Minerva Jimenez: Reimagining our parks and public lands

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors enjoy a sunny afternoon at Liberty Park, Saturday, May 23, 2020.

If you could change the public parks in your community, how would you reimagine them? As many have looked to parks and open spaces as a place to connect with individuals and find serenity, this question seems more relevant today than ever.

The Salt Lake City Public Lands Division is interested in finding the answer from residents as they are in the process of developing the Public Lands Master Plan that will be used to guide how investments are allocated to parks, urban forests, open spaces, trails and cemeteries for the next 10 to 20 years. The creation of the master plan will be driven by the community’s vision and the values that that the Public Lands Division embraces of creating parks and public lands that are livable, equitable, and provide stewardship opportunities.

To capture input from a diverse demographic that is reflective of the population of Salt Lake City, the Public Lands Division partnered with Ivis Garcia Zambrana, assistant professor at the University of Utah, who teaches community engagement in planning. Her Master of City and Metropolitan Planning Program students, myself included, were tasked with conducting intercept surveys (in-person surveys) in public spaces such as grocery stores, parks and trails, as well as pop-up events that offered ice cream and snacks.

Surveys were also available online and distributed on various social media platforms. In addition, we reached out to 236 organizations to post flyers and encouraged business owners to share the survey link on their social media. In collaboration with the Public Lands Division, we also conducted six focus group engagements that targeted hard-to-reach populations.

With the help of community partners like west-side community councils and The Road Home, we were able to engage 52 individuals from the west side and people with lived experience in homelessness, in the focus group. In the midst of a pandemic, we were still able to collect 635 intercept interviews, 3,733 online surveys and post 215 times on social media using several platforms.

Community engagement during a pandemic is not an easy task. To ensure our and the public’s safety, we wore masks, used hand sanitizer, maintained our distance and utilized QR codes.

As I began conducting surveys, I was surprised to find how open people were to talking about how parks and public lands were important to them. Parks, especially during COVID-19, had become one of the few places where people still felt they could gather safely, entertain their children, exercise, and find moments of peace.

Overwhelmingly, surveys revealed that no matter what the demographics were, parks in Salt Lake City are viewed as a fundamental aspect of community and well-being. Surveys also showed how the quality of parks and accessibility vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. This demonstrated how important it is to engage diverse demographics in community engagement.

When it comes to serving the community, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. A park user with three children may have different expectations and experiences of a park than a 15-year-old involved in sports. Different demographics have different needs that should all be considered when serving a community.

COVID-19 has highlighted how parks are not just a nice commodity for a neighborhood, but essential for the health and social cohesion of a community. However, it is not enough to add a patch of green grass and a few trees to call it a park.

Residents expressed that what makes these places valuable are not state of the art equipment and designs, but making parks and public lands clean, safe and accessible through bike routes and trails.

It is going to take a collective effort from all aspects of community to upkeep these spaces we treasure. With the community’s continued involvement and the values of the Public Lands Division, I am certain that parks and public lands can be reimagined to better serve the needs of all residents and the environment.

Minerva Jimenez

Minerva Jimenez is a student in the University of Utah Master of City and Metropolitan Planning Program.