Race, Green Space, and the Limits of Design, by Talha Awan

November 27, 2020

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On a sweltering summer day in Richmond, Virginia, Veronica Taylor, a 40-year-old resident of a low-income Black neighbourhood, walks for more than half an hour across the city with her two young boys to reach a park in a wealthy, white neighbourhood. The trip is gruelling, as summer temperatures soar past 35 degrees Celsius. However, for Veronica, the effort is worth it. She takes her children from their local playground that lacks shade – with gyms and slides baking in the sun – to the cooler, tree-lined park. “Once we get to the park,” Veronica says, “I’m struck by how green the space is – I feel calmer, better able to breathe.”1

People who live in greener surroundings feel happier, healthier, and safer. Fundamentally, we are hardwired to connect to natural spaces and be in close contact with nature. At an individual level, exposure to nature reduces our stress levels, restores attention, and fosters physical activity. At a community level, social cohesion builds between people who reside in greener settings. Conviviality increases between residents, protecting their mental health and reducing their likelihood of suffering from petty crime. Parks and green spaces, then, are necessary and critical environmental amenities, which should be equitably dispersed for public access.

The Green Space Paradox

In many cities like Richmond, where Veronica Taylor and her children live, a pattern can be observed. Decades of systemic racism, lack of concerted action, has left BIPOC communities facing public health disparities and inadequate access to safe, maintained green space. Jennifer Wolch et al. recognize this uneven accessibility to urban green areas as environmental injustice, “warranting intervention,”2 and mention an important caveat – the urban green space paradox. Addressing park poverty in BIPOC communities improves public health. Still, it also makes neighbourhoods more attractive and desirable, which escalates housing costs and leads to the displacement of the community members that the green space was meant to benefit. In this way, urban greening projects can set off rounds of eco-gentrification. As Wolch et al. contend, a challenge is to design interventions that are “just green enough,” whereby BIPOC communities gain green space access while preventing eco-gentrification.3

Park Design for Social Justice: A Complicated History

At the behest of Scott Larson, the long history of urban parks, designed to promote some notion of social justice, is fraught with examples of lofty rhetoric failing to meet its aims. This, Larson argues, is because urban park design is limited in its capacity to address broader social issues.4 Larson also conveys a faulty assumption that designers are unfounded in their commitment to utilizing space design to reshape the socio-economic processes that contribute to urban issues – calling it a “stubborn belief.”5 This is in stark contrast to what is suggested by contemporary proponents of health-supportive architecture. By deliberately implementing the health-promoting aspects of design, architects and designers can solve significant societal challenges, lead change, and improve quality of life.6

Larson provides good reasons to support his argument that design has a limited influence on social issues. For example, he mentions Lawrence Halprin, the designer of Denver’s Skyline Park, who explicitly sought to instill a “strong sense of social purpose” in the design process by championing public participation, which would allow social equity issues to inform changes in the built environment.7 However, while negotiating with a commitment to social equity in the park’s vision plan, competing demands of economic growth and capital accumulation prevailed.8 Halprin’s proposal runs headlong into the rigid reality of real estate development and the very forces perpetuating inequities. Through this, Larson successfully conveys the limits of park design’s ability to influence social justice. Based on such examples, Larson considers the only way forward to be a radical break from the current way of doing things. He advocates for “wholly new modes of spatial production” to counter capitalist urbanism. Designing for social justice can serve in “articulating alternative, transformative visions of space.”9

Articulating Alternative Visions of Urban Green Space

Wolch et al. argue that the “just green enough” approach is a viable alternative to address the green space paradox. The references cited succeed in demonstrating an effective process, even if slightly outside the realm of park design – i.e., environmental remediation and ecological restoration. This approach must be shaped by community concerns, needs and desires rather than normative practice in urban design.10 Based on this community-oriented foundation, Wolch et al. propose alternative ways of incorporating green spaces into the urban fabric and evenly distributing access to nature for urban residents. Instead of projects that contribute to eco-gentrification, they encourage bottom-up strategies, using underused urban infrastructure, including rail corridors, back alleys, and urban streets. By scattering the sites of these small-scale green space interventions, it can prevent the creation of a focal point for capitalistic property development, thus preventing them from co-opting the ensuing benefits. As Larson points out, we must articulate alternative and transformative visions of space when thinking of bringing about social justice through design.11 Furthermore, these alternative bottom-up strategies must be supported by anti-gentrification policies.

