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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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.”
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 Livability – The 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
At the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C., Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, became the first landscape architect to win this prestigious prize, joining Jane Jacobs, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Phyllis Lambert, and Andres Duany in NBM’s pantheon of those deemed most influential in shaping our built environment.
Some highlights from the wide-ranging lecture and conversation with Corner:
“I aim for creating a sense of calm resolve, a quiet seamlessness. The heavy lifting is hidden; I want to make it look effortless. This, however, can cause problems for me: people will see my projects and ask: ‘Why did it cost so much? What took so long?'”
“Landscape architecture is not the sauce you pour over something; it’s part of the structure of an environment. When talking to people who don’t know what landscape architecture is, steer the conversation to another level. Landscape is a device for that.”
“Many things have changed since I started practicing in the 1970s. Many processes have changed for the better, thanks to new technologies. However, our faster world has caused impatience among clients. They say: ‘Why isn’t this done? We just emailed you yesterday.’ Digital technologies have made it harder to take time to slow down, stop, and think. Projects that take longer, that stall, are better because of the slowness. There is more time to consider. Landscape architecture is the slow food of design.”
“In the 1970s, most landscape architects were working in the suburbs; today, they are fully engaged in the city, because that’s where the people are. Then, just getting an urban mini-park built was seen as a major triumph; today, landscape architects are creating larger urban parks and even regional plans.”
On working with “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Norman Forster, and Richard Meier: “Architects are control freaks. They have to be. It’s hard to get things done, or even done well, and especially hard to get something done brilliantly. So they become maniacs. It’s important to learn their ways of thinking, but then you have to push back.”
“Some people will say they can see a project and know it’s my work. But I don’t have a style. They are looking more at the handwriting than the style.”
On the controversial new 150-acre Apple campus in Silicon Valley, a collaboration with architect Norman Forster: “Steve Job’s idea was a forest — a big park — for his campus for tens of thousands of employees. He believed in nature and the health benefits of the natural world. His favorite park was Hyde Park in London. He was also a fan of Frederick Law Olmsted and studied his work. His vision was a park that was also an everyday workplace, where employees could go have walks and meetings under a tree. I agreed with this vision.”
On the role of new parks in gentrification: “We need a green public realm for the health of our populations. We need places where citizens can come together. We need to spend money and build things well.” The way to address gentrification is to “eliminate the inequalities” in access to great parks. “We need to bring great parks to places like North Philadelphia.”
“Fears about community, other people, or terrorism negatively affect our public spaces. I believe in an open society and open environment. We can bring optimism and resistance — we can push back with good design.”
On President Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border with Mexico: “I disapprove of that on ecological, environmental grounds alone. The climate, ecosystems, and geology — and the people — run north south. You can’t divide people. I totally disagree.”
Olin’s new book Be Seated examines the role of seating in the public realm and includes many of his original drawings and watercolors.
In other awards news: Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, became the first landscape architect to win the MacArthur “genius” grant for her work “designing adaptive and resilient urban habitats and encouraging residents to be active stewards of the ecological systems underlying our built environment.” Also, urban designer and planner Damon Rich, one of the leaders behind the equitable revitalization of the Newark post-industrial waterfront and creation of the Newark Riverfront Park, also won.
The High Line Conundrum– Slate, 5/9/17
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A city in the throes of rapid demographic change, where rents are going through the roof, wants to convert an overgrown freight railway into a selfie-ready linear park.”
Making Houston Freeways a Little Less Ugly– The Houston Chronicle, 5/9/17
“Billboards notwithstanding, nothing installed along the freeway can be too distracting, the Texas Department of Transportation mandates. It’s a safety issue.”
In Copenhagen, Denmark, nearly 50 percent of people commute by bicycle. No matter if it’s a beautiful summer day or a blustery winter one, Danes use their beloved bicycle network, because it’s the fastest, most convenient, healthiest, and cheapest way to get from point A to B. In a discussion organized by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Embassy of Denmark at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., we learned how Denmark made bicycling the most popular form of transportation, and how other cities can create a culture of bicycling.
Klaus Bondam, a jolly artist and former politician, now runs the Danish Cyclists’ Federation. He explained that in Copenhagen 17 percent of all trips are made by bicycle and some 50 percent of destinations can be reached by bike.
