Historically marginalized and underserved communities are facing multiple challenges at once: a climate crisis; a health crisis exacerbated by COVID-19; and a racial equity crisis, driven by structural inequities.
One solution to these interconnected challenges is a Black Commons, which involves pooling collective land and resources to stabilize and empower Black communities and support their efforts to generate wealth, argued Kofi Boone, FASLA, the Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professor at NC State University, during a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
After experiencing decades of redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and displacement, Black communities can combat systemic issues by envisioning new communities that are mutually supportive.
Boone outlined a few key pillars that can bolster Black communities in their efforts to create commons:
- “Recognition: recognizing and respecting another human, their status, and rights.
- Reconciliation: acknowledging responsibility for harm and accelerating healing.
- Reparation: restoring and sustaining the capability to live a fulfilling life.”
He then outlined some of the impacts on Black communities that have led him to push for bottom-up, community-driven solutions.
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, “I thought going to church and using proper English could carry you through systemic forces. But I have learned through research there were policies and decisions made so that some would benefit from the degradation of other people.”
For decades, in the 20th century, the federal government enabled the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation to “map every home in major cities, coding them by color.” Communities marked in red would “receive absolutely no loan. These redlined communities were also predominantly Black.”
In addition to being denied the ability to own property and grow generational wealth, members of redlined communities also didn’t benefit as much from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s.
These programs led to street trees being planted across American cities, creating the deep shade canopies that characterize many neighborhoods today, along with significant investment in infrastructure. Boone said redlined communities didn’t receive that government investment, leading to hotter, more polluted places a century later.
Redlining also made these communities more vulnerable to top-down redevelopment schemes. They became the target of waves of federal policies: urban renewal, de-industrialization, planned shrinkage, mass incarceration, and gentrification. Over the decades, this has led Black communities to experience serial displacement, or “root shock,” as described by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School.
This history leads us to 2020, which was the culmination of health, economic, and environmental crises — and also a racial equity crisis. “The murder of George Floyd led to the largest protest movement in human history. Racial equity came to the foreground because people were seeing a lynching in real time.”
Boone outlined projects he and landscape architecture colleagues at North Carolina State University have undertaken to advance a Black Commons:
The Bennehan and Cameron families once owned the largest plantation in North Carolina, with some 1,000 slaves on 30,000 acres. Much of that land, which Black Americans had involuntarily invested in for generations, has now been preserved as conservation easements on what was formerly the Stagville Plantation. That in effect has excluded Black communities from the opportunity to “own plantation land as a path to liberation.”
Working with Urban Community Agrinomics (UCAN), NC State is helping the Catawba Trail Farm on the former Snow Hill IV Plantation develop a vision for collective community stabilization and wealth generation through urban farming.
At the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum and State Historic Site in Sedalia, North Carolina, NC State landscape architecture professors and students have focused on how to revitalize a campus that was recently identified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a most endangered site. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a native of Boston who came to North Carolina and opened the largest college prep school for Black students in the south.
As part of their work with the museum, Boone and his students mapped the web of relationships emanating from the school, which included W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington. “If we don’t value these stories, then we can’t continue telling them.” Their designs outline a way to revitalize the campus as an artists’ retreat while also supporting on-going restoration efforts.
And in Princeville, North Carolina, NC State’s Coastal Dynamics Design Lab, led by Andy Fox, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, has partnered with a historically Black community that took root in an area that regularly floods.
This was common: Whites would settle on high grounds, while Blacks often settled nearby in lower lying areas, often to be close to plantations where they worked. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Black communities often camped next to Union Armies for protection. One encampment became Freedom Hill, which is more of a symbolic name given it’s not on high ground. After the Freedom Hill community experienced catastrophic flooding, they needed a “long-term strategy to become resilient and thrive.”
Boone said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came in to assist the community, but ended up “overloading them when they were in crisis, in a bad state.” NC State began facilitating conversations and created an accessible guide to help them better understand their options, which won an ASLA 2018 Professional Communications Honor Award. This grew into broader design-build project that involved landscape architecture students at the Princeville Elementary School, which then won an ASLA 2022 Student Community Service Award of Excellence.
And opportunities arose for a new mobile museum, after the Princeville Museum was damaged by flooding. Partnering with NC State architecture professor David Hill, architecture program students created a welcome center on wheels.
While Boone highlighted a number of inspiring projects that share land ownership and management and support wealth generation and cultural empowerment, one powerful example stood out: Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.
In 1872, Reverend John Henry “Jack” Yates and other members of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church bought 10 acres of land for $800 in Houston, Texas. They sought to create a public space to celebrate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery, Boone explained.
In 1916, the park was donated to the city of Houston and turned into a public park. From the 1920s to the 1940s, it was the sole park for the Black community in the city. The park fell into disrepair in the 1970s, but in the 2000s the revitalization process began. In 2013, the Freelon Group and M2L Associates, along with Perkins + Will, started $33 million in renovations, which were completed in 2017.
Emancipation Park is just one example of the positive ripple effects of shared ownership for community benefit.
Read more of Boone’s writings on the Black Commons, with co-author Julian Agyeman, in Fast Company and in a free chapter from the book Sacred Civics: Building Seven Generation Cities. And watch the full lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design.