As Cities Grow, Remember the Communities That Were Destroyed

Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza / Perkins+Will

In the past few decades, there has been urban renaissance. As the populations of cities grow and change, in part through gentrification, we must honor the communities whose “opportunities were denied” due to redlining, urban renewal, and other discriminatory practices based on race. Urban planners, architects, and landscape architects can help communities unearth and then preserve this history through “remembrance design,” a process that can tell the story of “historically disenfranchised and negatively impacted communities,” said Kenneth Luker, with Perkins + Will, at a session at the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C. This is the way to “reconcile with the past and use history to create an inclusive future.”

Zena Howard, principal and managing director, and Michael Stevenson, urban designer at multidisciplinary design firm Perkins + Will; Cynthia Lau, a planner with the Vancouver city government; and Kofi Boone, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, explained how to plan and design that shared future.

Howard said “curiosity about the past can drive a process of remembrance. We can research and dig into communities to recover memories of removed or destroyed areas.” Through connecting with African American communities that have experienced a history of urban displacement, designers can help “build community awareness, foster memorable experiences, embrace cultural identity, celebrate memory, and honor unique assets.”

She called for undertaking a true discovery process with communities that have been impacted by urban renewal, redlining, or other forms of racism. “Discovery is not just community engagement — it is the process.”

Kofi Boone argued that the architecture and planning community hadn’t been asked to take responsibility for the disproportionate social impact on African American and Latinx communities of redlining, which involved a federal, state, and local system of purposefully denying mortgages to African Americans and walling off entire neighborhoods from investment, and urban renewal, which involved clearing existing communities to make way for Modernist urban designs and highway infrastructure. That is until African American civil rights activist Whitney Young gave a keynote address to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in 1968. In his address, Young called on the built environment community to stop contributing to social displacement.

Whitney Young at American Institute of Architects / Now-what Architexx.org

As Richard Rothstein explained in his book Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, redlining impacted some 160 urban and suburban communities across the U.S. for many decades. Given home ownership is the primary source of wealth accumulation for most Americans, the result today is African Americans have far lower amounts of wealth than Caucasian Americans. Little accumulated wealth through home ownership meant little for future generations to inherit. “Today, the average white family has $122,000 in wealth; Latinx family $1,600; and African American family, just $1,300,” Boone said.

Home Owner’s Loan Corporation redlined map of Philadelphia, 1936 / Wikipedia

Urban renewal compounded the impacts of redlining. Communities that had suffered from years of disinvestment were highly vulnerable to redevelopment. Modernists saw places with rich histories as clean slates that could be re-made. According to Boone, some 200 communities were “renewed,” which in social terms meant displaced. The result was “root shock,” a term coined by Mindy Thompson Fullilove in her book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It. For many African American communities, there wasn’t just one displacement either: “serial displacements created long-term disruption.” And generation after generation experienced these “major shocks to the system.”

In Greenville, North Carolina, Perkins + Will worked with remnants of the once-vibrant African American Sycamore Hill community, which was displaced by urban renewal in the 1960s. As the community hollowed out, the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church burned to the ground from suspected arson. “There was nothing left,” Michael Stevenson, a partner at Perkins + Will, said.

Urban renewal demolished Sycamore Hill / Perkins + Will
Sycamore Hill Baptist Church / Perkins + Will

In the footprint of where the church once stood, Howard and her team partnered with the community to plan and design the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, which will feature a prominent tower to honor the history of the destroyed spiritual center. Pew-like benches are set amid a one-acre park separated by plinths with inspirational messages and depictions of local history. The project is part of a broader master plan for a new park called Greenville Town Commons on state and city land. “It’s a place of learning, remembrance, and reflection.” Its development has been a “meaningful process for the community.”

Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza / Perkins + Will

African American architect Phil Freelon, who was a partner at Perkins + Will and passed away earlier this year, partnered with the community to plan and design the 1-acre Freedom Park in Raleigh, North Carolina in a symbolic space between the State general assembly and capitol buildings. “Honoring the history repressed in history books, the plaza park will celebrate the significant contributions of African Americans from the Raleigh area, including jazz great Thelonious Monk, author Maya Angelou, John Coltrane, and others,” Stevenson said. The park features a grove of Oak trees but also their roots, which “make life possible.” The park’s paths, which radiate out from the Oaks, symbolize those roots — “the hidden history.” The park is designed to be a “beacon of freedom and a representation of a better future for everyone.”

Freedom Park, Raleigh / Perkins + Will

Canada has its own fraught racial history as well. In Vancouver, the historically-Black Northeast False Creek neighborhood, which includes the Hogan’s Alley area, suffered from the Canadian version of redlining and then further destruction with the construction of a highway. “In the process, the community was displaced and erased from history,” said Cynthia Lau, a planner with the Vancouver city government. “It’s like they were never really part of the city.” Today, the black community makes up just 1 percent of Vancouver.

After a conventional planning process failed to account for the voice of Black Vancouverites, the city tried again with a new set of consultants, including Howard’s team at Perkins+Will, which undertook a “co-design process that helped people tell their stories.” The end result, Lau said, is a “meaningful community development plan” rooted in the goals of “reconciliation and cultural redress.” Viaducts will be replaced with street-level transportation networks. Some 32 acres of new parks are planned, along with affordable housing for 3,200 residents. The new development is expected to create 6,000-8,000 new local jobs as well.

Hogan’s Alley design proposal / Perkins + Will

At the close of the session, Boone reiterated that architects, planners, and landscape architects “can’t do remembrance design processes alone. Success comes from partnerships with policymakers, community leaders, and activists. You have to bring in people who haven’t been heard before.” For authentic engagement, “the most historically disenfranchised communities should have the loudest voice.”

