Can Parks and Public Spaces Really Alleviate Economic Segregation?

Philanthropy has helped create great parks in U.S. cities, but can also feed into inequality and gentrification. A group of funders wants new public spaces to actually bridge economic divides—how much can they help?  

The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl wrote, now famously, about Manhattan’s High Line Park, “As a catalyst of neighborhood change, the High Line has been to usual gentrification what a bomb is to bottle rockets.”

The High Line is a frequently cited example of how the stunning public spaces that are reshaping our cities, many with huge philanthropic support, are not alleviating or are even contributing to the deep problems of economic and social segregation in American cities.

Parks and placemaking are certainly important to cities—it’s worth noting that Schjeldahl’s piece is primarily one of praise for the High Line, and it’s not fair to saddle such efforts with the growing inequality in cities. 

But they are part of the equation, and one that we have to figure out—how do great new public spaces and the funds that build them interact with poverty and segregation? Are they making things worse, or perhaps more importantly, can they make things better? 

The latter is the question a coalition of four national funders are attempting to answer, putting $20 million toward four cities to extend a Philadelphia pilot program that started in 2014. The goal of Reimagining the Civic Commons is to demonstrate “how investments in public spaces can reverse recent trends of economic and social fragmentation.”

The four funders—JPB, Knight, Kresge and Rockefeller foundations—have all, in their own ways, sought to fight city poverty already, some even taking on placemaking as a tool. 

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In this new endeavor, Akron, Detroit, Chicago and Memphis will join the effort, backed with another $20 million in matching funds coming from local sources, to create connected and environmentally sustainable public spaces that bring together people of different backgrounds to “begin to reknit our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation.”

The project recalls a better time when civic assets were places that “served rich and poor alike as neutral ground where common purpose was nurtured,” lamenting that segregation by income and rise of personal technology has degraded support for such shared spaces. 

Now, I put quite a lot of stock into public assets like parks, libraries and community centers, but I have to admit I’m skeptical that better gathering spaces can really impact something like economic segregation, considering the entrenched systemic issues behind it. Blaming personal electronics is also kind of odd.

That being said, the program is an admirable effort to approach philanthropy that supports public spaces within the context of economic and racial disparities in cities.

For one, a lot of the projects on the docket both in Philly and the four new cities are pretty much straight-up neighborhood revitalization and blight reduction efforts, trying to bring new life to areas of cities that have been neglected. 

In Detroit, funding will go toward two projects to turn abandoned buildings and parcels into a greenway, a community hub, and opportunities for mixed-use retail. Chicago’s proposals will redevelop four public sites on the South and West sides of the city. In Memphis, grantees will turn four blocks of property along the Mississippi River that carry negative public perceptions into common spaces for arts and culture. One of the Philadelphia projects is similarly working to re-engage communities with a section of the Schuylkill River waterfront.  

Another strong running theme is reconnection. Urban planning has a long history, by intention or neglect, of isolating low-income and minority neighborhoods from city assets and other communities. This program aims to better connect diverse neighborhoods. Some of the above-mentioned projects use greenways to connect parts of town, as does the Akron project, which aims to remake three public spaces in economically diverse neighborhoods into a chain connected by one trail. 

Both approaches, revitalization and connection, are great goals when making new public spaces. But it’s a high bar to demonstrate how bringing people together in these spaces can bring about increased economic opportunity. There are urbanists like Jeff Risom, chair of Knight grantee the Gehl Institute, whobelieve public spaces can, in fact, address equity issues by inviting civic engagement like voting and organizing. 

But the driving forces that concentrate poverty in cities—systemic racism, low wages, poor transportation options, sky-high housing costs, harmful infrastructure, and decades of segregation via housing policy—run very deep. 

These things are hard to undo, and there are real pitfalls that parks philanthropy can have negative consequences like inflating costs of housing or cultural mismatch. Even with community outreach, it’s all too easy to design a new park that’s for future residents, not current residents, as some people surrounding one of the Philadelphia projects have feared. Parks advocate and consultant Kathy Blaha has written about the importance of linking park investments with other neighborhood investments and enacting mechanisms like community benefit agreements to address poverty conditions.

Some of the projects in this initiative do include elements of community programming, such as vocational training in the Chicago project, small business development, and community services in Detroit like technical and employment support for businesses and residents in the area.  

In the end, that’s probably the most promising thing about Reimagine the Civic Commons. 

Whether well-designed public spaces can truly unite residents in a way that increases opportunity and equity is up for debate. But at the very least, the project addresses the importance of viewing parks and placemaking philanthropy, not just as making cool places, but as one thread woven into the larger economic fabric of a city.

Related:The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)