The White Washing Paradox of Public Space

Recently, I wrote and assembled a little video on the power of public space.  While I patted myself on the back for a job well done, someone I very much respect messaged me and pointed out that the pictures I showed in this video were very… for lack of a better word… “white.”  And he was right… most of the images I used portrayed a predominantly white population enjoying these glorious public spaces like The High Line in New York.  Why, when we urbanists advocate for effective public space that is inclusive and inviting for people from all races, walks of life and socioeconomic statuses, do we so often end up with a space that is consistently inhabited by a wealthier white population?

Let’s take a simplified (but accurate) step by step analysis of how new public space in a dense urban core might be realized.

  1. A proposal for a new mixed use public space is presented for an area that is either not being currently utilized, or a parcel of land that the city is actively shopping around.
  2. Often, public space is not the only proposal… plans for an entertainment venue, high-end condominiums, or some other pricey, flashy endeavor challenges the need for public space in our downtowns.  On the surface, the backers of these alternative options tout job creation, economic generation, and my personal favorite, “tourism” as reasons to delve into projects that often over-inflate impact estimates and job creation statistics.  After all, when it’s important to simply get “shovels in the ground,” financial backers and anyone who has a stake in the project will do and say whatever it takes to gain support.
  3. People will invariably support the project that, on the surface, claims to create jobs, produce revenue and add “vibrancy” for their city.  After all, these are easy “sells” to a population that, frankly, would rather cling to short term promises rather than long term positive impact.  This is typically an entertainment complex, not mixed use public space.
  4. OK, this is where the game changes.  In order to play ball with the proposals for flashy, lavish, job-promising projects, public space advocates must begin highlighting the economic benefits that public space has been shown to elicit.  Mind you, these aren’t tall tales, they are absolutely true… well designed public space has, time and time again, been shown to garner tremendous private investment in the areas surrounding them.  With this in mind, the priority shifts from echoing the benefits of free access, inclusion, health and wellness and social impact that public spaces are famous for, to the ever-present, one dimensional drone of economic impact.  After all, what is the use of city space if it can’t make the city money, right??  Right????
  5. Let’s say by some miracle that the mixed use public space proposal wins.  Supporters cheer and revel in their victory, promising that this decision will make their downtown a place for everyone.  But as soon as the “park” is built and developers, investors and city governments realize that this will now be a highly sought-after location, the development of, and investment in, the area around the public space will flourish.  High-end apartments, luxury condos, office space and more, will ring this new oasis of public utopia, creating a neighborhood of wealthy, mostly white, upper middle class people, making it impossible for anyone that doesn’t make a significant income to enjoy the fruits of the public space’s original ideal.

And there you have it.  When we are forced to sell well-designed public space as an economic generator rather than a community builder, we negate the ability of that space to be transcendent in binding our diverse communities together.  But the second we try to change this model and place community impact at the forefront and economic impact in the shadows, another gentrifying, “job producing/vibrancy adding/tourist drawing” proposal will win the “bid” for a particular space and likely create the same effect, or worse.  It is a paradox that is beginning to plague our cities, in which the inclusive positives of mixed use areas are eclipsed by economic priorities.

Public space has the power to produce the ultimate source of urban gravity.  But the demon it often creates lies in the almost necessary prioritization of job creation and revenue generation, feeding further into socioeconomic polarization of our communities.  To truly appreciate the impact of public space, we must first appreciate what it does for people before considering what it does for the bottom line.