Designers can help communities “reclaim their narrative and identify what is important to them.” They also have a responsibility to ensure those long-unheard voices don’t “get lost in translation.”

For Boone, remembrance design isn’t just superficial social justice-washing. “These projects can catalyze political, social, and economic organization.” Howard reiterated that the process itself is what’s important. The stories unearthed through the co-design process are really the basis for “accessible, inclusive spaces.”

Remembrance design isn’t just for co-designing with African American communities either. Boone said he knows of designers working with Latinx communities to help them “dream and visualize change,” even through many of these visions haven’t taken real form, largely because these communities now feel so unsafe due to President Trump’s rhetoric and the threat of ICE raids. “These communities are now in the process of gathering stories and empowering themselves.”

And Chinese American communities have also organized to create positive change. In Seattle, plans were underway to remake and expand the underused and unloved Hing Hay Park. In 2012, the Friends of Hing Hay Park formed, demanding a more contemporary and culturally-resonant public space. Chinese landscape architecture firm Turenscape, led by Kongjian Yu, FALSA, partnered with MIG|Svr to create a new design that reflects China’s many diverse cultures and created space for night markets.

Hing Hay Park / Miranda Estes Photography, Landscape Architecture Magazine

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16 – 31)

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The so-called Latino High Line, part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park redevelopment, San Antonio, Texas / Muñoz and Company

First Look at Frank Gehry’s ‘Anonymous’ Building X for Facebook in Redmond The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, 3/21/19
“As part of GGN’s landscape plan, native plans will be restored. Gehry Partners says, ‘the intent is to return as much of the site as possible to its natural state by removing non-native plant material and replacing it with native species.’”

Eight Buildings That Incorporate Waterfalls Dezeen, 3/21/19
“The focal point of architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker’s memorial to the September 11 attacks is two square fountains.”

When a ‘Be In’ in Central Park Was Front-Page News The New York Times, 3/25/19
“Fifty-two years ago, thousands came to Central Park for a counterculture happening that influenced decades of political gatherings there.”

A ‘Latino High Line’ Promises Change for San Antonio CityLab, 3/25/19
“The San Pedro Creek Culture Park stands to be a transformative project for nearby neighborhoods. To fight displacement, the city is creating a risk mitigation fund.”

Harrisburg Plans ‘Chutes and Ladders’ Playground at Reservoir Park Penn Live, 3/27/19
“Kids of all ages will eventually be able to play in a life-sized version of the classic board game “Chutes and Ladders” at Reservoir Park, after Harrisburg City Council voted to hire a landscape architect to design the playground.”

A Landscape Architect’s Plant-filled Oasis in Lower Manhattan Architectural Digest, 3/29/19
“Of course, one shouldn’t expect any less from Von Koontz, a talented landscape designer who works on everything from large country estates to petite, elegant rooftop spaces in Manhattan.”

Interview with Ignacio Bunster-Ossa: The New Geography of Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, is national practice leader for landscape architecture at AECOM. He is the author of Reconsidering Ian McHarg and with David Rouse, ASLA, Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. In his previous work as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), Bunster-Ossa led the development of the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia has made great strides in its efforts to become a more sustainable city. Most recently, the city government announced it will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The city’s green works sustainability plan, transportation plan, and city-wide vision plan lay out ambitious goals. Over the past decade, what have been Philadelphia’s major contribution to the sustainable city movement? And where does the city need to improve?

What propelled the big leap forward was the consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use green infrastructure to manage water pollution going into the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers. The agreement became the Green City, Clean Waters program, which is managed by the Philadelphia water department.

Philadelphia had a vast network of rivers, streams, and creeks, which in many cases were supplanted by underground sewers. These sewers erased the city’s hydrological foundation. Green City, Clean Waters is not quite undoing this system but introducing a new geography of green infrastructure that is not only shaping how the city ecologically functions but also how it looks. The program has produced fantastic parks and greenways. That’s a credit to the leadership: Howard Neukrug, director of watersheds and then commissioner of the water department, who instigated a lot of this; and Mami Hara, ASLA, his deputy for years, who is now the water chief in Seattle.

Fairmount Park rain gardens by Studio Bryan Hanes / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Where we still need to improve: We see projects in areas that have the land. Parks and plazas have been retrofitted or designed anew to incorporate green infrastructure. But Philadelphia is an old, pre-industrial city where streets and sidewalks are tight. The challenge is how do you green streets in South, North, and West Philadelphia? There is so little space to implement a green vision.

Green trolley station in West Philadelphia. A concrete wasteland was transformed into a plaza with colorful plantings, porous paving, shaded seating and a café. Designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates. / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

If you talk to engineers, they’ll say, “well, we can only put an underground cistern,” which works from a water quality point of view, but doesn’t provide the other benefits that green infrastructure produces: shade, biodiversity, and the like. This is the problem we need to address in the future.

As you mentioned, Philadelphia’s landmark green infrastructure plan — Green City, Clean Waters — and the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program have led to the creation of more than 850 greened acres. A greened acre absorbs up to one inch of rainfall through trees, rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs. What does the program need to accomplish next?

800 acres is less than 10 percent of the total required by the consent agreement, which is 9,300-plus greened acres. The question is: how do you implement green infrastructure in places where it’s the most difficult to implement?

Typical narrow downtown street in Philadelphia. A parklet helps absorb stormwater / Ignacio-Bunster Ossa

There’s also an issue of cost: if a greened acre costs $100,000 an acre, that is expensive. Another challenge is hiring a quality workforce who can work on green infrastructure in a way that benefits the most number of people.

