Aki Ishida and Lynnette Widder
Making the Giraffe Path
CLIMB (City Life is for Moving Bodies)
Making the Giraffe Path
We have entered a new era of urban design where amenities like parks and public spaces are finally getting the professional attention they deserve. This project is a bold attempt to open up the design of an engaging trail way that would connect five Northern Manhattan urban parks in ways that could make them as collectively engaging as New York’s High Line or Chicago’s Millennium Park.
The methods used here are extensive and impressive and feel like a 21st century update on Eliel Saarinen’s excellent design principle that when building a campus he would just sod the entire area, wait for people to create walkways, and only then build the sidewalks there. The design team in this case is using a solid approach to co-construction in a way we felt was exemplary.
We especially liked the way this team reframed their urban design challenge from trail mapping to trail making, and especially commend them for the 3D dynamic development techniques they used and the lovely human scale feel of the work.
Making the Giraffe Path
For the not-profit CLIMB (City Life is for Moving Bodies), we created workshop events and artifacts to explore, record, and enahance the relationship between five parks along Northern Manhattan’s major escarpment and the communities along their edges. CLIMB is a community-based initiative founded by public health advocates on the belief that safe parks are mirrors of community health. Our work provided design strategies to let their cohort speak their minds, and to create new associations. We delivered to them a “play book”/ resource binder that visually documents the data we collected and provides new working strategies for CLIMB’s future path-making.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Our problem was to help CLIMB find the right means to connect the five Northern Manhattan parks that link their stakeholders. CLIMB’s mission is to enhance the physical, social, and economic health of Northern Manhattan neighborhoods by re-integrating their parks into everyday life after the epidemics of AIDs, crack, violence and disinvestment the area has suffered. The New York City Parks Department had endorsed CLIMB’s mission, and the group had established strong connections with a diverse range of community organizations and businesses. But the parks are not physically connected to each other. The challenge was to establish continuity among them, and their diverse stakeholders required non-conventional approaches.
We began by shifting the brief: CLIMB initially asked for a trail map. After listening to them, we understood that, in their own words, they wanted help to “make the trail”, not just map it. We proposed a few strategies for coalescing the parks’ diffuse identities into a single, meaningful concept. Our work began by rethinking the typical “community workshop” as a laboratory that took place at full scale in the parks’ spaces. We used our evidence to provide visual analyses of what “made the path”. From these analyses, a shared identity emerged from the tension between park as recreation and the image of park as wild urban nature. This radical reframing also generated visual documents that CLIMB can use for future fundraising and cohort expansion, and produced a resource binder with strategies to find ways to identify and enhance their unique features.
Working to understand the value of our contributions to a group of clients well versed in the human-centric and participatory practices of urban public health motivated us to add a criterion, to deliver something beyond the predictable Post-it workshop. As architects, we worked spatially in data gathering, analyses, and documentation. We collected information about the parks and its constituencies by using the parks’ grounds and pavements as a pinup and drawing surfaces, then created spatial depictions of information collected. We developed comic book style “thought bubbles” on stakes as full-scale markers along the Giraffe Path; we added a chalked map where kids doodled their ideas and mark the trail they just hiked. Coupling story and space allowed us to map the outcomes, keying narratives to locations.
As CLIMB founder Dr. Mindy Fullilove remarked, “the difference is not in architects’ data collection but in the cognitive frame: architects look at spatial data whereas public health people see social processes, whereas space is a black box.”
Project research methods drew on CLIMB’s social sciences and public health expertise. We used a research scenario pioneered by Dr Fullilove in her book Urban Alchemy: locating the “spatial story” through stakeholder participation and social pathways. Our deliverables emerged through situations that empowered, recorded and located what community members thought while they moved through the parks. The work was technology agnostic, spanning from chalk and construction paper to smart phone photo mapping.
To reboot civic engagement “methodologies”, we went back to their roots in Scandinavian participatory design and 1960s event art. We foregrounded stakeholder equity, using techniques with low entry barriers for kids or non-English speakers. Event art told us to keep our work lean and ephemeral.
