Community spaces

A slightly edited version of my presentation from Saturday’s green dinner…

As we were going through the process of organizing this dinner, one of the most challenging things was: how do you define space? For the purposes of my discussion, I’m going to build on the idea that spaces and public places define communities; communities can either be limited by them or empowered by them.

So say you lived in a neighborhood where every other building had burned down? Because of a policy of divestment by banks and local developers, landlords in your neighbor found it more profitable to torch their buildings and collect insurance on it, rather than selling them.

In addition to these creepy, burned shells of buildings, what if you also had a sewage treatment plants that processed more than 40 percent of the entire city’s waste, four electric power plants, and thousands of diesel trucks coming through every day to service these facilities?

What sort of community spaces would this neighborhood have? Probably not many, with poor air quality caused by the power plants and toxic waste facilities, limited green space, and few economic opportunities.

The picture I just described is the Bronx in New York City but might be true of many inner-city urban areas. One of the recurring themes in our understanding of community space is the impact of environmental injustices. Some communities bear a disproportionate burden of environmental problems and receive little environmental benefit. The South Bronx neighborhood that I described has suffered from many years of economic and environmental degradation, which has recently been brought to the attention of the environmental community by Majora Carter and the Sustainable South Bronx.

Through their work, which you can find out more about in detail at, the plan is to revitalize the neighborhood through a project to provide safe, walkable streets; green spaces – a park and access to the waterfront; better traffic management to redirect trucks away from the neighborhoods; small businesses opportunities; job training; and ecological restoration projects.

Before After

A little closer to home, many of us are familiar with the amazing work done by the folks at Washington Parks and People, our hosts for tonight. Washington Parks has worked to revitalize some of the most beautiful but long neglected areas of the city. Watts Branch or Marvin Gaye Park, which stretches through Ward 7 of the District, is located in one of the longest inhabited black communities in the country; some records indicate that there were black landowners as far back as the 1700s. In more recent history, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a rally in the park to get people to begin a sit-in at a downtown lunch counter. Local residents would gather for music, picnics, fishing, baptisms, and more in the park.

The park was originally established in the 1920s and 30s and managed through the Federal parks system up to the 1970s. Later when it was turned over to the District, the area fell into neglect because of internal squabbles within the government as to who was responsible for maintenance. The park became a haven for drug dealers and users; the stream, because of the trash, illegal dumping, and chemical run-off, was polluted and unsafe to drink from or swim in 100 percent of the time.

Despite the bad conditions, here was something about this place – this community space – that attracted people. What if that negative use could be transformed into something positive?

The folks at Washington Parks had the idea of taking the “marketplace” concept of the park and using it to start a small fruit and vegetable stand, supplied by a nearby community garden. This created a positive, safe place for people to come get fresh produce – which is normally several bus rides away.

As part of the park revitalization process, Washington Parks also brought in local school-aged children to discuss what they thought the park really needed. I’d like to highlight this as the second important theme in our discussion: you need participation to create the right kinds of public spaces for the community. Whether it’s a mosque, a park, or another type of public place, the space won’t serve the needs of the community unless it’s designed with input from the community.

So what did the kids want? They said, “trash cans.”

The coordinators thought, “What trash cans, that’s it??”

“Yes, because if you don’t have somewhere to throw your trash, you’ll just leave it on the ground and the park will end up dirty again.”

So with trash cans and a produce stand – small changes to start with – and input from the community, WPP with hundreds of volunteers have begun a comprehensive plan to change the community using the park as an entry point. To learn more about the parks history and future development, I encourage you to come when we have our next service day…you’ll learn a lot and feel more connected to the community you live in and the public spaces around us.