Connect, the city’s first strategic transportation plan aims to make public transportation systems more integrated, equitable, and accessible. However, state funding for SEPTA, the regional railway system, is expected to fall. How can a sustainable regional transportation plan be forged among the Delaware River Valley community?

The issue is politics. The solution lies in Harrisburg; it doesn’t lie with SEPTA. Many communities in Pennsylvania don’t use or need transit because they are too spread out. These communities hold power in the allocation of funds that both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia need for transit. It’s a classic case of constituencies fighting for resources.

SEPTA has improved a lot over the years. It’s much more pleasant now to ride trains and buses. We’ve added many miles of bike lanes. And in a warehouse somewhere, there are thousands of electronic scooters ready to be rolled out. There is a new dynamic for moving around in the city.

Philadelphia bike lane / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

One of my biggest hopes is the city will dedicate streets or a whole corridor to low speeds, like 15- 20 miles an hour. If you hit a pedestrian at those speeds, they have an 80 percent chance of being unscathed; maybe a bruise, but that’s it. The city could do that along major corridors. Dedicated street are better than just bike lanes — they result in greater usage of sustainable transportation options.

Through its Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program, the city will be investing $500 million to make fair and equitable improvements in community parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, libraries across the city. What has the program accomplished so far? Are there fears new amenities could exacerbate gentrification?

The program is new so it hasn’t produced the scale of improvements that can lift up the whole city. The rebuild program has identified specific areas based on income, quality of the resource, need for the resource, and level of improvement. They’re spending the money in a prioritized way. And the $500 million is not all there. It’s being accumulated from a tax on soda, as well as from contributions from foundations. This is a long-term program that can produce results.

The issue of gentrification is very, very serious in Philadelphia. From a personal experience living in West Philadelphia, now known as University City District, I’ve been the recipient of the positive side of gentrification. But because of that, I’m acutely aware of the impacts.

I don’t think it necessarily follows that improvements will produce gentrification, in part because Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities. For large cities, the median income is one of the lowest, if not the lowest. The city is also predominately African-American, so the infusion, if you will, of white money that can produce gentrification won’t affect communities most in need of basic improvements. Perhaps long-term that could be the case. But the program isn’t prioritizing in any way, shape, or form projects that can induce re-development in a gentrifying way.

A recent study by Bloomberg found the City of Brotherly Love is sadly the third most unequal city in the U.S. behind Miami and Atlanta. Furthermore, the city jumped 17 spots in the past year, the sharpest negative move among the top ten most unequal cities. How can Philly better address the large income gap between those who live in or near Center City and those in low-income neighborhoods?

An associated consequence of the income gap is the gap in access to public resources. A research study by University City District called Just Spaces surveyed under-represented communities in the district. They want to find out: why don’t low-income people use bike lanes? Why don’t they use parks or public spaces? There are racial and economic reasons.

The report may point the way towards how you can create equity– not in terms of income, but at least in terms of access to affordable mobility and parks and recreation, which can elevate quality of life for everyone.

Philadelphia is also a hot spot for air pollution, earning an “F” grade from the American Lung Association and ranking just behind Memphis and Richmond for the country’s worst air. One in ten Philadelphians have asthma. Furthermore, asthma rates are spread unevenly, largely tracking with areas that are abnormally hot with fewer trees. This is because extreme heat combined with pollution forms dangerous levels of ozone that lead to asthmatic emergencies. How can Philadelphia address the inequity of the urban heat and air pollution issue?

Green infrastructure is a real solution — and it was embedded in the precursor to Green City, Green Waters, which was the Green Plan Philadelphia, a landmark report that Mami Hara also guided. The problem in Philadelphia is the tight streets where you can hardly fit a tree, given all the utilities. God forbid you remove a parking space. There’s a tremendous need for vegetation, particularly in South Philadelphia, where it’s very hard to find a tree in any given block.

The other component is obviously the roof landscape. In much of the city, roofscapes exceed streets in area. I would start programs that can produce green roofs, certainly blue roofs, but also change the material on the roof, so they are more reflective. You would see temperatures go down. I would do everything possible to improve the shade cover on streets as well.

Comcast Tower green roof by OLIN / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Philadelphia did a program called Green Streets that I was part of. They have a design manual for green streets, which explains how to incorporate green infrastructure every time you fix a street. Over time, the city can make a dent in the air pollution problem.

After many years as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), where you designed projects such as the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, you moved to AECOM, where you’re now national practice leader for landscape architecture. In your new position, how do you hope to move Philly in a more sustainable, equitable direction?

We have folks in Philadelphia working for the water department on the green infrastructure program. We collaborate on where the rubber hits the road: How do you take a very small area and make it green? If there’s one lesson about the Green City, Clean Waters program is we’re almost dealing at the micro-landscape scale. That’s the level at which improvements are made over time.

The other work is focused on building parks near creeks to improve the quality of the water, but also recreational trails, such as in Pennypack and Tacony Creeks, and the Schuylkill River boardwalk, which is part of one the nation’s top urban trails.

Schuylkill River boardwalk / AECOM

The city has a very robust community engagement process. Philadelphia has a neighborhood-centric social structure. It’s great to work with people at that scale to make change.

And what have you learned from your 20-plus years’ experience in Philly that you want to bring to other cities and the national level?

It’s all about the scale of the city. Compare downtown Philadelphia to downtowns in other places, compare the widths of streets. I’ve measured this: it takes me 12 steps to cross most Center City streets. That’s 2-3 seconds. It’s a highly pedestrian-friendly environment because it’s so easy to cross a street.