Danes learn to love biking early on. Parents bring their kids out into traffic in bike carts when they are toddlers, and their kids begin navigating traffic on their own bikes starting around age 5 or 6. This is all possible because of the investments the Danes have made to make their bike infrastructure safe for everyone.
Their infrastructure is mostly comprised of protected, segregated bike lanes. “Building proper, curbed lanes” is crucial, according to Bondam, as that enables women and kids to feel comfortable.
The Danes built their lanes as part of a comprehensive network, which “connects the inner city to the suburbs, radiating out 25 kilometers.”
Within this network, there are “bicycle super highways” that include the fantastic bicycle bridge that take riders through the urban core.
To accomplish all of this, the Danish government created a national bicycle strategy and bicycle fund. As Bondam noted, if you spend the money and build it they will come. “There are 24 percent more cyclists where there is new infrastructure.”
Copenhagen took several generations to get to where it is now. Investments in the bicycle network started around the turn of the 20th century. It took more than 75 years for Copenhagen to get to nearly 50 percent.
A panel discussed how American cities can learn from Denmark’s example. Washington, D.C. has gone from 1 percent of people commuting by bicycle to 4 percent in just a few years. Leif Dormsjo, the head of D.C.’s department of transportation, said the city has made major investments in bike lanes and connective trails, and sees building complete streets — which work equally as well for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — as a primary strategy moving forward. Also, the D.C. government is investing in educating riders early on. A new program teaches every second grader in the city how to ride a bike.
While Bondam and Dormsjo noted the great progress in D.C. since he was last year in 2002, Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), wants to see more bike lanes transformed into protected, segregated cycle tracks. “On a sunny day, the 15th street cycle track gets 3,000 riders, which is about 30 percent of total traffic.” With more separate lanes, bike number could go up throughout the city.
Sam Adams, former Mayor of Portland, Oregon, and now US director at WRI, said Portland was long stuck at a plateau of around 4 percent commuting by bike. Getting to 8 percent, where they are now, took hard work. The city had to convince women, aged 18-40, to believe biking is safe. They targeted the top 25 most dangerous intersections. Adams found these intersections were almost always dangerous for more than one mode of transit. “Redesigning these intersections created multiple benefits.” Another key element was boosting the budget for bicycle infrastructure from $1 million to $17 million.
But everyone on the panel admitted that in an era of very tight budgets, increasing investments in bicycle infrastructure isn’t easy. As lanes for cars shrink and parking is removed, “some car advocates will argue their freedom is being taken away,” said Bondam. “But I feel my freedom, as a bicyclist, is taken away if I’m stuck in a car.” Adams said Portland’s increased spending on bicycle lanes, especially on the basic safety of lanes in communities further out from the inner-core, was “highly controversial.”
Moving bicycle infrastructure forward takes leadership. Dormsjo said it was important U.S. department of transportation secretary Anthony Foxx sees bike lanes as a priority in terms of federal investment. In D.C., the “sophisticated” city council has many bike riders, and Mayor Muriel Bower understands the issues, so there has been headway.
For Billing, the next step is to implement Vision Zero, which calls for zero traffic fatalities in the district. “We need to change the transportation system to prevent fatalities. Nobody should die trying to get somewhere.” Regionally, D.C. has had 450 deaths by cars in the past year, with pedestrian and bicyclist deaths at higher proportions than their share of street use. A new report from Smart Growth America — Dangerous by Design — outlines the latest data and steps that can be taken.
And more need to benefit from bicycling. Hon. Craig Iscoe, with Cycling without Aging, promoted the use of bicycle rickshaws to take seniors stuck at home, or, worse, old-age homes out for a ride.
And Billing argued bike lanes need to be better spread throughout poorer parts of the city. As part of this, an education campaign is needed to change the perception of bike lanes and bike share as an “agent of gentrification,” said Tommy Wells, director of D.C. department of energy and environment.
Bondam quoted President John F. Kennedy, who said “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” Focusing on safety, communities can use a mix of investment and education to spread that joy to everyone.
“When we talk about gentrification, there is a lot of ‘code talk’ that is often very subtle,” said Timothy Cassidy, ASLA, a landscape architect with Bernardon, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. That code talk is a way to hide the racial nature of a process in which a group of mostly-white newcomers move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color, renovate buildings, increase property values, change the character of the place, and then, eventually, displace the existing community.
