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.”

What role do sport facilities and recreational areas have in the revitalization of these spaces? Sport and recreation areas obviously have an integral part in what we like to do with a Main Street. Whether it is a small town or part of a city, what we like to do is create a Main Street strategy or a Main Street action plan. We focus on connecting schools, parks and transportation to create a more active Main Street area. We like to think that the more diversity in terms of uses and people that you can bring to the downtown, the better. A big part of the Main Street strategy I talk about has to be: are we connecting to parks and open space to bring people to our Main Streets and downtowns? A great example of this would be Camden Yards, a multi purpose stadium located in the Baltimore downtown area. An essential aspect to the success of a Main Street is the connection and access to parks. The way we do schools is with a scale; elementary schools should be small scale, then the middle school gets a little bigger, and then high school with the largest reach of students. The question is, do we follow a similar format with parks or recreation? Do we have small pocket parks where you can take a kid on a stroller for a walk? Do we generally move up that scale until we have areas like Central Park? Do you have something that you can walk to or bike to? Is it safe to travel there? Is it connected to the downtown? All of these things are extremely important questions in this Main Street strategy and need to be planned. I went to China last October and noticed that the majority of elderly folk go to their local parks in the morning to practice tai chi or get fresh air. I was amazed to see how it brought friends and family together everyday in a deeply embedded and cultural activity. This brought up the question of whether local parks are needed within every neighborhood, especially in large cities such as New York? All cities are a collection of neighborhoods; in New York we work for about 90 BIDs (business improvement districts). However, New York has about 660 neighborhoods in total, thus, the question arises about the other 570 areas. Lots of these neighborhoods don’t even have a BID or a Main Street area. How do we connect these communities with parks and recreation areas in a more efficient way?” 

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.”

NYC Parks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *