A grandfather and grandson bike outside.

Reclaiming Streets as Public Spaces

Mary Skelton Roberts on the path ahead to create truly welcoming, inclusive public spaces for all.

This Spring, all across this country and all over the world, people took to the streets to call for justice, and to assert that Black lives matter. Their demonstrations carried through the summer and into the fall, and their calls for change have filled our neighborhoods, halls of government, and corporate boardrooms. Perhaps more than at any other time in our nation’s history, people have recognized that the systems, structures, and spaces that make up our society are set up to benefit some, but to hinder – and even endanger – others.

Last month on Barr’s blog, Kim Szeto of the New England Foundation for the Arts announced new grant programs focused on creating more just, vibrant, and welcoming public spaces. The term of art Kim introduced is, “spatial justice” and it answers the question: who is this space for?

Public art plays a powerful role in shaping the character of public spaces; so does planning and street design – which is why I wanted to join in this conversation Kim opened for us.

Our public spaces reinforce public values about who belongs, who is entitled to feel welcome and safe, and who is made to feel unwelcome, an intruder, or a threat. This explains why a white woman can become so offended that a Black man would ask her to leash her dog as required in a public park. Or why armed vigilantes would feel justified chasing down and murdering a Black jogger in a residential street. Or why the police would suddenly escalate something so trivial as standing in front of a convenience store.

The President of the United States understood the power of place when he militarized the Capital and other cities in response to demonstrators taking to the streets. In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser responded by painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on 16th Street, which leads directly to the White House. The same phrase is now emblazoned on 5th Avenue in New York City, Washington Street in Boston, and scores of other cities large and small – as a way to reclaim those streets, and to acknowledge the real struggles of Black Americans.

Yet, words alone cannot ensure that all people are welcome in our country, communities, and neighborhoods. Planning shapes what people actually experience. For generations, our approach to planning our communities has codified injustices and segregation. Leading national Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) urban planners for years have been drawing attention to the intersection of race and planning. My lived and professional experience as a planner of color has taught me that if we truly want to make spaces more welcoming, they must be designed by and with people of color and other marginalized individuals.

“If we truly want to make spaces more welcoming, they must be designed by and with people of color and other marginalized individuals.”

When I was growing up in Boston, the divisions between neighborhoods were even sharper than they are today. And people knew when they crossed certain dividing lines. This summer, I joined a protest with my daughter, where we marched through Boston’s North End. It brought me back to my days going to high school there, when strangers would pelt me with snowballs as I walked down the street.

As we marched through Christopher Columbus Park and cut across Faneuil Hall, I was reminded how those places and their public artworks symbolize the vastly different histories Bostonians have experienced since the birth of our city. For me, an Afro-Cubana Bostonian, Christopher Columbus and Peter Faneuil Hall are reminders of colonization and enslavement of my people. Our streets can simultaneously contain multiple and seemingly conflicting histories: subjugation or innovation, segregation or opportunity, injustice or equity. Urban planners have a responsibility to create spaces for these fuller truths to exist.

The protest march that day this summer gave me a glimpse into what a truly inclusive Boston could be. As we moved from City Hall, to the South End, and into Roxbury, I knew my city has changed. Each of these neighborhoods now feels physically accessible; old barriers visible and invisible are no more. Each of us, with all of our varying identities – young, old, Black, White, LatinX, queer, or transgender – we were all marching for justice and taking space in our streets.

While there is so much more work to do, Boston has come a mighty long way. For the work ahead, it is worth remembering that, and to recognize our capacity to move with shared purpose and urgency – as we have in response to COVID-19. The path ahead requires all of us – including artists and planners and many more with distinctive contributions to make. And it requires investing in leadership by Black and Brown people to create, and to realize a more inclusive vision for what Boston and other cities can become.

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