Cassidy said gentrification is often described as an incremental process, with code words like “renovation, renewal, and revival.” The problem with these seemingly-positive words is they convey the “idea of improvement,” but it’s not clear who these improvements benefit. In many cases, developers, which are “external forces,” jump in and reap the benefits with new high-rise luxury developments, particularly with adaptive reuse projects. Existing communities that may have made incremental improvements over the decades and inadvertently laid the foundation for gentrification lose out and then eventually lose their neighborhood, too.
The problem is most pronounced in the communities nearest the central business districts. This is because of some larger shifts. “The suburbs are now dead. Nobody wants to move into a single family home anymore.” Instead, companies have moved back into downtown cores. And their surrounding neighborhoods, with a range of entertainment options, are now the place to “live, work, and play.” With inner-city neighborhoods now in higher demand, increased competition means neighborhoods once cheap and undesirable are now more valuable. For Cassidy, the ultimate question is: “Can you tell people where to live?”
Unfortunately, existing studies of gentrification may not tell the full extent of the story. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, went through study after study, pointing out their limitations. For example, an often-cited 2015 report on the state of the housing marked in New York City from the Furman Center at New York University said gentrification was occurring in 15 out of NYC’s 55 neighborhoods. But the researchers made these conclusions looking at only one measure: rents. Furthermore, the report was largely financed by banks who may have an interest in downplaying any of the negative effects of gentrification.
Another study by Governing magazine, also widely cited, showed that gentrification is up 20 percent in 50 cities since 2000, in comparison to only 9 percent over the 1990s. However, he said the study only relied on “inflation adjusted home values and the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees.” And a footnote in the study showed that for a city to be eligible for gentrification it had to be in the bottom 40 percent of household income numbers. “Right off the bat, the study tilts the table.”
Brasuell researched and found all the possible measures used to studies to analyze gentrification. These include average rent, median home values, median incomes, percentage who are renters, population density, housing types, proximity of transit, parks, and schools — which he thought all failed to measure the complex experience of being gentrified. One scholarly study even used fried chicken restaurants and coffee shops as indicators, which he found absurd.
He identified some of the policies that are pro-development, that spur on gentrification. These include: upzoning, which is about expanding the envelope of development options in a neighborhood; regulations that reduce parking; increased redevelopment powers; loan policy reforms; and bonuses developers receive for increasing density.
There are also a set of policies cities can use to mitigate the worst impacts of gentrification, that are anti-development. These include: downzoning, which involves reducing the types of development that can occur; building moratoriums; improved tenants rights; rent control programs; inclusionary zoning that promotes an intermix of affordable housing in development projects; condo conversion protections; tax abatements; community land trusts; limited equity coop housing; and others.
He cautioned that given the complexity of these topics, planning and design media should not simply use terms like investment, revitalization, and redevelopment in their stories. “These empty euphemisms really create more of a problem.”
And that flowed into Cassidy’s broader critique of the prevailing analyses on gentrification. “We need to look at the impact on neighborhood composition and character rooted in community identity. When change occurs, it triggers an emotional response that’s beyond empirical measure. It’s an existential change in which neighborhood familiarity is gone. Your community literally disappears before your eyes, which is emotionally draining.”
Kelly Majewski, Affiliate ASLA, an urban designer at Superjacent in Los Angeles, delved into the ethical responsibility of landscape architects and designers in gentrifying cities. She wondered if the “spirit of a place can guide ethical building.” She said community “authenticity, distinctiveness, and narrative” are worth preserving, even if “change has become a constant.”
If a landscape architect sees gentrification happening in a community, then “it’s too late; policy and planning have already made an impact.” But she also argued that efforts to slow gentrification with projects that try to undertake the “just green enough” approach won’t work. These kinds of park and other public space projects call for making improvements that may please locals, but are not so grand as to attract outsiders. Majewski said “these projects don’t make a ton of sense; they are both inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time.” And, furthermore, how does a landscape architect decide where to stop: will that one extra tree make it too nice?
