How can Hermann Park attract more visitors? Just ask Rice’s Houston Action Research Team

To help the Hermann Park Conservancy develop its master plan, an interdisciplinary team of Rice undergraduates in 2016 surveyed over 300 people about the way they use Hermann Park. The students so impressed the conservancy that it asked Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL) for help on a new Hermann Park project this semester.

Rose Kantorczyk, Ashley Fite, Franklin Zhang and Alec Tobin (L to R) are helping Hermann Park get more med center visitors. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Rose Kantorczyk, Ashley Fite, Franklin Zhang and Alec Tobin (L to R) are helping Hermann Park get more med center visitors. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

This time, the conservancy wanted surveys that targeted a specific portion of the park: the corner across from the Memorial Hermann buildings in the Texas Medical Center (TMC), right along Cambridge and Fannin. Their question? “How can we better serve people in the medical center and get them to use this section of the park?” asked Alan Steinberg, associate director of the CCL.

Steinberg oversees the center’s Houston Action Research Team (HART) program, which conducts several projects each semester that serve as bridges between Rice and the city at large. Coordinating educational programs around urban issues and engaging with Houston is one of the goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2), and HART’s interdisciplinary teams meet that goal in several ways.

In addition to the HART that’s focusing on Hermann Park and the medical center, another is working with Workshop Houston to improve educational collaboration in Houston’s Third Ward, and a third is working with Houston Chief Resilience Officer Steve Costello to better understand why some parts of the city are more or less likely to flood than others. Each project is aimed at allowing students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to what’s happening in the world around them, Steinberg said.

“That’s one of the CCL’s big learning outcomes,” he said. “Projects like HART really allow for that opportunity. There’s also the idea of real-world research experience, in particular with HART, where students are doing something that they know is directly benefiting a community partner.”

The team is focused on the section of Hermann Park at Fannin and Cambridge. (Google Maps)

The team is focused on the section of Hermann Park at Fannin and Cambridge. (Google Maps)

In the case of Hermann Park, for example, the conservancy wants and needs HART’s information to make decisions that will ultimately impact thousands of Houstonians. “With this project, they were trying to identify a population who could benefit from spending time in the Park, but were not current visitors,” said Doreen Stoller ‘92, president and CEO of the Hermann Park Conservancy. “So finding those people took some energy building relationships with TMC institutions.”

Stoller knew these challenges were crucial tasks, but she also knew her fellow Owls would be up to the job. “Every time I meet Rice students I am impressed by their extraordinary energy and commitment to making a difference,” she said. “That energy, coupled with a deep ability to analyze and question, makes them truly successful in their CCL projects.”

Brown College sophomore Ashley Fite is majoring in psychology and kinesiology. Her courses frequently take her off campus and into the med center itself. “I work for a lab in the BioScience Research Collaborative and could really see the potential benefits of creating a space in the park for people working and spending time in the medical center,” Fite said.

But that’s not the only reason she applied for this particular HART team, which also includes Duncan College junior Franklin Zhang, a cognitive sciences and Spanish major, and Martel College junior Alec Tobin, a sociology and policy studies major. “I’m in a built environment and public health course right now, so I’ve learned a lot about how parks can contribute to positive health outcomes, which is another reason I’m passionate about this project,” Fite said.

And then there’s the work itself, which involved creating surveys, getting approval from the conservancy, working with the various institutions in the medical center to gain access to their employees and conducting man-on-the-street interviews to supplement online surveys.

“I think I’ve already taken away so much, from learning how to run a meeting effectively to understanding the realities of working in the ‘real world,’” she said. “We’ve yet to undergo data analysis and have only briefly started writing our final report, so I know the project still has so much to offer in terms of experience.”

Steinberg said that adjacent to this real-world experience is another valuable lesson: There aren’t always easy answers to questions.

“In the classroom, when you’re given a problem, the faculty member already knows the solution, and it’s just about working to get to the solution,” he said. “Here, there are so many moving parts that you don’t know. That’s another real area of growth potential for students — recognizing that once you’re out in the world, you’ll have problems that you don’t have solutions for, and you have to create solutions rather than just uncover the existing solution.”

In the case of Hermann Park Conservancy and the medical center, creating solutions meant first creating a viable survey. “I’ve worked on small sociology and policy research teams at Rice before, but I’ve never designed a quantitative research instrument for mass distribution like this,” said Lovett College sophomore Rose Kantorczyk, who is majoring in sociology and policy studies.

“We were told the conservancy’s broad goals for the research, which were to attract more med center employees and long-term visitors to go across the street to the park, with a specific focus on food service and amenities, which we translated into a list of specific questions,” Kantorczyk said. “We periodically checked in with our community partner to make sure that the things we were asking about were actually feasible for the park to do, and eventually we built a flexible survey that could be adapted based on the population and context that we were surveying in.”

Both Kantorczyk and Fite said they would love to see more programming along the lines of live music or lawn games in this portion of the park, as well as a coffee or café option. The folks they’ve surveyed have so far agreed. “It seems like people are genuinely interested in improving the park,” Fite said. “They’re not only filling out the quantitative questions, but also writing insightful comments and suggestions.”

By the end of the semester, the team hopes to have between 300 and 500 completed surveys, which they will analyze and use to present their findings to the conservancy. Whether or not their recommendations are ultimately utilized, the students said the opportunity has been invaluable.

“I wanted to take part in this Houston Action Research Team because I wanted to gain some more concrete research experience while at Rice and to help create something that would serve a community outside the hedges,” Kantorczyk said. “Hermann Park and the med center are both just off campus, and I’m a big believer in the value of parks and the importance of having a positive, outdoor environment to spend time in. It’s very rewarding to engage in this kind of research that benefits our neighbors.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.