By Katharine Lusk
Through a year of pandemic shutdowns and protests, Americans have rediscovered their public spaces. Homebound city dwellers sought havens in parks, plazas and reclaimed streets. Many of these places also became stages for protests against police violence and systemic racism in the U.S.
Mayors around the world have used this time to reimagine the use of public space. Will cities revert to familiar car-centric patterns, or build on the past year to create more outdoor spaces that are accessible and welcoming for all of their residents?
Beginning in June 2020 and continuing throughout the summer, our team at Boston University interviewed mayors in cities across the country as part of our annual Menino Survey of Mayors. We wanted to understand how they were grappling with the unprecedented challenges and stark inequities laid bare in 2020, and how they were thinking about repurposing the public realm.
Our newly released report, Urban Parks and the Public Realm: Equity & Access in Post-COVID Cities, supported by Citi, The Rockefeller Foundation and The Trust for Public Land, offers new insights into how the disruptions of this unprecedented year have shaped mayoral perspective on parks and streets.
Partial street closures early in the pandemic gave people in cities like Oakland, California, a taste of urban life less dominated by cars.
COVID-19 and racial protests have highlighted pervasive inequities in the U.S. One issue we examined was how mayors think about investing for equity in parks and green spaces.
Among the 130 mayors we interviewed, 70% believed all their residents, regardless of race, ethnicity or income, live within easy walking distance of a park or green space. This view may be somewhat optimistic.
Data developed by The Trust for Public Land shows that, on average, 64% of residents in the cities we surveyed live within a 10-minute walk of a park or green space. Our analysis of The Trust's ParkServe data for all U.S. cities with more than 75,000 residents showed that on average, 59% of white residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park or green space, compared with 61% of Black or Hispanic residents and 57% of Asian residents. Mayors, particularly those in Northeast cities, acknowledged that not all neighborhoods had equal access to high-quality parks.
Another important question is how welcome residents feel in local public spaces. In our interviews, 77% of mayors believed their cities' parks were safe for all users. A similar proportion believed Black residents could use parks without fear of police.
But physical safety is not the only measure of accessibility. Racial and ethnic minorities may be discriminated against or feel socially and culturally excluded in some parks and public spaces. Widely publicized false assault charges by a white woman against a Black birder in New York's Central Park in October 2020 presented one prominent example.
"So long as people of color, and black men in particular, are seen as a potential danger, the issue of racial equit… https://t.co/O4CynYv9wk— Bloomberg CityLab (@Bloomberg CityLab)1590590548.0
Most Likely to Gain: Diners, Walkers and Bikers
Some local leaders capitalized on empty streets to accelerate long-planned projects or initiate new ones. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made headlines with her decision to remove half of all street parking in Paris, add 50 kilometers (31 miles) of bike lanes and convert a major central roadway, Rue di Rivoli, to a cycling thoroughfare. These steps mark a fundamental shift toward a public realm that centers on people, not vehicles.
Similarly, one East Coast mayor told us that the need to maintain physical distance between people had prompted a call for more outdoor space:
"Fewer cars means more opportunities for public space. We're learning a lot about how to share public space and not just use it for cars – we worked to close roadways and people want to keep them."
Nearly half of the mayors we surveyed closed some roads to through traffic during the pandemic, and just under a third closed select streets to nearly all traffic. One prominent example is Washington, D.C.'s Black Lives Matter Plaza, commissioned by Mayor Muriel Bowser along two blocks of 16th Street NW. This new pedestrian promenade has quickly become a landmark that embodies a convergence of protest and pride.
New York City undertook an expansive "open streets" initiative, temporarily closing more than 100 miles of roadway to cars to provide more space for outdoor recreation in all five boroughs. Like most cities we surveyed, New York did not have a plan or process for retaining these changes after the pandemic. But the city's Department of Transportation, responding to public pressure, has signaled its commitment to making some changes permanent.
Typical setup for temporary limited local access under New York City's Open Streets initiative. NYC DOT
The most popular new use of public space, and the one most likely to endure after the pandemic, was outdoor dining. Among the mayors we surveyed, 92% created new space for outdoor dining, with 34% noting they planned to make these changes permanent. Locations varied across cities and neighborhoods: Some communities claimed sidewalk space, while others reallocated on-street parking or repurposed empty parking lots. Other cities closed entire streets for dining.
