opinion: Parks and open space should be options for city-owned lots on William Street
As those of us know who participated in the recent Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority exercise featuring “scenarios,” it had boxes to check for several kinds of development on five city-owned lots on or near William Street. Retail, Office, Indoor Performance Space, Residential — these were among the options. Missing was a box for a Park, a Public Open Space.
Because ”Park” was not included in the options, respondents could not check a box that could be counted. Therefore “Park” will not appear in the DDA’s report of this exercise when it goes to City Council.
The same defect marred the DDA’s online survey of public opinion in February and March of this year. The survey offered a dozen or so possible responses to each question, for people to choose. “Park,” or “open plaza,” or “green space,” was not offered as a choice.
However, the survey included several open-ended questions inviting respondents to expand on the choices that were offered. Many people gladly named parks, green space, public open space, outdoor performance space, and other names for what they felt was missing from the survey.
Until now, no one has read and counted all those responses that fell “outside the box.” Vivienne Armentrout made a good start last summer, tabulating 464 responses to Question 3. Picking up where Vivienne had left off, I have now finished reading all the individual responses in the 400-page report of the survey. Considering that there was no easy way to register support for a park (each person had to take time to compose an answer) it is impressive how many seized this slim opportunity.
Question 1 of the survey invited people to rank 12 goals from one to five in order of importance. A goal which had a kinship to a park was “opportunities for spontaneous social interaction.” It was ranked a four or a five (important or “extremely important”) by 1399 out of 2,041 respondents. Another such goal was “opportunities for outdoor community events.” It was ranked a four or a five by 1243 out of 2038 respondents.
Question 2 asked respondents to choose (from the list of 12) three goals “that are most important to you.” This time “opportunities for outdoor community events” and “opportunities for spontaneous social interactions” were the top choices. They were checked by 40.7 percent and 43.6 percent of respondents respectively. Note that neither of these options mentions a park. The DDA’s question about social interactions could have envisioned events such as Taste of Ann Arbor, or Festifools. The one about outdoor events referred to sidewalk cafes as an example. We would not know what the respondents envisioned, except that many of them took the opportunity to write an open-ended answer to the next question.
Question 3 asked, “Please feel free to share an extremely important goal.” Of 815 who composed answers, 201 (24.7 percent) named parks or open space. Others chose various goals, such as economic development or housing. It was not an either/or choice; most of the goals were mutually compatible, given the 5 sites under consideration.
Question 4 asked, “Please select the things you’d like to see more of downtown.” A list was offered. The last option was “other.” Of 426 who wrote in the “other” space, 142 (33.3 percent) mentioned a park.
Question 5 asked, “What economic benefits are most important to you?—select all that apply.” Of 293 respondents who used the “other” space, 60 (20.5 percent) mentioned parks and the economic benefits that flow from them.
Question 7 asked, “What environmental benefits are most important to you?” A list was suggested. Sixty-eight respondents wrote about parks and open, green spaces, which were not on the list.
Question 8 asked, “What social benefits are most important to you?” Here again, 71 participants chose to step out of the box and mention the social benefits of an urban public park.
Question 9 asked respondents to “Envision a really great time you had in another downtown. Please briefly describe what you were doing, your surroundings, and why it was such a great experience.” This was a completely open-ended question, and people responded by describing a day, or an evening, a cluster of happy experiences. These answers are hard to break down into quantifiable lists. An expert in analyzing survey data named Dorothy Nordness, of the Institute for Social Research at the UM, applied her skills to Question 9. Coding key words in 302 of the 1,310 responses, she found that walking, parks, events, and dining/shopping were the features most often mentioned first in a response. (28 percent, 18 percent, 14 percent, 13 percent, respectively) They also were the features most often mentioned second, third, or fourth. (“Events” was the code Dorothy assigned to a variety of experiences: ”outdoor, free, museum, street performers, architecture, music, public art, festivals.”)
Question 10 asked whether such an experience could be enjoyed in Ann Arbor, and if not, why not? What was missing? Of the responses to this question, 149 (16 percent) mentioned the lack of a downtown park or green space.
Question 11 invited people to “provide any additional comments about the Connecting William Street process or this survey.” Of the 647 responses, 111 (17 percent) pleaded for a park.
When the DDA published the results of this survey (on their website), their “Overview” did note the high proportion who favored “opportunities for outdoor community events” and “opportunities for spontaneous social interactions.” They also acknowledged in several places — appreciatively — the desire for parks and green space which had been expressed by respondents. At the end of their overview, the DDA asked, “What does this all mean and what are the next steps?
In their answer they promised to strive for five goals: a vibrant sidewalk experience, attention to quality and design of buildings, economic development, housing, and open space/plazas.
It seemed like they “got it.” They understood and accepted that their survey, perhaps inadvertently, had revealed the real thinking of a significant proportion of the people— who were trying hard to communicate despite obstacles.
Why was this revelation subsequently ignored when the DDA designed the Connecting William Street project? The three “scenarios” make no mention of parks or green spaces. Who at the DDA decided to reverse course? Who are the faceless unelected people who are pulling the strings? We need to know who they are. Citizens may well feel cheated by a process which ignores them. They have a right to be angry when jerked around so capriciously.
The following is a summary of responses to open-ended questions on the DDA online survey, spring of 2012.
The percentage of respondents who used this opportunity to write in “park,” “open space,” or something equivalent:
Question 3: “Please feel free to share a very important goal”: Of those who responded, 24.7 percent named parks or open space.
Question 4: Please select the things you’d like to see more of downtown.” Of those who used the space for “other,” 33.3 percent mentioned a park.
Question 5: What economic benefits are most important to you? Of those who used the space for “other,” 20.5 percent mentioned economic benefits that flow from parks.
Question 7: What environmental benefits are important to you? Of those who used the space for “other,” 20.5 percent mentioned parks and open spaces.
Question 8: What social benefits are most important to you? Of those who wrote in the space for “other,” 33.3 percent mentioned social benefits flowing from parks.
Question 9: “ A great time in another downtown please describe.” Consistently in the first four key words was “park.”
Question 10: Are you able to get the same experience in downtown Ann Arbor? Why or why not? Of 1298 responses to this question, 149 (16 percent) mentioned the lack of a downtown park or green space.
Question 11: Provide any additional comments about the Connecting William Street process or this survey. Of 647 responses, 111 (17 percent) asked for a park.
Here's the conclusion: When asked open-ended questions, a significant proportion of respondents took the opportunity to ask for a park. Depending on the question, they ranged from 1/6 to 1/3 of respondents. These are people who made an effort to put in to their own words what was missing from the questionnaire. Please note the other respondents, with very few exceptions, did not oppose a park. They used the space to mention other goals.
Council members evaluating the “Connecting William Street” exercise should also study this earlier DDA survey, particularly the open-ended responses. It would be folly to ignore up to a third of any group of constituents. These are highly motivated citizens and voters. They have confirmed, in 2012, the results of the Calthorpe report 0f 2005-6. Ann Arborites want and deserve a central downtown park.