COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Mapping Park Use and Surveying Park Visitors: A Discussion

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

A Discussion on Park Usership

On August 19, 1996 representatives from the Prospect Park Alliance and Central Park Conservancy met to discuss their respective efforts to quantify how people use their parks and to gain a better understanding of user needs. The Alliance had been using a cultural anthropologist to understand cultural attitudes and habits of ethnic communities, hoping to find new ways to get involved in the park. The Alliance also planned to begin mapping different types of use in the park and commissioned an extensive survey of park users. Central Park had completed an exhaustive survey of park visitors that included entrance counts, questionnaires and focus groups to measure long-term user trends and hear the opinions of specific demographic groups.

Although the meeting was officially concerned with usership, the conversation covered many topics, including outreach and the role of community advisory committees. Below is an outline of its highlights, featuring ideas that could be most interesting and helpful to other parks.

Prospect Park Alliance

I. The Community Committee

Prospect Park has had a Community Advisory Committee for 18 years (referred to below as the Park Advisory Committee), which reports to the Brooklyn Borough President and is only involved with approving City-funded capital projects. It is constructed of political leaders in Brooklyn. Some Committee members are not even users of the park.

In the year-and-a-half since the LWRD grant, the Alliance was able to form its own Community Committee to become more involved and effective, benefitting both the Alliance and the park itself. Membership is much more representative. The Park Advisory Committee is still functioning, but the new Community Committee is much more active, as its mandate is much larger.

In recruiting Community Committee members, PPA looked for organizations which represented park users, were representative of the communities that surround the park, and were positive: PPA wanted doers.

At the first meeting, PPA used a facilitator to manage the meeting, including helping to define members' roles and responsibilities. The facilitator also focused the first meeting on positive aspects and key assets of the park, asking the Committee to concentrate on what they valued most about the park. The facilitator lives and works in the community and represents the local college on the Committee.

Committee members then took the initiative, dividing themselves into four working groups: Education; Culture; Marketing/Promotion/Information; and Business/Fundraising.

The Committee began its work by focusing on small, manageable tasks, such as recruiting more volunteers for the park and doing outreach into their various communities (for more on PPA's outreach efforts, see Part II, below).

In describing PPA's work with the Community Committee, PPA President Tupper Thomas was quick to point out that committee members are giving their own time to the park and should be rewarded for doing so. For this reason, PPA always serves a light dinner at Community Committee meetings, which also encourages people to stay for the entire meeting! (Snacks are provided for working group meetings and are often donated by local restaurants; meals for meetings of the entire Community Committee are purchased by PPA.)

Having had some success, the Committee has recently begun to tackle larger projects, including:

The Senior Trolley. Seniors were uncomfortable coming to the Park so the Community Committee hit on the idea of using a trolley to give them tours of the park. When the idea was implemented on a trial basis, it was a huge success, and now PPA is looking for ways to make the trolley a permanent part of its programming.

The Youth Council. One of the few constituencies not represented on the Community Committee is young people. To get young people more involved in the park and to encourage greater stewardship among them, the Community Committee developed the idea of a Youth Council, through which young people could have greater input into the park's management and programming. PPA will soon launch the Youth Council as a working group of the Community Committee.

Small Grants Program. Tupper is currently looking for a small pot of money she could give to the Community Committee for them to redistribute through a small grants program. Such a program would award more influence to the Committee and increase the number and diversity of groups working on - and investing in - the park.

II. Outreach

The Prospect Park Alliance has taken a three-pronged approach to outreach, working through Brooklyn's ethnic communities, neighborhoods and park user groups.

In order to reach the many and diverse communities that surround the park, PPA has been working with Dr. Jill Vexler, a cultural anthropologist and expert on Brooklyn's ethnic groups. She is helping PPA to understand cultural traditions that might be tapped as a way to encourage usership by specific ethnic communities.

In general, Dr. Vexler has been reaching ethnic communities through churches, health care centers and educational institutions. Her method is to work closely with those institutions and their leaders, and study how they communicate with their membership. She then uses these leaders and their institutions as avenues into the respective communities; her ultimate goal is to find cultural traditions within each community that can be used to connect them with the park.

Another form of outreach has been through Cultural Programs. Haitian and Chinese cultural festivals were held in the park. The Haitian festival drew over 2,000 members of the Haitian community to the park. (To those considering hosting such a festival in their park, Tupper offers this word of advice: hire outside producers from the targeted community - they know more about booking performers, advertising, and all the other aspects of producing a festival than we do.) The Haitian community was already a major user of the Park, but had not been involved as volunteers or felt a sense of ownership. The event brought us 50 new Haitian volunteers and many new contacts for the Community Committee.

In addition to reaching out to specific ethnic groups, PPA is also doing outreach to specific neighborhoods and user groups:

Neighborhood-based outreach has included efforts to reach users in the Parkside/Ocean Avenue area - the neighborhood that uses the park most - and Crown Heights - an ethnically heterogeneous neighborhood that includes Hasidic Jews, Caribbean-Americans and African-Americans. PPA's outreach efforts have resulted in increased numbers of volunteers and Alliance members from these neighborhoods. In 1997, a Crown Heights festival will be held.