When I go to other places and they tell me, “oh, you need a radius of 30 feet, because you need a truck to move around the city,” I say, “No you don’t.” I can show examples of big fire trucks moving around the city in this tight environment.

If I had to say anything about Philadelphia that would lead to a better future — it’s we need to take vehicles out of Center City and dense urban areas. Uber and autonomous vehicles (AVs) create on-call circulation that can travel at very low speeds. You no longer need parking. This evolution is inevitable in American cities. Philadelphia is ready made to lead the way.

Resilient Design for Low-Income Communities

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Resilience for All / Island Press

In her new book Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design, author Barbara Brown Wilson seeks to confront the failings of traditional planning and design practices in vulnerable low-income communities. While others have pursued landscape-based solutions to this issue — think community gardens — Brown suggests there is a larger role for landscape architecture and urban design in resilient, equitable community development.

The communities featured in Resilience for All struggle with many of the same afflictions: environmental injustice, neglect, and lack of resources. These are vulnerable communities that face high exposure to economic and environmental shocks and disinvestment. Landscape and urban design improvements are relatively cheap, widely-accessible method of addressing these issues. Green infrastructure and streetscape improvements figure prominently in the book’s many case studies.

Importantly, Brown believes there is a fundamental relationship between social and ecological systems that, when leveraged, benefit both communities and their environments.

Consider the case of Cully, a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that suffers from flooding streets, a lack of sidewalks, and languishing parks. Gentrification is also making its inroads.

Ordinarily, progress on the infrastructure front might invite gentrification. But a neighborhood coalition of community members and non-profits has made a point of linking infrastructure goals with wealth-building and anti-displacement goals. This means new parks associated with new affordable housing, construction on these projects performed by community members, and training provided by community organizations. This holistic approach has led to notable successes by Cully’s residents.

As Brown writes, green infrastructure improvements provide economic and health benefits. It’s logical to ensure those benefits serve communities directly and in as many ways as possible. Brown calls this approach “green infrastructure as antipoverty strategy.”

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Cully residents at work in the community garden / Barbara Brown Wilson

Resilience for All shows community development progress comes in phases, with one success usually priming the next.

In the neighborhood of Denby in Detroit, the local high school worked with non-profits to introduce urban planning and city improvements into the senior class curriculum. Students, concerned with local crime, initially set their sights on getting a nearby abandoned apartment building torn down. They aggregated resident organizations into the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and adopted a vision to target blight on a larger scale. They and thousands of volunteers combined efforts to board up vacant homes and reduce blight on more than 300 city blocks and used this cleanup effort to install wayfinding artwork and planter boxes to mark new safe routes to Skinner Playfield, their revitalized school playground.

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“Safe Routes to School” planter box at Skinner Playfield. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Landscape improvements did not come to these communities without considerable effort and without help from a network of friendly actors. And the projects often operate on a humble scale.

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Skinner Playfield network map. This diagram shows the variety of organizations Denby high school students worked with to achieve their desired outcomes. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Each case in Resilience for All represents innovation and progress for the communities and is fleshed out by a mix of empirical research and Brown’s own analysis to paint a picture of what worked, what didn’t, and how those lessons might be absorbed and applied elsewhere. Resilience for All is also bookended by two useful sections: a brief history of community-driven design and an encapsulation of the case studies’ lessons.

Resilience for All is a useful handbook for landscape architect’s wondering how their skill sets might apply to community-led planning and design. It demonstrates how landscape can be a powerful resource for vulnerable communities. And it also shows how communities can positively impact landscapes.

Architecture Critics Win Vincent Scully Prize

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston / Wikipedia
Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia / Wikipedia

There are just a few full-time architecture critics left at national and metropolitan newspapers in the U.S. But as Robert Campbell, long-time architecture critic for The Boston Globe, noted: “We’ve survived without architecture critics in the past — and will do so again.”

With the rise of highly-local and specialized blogs and Facebook pages examining all aspects of design and development, architecture critics may indeed go the way of the dodo. But it will be a loss for us all.

At the National Building Museum, Campbell and Inga Saffron, architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, both Pulitizer Prize winners, were given the Vincent Scully Prize for their role in elevating public discourse on the built environment. They are influential voices who have not only shaped the debate in their own cities but have also informed other communities around the world.

Here are some highlights from a panel discussion led by Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune.

On the rapid pace of urban redevelopment:

“Cities have really changed over the past twenty years. Before, the fear was Philadelphia would become the next Detroit and go into free fall, but now there is too much construction and the fear is gentrification.” — Saffron

“Banks and developers are now driving architectural forms. Architects have become an afterthought. They have so little control; I feel bad for them. The heroic architect myth is not reality.” — Saffron

“Developer-driven buildings aren’t very good. There are three firms that do about 90 percent of buildings in Boston. Redevelopment work is built quickly to minimal standards.” — Campbell

On the importance of place:

“I write about places, not buildings. There is an art to making great places. A great place can be a bedroom, lawn, neighborhood, city, or region.” — Campbell

Kamin then asked both Campbell and Saffron to name a great place.

For Campbell, a prime example is Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which has “rows of homes dressed up in their tuxedos,” and for Saffron, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, “which is permeable and enables you to flow through.” (see images above).

On Washington, D.C.:

Saffron, who is known for her cutting critiques, had nothing good to say about the new NoMA district:

“It looks like the world’s biggest office park. They will likely run out of window patterns eventually. These buildings maximize every inch of floor space. They are all the same shape. It’s dispiriting.”

NoMA District in Washington, D.C. / Curbed DC

But Campbell is a big fan of the Washington, D.C. Metro system, designed by architect Harry Weese. As Kamin remarked: “It looks like civilization — those concrete vaults.”

