Creating Spaces for People to Participate in Urban Planning

How one "equitable public space fellow" spent her year.

Under an elevated rail line in East Harlem. (Credit: Design Trust for Public Space)

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Sometimes it takes leaving and returning home to realize what it is that truly makes us tick. Luisa Santos grew up in Miami and returned there after graduating from Amherst College. She got to work as program coordinator for an environmental service-learning program, and also got connected with the Miami Climate Alliance, a coalition of environmental organizations.

“I think it was actually in Miami that I became interested in urban planning, both because Miami’s planning is more car-based and didn’t feel like it was actually supporting people, so I got curious about that,” Santos says. “And it seemed to me like people weren’t very involved in the planning process so it was kind of those curiosities that kind of made me curious about urban planning back then.”

Following her curiosity about how people can play a bigger role in shaping cities, Santos did stints in policy work and community organizing in D.C., then NYC. She volunteered with organizations to strengthen worker cooperatives, and served as an interim member of Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City’s Board of Directors. She took inspiration from efforts like Cooperation Jackson, a grassroots effort to re-shape the economy of Jackson, Miss., from the ground up.

“It’s like actual people who have been oppressed or marginalized and really have no access to the dominant economy at all, are just like, ‘Ok then. We’re going to create our our autonomous economy and system of governance,’” she says. “Which is, I feel, how it should be … absolute direct democracy to the point of people making the decisions and implementing them directly.”

Santos is just now wrapping up a year exploring and contributing to an array of initiatives reflecting that spirit of representation and participation, as a 2017-2018 equitable public space fellow with the Design Trust for Public Space, a nonprofit that partners with government agencies, community organizations and sometimes private companies to achieve long-term change in the way public spaces – like parks, plazas and streets – are designed.

Santos’s role as an equitable public space fellow, in her words: “to make sure that these projects and these decisions that are being made are more equitable.”

Changemaking takes time, she’s learned, and one year doesn’t quite allow for all the change to happen. One project Santos worked on is El-Space, an effort in partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation to revitalize and make use of spaces underneath elevated infrastructure like highways, subways and bridges. These spaces are often underutilized, dark and unsafe.

A map of elevated structures in NYC. (Credit: Linda Pollack/Design Trust for Public Space)

“If you think of how highways historically, even the process of building the highway, they cut through low income communities of color,” Santos says. “[The project is] trying to look at how we can address improving these spaces in a systemic way … considering not just a particular site but thinking of highways and other infrastructure as interconnected … how can you address the whole system of this infrastructure.”

It’s a project that can be costly. Santos says having the funding to implement the changes is one big obstacle. The next obstacle is to make sure funding is spread out equitably throughout neighborhoods and the potential impact the project might have on gentrifying the area.

“I’m just really curious about how to be able to make those processes [more equitable], not just be inclusive but actually be led by people,” Santos says.

Santos also got involved with the Design Trusts’ ongoing advocacy to give community gardeners access to more resources and protections, which began with developing Five Borough Farm, a framework for NYC’s community gardens. Community gardeners expressed the need for more secure land tenure because there isn’t an official land use policy with community gardens and their right to exist, as well as needing resources to maintain lands they do have, a process to designate more space as community gardening land, and access to more compost and professional business training.

Last year, City Councilmember Rafael Espinal introduced a bill that would have set up a comprehensive plan that would have established some of those protections and resources for gardeners. While the law passed, the final text barely resembled the original proposal. The law only required the city to create an “urban agriculture website.”

Santos says the Design Trust for Public Space is in the process of working with the city’s legislators, community gardeners and NYC Parks Greenthumb, the municipality’s community garden program, to establish another plan that would make access to information and resources more equitable and address disparities between big and small growers in the city.

While the legislation will likely take years to actually come to fruition, Santos says, they want to get it done right the first time instead of having to push for amendments to legislation and more resources for an even longer period of time.

Luisa Santos.

One other project that Santos is involved in at the Design Trust is at the very beginning stages, led by a team of 2018 fellows at the nonprofit, called the Power in Place Project. It’s a partnership with South Bronx Unite, a coalition of community organizations in part of the borough facing a wave of new development.

Power in Place consists of a community asset mapping and a planning project that will support the coalition’s community land trust, a vehicle intended to preserve the affordability of residential as well as non-residential space. The asset map will have markers for businesses and property, as well as human assets and including like community gardens. The fellows will then engage with community members to determine a plan for use of land in the area and support the community land trust in being able to advocate to city government and possibly to private building owners in the community.

“It’s really like an organizing tool,” Santos says. “That’s a really exciting project.”

While Santos’s time at the Design Trust is coming to an end, her career in urban planning is just starting. The outgoing equitable public place fellow is starting an urban planning and community development degree at Tufts University in Boston.

“I felt that urban planning would actually be an interesting way to pursue [my interests] because it would be learning the structures, how to affect the structures that allow for people to come together,” she says.

This article 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.

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Deonna Anderson is Next City's editorial director. An award-winning journalist, she has served as a senior editor at GreenBiz and worked with YES! Magazine, KLCC (an NPR affiliate station in Eugene, Oregon), The Lily, Atmos and other media outlets. Anderson is an alumna of the University of California, Davis and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She lives in the Bay Area. She was also Next City's 2017-2018 Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @iamDEONNA.

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Tags: new york cityurban planningpublic spacecommunity-engaged designpower of parks

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