Equity in Public Recreation Spaces
Victor Dadras is an architect and urban designer specializing in 30 years of Main Street Downtown Revitalization planning. With a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard University, Victor is a Partner at Dadras Architects and Adjunct Professor at Parsons The New School. In the midst of New York’s Covid Phase I re-opening, I sat with Victor to discuss equity issues in public recreational spaces. We sat at a respectable social distance, outdoors and with face masks on. The surge of Covid-19 throughout NYC in the spring of 2020 demonstrated the value of public recreational spaces, yet it has also highlighted the lack of access many urban communities have to park space, particularly low-income and immigrant communities.
I know that you teach and have private practice centered around the revitalization of small towns. Can you explain what that involves? “The revitalization and redevelopment of small towns, which we usually refer to as Main Street Revitalization, can be a small hamlet, a downtown, or a city area like Ogdensburg. Each is a different scale and the center of the commercial, civic, or cultural aspect of each town. These areas are where the churches, schools, banks, and post offices are located. They are not solely retail orientated due to the fact that in the last 10-20 years, industry has shifted to online. Our Main Streets have declined in terms of retail, but we are seeing and promoting a rebirth of other things such as cultural centers, galleries, restaurants, entertainment, and health/wellness facilities. People can easily start to workout at a gym, get nutritious meals, see a doctor, receive physical therapy and feed the increasing demand for health and wellness facilities in Main Street areas. We work for the City and the State, focusing on Main Street Revitalization in large downtown areas but also in small communities that lack the staff capacity or funding to do a revilization by themselves. We work for New York State to give “technical assistance” to communities they send us out to. We specifically have a downtown revitalization team that has economic development experts who do retail analysis, we have marketing and promotion experts, traffic planners who deal with streetscape or parking issues, and landscape architects who aid in park development.”
If you had to identify the main inequities present in any of these public spaces what would they be? “I can talk about inequality based on what spaces and services are provided, as well as the access to these facilities. Sadly, there are communities within our city that are underserved. A main reason for this inequality would be the fact that for too much of the last 50-60 years we based everything on car access. Immediately that leaves out half the population, especially in major cities where parks might be more necessary. This disproportion comes from socio-economic and age inequality in terms of access to these places. Many lower income families that can’t afford a car, or transportation to parks that are farther away, will not have access to any sort of recreational area. Many of these lower income neighborhoods may not have a properly funded local park or one at all. Furthermore, due to the emphasis on automobile access, many senior folk or younger children lose this opportunity as well. Why should my 75 year old dad be driving to the park, because he really shouldn’t be? My kids are in their 20’s and they don’t own cars, especially not in New York City. However, because of this obsession with car access, we limit those who can use many of these resources. These issues are where we reach a disconnect and thus inequalities arise within our cities or downtown areas.”
What are the long term effects of under-investment within these neighborhoods or in areas of disproportionate access? “The effects on citizens living in such underfunded areas is that their health and wellness take a toll without access to parks or health and wellness facilities, that are part of this Main Street strategy. For example, lower income areas develop higher rates of asthma and obesity. Both issues stem from unequal access to parks but also (unequal access to) healthy, cheap food alternatives and medical facilities. Long lasting effects definitely show themselves in health issues, income issues, and lifestyle differences. Furthermore, a lot of these issues are amplified during a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people living in apartment buildings or lower income areas truly have no place to go outside of the house. Without local parks in which people can walk, workout, or just get fresh air while still maintaining social distancing, people can experience very bad health tolls by the time the pandemic is over.”
Parts of this interview have been condensed.
Final thoughts… As a teenager growing up in New York City, I’ve observed the imbalance in funding urban recreational spaces. When I visit with my grandfather in Brooklyn Heights, we take my nine year old brother to amazing new pier playgrounds along the waterfront. However, when my family eats Oaxacan food in Corona, Queens, I just see dense housing and kids playing on sidewalks, no fancy playgrounds in sight. Disportionate access to public parks and recreational areas have become even more evident during Covid-19, when critical access to fresh air and exercise space was limited for those in poorer communities (the very communities hardest hit by Covid). The NYT reported that the Trust for Public Land estimates “at the height of the pandemic, more than 1.1 million New Yorkers did not have access to any park within a 10-minute walk of where they lived…many of those without access were in densely packed and low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods outside Manhattan.”