Spectrum News shares an interview with founder and President Samantha Lee Smugala that shines light on the details of the Pocketparks process.
St. Louis nonprofit gives vacant areas makeover as parks By Elizabeth Barmeier St. Louis PUBLISHED 6:02 PM ET Dec. 22, 2022
ST. LOUIS — A local nonprofit is beautifying vacant areas by turning them into community parks and a new one for north St. Louis slated to open next year. In almost two years, the organization called PocketParks has developed six parks located in Downtown, Laclede's Landing, Midtown, West End and Hyde Park neighborhoods. St. Louis resident and interior designer Samantha Lee Smugala found herself sketching ideas of what empty lots and empty buildings could turn into. Over the course of her career, Smugala said she has designed different types of buildings for clients and specific audiences; however, public spaces intrigue her because they are for everyone. “Everyone deserves beautiful public space. It’s the space that we all share together and it really, I think, gives the community and the city its personality,” she said. After realizing that empty spaces could be turned into parks, Smugala created the nonprofit in January of 2021. The organization has five board members and a total of seven core team members, as well as about 200 volunteers who have helped over the past two years. The first project is called the DUC Park that is located at 923 Locust Street.
Since then, Smugala said communities started reaching out to the organization to have PocketParks in their neighborhoods. “We love that because it’s not like we’re going in and pushing our agenda,” she said. “It’s something that the community is already interested in, they’re already kind of organized around it and then we’re just a tool to help them reach their goals.” The parks range from 3,000 square feet to two acres. PocketParks recently received funding to begin a new project within the Baden neighborhood and conversations behind the park have started with community members. Positive feedback from community members who have PocketParks in their neighborhoods have been overwhelming, Smugala said. “It seems like every time I’m in a park, people stop to talk to me, thank me,” she said. “It’s really fulfilling learning how people are using the park, but also how appreciative they are of the parks.” She noted that people also share new ideas they have for the parks. “It’s kind of a continuous conversation with the community. It’s not like we’re doing this park and then we’re leaving. We’re still a part of the community,” Smugala said. Fatimah Muhammad has been a Hyde Park resident for more than 20 years. She said the PocketPark in her neighborhood called Ratio Park accomplishes its goals of alleviating vacancies and bringing about beautification. She said the organization came into the neighborhood with its permission by hosting community engagement sessions with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, residents and business owners.
“They really got a well-rounded idea of what the community was looking for and they fulfilled the request of the community,” Muhammad said. “The response has been overwhelming from residents and our business owners as to how beautiful that space has been transformed.” Ratio Park, located at 2101 Salisbury Street, is making up for some missing amenities at Hyde Park, which is currently being renovated, Muhammad said. “This PocketPark, even though it’s in close proximity to Hyde Park, it is an addition for some of the amenities that were lacking there. And one is just the readily, accessibility of the park,” she said. The LED lights that come on at night are Muhammad’s favorite aspect of Ratio Park. “It is just gorgeous,” she said. “It highlights the park itself, and it’s just very inviting, and it takes some of the threat away from the dark space there,” she said.
PocketPark Process The organization starts with community engagement by inviting residents to a vacant lot to show how it could be transformed into a park. After community feedback, Smugala and her team develop a design for the community to vote on followed by any additional feedback. Community engagement can last anywhere from 3-6 months and about three months for a park to be developed, according to Smugala. “We work on a very lean and mean model to where we can make impact within weeks and months versus years,” she said. Smugala noted that the development timeline is changing. “We did updates (at the DUC Park) within two days, so people really like this fast pace, overnight place-making idea. So, I think we’re going to try to implement that more with groups like the Urban Land Institute and architecture firms.” Designs for a park are kept simple where no building permits are required, but they incorporate art for beautification, a purpose for visiting and opportunity for how the park can add value to the community, according to Smugala. “We are able to basically act on that design as soon as it’s done,” she said. “A lot of these materials you can get from Home Depot, from Amazon … Our tool kit is things that anyone can do.” PocketParks utilizes St. Louis City’s land bank where properties that are turned into greenspaces can be leased for $1 per year.
The West End PockePark is gun violence memorial, which was developed in collaboration with Cornerstone CDC. (Photo courtesy of PocketParks)
“If it’s a successful project and the community has embraced it, we will seek to purchase from the city. Then we will take on that property, we will continue to host insurance, and maintain it with the help of the community,” Smugala said. If a property is privately owned, PocketParks will work out a lease agreement with the owner. PocketParks partners with other organizations to hold events at the outdoor spaces to keep them as active as possible, which “creates a more walkable neighborhood, a safer neighborhood, (and) more people in the area means more people are patronizing local businesses,” Smugala said. To help take care of the parks, Smugala announced a new Adopt-a-Park program where volunteers can spend time performing low-maintenance tasks. Additionally, the organization will launch another program called Park Champion where someone can be a leader in the process of developing a PocketPark in their community.