by Alexis Canter and Kate Tooke
When it comes to master planning and community engagement, Des Moines is on the cutting edge. Building off of the momentum of the recently completed Tomorrow Plan—a regional plan for the greater Des Moines area—the local community is mobilizing to generate a master plan for Water Works Park, a 1,500-acre riverine park and water utility campus just outside downtown. Rather than relying on traditional public meetings, the community has embraced new ideas to reinvigorate the public process. The design team, a collaboration between Sasaki, RDG, and AES, is leading a master planning process utilizing tactics explored in Sasaki's online publication Currents. The following examines and assesses how new thinking in public engagement is playing out in the Water Works Park planning process.
PROCESS AS EVENT
The public meeting as a community celebration
The Water Works Park Open House, held on Tuesday, September 10, was conceived as a celebratory, social event with two goals: 1) to build a strong sense of community through fun activities in the park and 2) to generate excitement and input for the master plan effort and future of the park. The event featured delicious free food by Tacopocalypse as well as beer for purchase, multiple stations outlining initial master plan design ideas and goals, family-friendly art activities, an opportunity to try paddleboarding (a proposed program in the park), and an ecology bike tour led by Kim Chapman, the ecologist on the design team.
Over 400 people attended, representing a broad spectrum of Des Moines citizens—young families, senior citizens, professionals, political leaders, entrepreneurs, recreation enthusiasts, and everyone in between. The park buzzed throughout the three-hour event as people gathered in fluid groups to talk, laugh, play, connect, and share ideas.
ON THE GROUND
Bringing outreach to the community on its own turf and using the ?ne, local details of place to bring meaning and speci?city to a process
The Des Moines Young Professionals group has been an energized and energizing force throughout the Water Works Park planning process. Their skillful use of social media to raise awareness has brought dozens of new faces and fresh perspective to each community event. Volunteers from their group helped with the open house—advertising, setting up tables, documenting the activity through photograph and video, and directing visitors throughout the event.
The Young Professionals have also carried the momentum of the planning process forward between visits of the design team. They have hosted regular Beer Night events to share the park vision and engage new, skilled volunteers. Their unique place in the community enables them to harness the power of volunteers to spread the word about the park planning process in creative ways, like stenciling "Changes in the Works" onto the pavement during major park events.
Utilizing online and gaming strategies to reach a broader demographic
The opportunity to provide feedback on the future of Water Works Park isn't limited to public events. A project website has kept design ideas, process and news transparent since the competition. QR codes on all printed material at the open house led back to this website and provided an opportunity to leave comments on specific design proposal. In addition, a Facebook page managed by the Young Professionals group has helped energize the community by posting pictures and announcements as well as channeling questions and feedback to the design team. Throughout the September open house people shared pictures via Facebook and Twitter, spreading energy for the planning process beyond the circle of those present. A time-lapse video of the event, produced by a Young Professional group member, popped up on Vimeo just a few hours after the event.
Implementing design elements or prototyping experiences within the outreach process
One of the most magical moments of the Water Works Park Open House was when a group of four performance artists from the local group Hurley Dancers paddled out in front of the crowd. As the sun set behind them, these dancers performed an enchanting synchronized dance on their paddleboards. Afterwards, visitors flocked to the paddleboarding demonstration tent (run by volunteers from No Coast Stand Up) to try the boards themselves.
To highlight the park's primary function as a water utility, the design team strives to celebrates water and learning about water through recreation. Paddleboarding on a newly designed water feature called The Circuit has been a core part of the design since the competition phase. The paddleboarding performances and free demos during the event allowed the community to not only envision, but actually experience the future of the park.
Creating materials within commonly understood visual and cultural language
A guidebook presenting the proposed concept plan as reality served as a core part of the winning competition entry for Water Works Park. Text and graphics throughout the guidebook specifically engage the community, and helping readers create a vision of themselves using the park rather than relying on the jargon of design professionals. The master plan work continues this trend by explaining concepts with easy-to-understand illustrative diagrams and soliciting feedback with universally-recognizable thumbs up and thumbs down symbols.
Now, the design team is working to synthesize public input into a comprehensive vision for the future of the park. Future public involvement will be advertised on the project website, and the master plan is due to be completed early next year. Stay tuned!
And read more about these strategies in our online publication, Currents.