Photo: Boston Public Garden

Improving Community Engagement with Boston Parks and Rec

The City of Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department strives to provide clean, green safe, and accessible open spaces for Greater Boston residents and visitors to the region. The Department manages more than two hundred parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields as well as two golf courses, seventy-five game courts, sixteen historic cemeteries, and four high school athletic fields.

Given the diverse constituencies who make use of these public spaces, effective community engagement is a crucial dimension in the successful management of the extensive parks system. The Department frequently holds public meetings to inform the public about and get feedback on current and upcoming projects.

In the spring of 2018, Boston Parks and Rec contacted Essential Partners to help improve their public engagement model and practices. Despite their best intentions, program managers faced complex challenges that led to unconstructive meetings, which bred mistrust between community members and the city’s staff.

Some of the challenges they faced included conversations that went off track and difficulty creating spaces in which all community members felt equally heard and valued.

Essential Partners and the Boston Parks and Recs Department set out to meet two key goals:

  1. Redesign the public meetings format to more successfully navigate the challenges that lead to dysfunction and distrust; and
  2. Develop the facilitation skills to ensure that meetings are inclusive, open, and productive, with a long-term goal of restoring public trust

New Skills for a New Approach

Essential Partners and the Department co-designed a two-day workshop for Boston Parks and Rec staff, with one full day spent rethinking meeting design and the second full day focused on facilitation skill-building for staff members.

The staff was able to clarify the purposes and expectations for public meetings, identify more effective meeting preparation practices, learn the basic elements of the Essential Partners approach to public meetings, and develop greater confidence in their facilitation skills.

Empowering Community Members

With the help of Essential Partners, Boston Parks and Rec program managers have shifted their community meeting design to incorporate several new structures.

For instance, the Department now uses breakout sessions in public meetings. Using EP’s approach, the breakout sessions allow every community member an equal opportunity to be heard while also creating a space to hear from others.

As a result, program managers have found community members more open and willing to listen to different views, especially around contentious issues. 

Since restructuring public meetings, members of the community feel they’re able to play a meaningful role in decisions that involve their community.

“New meeting structures have provided safe spaces for dialogue,” said Allison Perlman, one of Boston and Rec’s program managers, “and they have encouraged more one-on-one, in-depth conversations.”

The Moakley Park Vision Plan

The new approach to community engagement has also led Boston Parks and Rec to re-imagine how they cultivate community engagement and leverage other community organizations.

The Department formed Moakley Park Vision Plan, which includes a Community Advisory Group. The group consists of representative community leaders who ensure that affected communities have influence in these public processes.

Not only do community members now have a space to voice their hopes, ideas, and concerns, they are also able to build stronger relationships with other members of their community.