Washington, D.C. Metro / Wikipedia

On their learning and writing process:

“If you don’t know what you are looking at, it forces you to look more closely.” — Campbell

“I’m a civilian, like every other citizen. We have a civic obligation to know how our cities are being built. I’m a big explainer. I don’t use jargon because I don’t want to lose my audience.” — Saffron

“I’m very embedded in a city. I’m a militant pedestrian and bicyclist. Walking and biking offers a more intimate pace. But dull stretches of streets will affect your whole mood.” — Saffron

“It’s easy to see the built world as a bar graph, a result of all these legal, financial, and political developments, nourished by bankers and developers deep in the caverns. But the physical environment merits its own evaluation, without looking at the subterranean forces.” — Campbell

And, lastly, advice for other writers of the built environment:

“Always go to the building or site. There is no substitution for being present. Renderings and photography can lie. See it with your own eyes.” — Saffron

“Inhabit the space. That’s the only way to see the relationships with other things — the context with other buildings and surroundings.” — Campbell

Unity Park Anchors Equitable Development in Greenville

Unity Park / MKSK Studios

New reconciliation parks in the South — like the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, Alabama — are explicitly designed to bring together previously-segregated communities. But the new Unity Park in Greenville, South Carolina, goes a step further: it will not only bridge communities but also actually merge two once-segregated parks. Meadowbrook Park, which was once white-only, and Mayberry Park, a smaller green space designated for African Americans, will come together in the new 60-acre Unity Park while still maintaining their distinct histories and identities. This inclusive, $40-million green space is expected to open in 2020.

According to Darren Meyer, ASLA, principal at Ohio-based MKSK Studios, an urban design and landscape architecture firm, the park comes out of a broader planning process for the Reedy River Development Area, an area just west of downtown Greenville. The goal for the city is to create more equitable downtown neighborhoods, with the new park at the center.

In an interview, Meyer said the park is only one component of a new “community character plan” for a 350-acre district that includes form-based code, mixed-use developments, affordable housing, and transportation. A ring of new affordable housing will be built around the park, in an attempt to prevent Unity Park from inadvertently becoming a gentrifying force that displaces the existing community.

According to Meyer, the city has increased investment into its affordable housing trust fund, which is also receiving private and philanthropic funds. The first round of affordable housing is now being built while work begins on the underlying park infrastructure.

Unity Park will include a 120-feet-tall observation tower, which will act as a beacon at night; a great lawn; nature and “destination” playgrounds; a gathering space and visitors center; and pedestrian bridge to improve connectivity.

Unity Park observation tower / MKSK Studios
Unity Park great lawn / MKSK Studios
Destination playground / MKSK Studios
Unity Park gathering space / MKSK Studios
Unity Park pedestrian bridge / MKSK Studios

The city brought an inclusive, community-based planning effort that won approval from African American communities along the park. Greenville News reports that “Mary Duckett, head of the traditionally low-income and African-American Southernside neighborhood association….has been satisfied that its voice was heard and that the park will be one that is welcoming for all.”

Meyer said the planning process was viewed as successful because project leaders “put a tremendous amount of effort into cultivating good relationships. They knew that is really the foundation of trust and a key part to inclusive decision-making.”

Unity Park / MKSK Studios

As part of neighborhood planning and outreach, the city brought in a fire truck that kids could play on; a mobile recreation vehicle, with sports play equipment; and hosted a cook-out for 300 community residents. “These were great events designed to build community.”

MKSK also coordinated planning and design community meetings, with the goal of collecting stories, including those about the African American minor league baseball team that plays in Mayberry Park, and incorporating them into an authentic design. That led to a temporary installation — a mosaic of names of baseball players set into steps leading to the baseball field.

Meyer said the park is not just about re-connecting once-segregated parks, but also about re-connecting the community to a lost river ecosystem. Some 2,000-feet of the Reedy River that runs through the park will be taken out of its concrete channel and become a showpiece of ecological restoration. MKSK will significantly widen the riparian corridor and treat the floodplain in the park as an ecological system.

Unity Park view of the wetlands and river / MKSK Studios

MKSK made the case to city leaders that “the health of the river is tied to the health of the community. There is a quantifiable public health benefit to bringing back the river and wetlands. Beyond the ecological uplift, there is also a great educational opportunity.”

Read more about the park in Greenville News.

Can the 11th Street Bridge Park Slow Gentrification in DC?

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The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Scott Kratz is attempting something very difficult.

He’s walking backwards on a busy Capitol Hill sidewalk, straining to be heard over traffic as he leads a group of eager residents on a walking tour to the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park in southeast Washington, D.C.

The park, which has been in development since 2011, will one day span the Anacostia River, connecting the well-to-do neighborhoods west of the river and the historically African American neighborhoods to the east.

More difficult than walking backwards, however, is Kratz’s larger goal of ensuring that the creation of this new landmark public space, designed by Philadelphia-based landscape firm OLIN and Dutch architecture firm OMA, does not unleash the waves of gentrification that are already lapping at the Anacostia’s western shore.

“We’re three or four years away from opening, but we’ve already had the park appear in real estate ads without permission,” he told me as we walked back towards Capitol Hill after the tour. “We had to send some gentle cease-and-desists.”

This illustrates both the reality of the gentrification threat posed by the park’s construction and the measures that Kratz, who is director of the project, and his team at the Congress Heights-based non-profit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) are taking to mitigate it.

