Design Issues: Improving Equity By Asking, Listening And Learning

Everyone deserves equal access to a safe, healthy, comfortable and fulfilling life. Many populations have been underserved for generations, disconnected from this access. Design has not always been equitable.

As designers and planners, we have an opportunity – really an obligation – to rebuild and reconnect. To create spaces that serve the community. The whole community.

To do this, we must listen to the whole community. Really listen. While we still have much to learn, this is what we’ve been attempting to do at Civitas for decades. We’ve sought to integrate the complexities of life into a cohesive, purposeful, pleasing and fulfilling whole. This integration is what makes places – and people – healthier, more sustainable and resilient. Communities become more stable, businesses more profitable, and cities more desirable places to live, work and play. But first we have to understand what each community’s complexities are, because there can be many. We have to get curious, ask questions, and listen. 

Here are some of the things we’ve learned as we’ve listened:

EQUITABLE MEANS VISIBLE, ACCESSIBLE, AND VALUABLE.

In Post Falls, Idaho, we were tapped to create a nature-in-the-city experience for Black Bay Park – a 60-acre parcel along the Spokane River that has been loved by adventurers for years, but relatively unknown to many others. Since Post Falls is a small community with understandably minimal experience in crafting a community-based vision for a park, we knew we needed to hear from everyone, not just the adventurers. To achieve this, we developed a robust engagement process focused on making the activities relatable and entertaining to the community. We held our first public engagement event during the city’s Christmas tree lighting festivities, and set up inside City Hall, where people came inside to warm up. In essence we had a captive audience who were in good spirits, and therefore more willing to share their thoughts and ideas. Feedback we heard during this and several other public meetings and interviews made it clear that protecting Black Bay Park’s natural design features was a top priority, along with enhancing the arrival experience into the park and providing increased amenities from restrooms and trash receptacles to more elaborate play areas, riverfront overlooks, and safe water access. We also understood that it was time for the park to be accessible to everyone. One of the more impactful conversations involved a community member who has limited mobility and uses a wheelchair. During our initial conversation she expressed her most basic desire was to experience the park, its amenities and the river with her child, not simply watching her child, much like the way other parents could. This personal story inspired us to provide an improved circulation system that follows the park’s natural topography – including over 100’ of grade change – with looping trail patterns that minimize disturbance while allowing users of all mobility levels to explore the entire park. 

We can help small communities think bigger, beyond basic park amenities; and we can design beyond the ADA’s accessibility standards to create more inclusive public spaces, but we’re also realistic about what it takes to achieve bold design schemes and work hard to ensure that each project is set up for long-term functionality. Civitas Principal Scott Jordan recently discussed this topic at the ASLA’s 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, co-presenting “Small but Mighty: Engaging Small Communities to Realize Big Visions” along with Erin Lonoff of HR&A Advisors and Susannah Ross of Agency Landscape + Planning. “When we get to the end of a public project,” Scott explains, “it belongs to the community, so it’s important to us that the project is achievable. My career path was inspired by my desire to make a real difference. I am not in this industry to come up with big dreams that are never realized.”

Black Bay Park, Post Falls, ID

In Post Falls, we were transparent about project costs and worked directly with the community to consider design choices and to plan implementation in phases based on costs and priorities. This transparency deepened the public’s engagement and sense of ownership of the project, and built trust and respect, which also contributes to a sense of openness and inclusion. And when there’s broader understanding, there’s broader use – and greater value.

EQUITABLE MEANS PERSONAL AND BENEFICIAL.

In his ASLA presentation, Scott also shared the story of the Jones Campus in Springdale, Arkansas, where the first thing we did before embarking on design schemes for the 52-acre site was meet with dozens and dozens of people one-on-one and in small groups. Some might consider this a chore, but we consider it a crucial part of the design process. We initiate all projects by searching out local consultants and community allies who can help connect us to the community. By creating an immediate connection with the community our goal is to create a mutually beneficial relationship. One where we are giving to the community for their benefit (i.e., creating real meaning, based on each population’s personal needs, values and goals), while gathering knowledge and inspiration from the community. 

