4 Insights on Public Space and Health Equity

Health and equity are inextricably intertwined. We know life expectancies can fluctuate dramatically, even within a single city. For example, New Orleans neighborhoods less than 5 miles apart see average life expectancies vary by as much as 25 years. We also know many neighborhoods have experienced prolonged disinvestment and concentrated poverty. In fact, the number of people living in extremely poor neighborhoods has doubled since the year 2000, from 2.7 million to more than 5.4 million people. Such stark disparities demand a response—recognizing that collectively, we must examine the role of place in affecting people’s ability to thrive.

The research underpinning the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines reveals that public space improvements offer a crucial path forward in creating communities of belonging, while also advancing health equity. From a civic life standpoint, people with greater access to vibrant parks and green space are more likely to trust their neighbors, and believe community members are willing to help each other.From a public health standpoint, such access also makes residents more likely to meet physical activity goals,have better mental health outcomes,and experience less crime.

A growing body of research suggests that well-maintained public green space may have an especially positive impact on low-income urban communities, by filling gaps in health inequalities.In fact, one study found that residents of low-income communities with high levels of residential greenery have comparable mortality rates to residents of higher-income communities.Unfortunately, cities grapple with persistent imbalances between public space needs and public space investments. People living in low-income neighborhoods often rely more heavily on nearby public spaces than those living in higher-income areas. Despite this increased demand, capital investments and operations budgets have often failed to keep up with the needs of the most vulnerable residents.

Luckily, many of today’s urban leaders are acknowledging the fundamental importance of inclusive and equitable public space investments—and they’re modeling opportunities to bring equity to the forefront of local decision-making.

  1. Focus attention on underserved neighborhoods

Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation, describes his approach to equity in very simple terms—"Equity equals fairness.” His detailed review of past capital projects revealed that dozens of neighborhood parks had received little to no investment in the previous 20 years. Recognizing that such an imbalance is simply not fair, Commissioner Silver spearheaded the Community Parks Initiative to create a park system that’s fairer for all New Yorkers, and gives residents an opportunity to get involved in the design and care of their neighborhood parks. “One of my top priorities is making our parks system equitable,” says Silver. “That means making sure that every neighborhood—especially historically underserved neighborhoods—have a quality park that is safe and well maintained. In a city like New York, where many people don’t have yards, parks are essential to our physical and mental well-being. They are places where people connect, relax and recharge.”

A similar commitment to equity is at play in Philadelphia, where the Rebuild initiative will invest hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize essential civic assets like parks, recreation centers, and libraries. Rebuild’s investments will specifically target neighborhoods where they’ll have the greatest impact, such as areas with concentrated poverty, elevated crime rates, and public health challenges.

  1. Ensure local ownership

The City of Charlotte recently initiated a Placemaking Grant to celebrate the city’s 250th anniversary, and sponsor locally-driven initiatives to enhance neighborhood vibrancy, safety, and creative identity. Community-based organizations will receive funding and technical support to build collaborative placemaking projects—from public art, to gardens, lighting, street furniture, and more. The grant initiative gives Charlotte residents the opportunity to take the lead on projects that will improve the public realm, stimulate social interaction, and address unique neighborhood challenges and opportunities.

  1. Deliver quick action

For neighborhoods that have experienced long-term neglect and disinvestment, quick action is essential for rebuilding trust. At the recent CityLab conference, Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox reflected on his department’s role in championing local neighborhoods to drive inclusive recovery in the city, offering key words of wisdom: “You will be judged by what you implement, not what you plan.” As a champion of Detroit’s diverse local neighborhoods, Cox drove home the importance of making immediate impacts on quality of life. “[Even] in a 30-year vision, you’re going to see something in 18 months.”

  1. Embed equity into funding criteria

“We all do better when everyone thrives” is the tagline for the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), a three-year, $90 million initiative to ensure that major new infrastructure investments in 6 cities lead to healthier and more equitable opportunities for all residents. This collaborative partnership uses an innovative Capital Screen to guide investments. SPARCC infrastructure projects will advance racial equity, health outcomes, and climate resiliency—while also promoting strong community ownership.

These inspiring initiatives offer practical guideposts for advancing health equity and cultivating greater civic trust in cities everywhere. For more ideas on shaping inclusive, equitable public spaces that can help bridge social divides, download the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines here.

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    No Barriers is an initiative to reimagine Charlotte’s public spaces, connecting neighbors through light, sound, and play. Courtesy City of Charlotte / © Austin Caine Pho
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    The Blake Hobbs Play-Za in Upper Manhattan converted an asphalt surface into a textured, landscaped parklet with an impressive tree canopy. Courtesy SCAPE
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    Pogo Park gets the community directly involved in transforming public space in Richmond, CA. Design elements feature residents’ personal imprints. Courtesy of Pogo Park
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    An open streets festival in Detroit gives residents a chance to enjoy their city in a new way. Courtesy of Human Scale Studio