“As we live through this unprecedented time, we’re learning that each of us is facing a different pandemic depending on our social, cultural, and economic backgrounds and identities.”
That’s how Nidhi Gulati, Senior Director of Programs & Projects at Project for Public Spaces, opened Don’t Look Back: Equity and Recovery in Public Space During COVID-19, a webinar last month on the topic of equitable development that happened just days after the killing of George Floyd that sparked protests for racial justice across the country.
While COVID-19 continues to spread quietly in the United States, these protests have prompted organizations and individuals to take action, acknowledge their blind spots, and the roles they have played in perpetuating inequities, in order to address the pandemic of racism that has been with us for far longer. While ending police violence may be one of the most urgent needs, systemic racism infects our society in many ways, from our governmental policies to our systems of investment to our workplaces to the ways our public spaces are distributed, designed, and operated.
In this context, Project for Public Spaces convened a panel of leaders in equitable development to discuss the barriers that face communities of color in retail, real estate, and public space—which have only been magnified by the pandemic—and how to begin breaking down these barriers. Below, we have summarized five big takeaways from their conversation.
As another round of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation reminds us, police violence always hangs over the safety of Black Americans to walk through the streets. Black Americans also face other kinds of racist attacks, both verbal and physical, and similar threats also disproportionately affect other people of color, people with disabilities, indigienous people, LGBTQ+ people, and women. While public space can provide many benefits to health and wellbeing, those benefits cannot be accessed without ensuring personal safety and a sense of comfort for everyone. As Nidhi Gulati put it, “Walls are not always made out of concrete or water or brick and mortar. They can be very invisible little things. We can break them down if we care enough to ask.”
However, comfort and safety can mean different things to different people. It is also multifaceted, requiring coordination between design, management, policymaking, transportation planning, policing, arts and culture, and other factors that affect the experience of public space. “The perception of safety isn’t always based on design,” said Maggie Parker. “A lot of times, it’s based on the neighborhood you’re in, the background that you have.” Things that may make one person or community feel safe, like security officers or the beloved urbanist idea of “eyes on the street,” may make others feel unsafe and unwelcome. To illustrate this point, Bobby Boone asked the audience, “If you close your eyes, and I say the word ‘loitering’, what do you imagine? When I say ‘lingering’ what do you imagine?” Black and brown people are often policed for the exact same behaviors that are celebrated by urbanists when done by white people.
Likewise, Madison Morine told a story about a Latinx organization he has been working with in West Dallas. When he asked the group about parks that they like to spend time in, they responded that they did not feel comfortable in parks “east of the tollway,” going as far as to say they didn’t feel “allowed” to go there. Meanwhile, public spaces in districts where people of color live and feel more comfortable have often not seen proper maintenance or significant investment in years. “If public spaces are supposed to be this equitable avenue where everyone can have access to it,” continued Madison, “then why does it feel like some public spaces are built better or meant to hold people better than other public spaces?”
This challenge is particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. “If everyone has different thoughts of how bad the pandemic is, or how you get the pandemic, or how you can heal from the pandemic, then people are abiding by different social rules,” observed Maggie Parker. Without a clear and common understanding and appreciation of strategies like physical distancing and mask wearing, we not only risk a resurgence of the virus, but also make our public places feel less safe and comfortable for many people. In this context more than ever, as Madison put it, “People have to feel like you care for them in order for them to feel like they can be comfortable.”
When asked by Nidhi what cities should prioritize right now in terms of the design and programming of public space, all three panelists agreed that effective and genuine community engagement should be a top priority. “Engagement is huge,” said Maggie. “We need more people that are involved in providing input around what public space looks like in their community.”
But in a time when community engagement is often a matter of ticking a checkbox for many people who shape our public spaces, Madison emphasized that engagement requires a close examination and redistribution of power. “Who has the power right now?” he asked. “Where does the power lie? How can that power be divided out to people who don’t typically have that power?”