Other new uses of public space included widening sidewalks and creating new bike lanes. About 40% of the mayors in our survey pursued each of these changes. In Boston, permitting for new outdoor dining was part of a multifaceted "Healthy Streets" initiative that also accelerated creation of dedicated bus lanes and new bike lanes – including expansive new protected lanes around the city's historic central green space, Boston Common.
Ambitious projects require resources, and financial pressures still loom. Almost 40% of mayors we surveyed anticipated "dramatic" financial cuts to their parks and recreation budgets. That threat could be offset by the recently enacted American Rescue Plan, which provides direct funds for cities of all sizes.
People-Centered Public Spaces
Our survey indicates that Americans' newfound enthusiasm for public spaces isn't likely to fade. Among the mayors we surveyed, 76% believe their residents will visit parks and green space more frequently in the future than they did before the pandemic, 70% anticipate that residents will be walking more, and 62% believe they will be cycling more frequently.
Speaking recently about the future of cities, renowned Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye asserted that high-quality public space "has now become the treasure that people are completely addicted to. If you took for granted a park, now you realize that it's a very important part of the quality of life [in] cities."
As the U.S. emerges from a long and challenging year, perhaps more American mayors – spurred on by residents – will find the will to forever transform urban spaces into the treasures they can be.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- COVID-19 Reveals a Crisis of Public Spaces - EcoWatch ›
- Public Parks Matter More Than Ever During a Pandemic - EcoWatch ›
The term "urban forest" may sound like an oxymoron. When most of us think about forests, we may picture vast expanses of tall trunks and dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves, far from the busyness of the city. But the trees that line city streets and surround apartment complexes across the U.S. hold great value, in part because of their proximity to people.
"Per tree, you're getting way more value for an urban tree than a tree out in the wild," says Mark McPherson, founder and director of a Seattle nonprofit called City Forest Credits. In an increasingly urbanizing world, cities are, after all, "right where people live and breathe and recreate."
Trees—and urban trees in particular—provide enormous benefits. For starters, they're responsible for producing oxygen and removing CO2 and other pollutants from the air. Urban forests in the U.S. remove an estimated 75,000 tons of air pollution per year. They reduce the impact of falling rain and encourage that water to soak into the ground, reducing flooding and erosion as well as preventing pollution from entering waterways. And the shade they provide isn't just good for picnics; trees absorb heat and release water vapor that cools the surrounding air. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that trees reduce the energy consumption needed to cool homes in the U.S. by more than 7%.
To find out just how much one tree can do, you can even estimate the value of the benefits of a specific tree near you using this calculator developed by a collaboration of tree experts and nonprofits.
The trouble is that these benefits are not equitably distributed. "Nationally, there's a trend for trees to follow wealth," says Leslie Berckes, the director of programs for Trees Forever, a nonprofit environmental group that works with communities across Iowa and Illinois to plant and care for trees. She says wealthier communities tend to have more trees for a variety of reasons, including racist housing practices. "Redlining left a lot of scars on communities, one of those being less green space, less tree cover," Berckes says.
And the results are life-threatening. In the absence of trees, these urban areas tend to be concrete—either buildings or sidewalks or streets. These impervious surfaces absorb heat during the day and then release it at night, preventing the relief of cooling temperatures, and creating urban heat islands. "People are getting sick or dying from heat," Berckes says, "and their utility bills are going up. … Heat is the biggest killer from [a] natural disaster perspective."
Building Community by Planting Trees
To better support the health of these communities, Berckes' organization employs local teenagers to plant and care for trees. Trees Forever pays a starting rate of $10 an hour—higher than the state's minimum wage of $7.25—and then bumps it up to $15 an hour for crew leaders. In addition, Trees Forever provides teens with professional development resources such as resume-building, mock interviews, financial literacy courses, stress management tools, and shadowing professionals in green jobs. Although COVID-19 has paused some of these activities, the organization sees this multifaceted support as an investment in a local workforce that will then have the knowledge and skills to continue the important work of tree-planting for building healthier communities.
