Young immigrants from Yap Island, Micronesia, perform a dance at a Portland, Oregon Parks & Recreation event.
Young immigrants from Yap Island, Micronesia, perform a dance at a Portland, Oregon Parks & Recreation event. Ann Downing/Courtesy of Portland Parks & Recreation

Parks departments across the country are listening to immigrants and designing events and facilities with them in mind.

There’s an area in the northeast corner of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park that feels a little eerie if you come upon it by accident, as most do. The Rose Garden, as it’s called, is a long lawn with three empty fountain bases surrounded by trees and bushes. “It’s very secluded,” says Lucy Gardner, the communications and marketing manager for Prospect Park Alliance, a nonprofit that works with New York City to care for the park. “Visitors don’t usually spend a lot of time there.”

The Alliance is looking to change that. But it won’t be restoring the space to one of its earlier iterations, such as a playground or a literal rose garden. Rather, it is working with the communities who live around the park’s northeast border to find out what kind of space they would be most excited to use. Included in this population are immigrants, particularly those from the Caribbean and Latin America.

Prospect Park’s Rose Garden is so quiet and isolated it doesn’t see many visitors. (Bianca Nelson/Courtesy of Prospect Park Alliance)

Hester Street Collaborative, a nonprofit that specializes in connecting with communities who aren’t likely to be plugged in via traditional channels such as mailing lists, is helping the Alliance gather this feedback. Nisha Baliga, Hester Street’s director of participatory planning, says she’s focusing on engaging non-English speakers as well as young families, seniors, and low-income communities of color.

“We’re doing the usual workshops where we announce the process and ask for feedback,” she says, “but we’re pairing that with pop-up engagement inside and outside the park, as well as collaboration with trusted community-based organizations.” This strategy can take the form of going to a park drum circle and talking with the participants, or meeting with attendees of a relevant community center—and bringing a translator.

Sue Donoghue, the president of Prospect Park Alliance, says the main idea is to reach people where they are—not wait for them to come to you. “This is taking community outreach and really amplifying it,” she says. The process of collecting suggestions is in its beginning stages, but the Alliance and Hester Street Collaborative have already received a range of ideas for the Rose Garden revamp, from a zip line to a café to a pool. By the end of the summer, they’ll narrow the ideas down to a few and go back to the communities for their input.   

Other U.S. cities’ parks departments are similarly reaching out to immigrants, often as part of broader racial equity programs. Indeed, American parks have historically been spaces of racial exclusion. My colleagues Brentin Mock and Laura Bliss have written, for instance, about the racist roots of our national parks, and how cities sometimes don’t take into account the needs and desires of communities of color when planning to overhaul their green spaces or build new ones.

The increasing number of immigrants settling in the United States over the past 45 years adds to this issue. In 1970, the U.S. was home to about 9.5 million immigrants, who comprised 4.7 percent of the population. By 2015, that number had jumped to 43 million, or 13.5 percent of the population. The share of New York City’s foreign-born residents was recently reported as over 37 percent.

While the proportion of immigrants in cities such as Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, is smaller than a place like New York, recent migration patterns have perhaps been more visible, owing to the cities’ less diverse populations. The population of the Twin Cities is now 11.2 percent foreign born, up from 3.8 percent in 1990. The proportion of foreign-born residents in Portland doubled between 1980 and 2000; now, around 14 percent of Portland residents are immigrants.

A Hmong resident of Saint Paul tries out the city’s new tuj lub court. (Courtesy of the City of Saint Paul)

Saint Paul’s large Hmong and Somali populations have been recent beneficiaries of the city’s outreach efforts. Last summer, after hearing from Hmong residents that they’d like a place to play a popular Hmong game called tuj lub, in which players whip spinning tops down a long court, the Parks and Recreation Department built facilities at a recreation center. This summer, the city will construct courts for sepak takraw, or kick volleyball, another game beloved in Southeast Asia.

Saint Paul also hosts all-female swim nights so that Somali and other Muslim women can swim while still honoring their cultural norms. “We’re growing and adapting our park system so that our services are relevant to everyone, no matter their background,” says Mike Hahm, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “Everyone deserves a chance at a healthy life.”

In Portland, the Parks and Recreation Department recently created a program called Parks for New Portlanders, which works with immigrant communities on events and facilities tailored to them. One of the most popular is the annual World Cup Soccer Tournament, which includes 28 teams with 500 players between the ages of 15 and 20. These youth hail from more than 30 countries and speak more than 30 languages.  

Five hundred youth from around the world play in Portland’s World Cup Soccer tournament. (Ann Downing /Courtesy of Portland Parks & Recreation)

Som Subedi, an immigrant from Bhutan by way of a Nepalese refugee camp, arrived in Portland in 2008 and started the soccer tournament in 2010. He now serves as engagement coordinator for Parks for New Portlanders. “I know how hard it is to navigate the system when you arrive,” Subedi says. “When I see a new refugee or immigrant in Portland, I understand the things they’ll need help with.”

Subedi works to meet the immigrant community’s needs in ways that go beyond event planning. When a 10-year-old girl from a Burmese refugee family drowned at the convergence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers in northwest Portland last year, Subedi met with the grieving family and later hosted a water safety event with the Burmese community to educate them on the hazards of swimming in that area.

At a time when Trump’s Muslim ban is being put into partial effect—at least temporarily—and ICE is arresting more and more undocumented migrants, these efforts by cities’ parks departments represent a more empathetic view. “This demonstrates the power of cities,” says Mike Abbate, Portland’s parks director. “Whether it’s climate change or social justice issues, a lot of things happen on the ground level. We can invent our own ways to help immigrants feel like they’re part of our city.”

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