Equity and Parks

Last week, our friend and colleague, Carol Coletta delivered a “master talk” to the 66th Annual Conference of the International Downtown Association. Carol is President & CEO, Memphis River Parks Partnership, and a recognized thought leader on urban issues. Here are her reflections on the role of parks and public spaces in meeting the key challenges of our time, overcoming social distance and building stronger and more successful communities.

Great public spaces, especially parks in and near downtowns can be an essential venue for social and economic mixing, promoting both vitality and empathy:  Equity does not sit in opposition to a thriving, appealing cityIt is central to it.  

Successful downtowns increasingly depend on great public space.  And great public space located in a downtown is more likely to be equitable space because of its location, not despite its location.  


Equity and Parks

These past six months have been more challenging to downtowns than any I remember – and I’ve been working on, investing in and living in downtowns for almost half a century.  We are being asked to reconsider everything we believe about downtowns – why they are important, and how they work.  

Carol Coletta

Not one of us really knows how this will all turn out.  But I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you there are two sure bets:  Investing in parks and Investing in equity. And if we do it right, an investment in parks will be an investment in equity.

Here in Memphis, we are in the final stages of a capital campaign to build a 31-acre park on the Mississippi River adjacent to downtown.  This follows the completion of three other capital projects on the riverfront in the past two years – the remaking of two parks that carried Confederate names and creating a five-mile bike/ped trail along our riverfront.  

Two other major projects are currently underway:  the restoration of the largest historic Cobblestone Landing in America and a complete transformation of our original “Main” library, also on the riverfront.  

This work was sparked by Memphis’ participation in a groundbreaking initiative called “Reimagining the Civic Commons.”  The initiative is supported by the JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation, along with, in our case, the Hyde Family Foundation and the City of Memphis. 

This initiative challenged us to think of civic assets as having purpose beyond the obvious – to lay claim to the reality that assets like parks, trails, libraries, cultural centers and the like can and should increase civic engagement, promote environmental sustainability, add value to their surrounding neighborhoods and promote socio-economic mixing.

You can think of it the four e’s:  

  • Engagement
  • Environment
  • Economy
  • Equity

But to do that – to get these assets to perform in new ways — is a heavier lift than I imagined when we birthed this five years ago.  Why?  

We encountered four principle hurdles:  

  • Parks, libraries, trails, and cultural centers are industries, whose leadership and employees have historically been trained, like most of us, to think narrowly and vertically about their work.
  • These assets are created and then operated with “minimum viable product” budgets that drive away people with financial options for where they spend time.
  • These assets are too often an afterthought for those who fund them.  They are considered “nice to have” but not essential infrastructure. 
  • The fear of “gentrification” looms so large that the desire to build and run great assets with the power to attract people across the income spectrum is immediately deemed suspect.

This last hurdle – fear of “gentrification” – is a special problem for civic assets built in downtowns.  Too often, downtown parks or cultural centers or libraries are considered “glamour assets.”  And they are located downtown.  Thus, they cannot possibly be equitable.  

I fervently disagree.  What we’re building in downtown Memphis demonstrates why.  

Yes, downtown Memphis is a neighborhood that has “turned around” from predominantly low income to higher income.  But it is surrounded on the east by a crescent of persistently poor neighborhoods – neighborhoods that are home to 40% of the city’s poor children.  The riverfront is within walking or biking distance of these kids.  And they come… every day.

In fact, the riverfront is some of the most equitable space in Memphis – it is free, it is open to everyone, it is one of the few public places in the region where you now find very poor people and very rich people sharing the same space.  The reason?  It feels like a vacation – special, elevated – because it is clean, it’s beautifully landscaped, it’s well designed and well managed, and it’s fun.  Turns out, if you create the right environment, people mostly enjoy being in the company of strangers.   

That’s in the DNA of any successful downtown.  You may have to work hard these days to get low income housing in downtowns.  But you typically don’t have to work hard at all to get low income people to public spaces in downtown.