Dawud Benedict, 18, has been planting trees with Trees Forever since the fall of 2020. He applied after hearing about a friend's positive experience working with the organization. "It just sounded nice to do something more for Des Moines area," he says. The work has taught him to appreciate trees and their benefits to the community and the world, he says, as well as to work together as a group. He enjoys being able to drive past work sites and point out trees that he helped plant in his community. "I feel like I'm making a bigger impact," he says.
In recent years, Trees Forever has endeavored to put equity at the center of their work through training and education, though Berckes admits that a lot more work must be done. "Our own staff is all White," she says. "Iowa is a predominantly White state. When we go to work with some of these small towns, I bet the percentage of White people is 80 to 90-or-more percent." Much of the group's outreach has historically focused on door-knocking and connecting with groups like neighborhood associations, churches, and local businesses. But Trees Forever's traditional methods weren't reaching Hispanic residents who moved to these communities to work in the meatpacking industry. So to make access to the benefits of urban trees more equitable, the organization is working to overcome language barriers and meet these community members where they are.
West Des Moines is home to three Microsoft data centers, and two more are slated for construction starting in 2021. In the corporation's efforts to invest in communities that house its data centers, it funded Trees Forever's work in 2019. And in 2020, the collaborative piloted a project that promises to put equity first.
The project, called the Impact Scorecard, is being rolled out in West Des Moines as well as Phoenix. The creator of the scorecard, Mark McPherson, says Microsoft was looking for high-impact projects, and his organization, City Forest Credits, developed a way to measure the impacts of trees on equity, human health, and the environment.
"As a society, we have not found a way to put natural capital on the balance sheet as an asset," he says. "There's no asset value to the trees; only an expense item." As such, trees necessarily fall to the bottom of many city's budgets, or off of them altogether. "Urban trees don't just store carbon, they reduce stormwater, they improve air, they provide energy savings in terms of heating and cooling. They can, if done right, tremendously advance environmental justice—they provide human health benefits, biodiversity, bird and pollinator habitat, slope stability, and the list goes on. They are like utilities," McPherson says. "They provide incredible services."
Those services are immensely valuable to cities. They reduce the costs of doing all kinds of other work, including stormwater management, air purification, and water retention.
Sure, some carbon markets put a dollar value on capturing CO2. But the problem, McPherson found, was that carbon markets couldn't capture any of the values of urban forests specifically. Carbon credits are typically sold by the ton for huge acreages of forest. In the city, an individual tree isn't going to store enough carbon to make a blip on these particular charts, but it has incredible value for countless lives.
So he teamed up with his older brother, Greg McPherson, a scientist emeritus with the U.S. Forest Service who founded the Center for Urban Forest Research. In the '90s, he moved to Chicago to figure out how to quantify the value of the services that trees provide to the city, and he continues to refine benefit-cost analyses for trees.
The Impact Scorecard is the latest outcome of this work. It aims to get corporations and other private funders to underwrite the costs of doing important community-led work through the planting of urban forests.
"That's a critical part of environmental justice," explains Mark McPherson, who, as a White man, says he works hard to avoid the tropes of White saviorism. "Not just, you beam in from your NGO office and plant trees," but rather "to actually have these projects led by the local community."
Letting Communities Lead
That's what drives the work of Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. This partnership brings together 14 organizations—from the Morton Arboretum to the U.S. Forest Service, the Chicago Parks Department to the Chicago Department of Public Health—to leverage resources and expertise in support of the urban forest in and around Chicago. She says trees can help reduce crime, improve property values, and reduce temperatures.
To let communities lead, though, members of the initiative had to be willing to listen. Some neighborhoods, for example, didn't want trees or actively removed them to prevent obstructing street lights because of safety concerns. Police departments, too, sometimes cite a need for open lines of sight on sidewalks and in parks. "This was an eye-opener for us," Scott says. It all comes down to having the right tree in the right place. That's why her organization works within communities to show the value of trees and evidence of the ways trees can support a different dynamic.
But unlike a forest on public lands or a reservation, urban forests can't be managed as a whole. Urban areas are a mix of public and private lands, so to plant trees requires the buy-in of a greater number of stakeholders.
