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Grey Park

Placemaking Principles: Develop a Vision, Triangulate

By Meghan McNulty

August 2011

Often, a public place serves as a bridge between neighbors who otherwise would have no reason to interact. Before that can happen, however, the many voices in the neighborhood need to participate in creating a vision for that place so that it truly serves the entire community. In Evanston, a group of diverse residents near the underused Grey Park are working through this process to create a place they all enjoy.

Until recently, the park was nearly always empty, its aging playground devoid of children, its small amphitheater unused, its wandering paths unwalked. Though the park – bounded by Ridge and Maple avenues and Main Street – is a mere two blocks from the Main Street shopping district and four blocks from Metra and CTA stations, it isn’t a destination. Plenty of people walk around it, on their way to school or the Robert Crown Community Center, but its built features don’t draw a crowd, according to Belén Ayestaran of the Evanston Parks Coalition.

That’s one reason why Belén organized the Evanston Food Truck Festival in Grey Park. The event – advertised on Facebook, Yelp!, and through fliers – drew some 500 people to the park on June 26, and demonstrated how activities and programs can revive the park in the eyes of nearby residents. With attractions as diverse as Zumba dance, a children’s music group, an ambient folk quartet, and a fire engine, the festival offered something for everyone.

The Evanston Food Truck Festival was a great example of one of the 11 Principles of Placemaking, Triangulation: locating elements near each other in a way that fosters activity. For example, a bench, trash receptacle, and coffee kiosk placed near a bus stop enliven a place because people waiting at the stop and pedestrians walking by have three reasons to be drawn to that place, rather than just one. Likewise, a range of activities happening at the same time in one place will draw a diverse crowd.

The Evanston Food Truck Festival not only proved that Grey Park can host successful programming – especially a food-based event, as one of three food trucks sold out well before the day’s end and many families picnicked on the lawn – it also showed how activities can make a place a bridge between different constituents. In recent months, the park has witnessed it's share of controversy. Many people have oversimplified the park's problems, attributing the park's lack of patrons as a result of its proximity to Albany Care, the nearby mental healthcare facility whose residents frequently smoke and relax in the space.

Belén and Jonathan Eastman, clinical director of Albany Care, recognized that a true revival of Grey Park means every voice in the community must be heard. In an effort to support Belén’s vision, Eastman hosted a community meeting about the park at the healthcare facility. At the meeting, Eastman heard the concerns of Albany Care and Grey Park neighbors and worked to separate fact from myth in regards to Albany Care’s residents. A few months after that meeting, the Food Truck Festival was a successful litmus test, proving that both neighborhood and Albany Care residents can co-exist peacefully when a critical mass of people are enjoying activites in Grey Park. 

Belén ’s next goal is to ensure that this critical mass can re-emerge in Grey Park even without a major event occurring there. Thanks to her persistence and outreach, the nationally renowned Project for Public Spaces has made an offer to transform Grey Park through a community visioning process. Through Evanston Parks Coaltion, Belén is also working to raise a substantial amount of money to fund the improvements. While Grey Park is listed on the City of Evanston’s Capital Improvement Plan, which means the city has allocated funding to help transform the space, the park will need more than the city can allot.

Belén, the Evanston Parks Coalition, Albany Care, and nearby residents still have a ways to go to turn Grey Park into a thriving recreational hub in the Main Street neighborhood, but the Food Truck Festival proved that the entire community can come together to define this place’s character, activities, uses and meaning to create a place everyone wants to use.