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New South Carolina Park Is Furthering Equitable Development in the Deep South

(City of Greenville/MKSK)

Community activist Mary Duckett remembers when she and her African-American neighbors had just one park they could go to in all of Greenville, South Carolina: Mayberry Park, a blacks-only space on the long-neglected West Side of the city, close to Duckett’s neighborhood of Southernside.

Today, that formerly segregated park and the disinvested areas around it are being transformed into what’s intended to be both a symbol — and a tangible driver — of inclusivity.

The planned 60-acre Unity Park, scheduled to open in 2021, will not only incorporate the site and history of Mayberry Park into its footprint. The plan also takes into account city-owned land surrounding the park — land that usually would be sold to developers as the park development got underway and real estate values rose.

In this case, however, the city is maintaining control of that land and earmarking specifically it for affordable housing, as well as mixed-use commercial and residential buildings.

Greenville’s goal is to avoid the gentrification and displacement that so often follows park projects when they’re developed in low-income or formerly neglected neighborhoods.

“Unity Park is a dream come true,” says Duckett, who also serves as the president of the Southernside neighborhood association. “This has been a dumping ground area all of my life — it’s just been a mess. The only bright spot for me, as a black individual, is that this is where Mayberry Park was located, and during my era, that was the only place where we could meet for recreation as blacks and as residents. So you can understand why we want to make sure Mayberry’s footprint continues to be a part of Unity Park and the city of Greenville.”

Unity Park is yet another of many city parks around the country — the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, N.C. — that are being built using an equitable development model, which prioritizes meeting the needs of underserved communities through a combination of policies, community programs, and placemaking. Public spaces that are engineered to guarantee inclusivity are growing in popularity across the U.S., and Greenville is among the early adopters.

Equitable development approaches for parks can involve everything from affordable housing components, to workforce development programs and leadership training programs. The point is to take a holistic, multi-faceted view of how parks and public spaces can affect the communities that surround them.

“We always say great public spaces reach out like the arms of an octopus into the surrounding neighborhoods,” says Philip Winn of the Project for Public Spaces, a national nonprofit that studies and advocates for great public spaces in the U.S. “I like to think of it almost like the human circulatory system — the public space is the heart, and it’s giving and receiving energy and oxygen and information from the whole body of that district all the time.”

In Greenville, Unity Park is the first public space project to incorporate equitable development into its concept. “We’re masters of our destiny here,” says Greenville Mayor Knox White, who’s overseen the revitalization of Greenville’s downtown as well as the development of another major city park, Falls Park, over his past 24 years in office. “We have a lot of options in front of us, but we control [the land]. We can decide who to sell it to, who to lease it to, and ultimately what it looks like.”

White thinks of Unity Park as a kind of inclusive foil for Falls Park, a riverside park that spurred a massive round of high-end development in Greenville’s surrounding downtown after it was completed in 2004. “If you go back to Falls Park, the city built Falls Park and it’s a great public amenity all along the river. But the private aspect of it — we did not even purport to have control over it. So on the private side you’ve got condos, apartments, restaurants, and beautiful spaces, but inclusive it is not. You don’t have a lot of affordability there.”

Falls Park was built in an area that’s always been largely commercial, rather than residential, so at the time, displacement of current residents wasn’t as much of a concern.

Gallery: Unity Park

Unity Park, however, is being developed within Southernside, which has already begun to see some effects of gentrification. “Our community has gone from low to moderate, and from moderate to high-level income,” Duckett says. “Now that the park is coming people are moving in, buying expensive condominiums all around the site.”

The affordable housing that will immediately surround the site of Unity Park, and hopefully serve as a buffer against wholesale displacement, is being overseen by the nonprofit Greenville Housing Fund. The fund advocates for and invests in affordable housing throughout Greenville County, as well as serving as a land bank, acquiring land for affordable housing.

Currently, the city is transferring ownership of its land to the fund while the organization conducts a feasibility study aimed at uncovering the best options for keeping housing in the Unity Park area affordable — both for current and future residents.

“An example of something we could do might be grants to help people keep up their homes, and of course placing land into development for affordable housing,” says Bogue Wallin, chair of the Greenville Housing Fund and a local real estate developer. “Another opportunity might be helping find sources that offer down payment assistance so people can buy homes.”

As vital as affordable housing is to maintaining the identity of a neighborhood like Southernside, housing by itself won’t solve the problem of gentrification. “The things that lead to displacement, and to the neighborhood changing in a way that feels like they’re losing something really valuable about their identity — that is such a complex set of drivers,” Winn says. “Even if you’re building more affordable housing into the plan, if a bunch of these other things are changing — things that make people want to be a part of that neighborhood, or that give them employment opportunities, or a sense of pride and identity in the place that they live — then attempts to mitigate that displacement will probably fail … you may have somebody living in that affordable housing, but it might not be the same people who were living there before.”

This is a real concern in the context of any new park, including Unity Park — which is why White and the city committee overseeing the park have worked hard to collaborate with the Southernside neighborhood association and other stakeholders who have an interest in keeping that area livable and diverse. “Greenville has a tradition of collaboration and partnership,” says White. “Going back over 10 years, we’ve been doing outreach and later we set up an advisory committee that still operates today. It’s led by people who’ve lived in the neighborhood and have lived there for a long time.”

Duckett confirms that the city has been highly proactive when it comes to gathering input from her and her neighbors. “They had charrettes, charrettes, and more charrettes over a number of years,” Duckett says. “And they’re still getting input.”

The final plan for the park includes a playground and splash pad, a river-spanning pedestrian bridge, a 10-story observation tower, a meeting hall, and recreational lawns. Mayberry Park’s history will be incorporated through interpretive signage telling the story of the once-segregated area.

Whatever the future may hold for Unity Park, one thing is certain: White, Duckett, and the other leaders involved will continue working to make it a park that is truly inclusive, across class, race, and socioeconomic lines.

“I’ll say this till the day I die, and after I’m gone, someone else will say it. If anyone has a problem with unity,” Duckett says, “there’s something wrong with them.”

This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Elizabeth Pandolfi is a freelance arts and culture journalist. She is the former arts editor of the Charleston City Paper, and her work has appeared in Art and Antiques magazine, Charleston magazine, WNC magazine, and other publications. 

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