"We know trees have a dramatic impact on quality of life," Scott says. They are critical infrastructure in communities and should be protected and budgeted as such, she says, but they are rarely recognized for the value and services they provide. All too often she hears that "trees are a luxury we handle after everything else." With COVID-19, being outside is more important than ever, and people are seeing and appreciating trees in a whole new way. But in some ways the work is made harder, Scott says. City budgets are tight and meeting basic needs like housing and safety is necessarily taking priority.
Here's where the scorecard comes in. It matches communities who want to invest in their tree cover with private funders, such as corporations who want to make investments that have a measurable impact. That impact is broken down into three categories that emphasize the value of urban trees specifically: equity, human health, and environmental benefits.
Mark McPherson says that urban forests are unique because they connect global atmospheric benefits with ecosystem benefits and resilience and mitigation benefits. "Very seldom do you get a climate action that fits all of those," he says.
To look at the benefits of trees at scale, the Chicago Region Trees Initiative developed a map that breaks it down by neighborhood, indicating the percentage of land covered by impervious surfaces, the percentage of tree cover, and the financial benefit those trees provide the community. It also includes location-specific information on air quality, heat, flooding, and vulnerable populations.
Screenshot from the Chicago Region Trees interactive map page.
Take, for example, the La Grange Park area of south Chicago. It has 47% tree cover and 30% impervious surfaces. The calculator estimates the community gains more than $750,000 a year from these trees. In contrast, Bedford Park, just to the south, has only 7% tree cover and 59% impervious surfaces. Their benefit from these trees is $300,000. But the calculator also estimates that the community could reasonably boost that tree canopy to as much as 65% of the neighborhood's land area—a ninefold increase—which would also up their benefits.
Scott says the priority communities don't always track exactly on racial or socioeconomic lines. In fact, the two neighborhoods with the fewest trees, according to their assessment, were actually quite well-off financially, so the initiative decided to focus its efforts elsewhere. These communities have the resources available to make change but choose not to.
Instead, the initiative is prioritizing projects that put health and equity at the center. An assessment of educational facilities, for example, identified a list of 24 schools and 24 day cares in Chicago within 500 feet of an expressway. The initiative is doing air-quality testing and planting vegetative buffers as a means of improving air quality at each of these facilities. (A 2013 study found that adding a row of trees between a roadway and nearby houses reduced pollution levels in the houses by 50%.) By using the Impact Scorecard, funders have third party verification of the health, equity, and environmental benefits of the project.
"The trees in our neighborhoods tell a story about our society—one of equity," Mark McPherson says. The story we're trying to craft, he says, is one in which living in a city is healthy, equitable, and connected with nature.
BREANNA DRAXLER is the environmental editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice. An award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines, she won a 2020 National Magazine Award for a collaborative climate action guide that she published with Audubon Magazine. Breanna also writes, reports and edits for National Geographic online, Grist, and Audubon Magazine, among others. She serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has a Master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of Seattle, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. Her previous staff positions include editing at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine. She speaks English and French.
Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Julian Agyeman
As an urban planning academic who teaches a course on food justice, I'm aware that this disparity is in large part through design. For over a century, urban planning has been used as a toolkit for maintaining white supremacy that has divided U.S. cities along racial lines. And this has contributed to the development of so-called "food deserts" – areas of limited access to reasonably priced, healthy, culturally relevant foods – and "food swamps" – places with a preponderance of stores selling "fast" and "junk" food.
Both terms are controversial and have been contested on the grounds that they ignore both the historical roots and deeply racialized nature of food access, whereby white communities are more likely to have sufficient availability of healthy, reasonably priced produce.
Instead, food justice scholar Ashanté M. Reese suggests the term "food apartheid." According to Reese, food apartheid is "intimately tied to policies and practices, current and historical, that come from a place of anti-Blackness."
Regardless of what they are called, these areas of inequitable food access and limited options exist. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 54.4 million Americans live in low-income areas with poor access to healthy food. For city residents, this means they are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket.
