Two ways to draw repeat visitors to your park

Imagine that you are a first-time visitor to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, or maybe Klyde Warren Park, or even Bryant Park. In fact, you could stroll through any of the new urban parks that are redefining downtowns across America. Unless the weather was particularly bad, you would immediately notice how many people are there, and all the varied sorts of activities--here are chess players, there a concert, yoga over there--taking place in those wonderful spaces. Often, you will see a park user actively pointing out sights and happenings to their friends, describing just what kind of activities happen in what section of the park and when.

 A juggling instructor, left, facilitates a group juggle session in Bryant Park, NYC.

A juggling instructor, left, facilitates a group juggle session in Bryant Park, NYC.

How does it happen? By what kind of trick do these places manage to offer such rich programs that attract repeat visitors? Most of their users are locals, and the activities they offer have sprung from every corner of their neighborhoods. Such a strong link between community and park activities is no accident; rather it is a product of opportunities created by the active management of these spaces. Most of the time conservancies or other non-profit partners are responsible, but public operators sometimes follow the same script. Our intent here it to outline for placemakers two techniques to achieve this goal: outreach and inreach.

Let us consider inreach first, as it is probably less used, although remarkably painless. "Inreach" is a term we'll use here to describe the act of observing positive action in a space and expanding upon it. What makes for a good activity that should be supported? Two clear criteria stand out to us: the activity must please a great majority of people, and it must be visually appealing. Looking at what is happening in the space in her care, a public-space manager must ask herself: Is this good? If the answer is “Yes,” then: "How can I facilitate this?" In many places, an official might notice an unlicensed activity and ban it from the grounds for lack of proper credentials. A placemaker conducting inreach observes the people using the space and will instead support their activity, much like a thoughtful gardener gauging whether a seedling should remain part of her plot.

The development of the juggling program in Bryant Park is an example of inreach. Currently, on any weekday at any time of the year, a visitor can learn the art of juggling for free from expert jugglers. At first, the jugglers were a pain to conservancy staff and park patrons alike--they claimed a lot of territory, trampled the lawn, and frequently caused other users to move to accommodate them. The staff of Bryant Park considered requesting that the ungainly group of jugglers find another practice spot. Thankfully, the park placemakers appreciated that these jugglers’ pin game was a spectacle to which many visitors were drawn, and they were bona fide community members. They were locals who visited their favorite public space to practice an activity that clearly they could not do in their Manhattan apartment. Determined to enlist the entertainers to the benefit of the park, the staff offered them storage, equipment, and a stipend. In return, the jugglers were asked to formalize their offering and hours of presence, teach any and all comers, and use areas of the park that were better-suited for their catches and throws. It worked. One of the park's most successful programs was born. Perceptive management and keen awareness of patron interests are the characteristics of successful inreach. It is the placemaker’s job to recognize what diamonds in the rough can be found in their spaces, and help polish them to the benefit of all users.

Let us now turn to outreach. At its core, it is about making the neighborhood aware of the benefits of underutilized public space. Here the placemaker will take an inventory of activity providers in the area and apply the same test as above: Would this activity translate well to a public space, with its diversity of ages and abilities? Will it find an audience? Will it be visually interesting? If the answers are “yes,” then the placemaker should extend an invitation to the local athletics store, pilates studio, Magic card club, or origami society. The park, the plazas, are nearby--would the fitness instructor consider hosting an outdoor activity? What might we do to smooth the way? Often, it won’t be an issue of money but rather of logistics. Where will the instructor put her yoga mats? How will he transport them? What about permits? And amplified sound? The placemaker should have answers to all such questions to ease the process of using the park by this new constituent. While many will find the common approach of “I need to convince authorities to let me use the park for my business” to be too tedious to warrant the effort, it will be a different story if activity creators are invited in. The active public space manager will reverse the trend and convince activity creators that it will be rewarding for them to share their work with the public.

Inreach and outreach: in both cases the public space or park manager needs to act as a casting director. Which activity will fit in my script? How do I get it there? Depending on the characteristics of any given place, some activities are desirable, and some are not. Ball games can unify communities, but only if there is enough space for them to unfold. An game of chess always draws onlookers, and so on. If, like us, you believe that people-watching is the core of a public space’s success, hosting all sorts of programs is an important tool to get there. Inreach and outreach will help you get it done.