“First and foremost, this is a park for the local residents,” Kratz said, explaining how that basic principle has caused BBAR to take a much more expansive view of their role in the park’s development. “There’s the site of the park, but we have to be thinking about the larger systems we’re engaging with. What are the policies that can ensure local residents thrive in place?”

anacostia
OMA and OLIN’s design features a unique “X” shaped structure of interlocking trusses / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

This broad approach has led to what he called a “deep and sustained” relationship with the surrounding community.

“Before we engaged a single architect, landscape architect, or engineer, we had over two-hundred meetings with faith leaders, business owners, ANC commissioners, civic associations — with anybody who would have us.”

“And we didn’t just go out and say ‘what color should the chairs be,’” but instead asked more fundamental questions: “Should we do this? Does the community want this?”

This initial round of dialogue helped to bridge what Kratz called a “deep, real, and justified” trust-deficit in nearby communities, especially those east of the river.

That same level of community involvement carried through to the design competition process. Program requirements for the park were decided through a series of charrettes with community members. BBAR then created a community-led design oversight committee that reviewed the final design brief and met with the competing design teams multiple times during the design process to provide feedback and input.

“We didn’t know if it would work,” Kratz told me, “but at the end, each one of the design teams said it was the most valuable part of the process.”

“It was incredibly helpful,” said Hallie Boyce, ASLA, who led the design team for OLIN. “What it allowed us to do was to quickly develop a deeper knowledge of the place, both from a natural systems standpoint but also a cultural-systems standpoint.”

Boyce pointed out some members of the committee have lived in the area for twenty-five or thirty years. “You just can’t beat that kind of knowledge of a place.”

At the end of the competition, the design oversight committee ranked the submissions and made a recommendation to the competition jury. “The jury ultimately could have overruled the community recommendation,” Kratz said, “but as it turned out, both the jury and the design oversight committee were unanimous” in their decision.

“If we’re really about community engagement, then we need to let the community have the decision-making authority,” Kratz said, adding that members of the design oversight committee are now working with OLIN and OMA as they refine their winning concept, providing a real time, community-driven feedback loop. “That level of agency is critical.”

theater
The park will include an amphitheater for performances, community events, or for watching the regattas that are frequently held on the Anacostia river / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

With the design selected and pre-construction underway, the team is now working to ensure the park doesn’t end up displacing the very community that has brought the project this far.

In 2015, BBAR released an Equitable Development Plan which outlined how it would achieve this goal. The plan makes recommendations for addressing workforce development, small businesses, and housing. BBAR will soon be releasing an updated version of the plan that adds strategies for cultural and political equity.

Remarkably, BBAR has so far been able to muster more in financial support for the Equitable Development Plan than it has for the park itself. The park will cost $50-60 million to construct, of which roughly half has been committed to by the city, private donors, and other sources. Meanwhile, philanthropic contributions to the equitable development arm of the project already exceed $50 million.

While the park itself is still a few years off, the impact from the Equitable Development Plan is already being felt. A newly-created Ward 8 Homebuyers Club has so far helped sixty-one Ward 8 residents purchase their own home. For renters, “we have started monthly tenant rights workshops, working in collaboration with Housing Counseling Services.” And the newly-created 11th Street Park Community Land Trust is close to acquiring its first property, a 65-unit apartment complex in Ward 8 that would be managed as affordable housing in perpetuity.

The park is also making its presence felt in other ways. Since 2014, BBAR has organized the annual Anacostia River Festival, which last year brought more than 9,000 residents to the site of the future park.

Then there is the park’s burgeoning urban agriculture program, which boasts seven urban farms providing fresh produce to a variety of businesses, residents, and non-profits in the area. Nearby residents can even sign up for a CSA.

“We’re not waiting until we open. We want to make sure that we’re testing and piloting these programming ideas before we launch.”

cafe
The intersecting trusses create sheltered space for amenities such as food kiosks and a café, which will feature businesses from the surrounding area / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

The cumulative effect of these efforts is a strong sense of community ownership. He told me a story to illustrate this point.

“We were having a public meeting a year ago, and I was talking about the equitable development plan. Someone raised their hand and said, ‘So, with all the money that’s coming in, you’re starting a community land trust, you’re doing tenants’ rights workshops, you’re doing workforce development training. Do you need to build the bridge?'”

“And it totally floored me! I was a little speechless. Then someone from the community stood up and said: ‘He better build that bridge! We designed that bridge – this is our bridge!'”

According to Kratz, that level of ownership comes from sustained relationships, shared experiences, and leadership of the decision making process.

Boyce echoed that sentiment, saying the community-led design process and the scope of the Equitable Development Plan have built trust in the community, allowing residents to become invested in the long-term success of the project.

“We have multiple champions now. That’s what it’s going to take.”

playspace
The park will also feature a new playground on southeastern end of the bridge. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Construction on the park should begin in 2020, with an opening date in 2022 or 2023. BBAR is already looking ahead to understand how its role will change at that juncture.

BBAR is exploring ways to help demystify the planning process for local residents, so they are empowered to shape those decisions that will in turn shape their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes when we have these larger conversations about displacement and gentrification, there’s a feeling of inevitability. We reject that. The reason we’ve been living in segregated cities is because of a series of intentional decisions. We now need to make a series of intentional decisions to undo that disinvestment.”

“We’re increasingly looking at what is our role to help move the needle on some of those larger policy questions,” he added.

As an example of that expanding scope, BBAR has now begun advising other Washington, D.C. neighborhoods as they create their own equitable development plans. They’ve even met with officials from Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis to discuss how the 11th Street Bridge model can be applied in those cities.

“We had no idea that this could have such an influence across the United States. But we’re the nation’s capital. We often talk about being the template for how we should do things. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not so much. This is a chance to actually get it right.”