More Expensive, Fewer Options
The development of these areas of limited healthy food options has a long history tied to urban planning and housing policies. Practices such as redlining and yellowlining – in which the private sector and government conspired to restrict mortgage lending to Black and other minority homebuyers – and racial covenants that limited rental and sale property to white people only meant that areas of poverty were concentrated along racial lines.
In addition, homeowner associations that denied access to Black people in particular and federal housing subsidies that have largely gone to white, richer Americans have made it harder for people living in lower-income areas to move out or accrue wealth. It also leads to urban blight.
This matters when looking at food access because retailers are less willing to go into poorer areas. A process of "supermarket redlining" has seen larger grocery stores either refuse to move in to lower-income areas, shut existing outlets or relocate to wealthier suburbs. The thinking behind this process is that as pockets in a city become poorer, they are less profitable and more prone to crime.
There is also, scholars suggest, a cultural bias among large retailers against putting outlets in minority-populated areas. Speaking about why supermarkets were fleeing the New York borough of Queens in the 1990s, the city's then-Consumer Affairs Commissioner Mark Green put it this way: "First they may fear that they do not understand the minority market. But second is their knee-jerk premise that Blacks are poor, and poor people are a poor market."
In the absence of larger grocery stores, less healthy food options – often at a higher price – have taken over in low-income areas. Research among food providers in New Haven, Connecticut in 2008 found "significantly worse average produce quality" in lower-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile a study of New Orleans in 2001 found fast-food density was higher in poorer areas, and that predominantly Black neighborhoods had 2.5 fast-food outlets for every square mile, compared to 1.5 in white areas.
‘Whole Foods and Whole Food Deserts’
Geographer Nathan McClintock conducted a detailed study in 2009 of the causes of Oakland's food deserts. Although restricted to one Californian city, I believe what he found holds true for most U.S. cities.
McClintock details how the development of racially segregated areas in the inter-war period and redlining policies afterward led to concentrated areas of poverty in Oakland. Meanwhile, decisions in the late 1950s by the then all-white Oakland City Council to build major freeways cutting through the city effectively isolated predominantly Black West Oakland from downtown Oakland.
The net effect was an outward flow of capital and white flight to the wealthy Oakland Hills neighborhoods. Black and Latino neighborhoods were drained of wealth.
This, together with the advent of surburban Oakland supermarkets accessible by car in the 1980s and 1990s, led to a dearth of fresh food outlets in predominantly Black districts such as West Oakland and Central East Oakland. What was left, McClintock concludes, is a "crude mosaic of parks and pollution, privilege and poverty, Whole Foods and whole food deserts."
Urban Planning as a Solution
Food disparities in U.S. cities have a cumulative effect on people's health. Research has linked them to the disproportionately poor nutrition of Black and Latino Americans, even after adjustment for socioeconomic status.
As much as urban planning has been part of the problem, it could now be part of the solution. Some cities have begun using planning tools to increase food equity.
Minneapolis, for example, has as part of its 2040 plan an aim to "establish equitable distribution of food sources and food markets to provide all Minneapolis residents with reliable access to healthy, affordable, safe and culturally appropriate food." To achieve this, the city is reviewing urban plans, including exploring and implementing regulatory changes to allow and promote mobile food markets and mobile food pantries.
My hometown of Boston is engaged in a similar process. In 2010, the city began the process of establishing an urban agriculture overlay district in the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood of Dorchester, by changing zoning to allow commercial urban agriculture. This change has provided employment for local people and food for local cooperatives, such as the Dorchester Food Coop, as well as area restaurants.
And this could be just the start. My students and I contributed to Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu's Food Justice Agenda. It includes provisions such as a formal process in which private developers would have to work with the community to ensure there is space for diverse food retailers and commercial kitchens, and licensing restrictions to discourage the proliferation of fast-food outlets in poorer neighborhoods. If Wu is elected and the plan implemented, it would, I believe, provide more equitable access to nutritious and culturally appropriate foods, good jobs and economically vibrant neighborhoods.
As Wu's Food Justice Agenda notes: "Food justice means racial justice, demanding a clear-eyed understanding of how white supremacy has shaped our food systems" and that "nutritious, affordable, and culturally relevant food is a universal human right."
Julian Agyeman is a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.
Disclosure statement: Julian Agyeman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.