs in the park including the zoo and planetarium, the greenhouse, visitor’s services, mounted command, and the carousel. They were divided up into groups and given 2 park areas to review and evaluate, among 14 we had picked out within the park that were either under-utilized or were problem areas because of traffic or kids hanging out.

We sent the groups to places we thought they might be less familiar with, and we all spent the entire day working on these 14 sites: three hours of on-site evaluations; an hour for each group to prepare a presentation; and then presentations from each group, reporting back to the whole group ideas for short-term and long-term improvements to these areas. Detailed records of all suggestions were made with the final product being the preparation of a Roger Williams Park Improvement Work Plan to guide our work for the next two years.

“Doing the evaluation led us to a planning process which has opened up a whole world: not only how we could access the resources of this neighborhood, but how they could access our… resources.”

Running the evaluation exercise was a really valuable thing for us to do, and it was very easy to plan. We had taken photos beforehand so that when people came back and did their reports the rest of us could see exactly what they were talking about. It gave us a very easy way to tie everybody in, to cross pollinate what people were doing, and to have different divisions realize that the other divisions are run by some pretty smart and dedicated people. We wanted people to know that we were serious: that this was not just another plan that would sit on a shelf gathering dust. So we needed to hire someone to carry out all the recommendations. We wanted someone who had four important qualifications: First was their approach. We don’t do long planning processes because we have a mayor who likes quick results. So in order to get a feel for their approach, we sent the applicants to look at one of the projects that we had selected for improvements and asked them make a presentation on what they would do in these areas. Even if we didn’t like their ideas, we were able to find out if they were capable of working in the way that we wanted them to.

Secondly, we’re on the Register of Historic Places, so we needed someone who was sensitive to preservation issues; who was comfortable with the neighborhood surrounding the park, comfortable going to community meetings and talking to neighborhood groups. And we needed someone who would be at ease in our rough-and-tumble style of city government and city politics. And we found such a person, thank God.

Of the 14 projects that evolved from our evaluation game – all begun last July – five have been completed. They dealt with traffic, parking, signage, safety, plantings, etc. One thing that came out was that we all decided that we didn’t have enough flowers in the park . The greenhouse guys said, “We don’t have any time, we don’t have any extra people to spare!” But the evaluating group had decided it was important, so we opted for a simpler approach, and planted hillsides with bulbs and summer flowers. We had a big public effort to get people involved: 500 people showed up one day last October and planted an entire hillside. This spring we’ve had great press on this project, with newspapers showing photographs of this beautiful hillside and its 25,000 new spring bulbs in bloom.

Another project concerned a certain neighborhood park entrance. Although our main entrance is flanked by a 100-year-old magnificent bronze gate, another entrance, one which borders on a poor neighborhood, is really pretty scruffy, and was a bone of contention with the neighborhood. We know that people in this neighborhood don’t venture into our zoo, museum or gardens much. They really stay on the edge. Doing the evaluation led us to a planning process which has opened up a whole world to us of how not only we could access the resources of this neighborhood, but how they could access our mentoring and environmental education resources, summer jobs resources. Now, we hire kids from the neighborhood in the summer, and we take festivals, zoo and library activities out into the neighborhood – or have them come in.

So the end results of running the game were much broader than we had even suspected. We found it really very exciting and productive. We were all reminded of the park’s great potential, people became aware of other smart folks working in the park organization, and it gave us a very quick, charette kind of operation where we have a work plan for two years of some pretty important projects for us.