For the Jones Campus, one of our allies in community engagement has been Bentonville-based Velocity Group. Together in 2020, we coordinated drive-thru dinner events where more than 300 free meals were distributed – targeting Springdale’s large LatinX and Marshallese populations who’d been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Local chef Judy Tatios was another active participant in these events, preparing food and helping us forge connections with the Marshallese community, while also strengthening her own connections that have since helped her develop plans for a new Marshallese/Southern Fusion food truck. Witnessing the community come together to rally around the Jones Campus project – and helping to provide a forum for that – has been a driving force for our design work. It’s given us a window into the rich heritage, strong culture and passionate personality of Springdale, the region’s most diverse community. This understanding ensures that the spaces we’re creating throughout the Campus will feel meaningful and personal. In fact, another active participant in the project, a Jones Center employee, has said about the campus plan, “this is the first time I feel like the Marshallese population truly has a place is inspired by our culture and truly welcomes us in this community.”

Jones Campus, Springdale, AR

EQUITABLE MEANS ATTAINABLE.

Another positive shift in community building is the fact that many developers are starting to recognize the missing middle – the lack of available and affordable housing options for middle-income households – and are working to create neighborhoods that offer a wider variety of home types that range in size and price. Zoning laws are being revised to support this necessary shift, eliminating exclusively single-family zones that, left unaddressed, would almost certainly continue to sustain racial and economic segregation.

In Pueblo, Colorado, we’re partnering with NeighborWorks Southern Colorado (NWSOCO) to envision and plan Pikes Peak Park. The neighborhood will offer a variety of housing types and price points (targeting less than 80% of the area’s median income), including single family, paired homes, rowhomes, rental apartments, and even modestly priced market rate condos above the town center’s restaurants and retail shops. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) will also be part of the neighborhood, built above single-family homes’ garages in order to provide space for extended family members, or to help homeowners generate rental income. The housing mix and depth of affordability will promote social and economic diversity, enhancing the community’s energy and vitality. And an emphasis on community services such as childcare, healthcare and healthy food options will provide a relevant, stable foundation upon which the community can grow.

Pikes Peak Park, Pueblo, CO

EQUITABLE MEANS HEALTHY.

These issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion have been problems for generations, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified them. Virtual education, healthcare (including vaccines) and safe places to live, work and socialize – including neighborhood green spaces – have been inaccessible to many underserved populations. 

Civitas Principal Chris Parezo recently wrote about Denver’s 5280 Trail – a 5.280-mile loop that connects six distinct neighborhoods in Downtown Denver, celebrating the distinct personalities and cultures of each. “By improving environmental factors, we can influence lifestyle choices and individual behaviors, and ultimately improve both physical and mental health,” Chris explains. “The Trail plays a significant role in giving more people direct access to open space in proximity to their residences and jobs. Space to spread out, socialize safely, and connect with nature.” 

The strategy for the 5280 Trail was informed by extensive research and community engagement, meeting numerous stakeholders and asking numerous questions in order to understand what was important to each community – down to the details of the way residents navigated their neighborhoods, how they got to school, work, or to the library or grocery store. Where their favorite cafes and shops are located. And most importantly, what they wished they could improve, knowing that they – a member of the public – can and do have a say in their community’s public projects. Empowered to participate, their input informed the design of each segment and turn of the 5280.

There are countless complexities of life, so this kind of thoughtful integration is hard work. But the results are incredibly gratifying so we’re always willing to roll up our sleeves and dig in. We don’t have all the answers and would never pretend to. Instead, we get curious and ask a lot of questions with a genuine motivation to listen and understand. Then we work together to explore ideas and come up with creative, informed solutions in partnership with our clients and the communities they serve.

The whole community.

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