People’s Park Planners Meet With Community

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday May 15, 2007

MKThink—the San Francisco-based consultants hired by UC Berkeley to develop a community-based needs assessment plan to improve People’s Park—met with the park’s Advisory Committee members and park users for their first public meeting last Monday, May 7. 

MKThink staff shared information from their “Discovery Phase”—which involves exhaustive research into the history of the park, digging up relevant archives and newspaper clippings, interviewing park users and student groups and visiting the park itself—and answered questions from the community. 

Park users stressed that they wanted a community process and not a corporate design for People’s Park. 

“The process is secretive, biased and divisive,” naturalist and community gardener Terri Compost said at the beginning of the meeting.  

“Neither the public nor the advisory board know who MkThink is meeting with and when. Even the so-called stakeholder groups are often private hand-selected meetings. For the meeting with the ‘activists,’ an e-mail only went out to a select dozen or so people. Notes taken from the group are illegible and are not made available to the public.” 

Ionas Porges-Kiriakou, a UC Berkeley student board member, echoed Compost’s words. 

“A lot is missing from what is being said and what is written down,” he said. “I am hoping that a tape-recorded account of the meetings can be kept.” 

MKThink planner Mark Miller assured community members that the firm was acting in the best interest of the park. 

“People want a park,” he said. “A park has great value in this place and we need to re-develop it in a way that will be useful for everyone. Our desire is to make it a welcoming place and to respect its rich history.” 

Miller added that the current phase was looking at three main factors: active park users, not-so-active park users and activities at the park. 

“We want to identify the physical characteristics that positively or negatively affect the park,” he said. “We are currently in the small group phase which has led to a lot of exchange of ideas. We have met with 40 small groups which have included park users, student groups, social service agencies and religious associations. Law enforcement records and attendance logs at the park have also been consulted. All this has helped us to get a general sense of what’s going on.” 

Miller also said that the general response had been that the park was unsafe because of drug use and homeless habitation.  

“The general impression is that it offers spaces where people can hide,” he said. “A lot of people, especially students stay away from it because they don’t feel comfortable there. Our job is to figure out whether the issue of safety is as extreme as it is perceived to be or if it is just an issue of perception. At the moment, we don’t have a handle on data to say how safe or not safe it is.” 

The MKThink employee said that it would be pertinent to see whether the park was the best place for the social and mental health services provided at the park currently. 

“We want to find out how the park can help facilitate the community and whether it should take on a more structured role,” said Miller. “The overall impression is that the park should remain an open green space. There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen in the community and we need to figure out a way to move through the points of tension.” 

Both board members and MKThink personnel agreed that it was important to preserve the relationship between People’s Park and Telegraph Avenue. 

“One of the important uses of the park is that it’s a place for people to gather and have food at,” said Lydia Gans, board member and a volunteer with Food Not Bombs. “The park acts as a sanctuary for people who don’t have anywhere else to go. It should be allowed to flourish in the way it is now and not become a carefully landscaped area.” 

MKThink staffers also said that problems of trash and inadequate restrooms would have to be addressed. The men’s restroom at the park currently has no door. 

Board members volunteered suggestions ranging from a walking path around the park’s circumference to developing a larger children’s play area. 

“There is too much negative perception given out about the park on Cal Day,” said Porges-Kiriakou. “Students end up hearing that the park is a sketchy place they need to stay away from. This has got to change.” 

Board member John Selawsky suggested comfortable seating areas and movie screenings to draw people to the park. 

“I’d like to see a history cafe,” said board member George Beier. “$2 coffee and free Internet would get that place jammed with students.”