July 21, 2015 | By Jake Weber
Albion is a small town, but visiting each city park twice a day is no small task. "There are 17 city parks, which per capita might be the most in the United States,” says Alena Farooq, '18, who found herself charmed by a lot of Albion while completing a summer public policy research project.
"One theory I heard is that every time a business or factory left behind an unattractive piece of land, it would get turned over to the city and made into a park," says Farooq, noting the parks' diversity. "Victory and Rieger are clearly the most used parks, they have great facilities. But if you look at Gold Star and Bournelis, people don't even know those are parks.”
Farooq's look at Albion's parks was just one part of her research, sponsored by the College's Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (FURSCA). Through support from the Robert M. Teeter, '61, Research Fellowship Endowment, Farooq is researching the City's 2010 Recreation Department plan, scheduled for revision this year.
"That plan has a lot of great goals, but only about one or two were achieved," she says, citing two main reasons for this outcome. First, the projected budget for the plan was $12 million, "which is pretty hard to come by for a city the size of Albion." Second, while reviewing the 2010 plan, Farooq noticed that only 35 individuals participated in three public meetings.
Believing that increased community engagement would benefit the 2015 plan, Farooq took to the parks, streets and cyberspaces of Albion, "talking to anyone who would talk to me," she says. Nearly finished with her goal of surveying 100 Albion citizens, Farooq already has some input for the 2015 plan.
As the planners discovered in 2010, Farooq found that most of her survey respondents weren't interested in attending meetings, "but over 70 percent want to be part of community revitalization," she says. "We need to make sure we're reaching out to people, and not expecting them to come to meetings."
Farooq also spent time with youth, from age 8 to 18, and discovered that "every odd sport you can think of is something they want to do." But athletic programs aren't the only things on their minds, Farooq says. "They talked about educational programs— tutoring, mentoring and leadership. Kids are asking for more of those experiences," she says.
"So many kids who live here don't go to school in Albion, and sometimes they're not able to access these types of programs after school hours," Farooq speculates. “Identifying educational programs as a need is important, but too often adults like to try to understand what the youth would like. How often do we ask the kids what they want?” For this next recreation plan, she would like to see planners working directly with youth to offer new programs that both parents and kids can be excited about.
Farooq's project isn't simply an academic exercise; she is joining the Citizens Advisory Committee that will develop the 2015 Recreation Department plan. "My goal is to help the next rec plan be successful," she says. "If we can work with the community members to create realistic goals for new developments, we’ll be able to initiate incredible change in Albion. It will be proof that this community can come together to rebuild itself.”
But no matter how the new plan turns out, Farooq knows that Albion's parks are part of her future. "I didn't expect to love them all so much; they're amazing," she says. "I think we like to complain about having nothing to do in Albion, but if you haven't tried out all 17 parks, there’s a lot left for you to do.”