What makes public spaces 'just'? - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 20, 2017 12:30 pm

What makes public spaces ‘just’?

The Knight-funded Just Spaces audit project will help University City District assess who is using the spaces it manages, and who's being kept out.

The Porch at 30th Street Station.

(Photo by Ben Tran for University City District)

Think of your favorite public space — a park, a street corner, a transportation hub. Now think about who else you see there. Are they like you?

Part of University City District’s mission is to improve public space in West Philadelphia, including through The Porch at 30th Street Station, the in-progress Trolley Portal Gardens at 40th and Baltimore and a community composting site, The Dirt Factory.

But the nonprofit has realized that not every public space is created equally, or with every Philadelphian in mind. Enter: Just Spaces, an audit tool it’s developing to assess the accessibility and equity of its public space network.

Alissa Weiss, director of strategic initiatives and communications, said UCD doesn’t know exactly what the end product will look like beyond some type of web-based tool. The process of determining that is about “taking a moment to step back and understand these larges issues of, ‘How are we doing in terms of social justice and equity in our spaces?'”

That means looking at public spaces from the perspective of not only how many people are using them, but how who isn’t and why. UCD was inspired by the research of CUNY anthropologist Setha Low, who examines public space along the “axes of justice,” including distributional justice — who is physically proximal to the space? — procedural justice — who has access to the planning of the space’s use? — and interactional justice — who feels comfortable or safe in the space?

“We’re looking at it in as many lights as we can,” Weiss said, including race, gender, class and ability.

With the help of D.C. consultancy NspiregreenUCD has brought on an advisory board, which met for the first time this week, to help it turn those high-level concepts into a workable toolkit. Members are a mix of University City residents, people who work in the area, those who aren’t directly associated with the area but work in the public space realm and those who “absolutely do not think about public space every single day,” Weiss said. “Everyone interacts with public space, so they have their own feelings and expertise about it.”

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Members include:

  • Erica D. Atwood, CEO, First Degree Consulting, LLC
  • Kevin Bethel, Philadelphia deputy police commissioner (retired), City of Philadelphia; Stoneleigh Foundation fellow
  • Charles Brown, senior researcher, Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center; adjunct professor, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University
  • Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, VP, AECOM
  • Malcolm Burnley, journalist
  • Michael Farrell, principal, Penn Alexander School
  • Diane Gallagher, executive director, HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy
  • Elizabeth Greenspan, writer and urban anthropologist
  • John Herzins, deputy public property commissioner (retired), City of Philadelphia
  • Amy Hillier, associate professor of Social Policy and Practice, Penn Design
  • Keir Johnston, Co-Founder, Amber Art and Design
  • Maurice Jones, president, PRIDE Ventures, Inc; president, Garden Court Community Association
  • Melissa Kim, program officer, LISC Philadelphia
  • Mark Kocent, principal planner, Office of the University Architect, University of Pennsylvania
  • Michelle Lee, product, Protocol Labs; cofounder/CEO, Textizen
  • Setha Low, Professor of Anthropology, Graduate Center at The City University of New York
  • Takia McClendon, digital engagement and content manger, City Fit Girls
  • Aparna Palantino, deputy commissioner of capital infrastructure and natural lands management, City of Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation
  • Tayyib Smith, founding partner, Little Giant Creative; cofounder, Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship; partner, Pipeline Brickell

Burnley doesn’t live in West Philly, but as a journalist, he reports regularly on urban development and the city’s Rebuild initiative.

“It shows tremendous leadership from UCD to seek out these difficult conversations about equity and inequity, especially at a time when West Philadelphia is rabidly changing and UCD will play a pivotal role in defining for years to come,” he said. “At one table, UCD brought together nationally recognized thinkers on public art, transportation, policing, architecture, and education (among others), for its own edification. It’s impressive.”

Just Spaces was a finalist for this year’s Knight Cities Challenge; it didn’t win, but the Knight Foundation is funding the project through a separate grant.

Once the metric development process has been finished, UCD will share it out to other public space managers, including other Knight grantees, within the next year. Weiss expects UCD to have working metrics in the spring to be able to apply them to its own audit by summer.

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