We scaled our research by starting with CLIMB ‘s core group. Each team member contributed ten photos of favorites along the Path. Together, their photos revealed six primary spatial categories: Topography, Vista, Nature, Historical Reference, Infrastructure, and Microclimates. Categories common to all the parks marked the important community spatial interactions. We looked into etymology: the Latin root of identity is identitas, which means to repeat again and again. This root affirmed that those physical features, which repeat along the Giraffe Path, are synonymous with its identity.
Next, we expanded our research scale at Hike the Heights, CLIMB’s annual event in which thousands of residents hike along the Giraffe Path to meet in Highbridge Park. Our event design validated participants’ simple likes and complex hopes. Thought Bubbles - part life-size comic book dialogue, part out-sized Post-it note, made from yellow and brown construction paper - were distributed to hikers. Everyone was encouraged to write responses to the park spaces on the bubbles as they walked, and then to stake them into the ground on site. Photographed bubbles were posted on Instagram and logged with geographic coordinates for later data analysis. We also chalked a 16 foot park map on the ground where the hike ended. The map filled up quickly, as kids chalked imaginary trails that included quicksand, barracudas and tentacle-grass. The kids proved just how receptive they were to the story of a trail. By the end of the day, we had increased our study pool from tens to hundreds.
In analyzing the Thought Bubbles and the Chalk Map, we chose methods that accounted for the diverse stakeholders. We grouped the 170 photographed Thought Bubbles according to age of contributor, location of comment, and expectations of how a park would be used. Each thought keyed geographically onto the map of Northern Manhattan. The outcome uses these spatial stories instead of what statistics tell us, and CLIMB, what stakeholders value.
A spatial frame for survey material was a totally new approach for CLIMB, and a powerful way to distill all stakeholders’ spatial stories, which we developed into a set of strategies for future cohort-building activities. We delivered our research findings in a low-tech dynammic tool: a loose-leaf handbook of ideas, which CLIMB will expand and annotate.
CLIMB gave us immediate feedback on the value of our process and our deliverable: it gave them ways to work in and talk about the park spaces their stakeholders cared about – in their own words, the space component of their work had always been a “black box” to them. We kept our project light: just enough material to keep track of the activities we staged while having fun. Our final deliverable, the dynamic workbook, continued that tactic: an artifact that “earns its keep” by registering past process and prompting CLIMB to strategize new activities. The visual and written materials we produce will be useful for their future fundraising and help them sustain their organization. Our work also contributed to increasing visibility for parks that are yet to be discovered by many residents of New York City, and to encouraging healthy lifestyles through the use of parks.
CLIMB’s mission is social change for underserved stakeholders who are finally taking back their parks after years of disinvestment. They have achieved those goals through simple, patient acts which require no equipment and little self-promotion: for almost ten years, they’ve walked the length of five disinvested parks. We admire and adopted the no-frills way CLIMB has shifted how the community sees it parks.
When DesigNYC first introduced us to the project, the intended deliverable was a printed trail map. Several weeks into the collaboration, it became clear that there was a very limited funding for printing, which we addressed by shifting our focus from planning and designing a physical artifact that might not be realized within one year to planning resource-lean events and communications tools which we could realize quickly on a shoestring. We designed a communications strategy diagram that was also resource and technology agnostic, including printed map, school curricula, missions shared with other not-profits, trail markers (chalked, blazed or permanent) – we brainstormed a variety of ways to expand the cohort, and laid out synergies that could accelerate the process.
In the last months of the project, we also learned that the NYC Department of Parks had retained a prominent professional design firm to do its signage and graphics. This added another layer of complication to the design of a map and any permanent trail markers, which would need to conform to NYC Parks design standards. Our deliverables dovetailed well with both CLIMB and Parks since they delivered stakeholder participation and empowerment but were (thankfully) exempt from external design guidelines.