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Want Equity and Prosperity? Invest in Urban Public Spaces.

A robust, nature-rich and welcoming public realm of parks, streetscapes and civic facilities has an array of social benefits for disadvantaged communities.

A vacant lot in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood full of planted orange flowers.
In Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, local residents were hired to transform vacant lots into flowering meadows. (Alexa Bush)
In Detroit and Memphis, two ongoing public-space efforts that look very different on the surface point to a very similar conclusion: The public realm — the parks, streetscapes, community centers, trails and libraries we all share — is a critical policy tool for achieving greater equity and prosperity.

Residents in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood and near downtown Memphis face the same seemingly intractable problems we see in most American cities: segregation and concentrated poverty; chronic disinvestment in low-income and Black-majority communities; health disparities; growing distrust in institutions and in other people; and entrenched, systemic racism that is reflected in the built environment. The long-term lack of investment in the public realm has resulted in unhealthy, stigmatized and dangerous neighborhoods along with significant racial disparities in wealth.

The good news is that a growing body of research shows the myriad economic and social benefits of a robust, nature-rich and welcoming public realm. These include improved physical and mental health, better brain function in children, more self-reported happiness, cleaner air, more opportunities to build wealth, less gun violence and even increased trust between people and in local government. On the ground in Memphis, a collaboration of nonprofits and public agencies is using public-space design and programming to transform previously underused parks and a public library beside the Mississippi River into a series of reimagined, vibrant community spaces called the Fourth Bluff. An important first step in the project: Remedy the harm felt by many in this majority-Black city from two of the parks, which were named in honor of the Confederacy and hosted Confederate monuments.

Yet simply removing the names and monuments was not enough. Creating spaces that are welcoming to people from all backgrounds required intentional design, thoughtful staffing, and creative programming and activities over a period of several years. Parks were transformed from bare lawn into vibrant, verdant oases of nature, with new trees, native plants and meadows. Instead of monuments to the Confederacy, the parks were animated with art and performances by Black artists. Members of the local community were hired into newly created “park ranger” positions, charged with maintaining the spaces and welcoming every visitor. Today, a diversity of programming draws in people from different backgrounds, people who might otherwise never meet.
Three women dining in Memphis’ River Garden, part of the Fourth Bluff project to transform underused public parks and a public library.
Dining in Memphis’ River Garden, part of the Fourth Bluff project to transform underused public parks and a public library. (Ziggy Mack courtesy of Memphis River Parks Partnership)
In Detroit, neighborhood revitalization goes beyond singular, traditional investments in housing and commercial redevelopment. As part of the city’s work to repair the decades-long legacy of redlining, economic-development efforts in disinvested neighborhoods prioritize the public realm. In the Fitzgerald neighborhood, this included the construction of a new city park and greenway along with the transformation of a commercial-corridor streetscape. To increase the local economic impact of the project, local residents were hired to prepare the site for the park and transform vacant lots into flowering meadows. The program’s success has led to its scaling into a multi-neighborhood, transitional-workforce program that will employ up to 100 people. The city is leveraging place-based improvements into investments in human capital, contributing to neighborhood stabilization.

Based on our experience, we believe that focused investment and intentional management of public space is a critical policy lever that can advance more shared prosperity in American communities. Here’s how:

• Reducing racism and building trust. Racism and neighborhood stigma have material effects on Black-majority communities, impacting the long-term trajectory of neighborhoods and the people living within them. Acknowledging legacies of racism in the public realm is paramount — and must be followed by action. Co-creating with community members welcoming environments that support public storytelling and memorials that center the experiences of disadvantaged communities, hiring staff that reflect the diversity of visitors, focusing on the experience of those visitors, prioritizing multimodal access to public space, and ensuring marketing and programming that encourage people from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in the space can reduce the impact of racism and increase trust.

• Delivering health equity. Communities of color are more likely to have fewer public spaces, experience danger in public space and have less access to nature. Investing in a dignified, well-connected and nature-rich public realm for all people improves public health. From ample tree canopy and sidewalks to access to greenspaces, every infrastructure investment is an opportunity to make the built environment safer and more inviting, encouraging physical activity and time in nature. Prioritizing maintenance is also critical, as studies show that a poorly maintained public realm negates many of its health benefits.

• Advancing equitable wealth creation. The public realm offers ample opportunities to direct resources to places most harmed by racist policies. Local hiring and procurement can leverage place-based improvements into direct investments in human capital. Public space can also increase interactions across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, reducing the racial wealth gap. Intentional investments that bring together people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds can also help shift negative stereotypes.

Our parks, streetscapes, community centers, trails and libraries are critical missing pieces of our public policy, even though investment in them can markedly advance equity and prosperity. As communities focus on recovery and economic growth, we should seize the urgent and unprecedented opportunity to prioritize these shared assets to deliver on social, economic and environmental goals.

Alexa Bush is the program officer for the Detroit Program at the Kresge Foundation and a former design director for the city of Detroit. George Abbott is the director of external affairs for the Memphis River Parks Partnership. Both are members of a cross-sector working group that wrote Place Driving Equity, a new publication detailing the research, public policies and actions that can deliver shared prosperity through investments in public space.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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