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.

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