11th Street Bridge Park walking tours continue throughout the summer.

To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

Brazilian festival in Herter Park / Herter Park Facebook

While designers of the built environment only improve at creating sustainable, technologically-savvy, and beautiful places, they aren’t succeeding at “creating belonging,” a feeling of “respectful co-existence in shared space,” argued Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University. More “culturally-competent” planners, landscape architects, architects are needed to create more just places.

In a keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism in Savannah, Georgia, Agyeman said “there is an equity deficit in the sustainability movement. The green movement is socially unjust.” Agyeman believes that in many cities “the old red-lining of neighborhoods have been replaced by green exclusionary zones — just a new form of socio-economic segregation.” Instead, true sustainability “involves justice — and equity in recognition, process, procedure, and outcomes.”

With true sustainability, it isn’t possible to have “spatial injustice,” in which life chances are not distributed in a fair way geographically. (Sadly, in the vast majority of countries, your zip code determines everything from your income to your life expectancy).

With true sustainability, public spaces are for everyone. He held up Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as an example of a “space of respect, engagement, and encounter.” Agyeman wondered whether we can design places like this anymore?

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia / Pinterest

Too often public spaces labeled as sustainable aren’t just. While the contemporary Complete Street movement is lauded as a way to make transportation systems more equitable — by providing equal access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — complete streets that remove street vendors and spruce up public spaces with new amenities can end up killing the cultural and social lives of streets.

“Places have no fixed meaning; they are social as much as physical entities. Complete streets can disconnect streets from the social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities of a place.” Agyeman asked: “Who gets to say what a complete street is anyhow? They can’t be complete if they fail to include the livelihoods and economic survival of vendors.”

Park planning and design needs to be re-thought in terms of boosting cultural diversity, instead of just ecological diversity.

As an example, he pointed to a local park in Bristol, Massachusetts. At great expense, the park managers created a wildflower meadow in order to increase biodiversity. But the new garden had the effect of driving away Caribbean immigrants who used to spend time in the park. “They have a residual fear of places that could harbor snakes.” Aygeman said “if someone in the parks department was Caribbean, they would have known.” The question in instances like this is: “do we drop the cultural or social diversity or respect the cultural side?”

Given urban communities are evolving, we must better engage new immigrant communities in the planning and preservation of park systems.

In Boston, many immigrants “aren’t connecting with the old parks created by Frederick Law Olmsted. They just don’t resonate with them — and these groups, which are growing, could be deciding the future of Boston’s parks.”

Immigrant groups instead yearn for landscapes that remind them of home. In Boston, Herter Park draws immigrants from Latin and South America, because it provides spaces for extended family gatherings by a river, which feels familiar to them (see image at top).

Aygeman thinks landscape architects must intentionally design for immigrants and encourage encounters between ethnicities.

In Supekilen Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, teams of designers with BIG, Topotek 1, and Superflux, created a “controversial park” in a highly-diverse immigrant neighborhood where ethnic groups “could see themselves in the space,” but also encounter other communities. Each ethnic group in the neighborhood around the park had a designated space meant to reflect some aspect of their cultural identity.

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen, Denmark / Jens Lindhe

Parks-for-all like Superkilen may just be the start. Aygeman foresees a future in which landscape architects first do “deep ethnographic research to really understand a community before they get started.” Landscape architects trained in “cultural competency” then eliminate disparities in access to public space, creating true urban commons. “More diverse professionals who know what these new societies think” will partner with diverse communities to “co-design and co-create more just places.”

The result could be something like Medellin, Colombia, where a participatory approach rooted in the philosophy of “social urbanism,” led to the “urban transformation of the century,” in which the poor were given equitable access to all the city has to offer — parks, libraries, museums, and transit.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

“Desert Gardens of Steve Martino,” by Caren Yglesias / Steve Gunther/The Monacelli Press via Associated Press


Can the L.A. River Avoid ‘Green Gentrification’?
CityLab, 2/20/18
“Los Angeles is where it is because of the river that runs through it. Tongva people lived along the river, around what is now downtown L.A., for centuries. The Spanish camped there when they first passed through. Pobladores established a town there. It grew into a city.”

Phoenix Landscaper Brings Desert to Urban Yards The Washington Post, 2/21/18
“When I moved to Phoenix last summer, I was bewildered by all the bright green grass I saw smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert — in residential yards, on golf courses, at community parks.”

On the Waterfront, Toronto’s Next Great Park Takes Shape The Globe and Mail, 2/21/18
“As central Toronto booms, many people have come to see the need for new open space in the core. But not far away, a great collection of park space is in the works: It will cover 80 hectares at the mouth of the Don River, and you’ll be able to splash in the river within less than a decade.”

The Price We Pay for LivabilityThe Boston Globe, 2/23/18
“Past generations in Greater Boston knew it was their duty to improve the landscape — to build parks and seawalls, subways and bridges — for the benefit of all future residents. In 2018, we can still dream up useful new pieces of civic hardware, such as the cool new footbridge now proposed for the Mystic River between Somerville and Everett.”

Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration Rolling Stone, 2/25/18
“Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana last August, causing $125 billion in damage, dumped more water out of the sky than any storm in U.S. history.”

Building Community Through Inclusive and Equitable Parks

Hayden Plaza, New Orleans / Design Jones LLC

New parks can become agents of gentrification if they are not planned with all of the community. Often, the unintended consequence of a bright, shiny new park planned with only part of the community can be a change in community identity, so parts of the existing community no longer recognize their own neighborhood. Improved park amenities can also also spur new development, higher rents, and, eventually, displacement. But “there are also projects that can break the sequence of negative outcomes,” explained Janelle Johnson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. “Whose change and what change — these are questions that landscape architects can help communities answer.” If done well, new parks can instead act as agents of community building, forging new connections that help break down racial and class barriers.

