Equity and Public Space

Thoughts from the field


Hawthorne Park, Philadelphia. Image credit: Albert Yee, 2019.

As people in communities across the country recognize the vital importance of our shared public spaces to people’s well-being — a need made more insistent during this lengthy pandemic and era of mass national protest — architects, planners, community advocates and public space leaders are increasingly recognizing the role of the public realm in delivering equity in cities. In particular, people charged with designing, managing and operating public space are asking: first and foremost, what do we do to ensure all public spaces — natural and built — are safe and welcoming to all? How can civic assets actively contribute to trust between people as well as between people and institutions in an era of upheaval and protest? And what are the multitude of ways to build a more equitable future through our shared spaces? Here is a roundup of articles from thought leaders working at the intersections of equity and the public realm.

Democracy and public space go hand in hand

The work to provide equitable access to green spaces is inextricably linked with helping people in disinvested neighborhoods participate in shared decision-making and public process, says Shanelle Smith Whigham, the Ohio State director for the Trust for Public Land (TPL) in Grist. “A park is more than just a physical place to build relationships,” she writes. “It’s a community tool to amplify people’s voices.” Using public spaces for participatory democracy activities means assisting people with vote-by-mail, distributing masks for public health, holding inclusive parks planning outreach and encouraging census completion — anything that amplifies the voices of people who need to be heard.

How to make public space more race equitable

Ever since the protests following the murder of George Floyd, the world of architecture, urban planning and parks has been grappling with the intersection of race and public space. In this article, nine thought leaders speak with LA Times staff writer Carolina Miranda, taking on issues from the geographic inequities in the distribution of park space in different neighborhoods to the need for planning outreach that addresses the emotional needs of neighbors to the power of deep listening in civic engagement.

Urbanists must address anti-Black racism

North of the U.S. border, award-winning placemaker and author Jay Pitter issued an open letter to her field entitled A Call to Courage: An Open Letter to Canadian Urbanists. The letter asks urbanists “across cities, racial backgrounds and professional disciplines to embrace the spirit of humility and curiosity to learn more about the history of anti-Black racism and urbanism, and not only speak out against anti-Black racism and all forms of urban inequities but also to have the courage to address these issues.” In her recommendations for change, she calls for a shift from conflating “an embrace of equity with compromising excellence” and a commitment to “identify and actively work to reduce power imbalances when engaging communities — especially those with histories of exclusion and/or marginalization.”

Connecting with nature is an equalizer

Rue Mapp’s love of nature — and her desire to connect Black Americans to the outdoors — led her to create the national non-profit, Outdoor Afro, which has networks in 30 states and participation from 40,000 Americans to date. In a Today Show interview, Mapp talks about her passion for ensuring people have the opportunity to connect to nature, even in the middle of cities. “We have to really rethink nature. Nature is not just in these hallowed national parks — it’s right in your own neighborhood.” (Interesting side note: Mapp recently took Oprah on a hike).

A young girl smiles at catching a fish.
Fishing at Akron’s Summit Lake. Image courtesy of Akron Civic Commons.

Championing an inclusive outdoors as a human right

In Outside Magazine, Black professional cyclist Ayesha McGowan challenges the overwhelmingly white outdoor industry to hire, represent and welcome BIPOC, in order to take action for a more diverse industry and increase inclusivity around opportunities for recreation. “We are more than our struggle, we aren’t just fighting to stop being murdered, we are fighting for the right and the ability to live full lives,” McGowan writes. “We want to ride bikes, climb mountains, traverse slot canyons, and surf waves.”

Fighting racism in the bike lane

In Bicycling magazine, Tamika Butler, Director of Planning for the State of California, and Director of Equity and Inclusion at architecture firm Toole Design Group, writes passionately about how tackling racism and creating transformative public space are all the same work. As former head of the Los Angeles County Bicycling Coalition, Butler advocated for better bike lanes and social justice simultaneously, and argues, “bicycling cannot solve systemic racism in the United States. But systemic racism can’t be fixed without tackling it within bicycling.” Tamika’s piece is one of a series of fourteen articles from riders who share their experiences about being Black in the cycling world.

The pursuit of equity is not a spectator sport

Finally, an article by Lynn Ross for our Medium publication details the specific and practical approach to equity in the American Planning Association’s recently adopted Planning for Equity Policy Guide and the different ways that equity in public space is being activated in Reimagining the Civic Commons cities. Ross — the founder of Spirit for Change Consulting — reminds us that equity is an ongoing practice for all of us who believe better public space can change lives and communities: “Our libraries, parks, community centers, trails and sidewalks, waterfronts, and all other public spaces that enrich our communities should be intended for the many. And the pursuit of that equity — much like the pursuit of democracy — is constant. It’s not a spectator sport.”

Want to learn more about Reimagining the Civic Commons’ approach to advancing equity and resilience through shared public spaces? Download this recently released Urban Institute report Civic Assets for More Equitable Cities.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration of The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and local partners.