There is a need to reimagine what cities’ urban greening might look like if they were designed with more vulnerable populations in mind. The “just green enough” approach is promising. Still, it demands a careful balancing act that involves collaboration among various stakeholders and a willingness to contest mainstream real-estate interests. To truly diminish green space inequities in BIPOC communities, architects and planners must explicitly advance an agenda of public health, environmental equity, and social justice in urban communities. In doing so, we will push the limits of what design can achieve in the way of social justice.

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Brad Plumer, Nadja Popovich, Brian Palmer (2020, August 24). How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/24/climate/racism-redlining-cities-global-warming.html

Jennifer R. Wolch, Jason Byrne, and Joshua P. Newell. “Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities ‘just green enough’.” Landscape and Urban Planning 125 (2014): 235.

Wolch et al., “Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice,” 235.

Scott M. Larson, “Imagining social justice and the false promise of urban park design,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 50, no. 2 (2018): 392.

Larson, “Imagining social justice and the false promise of urban park design,” 395.

6 Andrew L. Dannenberg and Heather Burpee, “Architecture for health is not just for healthcare architects,” HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal 11, no. 2 (May 2018): 9.

Larson, “Imagining social justice and the false promise of urban park design,” 398.

Ibid, 398.

Ibid, 402.

10 Larson, “Imagining social justice and the false promise of urban park design,” 402.

11 Wolch et al., “Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice,” 241.

12 Larson, “Imagining social justice and the false promise of urban park design,” 403.

11 responses to “Race, Green Space, and the Limits of Design, by Talha Awan”

  1. michellebrais says:

    When discussing gentrification and eco-gentrification with my professor for real estate and planning, it became clear, that neighbourhood betterment efforts and revitalization will necessarily increase the land values around it if there are not equal services and amenities across a city. The reason the areas that are getting gentrified are affordable for low-income residents is because they lack the amenities that most people desire such as parks, accessible transit, clean air, less noise, public facilities, etc. To eliminate the spatial inequalities would require having equal amenities everywhere in a city. The supply would have to be much over the demand to keep housing prices low, which is very difficult to imagine, as Talha points out, in a capitalist system, especially when municipalities would gain the most from public investment returning higher property taxes. Given our imperfect spatial distribution of amenities then, as Talha points out, there needs to be anti-gentrification regulation such as renter protections, housing subsidies, and an adequate stock of social and affordable housing.
    To the point about co-designing integrated “green enough” space in underprivileged areas, Julian Agyeman, in his book Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice, recommends the same approach as Wolch et al.. When making green space, the city should aim to collaborate with local actors to create spaces that suit their needs. We need to move away from big showy projects that improve the image city officials and bolsters their political platforms and look into functional design of spaces to be appropriated by those most affected by them.

  2. Olivera Neskovic says:

    Eco-gentrification projects often lack a sustainable approach towards their design, construction, and maintenance, due to the involvement of private partners that push for aesthetic improvement while disregarding ecology. What I feel is missing from the discussions of both Wolch et al and Larson, is the concept of sustainability when it comes to “green” urban projects. We are currently living in a climate crisis and our municipal governments need to ensure that public projects will not be contributing to wealth inequality, which is further accentuated by climate change. Projects that improve the environmental conditions of neighbourhoods and contribute to local ecologies can truly improve the welfare of low-income communities. However, these initiatives must always be supported and closely monitored by municipal governments to ensure inhabitants in the surrounding area are protected from eviction due to raised rent.

    The “green enough” narrative can be dangerous, because it implies a shortcoming associated with the green space provided to a community. Affordable projects, social housing, and neighbourhood improvements often have stigmas attached to them which perpetuate false stereotypes about the people inhabiting those spaces. I think that as designers and architects we are responsible for developing sustainable, and intelligent projects that do more than just rebrand a community or “greenify” a space. Our focus should be on reducing inequality through projects that In this era of climate change and municipalities need to be more actively involved in the management of real estate in cities and enforce the provision of affordable housing for new residential construction. Sustainable development in cities ensures that housing opportunities are more evenly distributed, allowing for more equal development as well as distribution of public amenities.