Bridging Communities Through a New Park in New Orleans

Landscape architect Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, explained how she helped bring together multiple communities in central city New Orleans to re-imagine Hayden Plaza, a linear park found at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

The neighborhood has evolved over the years. First settled by Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants, it became an African American community, and one of the few places African Americans could shop during the segregated 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As the immigrant shop owners who served African American patrons moved elsewhere, the stores were taken over by African Americans, who “didn’t get enough business,” and commercial activity declined.

In the 1960s civil rights movement, the neighborhood was a hub for protests. Artist Frank Hayden created an abstract sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the era when there “wasn’t community engagement.” The community had wanted a figurative sculpture, but Hayden delivered an abstract one instead. “The community wasn’t happy.” (Another figurative sculpture was later added).

Post-Hurricane Katrina, “new development came in, as black merchants lost property. A new merchant’s association made capital improvements,” such as a new jazz market, with a bar and theater, and an old school was revamped as a stall market. “They were bringing money in, but pushing the community out.” New development became a “sign of gentrification;” there was even a “Jane Jacobs walk.”

But every March, the Recreating the Emotional Ability to Live (REAL) protest march, led by a black empowerment group, works its way down through the neighborhood to the plaza, which demonstrates how this “space is still contested.” Working with the client — the merchant’s association — there was a “chance to educate and design for both those who go on the Jane Jacobs walk and those pushing for empowerment. A symbolic design would be inclusive and not take space away for the empowerment group.” The new landscape design “acknowledges the future, while honoring the past” (see image above).

Both communities — the African Americans and the new-comers — are now part of the future of the neighborhood, Jones Allen said. They came together in community planning and design charrettes held in the jazz market.

Revitalizing a Symbol of Integration in Birmingham, Alabama

Eric Tamulonis, ASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained how Birmingham, was long known as the “Pittsburgh of the south,” because of its iron ore mines in the Red Mountains, which were part of the US Steel empire. Down in the mines, African American and white miners toiled together since the late 1800s. “The mines were a magnet for African Americans given the great demand for workers.”

But back on the surface, there was “deep segregation.” A racist zoning map created red zones — or “danger zones” — the only places African Americans could live. Many of these places were actually dangerous — one was called “Dynamite Hill.” Jim Crow laws and regulations codified segregation. “There was a municipal law that African American and white children couldn’t play together.”

As de-segregation of all public schools, facilities, and transportation systems slowly became national policy in the 1950s and 60s, Birmingham’s city government fought it as much as they could. “They closed parks instead of integrating them.” While African Americans made up 40 percent of the city, they had only been given a few small parks. When those were shut down, “kids played in the streets.”

Now with a new 4.5-mile-long Red Mountain Park on land US Steel donated to the community, we are “building community in the park. It’s a bridge across the divide.” A new walking bridge called the “walk of unity” will end in a mine, where visitors can learn about the cultural history of the industry. “Noble mining structures are being restored, and there are reforestation efforts.” Throughout, there will be educational moments, including recordings of oral histories conducted with miners. Tamulonis worked on the community planning effort while at WRT, and said the Red Mountain Park Commission is “committed to equitable development.”

ASLA 2012 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Red Mountain / Green Ribbon — The Master Plan for Red Mountain Park, WRT / WRT
ASLA 2012 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Red Mountain / Green Ribbon — The Master Plan for Red Mountain Park, WRT / WRT

Birmingham is also trying to move beyond its racist park history through the creation of other inclusive public spaces. Tom Leader Studio’s Railroad Park is a “symbol of re-unity.” And a city task force has been laying the ground work for using Olmsted brothers’ 1925 equitable greenways plan, which was never implemented, as the basis for “future land use.”

Scaling up Inclusive and Equitable Park Development

Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks department head and now senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), explained how urban parks can lead to greater equity.

TPL along with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the National Parks and Recreation Assocation (NRPA) created a campaign to promote the idea that everyone in a city should live within a 10 minute walk of a park. Already, 134 mayors have signed on, including Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, where only 50 percent of the population meet the campaign’s goals.

While the “federal government won’t do anything for urban parks” in the foreseeable future, cities are using tax increment financing, property tax increases, and business improvement districts to improve the quality of parks across all communities. In Minneapolis, which already tops the nation in TPL’s Park Score rating system, some $250 million will be invested in parks, particularly in underserved communities. “They asked themselves hard questions and are focused on areas of poverty.”

More cities also better understanding the consequences of new park development without an equitable development plan — what has been called the “High Line effect.” For example, Bozeman, Montana, a small city of 30,000 people, is now creating their first large central park on a 60-acre site. Some 8 acres around the park will be set aside for a community center and affordable housing. “This project shows we can’t just focus on parks. It’s our problem to fix equity, too.”

Story Mill community park / Trust for Public Land

And the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. — which seeks to bring together the majority-white Capitol Hill neighborhood, and racially-mixed, gentrifying Lincoln Park and Hill East on the west side of the Anacostia River and majority African American Anacostia, Barry Farm, Fairlawn, and Woodland, and Fort Stanton neighborhoods on the east side of the river through one park — represents the “future of equitable park development.”

11th Street Bridge Park equitable development plan / 11th street bridge park

The leaders of the park and landscape architects at OLIN forged an equitable development plan with the communities along the Anacostia River, which includes a small business and workforce plan that will boost local employment in the park, and a new land trust, which is designed to insulate neighborhoods around the park from speculative real estate development.