Why does that matter?  Because sharing space regularly with strangers – including those who don’t look like you — breeds empathy.  Empathy is essential to community.  And community is essential to democracy.

As blues artist Keb Mo once put it, “You can’t feel ‘em, if you can’t see ‘em.”  The public space you create in downtown allows us to “see ‘em.”   

We know that if people of different incomes live in close proximity to one another, there is far more upward mobility for poor people.  The research on that is clear.

The problem is, we haven’t figured out how to make that alluring, to make that stick or to do it at scale.

We can’t force rich people and poor people to live near each other or send their kids to the same schools.  But we can encourage what I believe is the next best thing by seducing them into a shared, robust public life.  

Nothing about that is easy.  The design, maintenance and management of public space must be ambitious, sometimes clever and always resolute.  But public space that routinely attracts people across the income spectrum and across demographics feels to me like the “gateway drug” to shared community, a healthy democracy, and more equitable economies.

I wish we could all run the experiment on that.  Take the next five years and operate our public spaces and our downtowns through a mission lens of creating shared community, healthy democracy and equitable economies.  Sign me up for that!  

As ambitious as that may be, does our pursuit of equity end with providing space so alluring, so seductive that it attracts people of all incomes?  Hardly!

In addition to creating welcoming space for all, our equity strategy has three more parts.

It starts closest to home with staff and board.  How do we hire?  How do we pay?  How do we promote?  And how do we recruit to our board?  

The next layer is our contracting.  In our last two capital projects, we had Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise performance on one project at 43% and the other at 86%.  Our MWBE operating expense purchasing is at 38%, increasing from 8% in the two years since our current leadership team began. 

The final layer is connecting with the community.  And in Memphis, that means, in particular, African-Americans, because Memphis is a majority black city, in a majority black county, in a  metro area that is predominantly African-American.  If black Memphians aren’t showing up in big numbers in our workforce, on our board and in our parks, we are missing the market.  

We connect with the community in all the traditional ways, of course.  We show up at community fairs, we do talks, open houses, public Zoom meetings, we invited students to help us build one park, volunteers to help us on special projects each month and high school students to work alongside the design team on our new park.  We program specifically with socio-economic mixing in mind – different demographics occupying the same space at the same time.

But we are also working to establish welcoming physical connections to that crescent of disadvantaged neighborhoods just outside of downtown. It is striking how disconnected a neighborhood only 8 or 9 blocks away from the riverfront can feel because of missing sidewalks, dilapidated buildings and vacant lots.  We are working hard to change that. 

Is it enough?  No.  But the strategy I’ve described is mission-critical and is being accomplished with no major new “outside” funding.  

Convincing people to “live life in public” is one of the greatest services you and I can perform for our cities.  Because parks are not just places to unwind or recreate, just like downtowns are not simply places to conduct business.  They are deeply necessary platforms for equity.

Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, described the mixing we need in cities this way:  “Cities shine by bringing like-minded people in from the hinterland (gays, geeks, Jews, artists, bohemians), but they thrive by asking unlike-minded people to live together in the enveloping metropolis. While the clumping is fun, the coexistence is the greater social miracle.”  

So think of yourself as an alchemist trying to spark that social miracle of coexistence of unlike-minded [and unlike-looking] people.  When you believe that is at the heart of your mission, that’s where the equity work begins.  And in today’s very divided, very fraught, very threatened nation, it can, indeed, feel as daunting to achieve as a miracle.

But remember:  Equity does not sit in opposition to a thriving, appealing cityIt is central to it.  

The good news is that a commitment to equity should be the easy organizational choice.  

  • If you have a more diverse staff, you benefit from their diverse perspectives.  
  • If you grow the talent of your staff, you benefit and so do they.
  • If your board is more diverse, their broader networks benefit your mission.  
  • If you find more minority contractors, you have more choices on whom you hire.  Plus, you benefit from their support and their networks, and the community in which you exist and that you serve gets stronger.  
  • If your connections to the community are broadened (and deepened), you gain new perspective, new support, and in the best circumstances, you and your community get stronger.