  3. Aamirah says:

    Thinking about eco-gentrification raises many questions for me about the implications of trying to increase green space in urban areas, especially for the people who lack easy access to those types of spaces in the first place. We are often conditioned to see green and immediately equate it to something good, something that is generally better for the climate and for the people. However, this can lead us to completely miss the relationships that extend beyond the single moment in time in which we witness these environments. In her piece “Reciprocal Landscapes: material portraits in New York City and elsewhere,” Jane Hutton brings up the types of reciprocal relationships that are intrinsic to many urban parks, with a focus on material practices and labour relations. This way of thinking about green spaces as accumulations of relationships starts to dig at the stories behind them. It begins to recognize the people that are displaced to make room for “healthy” spaces and also the people that continue to be displaced after their creation. I think Larson also touches on this when he quotes Robert Hammond: “Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” If we design relationships rather than a desired aesthetic or visual appearance, we could begin to address underlying systemic issues at a deeper level.

  4. Christina Mahut says:

    Thank you Talha for your paper and these insightful readings. What is most striking and revealing to me, and what seems to be the common thread in our weekly discussions, is the idea of design with the goal of capital accumulation, as promoting a specific ideal. The understanding of the spatial imaginary as collective and yet so specific; Larson writes “Who gets to determine what constitutes social value and to control narratives of degradation and decay?”. This, to the same degree as our prison systems and our social housing projects, speak to the centrality of capitalism in design. The city as an economic machine becomes so clear: while social justice may be of importance, ultimately, policy and capital growth take over. Just as Larson explained, quoting Halprin, design and social justice cannot exist separately. Design cannot bring change alone without policy evolving: they must act together.

  5. Zoe Goodman says:

    City planning departments and designers can be blinded by the financial gains that come from new green space designs, like the high line in New York City which “attracted 34 new development projects worth more than $2 billion to neighboring blocks” as stated by Larson. It seems near impossible in our capitalist society for officials and designers to pass up opportunities which amount to financial gains like those seen after the opening of highline, without strict affordable housing policies.

    Wolch et al’s “just green enough” strategy, tries to combat the capitalist park design, providing BIPOC communities green space access while preventing “eco-gentrification”. This may be a solution for now, but it does not seem right to deprive low income communities from quality green spaces just to dodge the negative effects of gentrification. Another approach to socially responsible green space could be exploring typologies of green spaces which do not fit in “park, cafe, riverwalk” boxes ripe for gentrification as indicated by Wolch et al. Another question that comes to mind when we talk about the gentrification associated with “park, cafe, riverwalk” is the question of language used to describe green spaces. Is the language used to describe green spaces just as important as the design of the space itself?

  6. Michael Nugent says:

    Thank you Talha for this weeks readings and your wonderful essay. It made me think back to the SNAP Toronto project presented in Nik’s seminar a few sessions ago, and the notion of opening up public space by the municipalities for a grass roots or guerilla urbanism. To me this seems like win-win-win as it strengthens community through its creation without the municipal investment of traditional park construction, and the problems of green gentrification that it creates.

    Perhaps one way to overcome the green paradox is to simply allow open spaces to become overgrown or designating existing overgrown open spaces as green conservation grounds, similar to Champs des Possible in MTL. But I think the key to preventing gentrification is to embraces them as an urban wild, as Berlin did, rather than pulling a High Line.

  7. Ke Yan Ye says:

    The historical picture of park design depicted by Larson has shown how inequalities such as race, social class and equal access to education have long been covered behind the mask of city beautification and social unity. Eco-gentrification is only one of many phenomena of the socio-economical spectrum of implications of green space design. It urges urban planners and designers of the 21st century to cultivate a deeper understanding of the feedback loops between real estate markets and the production of green space and neighbourhood character. As geographic imaginaries are necessarily influenced by individuals, diverging perspectives need to be mediated by normative values and social norms in order to preserve sustainable urbanization and prevent the inequal distribution of amenities. Above all, it is crucial that community concerns, needs and desires dominate the discourse of articulation of green space as an ‘environmental justice issue’ as stated by Wolch. Therefore, the ‘just green enough’ approach in response to the green space paradox is a risky claim since it lacks a serious policy agenda.