Outreach to specific user groups has included dog walkers ("You gotta have Bark!"), joggers and bike riders. Dog walkers have also held their own fund-raising events on behalf of PPA. Outreach to bike riders - specifically mountain bikers - continues to be crucial, because mountain biking is so destructive to the park's fragile ecosystems.

Another aspect of PPA's outreach is its Greeters Program. The program uses volunteers stationed at main entrances to welcome visitors, give information about events and programs, deliver stewardship messages and even hand out garbage bags. Although the program is a success (some greeters are so popular that visitors ask for them by name), PPA learned many hard lessons in designing and implementing the program, including:

It's important to find volunteers with the right demeanor; PPA had to turn away several would-be vigilantes who were more interested in policing the park than greeting people.

Although training greeters is important, too much training will scare people away; PPA cut its training from five weeks of classes to one intensive five hour session.

Greeters must be knowledgeable about both the park and the surrounding neighborhoods, including information like the location of the nearest cash machine and subway stop.

Although greeters are happy to tell people about the park, they are generally unwilling to solicit donations.

Some greeters became restless staying in one place and formed a corps of Roving Greeters, either through inline skating or walking, and stopping to answer questions and give out materials.

III. Usership

PPA recently received a federal grant to study its usership. Past surveys have shown usership increasing from 1.7 million visits per year in 1979 to 3.4 million in 1982 to 5 million in 1987-88. It is estimated that the current federally-funded survey will reveal an annual usership of about 6 million people.

With increasing usership have come increasing challenges, including:

  • Managing burgeoning usership in an era of fiscal austerity - especially ensuring that maintenance keeps pace with usership;
  • Understanding who's using the park and why, and how they might use it better;
  • Increasing collaboration with public and other nonprofit entities to lever resources and educate users.

The grant also allows a study of the park's users in greater depth, carried out by Setha Low, a cultural anthropologist who teaches environmental psychology and is currently Director of the Public Space Research Group at CUNY. The study, which will take place over 20 months, will involve 400 in-depth interviews with park users. The interviews, which last 30 minutes each, involve open-ended questions designed to reveal how and why people use (or don't use) the park, and their feelings about specific areas of the park and activities within the park. Typical questions include:

  • What are your favorite areas of the park?
  • Are there places you don't feel comfortable going to, and why?
  • Does the park have any special meaning to you?
  • Has the park changed since you first started coming here?
  • Are there any changes you would like to make in the park?

IV. Conclusion

In a final anecdote that showed where outreach and usership meet, Tupper described PPA's interaction with a group of African drummers who have been using the park at Parkside and Ocean Avenue every Sunday. They had developed a huge following and the whole event had spread out across the recreational lanes (the roadway through the park, closed to cars on weekends and filled with cyclists, skaters, etc.), and had begun to attract a large number of 'undesirable' vendors. On meeting with the drummers, the Alliance were able to get them to move away from the road and found that they also were upset by some of the vendors. The Alliance was able to limit the vendors, improve the site, and add a sign "Drummer's Grove." Recently, PPA received a grant from Chase Bank to pay the drummers to give classes in drumming and drum making - and to spread the message of respect for the park.

Central Park Conservancy


Having invested $140 million in Central Park's physical restoration, the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) is now turning its attention to strengthening its programming and community involvement in an effort to promote stewardship and the maintenance of the park's physical improvements. The Conservancy's new community outreach and programming efforts are being designed in response to the park's usership. To better understand the park's users (and non-users), CPC hired Bill Kornblum of the City University of New York to study who uses the park and how they use it, and who doesn't use the park, and why. Armed with this information, CPC can design additional programs and community outreach initiatives to attract new users, bring users to underutilized areas and promote healthier use.

I. Usership

Kornblum's market survey conducted in 1995 consisted of 1,209 exit surveys, 1,200 surveys at key educational facilities (the Dana Center, the Dairy and the Luce Nature Observatory) and 300 interviews with non-users. The survey placed the park's annual estimated usership at 15 to 16 million.

The 1995 survey is the fourth done in park since 1972 ('72, '82, '89, '95), with all but the first having been done by Kornblum. This is notable because of the comparability of the surveys over time; in fact, Central Park is the only urban park in the nation with so much comparable data.

In addition to general surveys of users and non-users, this year's study by Kornblum included focus groups designed to provide in-depth information on specific user groups.

Focus groups and their findings:

  • Teen-agers and young adults: expressed a surprising preference for visiting the park alone, to relax and reflect. Teens also expressed a preference for the park's more natural areas. Although young people are generally troubled by being stereotyped, they felt welcomed at the park's visitor centers.
  • Family groups: tend to prefer events that they can attend on the spur of the moment to programs that require registration in advance. Families that do not use the park tend to be lower-income and less well-educated, tend to use small local parks instead of Central Park, and tend to cite time constraints as the reason they do not visit the park.
  • Spanish-speakers: are less well-represented in the park, probably because they tend to rely on Spanish-language media for information about park activities. CPC is now targeting Spanish-language media outlets.
  • Local teachers: need to be encouraged more to use the park as a resource. Currently, teachers use the park for recreation (gym class), but rarely for instruction (science class).

