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FDR Park Master Plan: Whose Voices Were Represented?

Updated: Jul 7

Shortcomings of Community Engagement: Part 1


Parks and Recreation and Fairmount Park Conservancy make a big deal about the community engagement process behind the FDR Park Master Plan. They claim to have spoken to 3,000 people — 1200 or so from a park user survey, and the rest from public meetings and stakeholder interviews. The story they tell is interesting, if not altogether true, but equally interesting is the part of the story they leave out.

The above graphic is from an earlier, abridged version of the Master Plan document, created as a presentation for stakeholders, which contains information conveniently left out of the final document. The presentation discusses the ages of respondents, and which area of the city they lived in, but it does not mention their ethnicities or languages spoken. We found this omission to be a little suspicious, because in our current era of celebrating "diversity, equity, and inclusion", government agencies, non-profits, and everyone else go out of their way to advertise how they're representing or including the voices of people from different backgrounds. So why does the Master Plan not include this information? Was it not collected? Did the city not care about racial/ethnic linguistic diversity? Or did the data tell a story they weren't comfortable with and so they left it out?

It is clear from who was chosen as the "park ambassadors" — all women, and mostly people of color — to help with community engagement, and the fact that the plan makes a point to visually demonstrate their "commitment to diversity", that demographics were always top of mind for the planners. While it is reduced to a single sentence in very small text in the final plan, the abridged presentation document also made a point of mentioning that the survey was conducted in 7 different languages.

So if they went through all the trouble of making sure they spoke to a diverse sampling of Philadelphia residents, why doesn't the final plan say anything about who actually ended up represented in the plan? Our suspicions were that the figures would cast the plan in a poor light — specifically that white Philadelphias were overrepresented. In order to find out, we reached out to Fairmount Park Conservancy. Although it took some time, it is much to their credit that they did eventually provide us with the information.


Ethnicities of Survey Respondents

Number

Percentage

Census

Total

1322

100%

Asian/Pacific Islander

83

7.4%

​8%

Black/African-American

94

8.4%

44%

Hispanic/Latino

39

3.5%

15%

Native American

6

0.5%

9%

White

895

79.6%

45%

Other (Please Specify)

7

0.6%

Declined to answer

136

1%

If you compare the percentages of survey respondents to the percentages in the "census" column — which is the proportion of the city made up by that ethnic group — you can see that it did not adequately represent all Philadelphians, perhaps even less so South Philadelphia, one of the most diverse areas of the city.


It is an equally suspicious thing that the Master Plan makes a point to mention their effort to survey people in other languages, but that it does not report how many people actually took the survey in those languages. We were told by Fairmount Park Conservancy that only 8 surveys were taken in a language other than English: 3 in Lao, and 5 in Spanish, or about 0.6%. It goes without saying that the percentage of second-language speakers in Philadelphia is much higher, especially in South Philadelphia, with its relatively large Latiné and Southeast Asian populations.


When questioned on why this information was left out of the Master Plan, Fairmount Park Conservancy did not have an answer for us, as the people we spoke to were not a part of this process. They did have a story of what they think happened, however. What is certain is that after the original 1200 surveys were conducted online, with 84% of respondents being white, the planners made a point of conducting additional in-person paper surveys — 121 of them to be exact — through the work of the park ambassadors mentioned above.


The demographics for the paper survey were more representative of the city's population, but the much smaller number of respondents meant that it didn't have a significant impact on the overall percentages. What may have happened next — remember, our sources weren't exactly sure — is that in their analysis of the survey results, Parks and Recreation weighted the paper surveys more heavily in order to create a more equitable representation. If Parks and Recreation did in fact do their due diligence for equity, it is still strange that they would not report it in the Master Plan document. It would've cast the process in a better light.


As it stands, in spite of claims by some that the Master Plan is "fostering diversity, inclusion, and cross-cultural dialogue in public space", it seems Parks and Recreation intentionally kept this information hidden from the public, in order to avoid scrutiny along these lines.

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