  8. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    While the concept of redlining, racism, and injustice in urban planning is not new to me, I found the concept of eco gentrification deeply problematic to wrap my head around. Wolch addresses the subsequent gentrification that often follows large scale urban renewal projects, especially those projects that introduce much needed environmental reclamation in lower income areas. It is deeply disturbing to me that there seems to be this need for “just green enough” interventions. The guilty party in the equation is not in fact the “urban greening efforts” but rather the societal system rooted in capitalism that worships property value above the value of the human lives existing on said properties.

    Larson begins to outline the need to “not only articulate alternative transformative visions of space, but for the MEANS for bringing them about.” We need to root out the oppressive systems in order to build new socially just projects on stable, equitable foundations. No matter how equitable your intentions as a designer may be, in the current world of capitalist urbanism, they will consistently be undermined for private gains and monetary value. The effort needs to occur in tandem, putting forward socially just urban design along with challenging and changing the policies that forge the invisible lines in the sand that dictate our society.

  9. Christopher Clarke says:

    The thought that just green enough is the current state of affairs for people of colour is a sad one. However, it is one that also rings true in Canada’s Indigenous communities, and the Northwest Territories is no exception. The territory is 51% Indigenous, and many of the communities, especially the smaller ones, are mostly striped bare of trees and greenery, leaving a brown, dusty monochromatic ground plane.
    This, despite only having 90 to 500 people in the majority of communities, and being surrounded by 1.35million square kilometers of some of the most pristine forests and ecosystems in the world. However, the colonial governments have deemed a tabla rasa most appropriate in the creation of those communities that have a significant majority Indigenous population. Meanwhile, a very different story exists in those communities that have traditionally been seats of colonial governments or majority non-Indigenous.

  10. Jugal Patel says:

    Reflecting on this session – and in making sure my blog posts are finished up – I am encouraged by so many good topics trying to address how spatial disciplines wrangle with race and processes underlying racialization. Thank you Talha for your engaging session and essay on Green Space and the Limits of Design.
    Two points brought up in class have stayed with me: Olivera’s point on the framing of ‘green-enough’ and how we might need to rethink this narrative; and Michelle’s point on how design is fundamentally embedded in capitalism as the funds to accomplish projects come directly from taxes. And, as labour exploitation is no-doubt racialized, so to is the economic system we elect to design within (not that you have much of a choice).
    To Olivera’s in-class point: I agree! And while I worry that I personally am too concerned with how researchers frame things (thus my choice of controversial Agamben for my topic/week), I think this is framing is an excuse to not provide. I would carry to also to call for an urban wild. Besides the obvious connotations of wildness and race, suggesting we design a new type of green space for exploited (read: lower income) communities by letting green spaces re-wild themselves, places the onus of biodiversity unjustly on people who just need recreational green spaces. Besides, from a natural-social system coupling perspective: (de)industrialization, not the local biodiversity of a park, will be better associated with human livelihood.
    To Michelle’s in-class point: I wonder! What if we thought of access to green space as a health right? I’m thinking of the various government planned units in Singapore that provide public green space for each residential building. Of course we cannot go about planning in the way Singapore has, but I’m left disappointed that a tangible ‘roadbloack’ to good parks for exploited people is simply our tax system, who it caters to, and for what it was set up: the maintenance of a corporate capitalist economy.

  11. Andrew Ashbury says:

    Thank you Tahla for these fascinating readings on the challenges of urban green space and for the rapid fire design charette looking at heat island effect in Montreal.
    Larson’s piece offered a humbling description of the limited capacity of park design to address social justice issues. These limitations resonate with the challenges facing designers in designing buildings such as social housing, where communities might be struggling against segregation, poverty, and underfunded maintenance that quickly eclipses the design decisions.
    Wolch et al. advocate for the “just green enough” approach as a way to minimize the risk that new green space will lead to gentrification and displacement. Different phrasings such as “secretly green” or “secretly extremely green” focus on the more appealing aspects of this strategy for me, as they shift the emphasis of the strategy away from an implied reduction and towards stealthy, tactical specificity. The stealth strategy could emphasize abundant but alternate planting, like resilient low maintenance non-traditional species, and programing that avoids the “cafés and riverwalks”. Community participatory design would similarly often develop alternate green spaces by exploring their specific needs. I would hope that architects and landscape architects could subvert our typical “condo sales pitch” drawing skills in favour of a different style of representation more suited to the alternate planting and community specificity of these secrete green spaces.

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