Equity in the Commons

Lynn Ross
Reimagining the Civic Commons
10 min readSep 26, 2019

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A joyful swing ride at Mud Island Park. Image credit: Yomira Arrese.

I grew up in Joliet, Illinois — a city rich with history. Home to both the first Dairy Queen and the oldest public community college in the U.S., it is often more well known for its pop culture references (please keep your Blues Brothers and prison jokes to yourself.) My childhood overlapped with an interesting time in Joliet’s long history — the 70s and 80s — when the city was experiencing significant economic turmoil. Even during this downturn, there was one thing my hometown always had in abundance: great public spaces.

I learned how to swim and how to paint at the rec center at Inwood Park. I spent hours exploring history and other worlds at the main library downtown. I went on countless adventures exploring nature in Pilcher Park. I did all of these things for free or very low cost in the company of family, friends, neighbors and — importantly — lots of people I didn’t know and who didn’t look like me.

Why, you may wonder, does that matter? First, it matters because polarization and isolation are on the rise. Recent data from the Pew Research Center also shows that 64 percent of adults believe trust between people is in decline. Social isolation is recognized around the world as a public health crisis.

From an early age, I understood that public spaces — our civic commons — can be quite a powerful antidote to the “othering” that is so pervasive today. But this can only be true when those spaces are planned, designed, programmed and operated with equity as both the foundation and the intention of the work. We certainly have plenty of examples of what inequitable public spaces look and feel like, but how can equity show up in the commons?

Defining Equity in Public Spaces

Before we can set equity as the foundation and intention of our public space work, we need to first be clear on what we mean by “equity.” I subscribe to the definition advanced by PolicyLink which states that equity is the “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all.”

High quality design and management creates a welcoming place for all at River Garden in Memphis, TN. Image credit: Selavie Photography.

This definition also serves as the basis for the American Planning Association’s recently adopted Planning for Equity Policy Guide, an effort I had the pleasure of co-chairing and co-authoring. This policy guide is historic for APA in that it is the first time the organization has adopted a guide focused on advancing equity in all aspects of planning. The policy guide:

· Establishes that planning for equity is not an extra for planners and our allies in the built environment — it should be practiced as a hard skill.

· Confirms that the principles of equity should be at the core of all planning policies.

· Provides specific recommendations on a range of issues including climate change and resilience, education; health; housing; and mobility and transportation.

The guide also provides seven specific, practical policy recommendations that can be adopted by policymakers and advocates, summarized below, for advancing equity in public spaces:

· Policy 1. Broaden the conversation to ensure that diverse voices — especially those that are too often underrepresented — have multiple platforms to meaningfully engage and the opportunity to co-create public space.

· Policy 2. It is essential to measure impacts — more outcomes, than outputs — to understand how residents and others are making use of public spaces. Doing so will illustrate progress towards meeting goals and provide case-making support for additional public space investments. Measuring impacts will also inform how best to adjust public space investments and capital budgeting to address ongoing inequities.

· Policy 3. Leverage pop-up activations to engage residents in testing new ideas for public spaces. Temporary activations can be incredibly useful for demonstrating quickly and at lower costs a range of possibilities in public space. However, it is not equitable for neighborhoods to be treated as ongoing labs for testing ideas when there is no fulfilled promise of long-term investment in the public spaces serving that community. It is critical that pop-ups be tied to a larger strategy for investment and permanent installations or programming when they work.

Akron’s Summit Lake beach park started out as a prototype that was co-created with residents. Image credit: Katelyn Freil.

· Policy 4. Equitable public spaces prioritize creating a welcoming, high-quality, and well-designed experience for users regardless of geography, race, income or ability. This also involves ensuring spaces are consistently maintained to be safe, clean and in good repair.

· Policy 5. Promote inclusive programming that reflects the needs of the neighborhood by partnering with residents and surrounding businesses and community groups. Since neighborhoods are dynamic, programming should also be flexible enough to adapt to the changing interests and needs of those using the space.

· Policy 6. In addition to having a strategy for revitalizing existing public spaces, build a strategy that encourages the creation of new public spaces to expand access as well. Everyone deserves safe access to high quality public spaces, so it’s important to prioritize public space investments for revitalization and new spaces in neighborhoods that have been traditionally underserved.

· Policy 7. Connect public spaces to the community by celebrating local culture and honoring history. Integrating culture and history into public spaces can also provide additional opportunities to engage neighborhood elders and youth as well as local artists.

Residents help build a mural in Ella Fitzgerald Park. Image credit: Bree Gant.

These recommendations provide a more nuanced framing of what defines public space equity.

Embracing Multiple Approaches to Equity

Each of the APA recommendations that define public space equity are already being put into action through Reimagining the Civic Commons, a first-of-its-kind effort designed to advance a vision and practical implementation strategies for renewed and connected public places. The five teams — based in Akron, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia — are, in fact, helping to build a new field of practice around inclusive, equitable public spaces. Although the teams are part of a national initiative and they are all focused on executing that work through the lens of public space equity, each team is developing a model of practice authentic to their own community.