Kornblum's surveys and focus groups unearthed a trove of information that CPC is using to guide its programming and community outreach. (See Key Findings.) Lessons distilled so far have been both general (the need to cultivate youth directly as volunteers, and involved participants in the park) and specific (posting calendars of events on community bulletin boards and in places like laundromats is a good way to reach lower-income residents).

II. Programs

Although CPC's current programs were designed before Kornblum's survey data became available, future programs will be planned in response to the survey's findings. CPC's current programs include:

  • Help Design! Frederick Douglas Circle, which involved local residents - through a series of community design workshops - in planning for the renovation of the north-west corner of the park. While the park also relied on a professional steering committee of architects and designers, getting the community involved gave them a sense of ownership in the park, and gave CPC ideas and perspectives they would otherwise have missed.
  • Jazz concerts, held in the upper part of the park, which brought together residents from all of the neighborhoods that border the park. The events were contracted to an outside provider, Jazz Mobile, and were integrated into a larger cultural festival, Harlem Week, to maximize advertising for the concerts. CPC's decision to locate the concerts in the upper park was significant because that area is frequently perceived as being unsafe; the success of the events indicated otherwise.
  • The Harlem Meer Performance Festival, now in its third year, offers the park as a performance venue for local performing arts acts. The Festival features acts every Saturday, is inexpensive for CPC to produce and has great appeal to families.
  • El Museo del Barrio, the East Harlem museum that features Hispanic arts and culture, recently collaborated with CPC on a program for families. The program, which used the park's natural beauty and the museum's art collection to inspire participants to create their own works, attracted 25 families. The works created by these families were exhibited at CPC's Dana Discovery Center, and the exhibition garnered significant attention from the local press. Both CPC and El Museo are pleased with the collaboration and the Conservancy is now designing collaborations with other Harlem cultural institutions, such as the Dance Theater of Harlem. These collaborations are important because they attract families from Harlem and East Harlem - groups that have not traditionally participated in park programming, according to Kornblum's surveys.

Nature Programs are a staple of CPC's programming, and have been shown in Kornblum's surveys to attract women and families. The recently-opened Henry Luce Nature Observatory is now drawing 1,500 visitors a week. Many of these visitors are attracted by the discovery kits - which include binoculars, a field guide to birds, a map and sketch pad - that can be checked out for free.

III. Conclusion

Many lessons can be drawn from the successful work being done by the Conservancy and the Alliance. Among them are:

  1. Engaging community in the process of changing usership is complicated but essential. It requires careful and appropriate listening. Both parks are grappling with how best to do this, and the idea of more or less formal advisory structures seems promising, as PPA has demonstrated.
  2. There's an important connection between market research -- surveys, focus groups, etc. -- and successful programmatic initiatives, as CPC has demonstrated. Good programs are informed by such research.
  3. Programming is an effective way to affect usership and conceivably stewardship. When successful, it should also affect unstructured use of the park, and should lead to increased participation by new groups.
  4. Focusing on specific nodes provides an important way to think about usership. In designing programs it is important to ask questions such as: where are the points where we expect usership will change? and can we trace the impact of programs and outreach on stewardship and usership?
  5. Youth must be engaged not just as passive subjects, or even as participants, but as leaders, architects and champions.

Key Findings From The Central Park Market Survey

From a report by William Kornblum, City University of New York Graduate School, Dept. of Sociology. February 1996

Minority users of Central Parks as a percentage of the total grew to 57% in 1995 from 43% in 1982 and 20% in 1972. 71% are from Manhattan.

Almost 50% of Whites and Asians say they do not visit the North Park (Compared to 26% of Latinos and 19% of Blacks). Almost 20% of Latinos and Blacks do not visit the South Park, compared to 6% of Asians and 0% of Whites.

According to the survey, "these differences are also reflected in the comparisons of visitor use and knowledge of Visitor Centers. Latino and Black visitors tend to know the Dan Center but not the Belvedere of the Dairy. The reverse is true for Whites and Asians."

Among non-users, 12% had heard of the Dana Center or the Belvedere Castle.

"The Harlem Meer is extremely popular among people on the North reaches of the Park and above, but it is also well known and popular among segments of the population to the South, who have visited the restored area but do not do so regularly."

Perception of safety among Park users has improved significantly since 1972, but while only 4.9% of users say the Park is less safe today than two years ago (47% saying its is safer), the reverse is true for non-users.

The most common reason New Yorkers don't use Central Park is a perception that it is unclean and unsafe. 20% of Whites also cite lack of facilities.

64% of visitors are in the Park to relax. 18% come for sports, biking or rollerblading, down from 31% in 1989.

"There has been an increase in solitary visitors to Central Park since 1982 (rising from 47 to 55%) when this became a survey item. Much of this increase is attributable to increased perceptions of safety...but the dramatic increase in motor activities, especially biking and skating, is another influence."

Almost one third of respondents supplied interviewers with their names and phone numbers in order to be further involved with the Park. According to Kornblum, this is a very encouraging indication of future participation from volunteers.

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