Bobby agreed, pointing out that exercising power requires genuine choices. For example, often planners or others come into a community already having decided which park or other public space they want to improve. When the community gets to select the locations of improvements, as well as the design and programming, it often results in a greater diversity of public spaces—alleys, parking lot transformations, parklets, park improvements, and so on, each with their own personality and purpose. These “smaller bites” of investment throughout a neighborhood demonstrate a higher level of care and investment. Business Improvement Districts and Main Street programs often do this kind of work, but many communities of color do not qualify or do not have the resources to support these kinds of organizations, demanding new models for place management.
The flip side, however, is that while everyone deserves a voice in the placemaking process, not everyone has the time, money, or confidence to participate in depth. As Maggie put it, “Y’all get frustrated because the same priorities that you have and you spend your life’s work on are not the same priorities for other people because we are privileged to be talking about these issues.”
“Everyday people are thinking about how do they feed their kids, how do they pay their rent, right? The fact that there’s a park down the street—they have no idea how it got there. They may not even have time to go to the community meeting to give input on what it looks like.”
That’s why inclusive engagement techniques, such as compensating participants, pop-up engagement in everyday places, building cultural competency, and meeting people where they are physically, socially, and mentally is extremely important.
While many cities have implemented open streets programs since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, these programs are often limited to walking, biking, and outdoor dining, and sometimes only reach downtowns and affluent neighborhoods. What’s more, these quick-build plans were often made without the direct input of the Black and brown communities that have been hit hardest by the virus and the recession.
Even where these policies are more equitably distributed, Madison argued that one major roadblock for business owners to take advantage of them is the need to navigate draconian municipal permitting processes. More should be done to simplify the process, take the responsibility off of busy business owners, or remove the need for a permit entirely.
Even after COVID-19 is no longer a risk, a more open policy about street vending could lower the barriers to starting a business in US cities. Building off of Madison’s point on permitting, Bobby argued that while it has become popular for cities to claim to support entrepreneurship these days, so often zoning, permitting, and other policies require people to go from selling nothing in person to paying rent in a brick-and-mortar shop at $50 per square foot. “That’s not a strong business strategy,” said Bobby.
Operating in public space can help bridge this perilous gap for entrepreneurs that do not have access to bank loans or substantial money from friends and family. If municipalities include street vendors, minority business owners, and public market vendors in crafting their response to COVID-19, the reforms they come up with could make meaningful gains in encouraging and diversifying entrepreneurship in the long term.
Madison described the effect of the virus on public budgets as “astronomical.” Budget cuts and layoffs have already begun, and at the moment, there is no end in sight. “To ask them to provide more would be difficult,” said Madison, “And at the same time, it would be difficult to ask businesses to provide more, too, because everyone seems to be struggling.”
For struggling governments, businesses, and district management organizations alike, Madison encourages decisionmakers to think carefully at what kinds of capital they already have. “What’s happening to vacant spaces right now, and how are they being used?” he asks. “Is there some sort of shift that could take place there?” This may require working closely with landowners to repurpose underused parking lots or other private open spaces.
“At this point, patios and sidewalks are prime real estate,” observes Maggie. “That’s how you can start to make additional money, whether that be a dining area, whether that’s a place where you can now sell your merchandise that is a little safer for people, that allows a little more social distancing.” This turns usual rules of real estate on its head where open space is often considered a liability, as it reduces the footprint of leasable space. Bobby agrees, wondering what businesses could learn from porches. “You know, the Black community, we have the porch historically: staying on the porch because we may not have the best air conditioning, once those things came out,” says Bobby. “That’s where you intersect with your community, that’s the public space… How do we integrate some of those things into current thinking?”
However, as has happened in past crises, hard times also frequently open up a real estate bonanza in Black and brown neighborhoods. “Vulture funds” swoop in to buy land cheap and flip it during the recovery, gentrifying the neighborhood in the process. Members of the community, including Black and brown developers, are often locked out of these wealth-building tactics by unfair policies and procedures, further exacerbating intergenerational inequality. However, Maggie and others are already thinking ahead on this front, planning to start their own vulture funds to preserve property for use by the existing community.
At the end of the webinar, the panelists offered the following resources to support further thinking about equitable development in our current moment of pandemic and protests:
You can watch the full video of Don’t Look Back: Equity and Recovery in Public Space During COVID-19, as well as other past webinars, on our Events page.