Race, Place, and Public Space

(Originally published at Medium)

There were several questions on equity and inclusion during our community conversation on Parcel 5. One person commented afterward on the unmistakable whiteness of crowds in the Larkin Square video. They were right to point it out. While we know Broadway theatres tend to be racially and economically homogeneous, public spaces are often vulnerable to the same fate. Just because a space is open does not mean it is safe, welcoming, or inclusive for people of color.

Burnside Park, Providence, RI

This is one of the clear shortcomings of New Urbanism; it often neglects the enduring influence of structural racism in our country and how that creates unspoken boundaries in the urban landscape. New Urbanism can give rise to happier, healthier, and more resilient cities, but that doesn’t always equate to more inclusive and integrated communities.

When a public space is ultimately situated at Parcel 5 (yes, call it optimism), it is imperative that the site is planned collaboratively, in close partnership with long-standing residents and historically disenfranchised groups. How can we ensure inclusion and equity at Parcel 5?

  1. Diverse Programming — People of color must be centrally involved in the planning of the site, as well as its long-term programming. This applies to both festivals and one-off events. Many notable parks and public spaces around the country tailor their programming heavily toward younger, white audiences. This doesn’t have to be the case here. Programming of a space should reflect the diversity of its populace. Moreover, Black-owned businesses should be represented on lists of vendors, contractors, and suppliers for public events.
  2. Keep Events Affordable — The median income for Black households in Rochester is $23,200, compared to $38,800 for white households. Hispanic households in Rochester average $22,600. We must ensure that events are accessible to lower-income families, especially those in Black and Brown communities, by offering a range of free and low-cost concerts, festivals, and family activities, subsidized through private partnerships.
  3. Embrace Cultural Heritage — Rochester is a city with a rich cultural tradition. A public space should highlight that history, which is why I believe the space should be called Douglass Commons (as opposed to, say, Golisano Green or Midtown Square). Rochester’s cultural history should be deeply embedded in the art, design, and programming of the space.

    Campus Martius, Detroit, MI