What's the secret to a great parks system? David Rubin says Fort Wayne has it

David Rubin, of DAVID RUBIN Land Collective based in Philadelphia, has worked in many cities across the U.S.--from Columbus, Ind., to Harrisburg, Pa., and Baltimore, Md.

Wherever he goes, he helps cities develop what he’s coined as “empathy-driven design,” or design that soulfully reflects the feelings and unique character of the communities it is in.

When he was tapped to help Fort Wayne implement Phases II and III of its ongoing Riverfront development design project, he discovered that the Summit City is ahead of times in a way that really resonates with him: It has an extremely diverse network of parks and trail systems.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work in many cities and the thing’s that’s most important to me was the distribution of open spaces, like parks and their variations, in terms of size and programming,” Rubin says.

If there’s one common thread that separates an outstanding parks system from a mediocre one, he believes it’s the variety of park spaces and programs available to the public.

Franklin Park, on the northwest side of Fort Wayne, lends authentic character to its surrounding neighborhood by preserving remnants of the former Franklin School.

Programming can mean everything from “quiet contemplation” to trail running, he explains. So what makes Fort Wayne's park system so diverse?

It's home to 86 parks, including Indiana's first Boundless Playground that opened in June of 2011. These parks include three pools, nine splash pads, 17 acres of gardens, 2 dog parks, a historic old fort, a 1930's working farm at Salomon, 5 community centers, a nature preserve, 57 playgrounds, 79 miles of interconnected trails and more to come--not to mention the new Riverfront park that opens this summer.

This diversity has a number of benefits, Rubin notes. For one, it allows residents to have entirely different experiences at each park in the city, which is something that even parks systems in larger cities often lack.

According to an October 2017 article from CityLab, there are more than 9,000 local parks and recreation departments and more than 100,000 public park facilities across the U.S.

With such a high volume of public park spaces across the country, there should be room for nuance, Rubin says.

“The way in which parks positively inform cities is as diverse as the cities themselves," he explains.

However, in his opinion, it’s common for bigger cities especially to have a network of large parks, but they often are lacking in identity. This is a shame, he says, because parks have the capacity to “inform and be informed” by each of their adjacent communities or neighborhoods.

More than 79 miles of trails connect parks in Fort Wayne.
On the other hand, Rubin believes Fort Wayne has been intentional in the design of its parks and trails systems, and it shows. 

“And then you add on other aspects of the city, like trail connections,” he says. “They are different types of environments (whether parks or bike paths) all serving the community and connecting it. That sort of synergy in a park system is not universal.” 

Speaking of synergy, Rubin says another perk of having a range of park spaces is that they can serve a wider range of people. For instance, people within a specific community tend to self-identify with certain spaces in what he describes as a form of “cultural branding.”

In Philadelphia, you might encounter a group of Chinese-Americans practicing tai chi in a park, he says.

As Fort Wayne capitalizes on and expands its types of park spaces with Riverfront, it extends its ability to be a welcoming, diverse place, too.

So what’s the secret to replicating Fort Wayne's success in other cities? Rubin says it comes down to a simple truth.

“It’s not about us (the planners and designers)," he says. "It’s about (the parks) and the citizens they’re trying to support.”

He lived out this philosophy when he was in town in January, conducting a public input session downtown to help determine the design for Phases II and III of Riverfront development.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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