We don’t know all we need to know about the future of our downtowns just yet.  We don’t know how they will change.  

But we do know this:  Great downtowns increasingly depend on great public space.  And great public space located in a downtown is more likely to be equitable space because of its location, not despite its location.   

If there is anything the past six months have taught us, it is this:  public space and the pursuit of equity are more important than ever.  They ought to be joined at the hip.  This is the moment for us to make big bets on both because they are the most certain bets we can make.

Why cities need to embrace change

This is the text of a speech delivered in Detroit to the Congress for New Urbanism conference by Carol Coletta, a senior fellow at the Kresge Foundation’s American Cities Practice.

Could there be a more apt place to observe “The Transforming City” than Detroit?

On behalf of Rip Rapson and my colleagues at the Kresge Foundation, welcome to Detroit. If you travel to Detroit regularly, as I have over the past 15 years, you see that Detroit changes quickly.

The speed of change here sometimes takes your breath away.

Carol Coletta

How many of you have walked the Detroit Riverfront or ridden the Dequindre Cut?

Visited the expanding Eastern Market?

Seen the Q Line construction on Woodward?

Eaten a meal at Selden Standard or Wright & Company, one of those meals so special that it deserves its own social media channel?

Walked the streets of downtown or Midtown and discovered Great Lakes Coffee, City Bird, or the El-Moore Lodge?

Or met Claire Nelson at the Urban Consulate, or any one of Detroit’s arts and civic innovators responsible for some of the most exciting urban work in the country?

This is the Detroit you can see right outside this theatre.

But there is another Detroit, one that is harder to see. It’s the Detroit that feels threatened by the pace of change in the city, suspicious of newcomers eager to be part of the change, and wondering when their loyalty to Detroit will be rewarded.

Such feelings are not unique to Detroit. Every morning my Google Alerts brings a new batch of headlines from around the country detailing the gentrification battles.

Because “new urbanism” is the butt of some of this criticism, I want to spend the next few minutes unpacking the myths and the realities of gentrification and what those of us who care about great places can do about it.

First, let me share some numbers.

In 1970, about eleven hundred urban Census tracts were classified as high poverty.

By 2010—40 years later—the number of high poverty Census tracts in urban America had increased from 1100 to more than 3,000. (3165)

The number of people living in those high poverty Census tracts had increased from 5 million to almost 11 million. And the number of poor people in high poverty Census tracts had increased from 2 million to more than 4 million.

So over a 40-year period, the number of high poverty Census tracts in America’s core cities had tripled, their population had doubled, and the number of poor people in those neighborhoods had doubled.

Given that record, I’ll bet a lot of people are hoping for a little gentrification– if gentrification means new investment, new housing, new shops without displacement.

The idea that places might benefit from gentrification runs against the popular narrative. But here’s the really startling fact: only 105 of the eleven hundred Census tracts that were high poverty in 1970 had rebounded to below poverty status by 2010. That’s only ten percent! Over 40 years!

A similar study of Philadelphia by Pew found almost exactly the same result in that city’s neighborhoods. There, ten times as many poor neighborhoods (164) experienced real declines in income as experienced gentrification since 2000.

It is the lack of gentrification that we rarely count and never see. The deterioration happens too slowly for us to notice. But it doesn’t mean the deterioration isn’t devastating. In fact, the high poverty neighborhoods of 1970 lost 40 percent of their population in 40 years.

You could make the case that poor people are displaced from poor neighborhoods because of their poor schools, their lack of jobs, their more chaotic public spaces, their lack of opportunity.

Understand, this is not the fault of the people who live there. This is a public policy failure.

But… when a combination of government intervention, philanthropic support, community development, and market forces combine to change a place as quickly as Detroit—even when that change means new residents, new jobs, and new places to live—it also rightfully generates concern.