The Akron Civic Commons — working to connect three neighborhoods along the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail that connect them — has adopted a more incremental approach that is yielding transformational, equitable change. As Dan Rice, the team convener frequently notes, the work in Akron “moves at the speed of trust” with a focus on inclusive engagement, moving quickly to test ideas, and delivering on promises for longer term investments. The team recently shared a video showcasing how this approach is working at Summit Lake.

The Chicago demonstration is drawing on the rich cultural legacy of the South Side to breathe new life into spaces like the Stony Island Arts Bank. This work, centered on Black life and culture, engages residents to not only imagine a new community narrative, but to create it through art, cultural production, and opportunities for workforce training.

In Detroit, the team is creating a model in one neighborhood for turning vacancy into an asset, preserving homeownership and creating new housing opportunities, and revitalizing a commercial corridor all while using newly created public spaces as the catalyst. The backbone of their approach to public space equity is to first meet people where they are and then employ creative approaches — including mini-grants — to engage residents in ongoing co-creation and co-stewardship.

The Memphis team is reclaiming the riverfront and transforming a historic downtown library to be welcoming places for all. This welcoming spirit can be experienced in a number of ways from the diversity of programming offered to the friendly greeting every visitor receives from a River Garden park ranger.

The Philadelphia Civic Commons leverages their public works in five diverse neighborhoods into the model for a citywide $500 million investment program. The Rebuild initiative, with significant community engagement and programming, is investing new resources in the physical renewal of parks, libraries and recreation centers. The initiative is also prioritizing and supporting the use of design and construction services provided by women and people of color.

Saturday Free Boating at Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden. Image credit: Albert Yee.

Clearly, there is no one model for advancing public space equity nor is there a singular model for Reimagining the Civic Commons (this point was highlighted in a 2019 Knight Foundation report.) While it is important — and valuable — to learn from other places by lifting up what works (and what didn’t), it is equally important to remember that that each neighborhood has unique history, culture, politics, trauma, and dreams. Equitable public places don’t come in box with a plug-and-play toolkit for implementation. That toolkit — or model of practice — must be developed in place and in true partnership with the people who love that place the most: residents.

Advancing Equity is Ongoing

Equitable public spaces require creative, committed leadership as well as a thoughtful strategy that plans for equity in the long term. That strategy will almost certainly include reconsidering (1) how and where financial resources are allocated to support equitable investments; (2) how managers and staff are trained and supported in combating bias; (3) how programming partners and vendors are recruited, selected and evaluated; (4) how to create value in public spaces without displacing residents and local business; and (5) how to measure what matters to create a feedback loop that informs decisions and addresses persistent inequities.

Memphians enjoy a Night Market at River Garden. Image credit: Memphis River Parks Partnership.

The strategy should also consider how to support ongoing learning about equity. There are many communities and organizations who are engaged deeply in this work and who are also sharing what they are learning with a broader audience. Again, the purpose of these resources is not to wholesale adopt the material, but rather to be inspired, to learn and reflect, and to adapt best practice in the context of local needs and desires. In addition to the APA Planning for Equity Policy Guide discussed earlier, here a few other recent examples:

· The Reimagining the Civic Commons teams have helped to inform toolkits on value creation and meaningful measurement in addition to sharing reflections in real time via blog posts like this one featuring volunteer and residents leaders in Detroit and Memphis.

· A recent article on park equity by NRDC’s Sasha Forbes, outlines several efforts underway by the communities involved in the Strong Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), including work by the Los Angeles County Regional Park and Open Space Park District on an anti-displacement policy.

· The Government Alliance on Race and Equity issue brief Advancing Racial Equity in Public Libraries shares case studies from library systems across the U.S. working towards racial equity.

· The 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, DC has one of the most well-known and comprehensive equitable development plans underway in the U.S. The team and partners leading that work have made sharing insights from the effort part of their practice including sharing their equity toolkit.

· Building on their “Parks for Inclusion” initiative, which aims to improve access to health opportunities in parks and recreation for two million people by next September, the National Parks and Recreation Association released a Parks for Inclusion Policy Guide earlier this year.

· Equity in the Library, curated by Julie Stivers and Sandra Hughes-Hassell, Ph.D., provides a hub for resources on “equitable access and services, culturally-relevant programming and pedagogy, and diverse collections.”

· City Parks Alliance and the Urban Institute share funding strategies that support public space equity in the recently released Investing in Equitable Urban Parks Systems.

An intercept survey being conducted in Memphis to understand the social impacts of revitalized public space. Image credit: The Fourth Bluff.

The breadth and depth of this work and information should serve to remind us that public spaces are not extras or perks to be reserved for the few. I want every child to have access to quality public spaces where they are welcomed, engaged, and celebrated regardless of race, religion, immigration status, income, ability or zip code. I know from my own experiences in public spaces as a little girl just how affirming those experiences can be and the lasting positive impact those experiences can have well into adulthood.

Welcoming public spaces are more than just places. They are essential for civic life, play, belonging, health equity, and well-being. Anyone interested in addressing systemic and historic inequities in their community should be actively advocating for high quality public spaces that are welcoming to all. After all, 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.

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

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Lynn Ross
Reimagining the Civic Commons

Urbanist I Houser I Strategist I Founder of Spirit for Change Consulting, LLC