Can Parks Philanthropy Combat Urban Inequality?

As urban centers spring to life all over the country (with quite a bit of help from philanthropy), cities are struggling with problems like affordability, inequality, and segregation. A recent grant from the Knight Foundation will fund design of public spaces as a potential solution.

The growth of vibrant city spaces in recent decades is a boon in many ways. It’s signaled a move away from sprawl toward livable, walkable communities, and some of the best damn parks in the country. Philanthropy is playing a big part in this movement, as we’ve been documenting. 

But it’s not all pretty gardens and greenbelts. It's becoming increasingly difficult for people below a certain income level to afford living in some of these places. As cities become greener, more livable, and more sustainable, they run the risk of becoming enclaves for the wealthy. As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said recently: “A beautifully sustainable city that is the playground of the rich doesn’t work for us.”


It doesn’t work for the Knight Foundation either, apparently, as the funder’s grantmaking for cities and public spaces places a premium on fighting some of these problems. Most recently, Knight gave $1.6 million to launch a new urban design nonprofit, the Gehl Institute, that will pursue how research and design principles can create public spaces that improve economic opportunity and get varied groups of people to interact. 

“With nearly 70 percent of the world’s population projected to live in cities by 2050, and with the cost of urban life threatening to exclude younger generations, older residents, middle- and low-income workers, artists, and new residents, the need to enable cities to become platforms that facilitate participation and equal opportunity for all residents has never been greater,” wrote Jeff Risom, who will lead the new institute, in a Knight Foundation blog post

The Gehl Institute is a project of Gehl Architects, an urban design firm known for its “people-first” design, closely studying how design affects quality of life. The institute will use a few tactics to take this issue on. First, it will conduct research, studying how design can encourage different groups to interact. It will also run a series of community workshops in select cities where Knight operates, and run small experiments in these same places. The work will ultimately result in guides for mayors and citizens to make their public spaces into platforms for change.  

The Knight grant is an interesting development in philanthropy for public spaces and urban design. While the Gehl Institute will study all public spaces, parks and green spaces in particular have become a focal point for debates about urban revitalization, philanthropy, and the economic and social concerns surrounding the issue. 

On one hand, you’ve got philanthropy creating new treasures like the High Line, or connecting up isolated parts of cities with bike paths and hiking trails like in Houston’s Bayou Greenways. But there’s also potential for increasing inequality. In the worst case scenario, investors who live and work near a park can give huge sums to that beloved park, and then watch real estate values and rents rise. City leaders are grappling with reconciling the needs and benefits of parks philanthropy with the need to benefit all residents.


The Knight-funded institute will ask how well-designed parks and public spaces can make cities more beautiful and livable, while also fostering equality and bringing people together. If we see more philanthropy like this, it could serve as a way to ground the surge of parks funding, or at least develop some best practices as city leaders take on these problems.