Fellow Nette Compton, reflects on equity and access to quality public space as part of our Trust by Design campaign. Nette is Associate Vice President, Director of Strategy at The Trust for Public Land. As a registered Landscape Architect, she oversees and coordinates national urban park programs and initiatives including creative placemaking, design quality, sustainability, green infrastructure and climate change.

As the lexicon of COVID-19 and novel coronavirus occupy our consciousness, our newsfeeds, and our very livelihoods, I’m struck by the use of the term novel. I always gravitate to terms that have some dissonance between our everyday usage and the more tightly hewn usage in science. In this case, it’s the dissonance between a particular virus which might be new, and the very old, persistent, and well documented problems that it has exacerbated. 

In my world of parks, the need to get outside safely and enjoy nature has always been critical. This spring and summer, some have been able to use their parks as one of the few remaining respites still available, with many parks seeing unprecedented use. But that opportunity is not afforded equitably across communities: In NYC, parks within a 10-minute walk of a majority of low-income households are on average 2 times smaller than parks within a 10-minute walk of high-income households (6.4 acres compared to 14 acres) and serve almost twice as many people (211k compared to 124k people per acre).

This is an issue that requires solutions that consider equity, and specifically racial equity. The scars of redlining and other racially-informed prioritization of resource distribution play out in neighborhoods all around us. Parks that are within a 10-minute walk of a majority Black population are on average 3.8 times smaller than parks that are within a 10-minute walk of a majority White population (7.9 acres compared to 29.8 acres). Parks in neighborhoods with higher (over 67%) concentrations of BIPOC residents fare worse, with smaller parks serving higher concentraions of people. On average, these parks are 5 times smaller and are within a 10-minute walk of 1.8 times as many people (221k compared to 125k people per acre) compared to parks that are within a 10-minute walk of high-proportions of White population. And these are the inequities we can more easily measure; they do not capture whether the smaller and more concentrated parks available to residents are clean, safe, welcoming, and inclusive to those they are meant to serve.

Solutions to these complex patterns won’t come overnight. Building a park to be community-focused, inclusive, loved, that work takes time. Novel solutions, such as street closures, opening schoolyards, or adaptive land reuse can advance the physical data. But how and for who matter just as much. Design professionals and advocates (myself included) should take some lessons that are being elevated from the Black Lives Matter movement on how to be a better ally: listen, don’t rush to solutions, recognize that many people have been working on this issue for a long time. As we consider where we go from here, we should start with asking how we can be a better ally to communities to enact their vision for their public space. When starting with that question, we can create real change.