See, we are conflicted about change. Many of us wish we could fix place in time.

But neighborhoods do change. You know that. You change them. And when change results in mixed income neighborhoods—in other words, when we achieve investment without displacement — it’s good for everybody.

The research on this is quite clear: The ability of people to improve their economic status from one generation to the next is strongly correlated with mixed-income neighborhoods.

Many of the public policy interventions to achieve economically integrated neighborhoods have supported poor people moving to wealthier neighborhoods. But that is an expensive, slow political slog that is hard to scale.

But what if we flipped that script? What if… we could lure people with financial options about where they live to disinvested neighborhoods—resulting in the kinds of places that enable opportunity?

And what if we also made a special effort to insure that the people remaining in low-income neighborhoods—people without options about where they live—what if an extra effort were made to insure they benefited from new people and new investment in their neighborhoods?

The research tells us that mixed-income neighborhoods benefit poor people naturally. But can we double down to accelerate those benefits?

Think of it this way: Can we get gentrification with broadly-shared benefits.

I think so. But it’s not easy. Remember: Only 10 percent of high poverty neighborhoods “gentrified” over the past 40 years. And today we have triple the number of high poverty neighborhoods than we had 40 years ago.

Clearly, mixed income neighborhoods won’t happen if we don’t work at it.

So how can we do that?

First, let’s acknowledge that, for the first time in 50 years, the market is moving in our favor. People (and jobs) are moving to cities. We need to see that as the opportunity it is to get mixed-income neighborhoods and not fear good, thoughtful development.

That means we can’t let NIMBYs win the day. The same people who complain about high prices also complain when developers show up to build more supply. We have to make the connection between supply and demand for the protesters and the press.

But attention must be paid to creating more mixed income housing. Our success on this has been mixed, and I’m struck by the comparison on methods used in NYC and in Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District to create more affordable housing in mixed income settings.

As City Observatory reported, The City of New York, one of the nation’s hottest housing markets, has had inclusionary zoning for the past 10 years. And over that time, the city has produced an average of 280 units per year for a total of 2800 units.

In contrast, Portland took a very different approach. Portland used additional property tax revenue from construction in one neighborhood to subsidize affordable housing. Using just a third of such revenues from The Pearl District (along with Low Income Housing Tax Credits), Portland has built more than 2300 units of affordable housing—almost as many units as the much larger New York.

Portland’s Pearl District is an example of a desirable neighborhood. The cost of desirable neighborhoods goes up. And it is the fear of rising costs, new investment, (and sometimes a changing demographics) that spawned the “just green enough” movement.

Think about that: Disinvested neighborhoods lack access to parks and quality public space. But wait! Let’s not make it too nice for fear it will attract new investment. That’s craziness born out of legitimate frustration when prices start going up.

The fact that buyers and renters are willing to pay more for quality neighborhoods means we need to build more of them, not fewer of them.

How do we do that at scale?

When someone calls for new investments in infrastructure to stimulate the economy, will we be ready with a plan that defines infrastructure as something more than roads and bridges?

Why can’t “infrastructure” include new and redesigned parks and libraries, neighborhood community and cultural centers, trails and gardens—a reimagined civic commons? That’s the defining line I want to hear from our next president. I want so many desirable neighborhoods that people will have good choices at all price points.

The way we live today is changing so fast. We are decoupling and recoupling. We have mothers raising kids alone, and people delaying childbearing—some forever—who want to help. We are sharing jobs, cars and homes. We are retiring later and living longer. And our lives, increasingly, are lived in public.

We need to ready our cities for these changes. We need to figure out how to revalue what exists and give new life to the material, the buildings, the neighborhoods, the cities and the people we too often discard and write off.

Equity does not sit in opposition to a thriving, appealing city. It is central to it.

This is the work of CNU. This is your work. And that’s why I’m happy to be with you here in Detroit to celebrate and learn alongside you this week. Thank you for inviting me.