In the Q&A, Charles Cross, ASLA, an African American landscape architect with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, stood up and said the “landscape architecture profession must diversify” if it wants to play a greater role in fighting gentrification. In a recent survey of graduating landscape architecture students, African Americans are still at only 3 percent of the student body. Much more work needs to be done to ensure landscape architects look like the communities they are helping.
“There is no way of overcoming the visual boredom of big plans. It is built right into them because of the fact that big plans are the product of too few minds. If those minds are artful and caring, they can mitigate the visual boredom a bit; but at the best, only a bit. Genuine, rich diversity of the built environment is always the product of many, many different minds, and at its richest is also the product of different periods of time with their different aims and fashions. Diversity is a small scale phenomenon. It requires the collection of little plans” — Jane Jacobs, Can Big Plans Solve the Problem of Urban Renewal, 1981.
In Vital Little Plans, a new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s compelling arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people.
In essays and speeches that range from the 1940s — years before she became famous for TheDeath and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 — to 2004, just two years before her death, we learn how her thinking evolved and grew more ambitious, but was always rooted in what she learned from watching people interacting on the streets.
In 1958, a few years before she published Death and Life, she writes a thoughtful piece for Fortune magazine, contrasting her experience walking through the liveliest parts of cities with the deadening urban renewal projects to come, the projects she saw as killing organic, small-scale diversity through a homogenized, imported model. Early on, she identified the faults of those vast Modernist urban design projects: “They will be spacious, park-like, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery. And each project will very much look like the next one.”
To fight these projects, she then called for urban citizens to empower themselves by thinking critically about cities and then making their thoughts heard and influence felt. “Planners and architects have a vital contribution to make, but the citizen has a more vital one. It is his city after all.” Citizens must go out and really study their city. “What is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.”
For Jacobs, walking, and later biking, were central to experiencing that attractive diversity of city life. As such, any transportation plans that undermined walkability, that downgraded the status of the pedestrian on the street in favor of cars, were anathema to her, as we would later see in her committed advocacy to stop New York City planner Robert Moses’ effort to put an expressway through her beloved Greenwich Village. Her writings in the 60s also made the case for architectural preservation, which she viewed as central to the aesthetic diversity that makes cities a visual adventure. For Jacobs, diversity in the built environment was not only an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.
After leading the assault against urban renewal for multiple decades, beginning in the 1980s, she began to write more ambitious, theoretical essays that explore the “ecology of cities.” For her, this was less about urban ecosystems, but the intricate dance of systems that drive innovation, that make cities the place to be not only for social and cultural life, but also make them critical economic drivers. “A natural ecosystem is defined as ‘composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.’ A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethnic processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.” She again relates the importance of diversity: “Both types of ecosystems — assuming they are not barren — require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihood in either kind of ecosystems, the greater its capacity for life.”
Her speech in 1984 on the need to enhance diversity through specific policies that support multiculturalism, which in turn supports innovation, is just as important today. Analyzing her adopted city — Toronto, Ontario, which she moved to in the early 70s — she says: “The Canadian ideal is expressed metaphorically as the mosaic, the idea being that each piece of the mosaic helps compose the overall picture, but each piece nevertheless has an identity of its own. As a city, Toronto, has worked hard and ingeniously to give substance to this concept.”
In the last years of her life, she became increasingly concerned about the future of urban development, about whether diversity, enabled by the many, many “vital small plans,” would win out or be trampled by the forces of gentrification, homogenization, and governmental centralization. In the Vincent Scully Prize lecture at the National Building Museum in 2000, she identified future threats to that diversity. For example, she saw that immigrant communities could no longer afford to take root in downtowns, thereby enriching cities from within, but often landed farther out in sprawled-out suburbs that limit their positive cultural and economic impacts.
She was also fearful of the World Bank and other international development agencies, along with national and metropolitan governments, that intervene in the intricate economic life of developing world cities by investing in major infrastructure projects that can wipe out diversity on the ground. She seems to equate the “comprehensive planning efforts” of the World Bank with Robert Moses. In a talk at the World Bank in 2002, she tells their leadership that it’s best to do no harm — and not invest at all — rather than inadvertently upset the dynamics of a balanced urban ecology. “The minute you begin to prescribe for cities’ infrastructure or programs comprehensively, you try to make one size fit all.”
To the end, she stayed true to what she knew: successful, vibrant, happy cities arise out of the visions of many, not the powerful few.