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Working to make public space for everyone in Baltimore

Can a better park help bridge the city's racial divisions?

For writer D. Watkins, it's a sense of exclusion from what he called the "new" Baltimore. For student activist Diamond Sampson, it's a feeling of being unwelcome around the Inner Harbor.

For Richard Jones, president of the landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel, which has been involved in planning for McKeldin Plaza, Harbor Point, the Inner Harbor's Rash Field and Patterson Park, the racial divisions sometimes seen in the city's public spaces are partly a design failure — one he hopes to help fix.

While that sense has many causes, Jones sees design as part of the solution, so Mahan Rykiel has launched a social impact studio. The nine-person team is charged with looking at ways to encourage more minority participation when planning; building partnerships to ensure minorities are using ballfields and other amenities; and creating education programs to entice more minorities into the field of landscape architecture.

"Our city is diverse. Our parks need to reflect that diversity," Jones said. "We need to acknowledge the very real perception on the part of many [African-Americans] that the city isn't really for everyone."

With the city facing an influx of new public space created by demolition, school construction and major real estate projects such as Port Covington, other groups, including the city's Planning Department, also are working to reach people more creatively, concerned that the success of their plans could be jeopardized without participation from the whole community.

"Without participation, we can't design spaces that truly reflect the needs and wishes of the community that lives there," said Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder, CEO of Parks & People, which is exploring ways to increase youth involvement.

For Mahan Rykiel, the issue came into focus in recent years as it worked with the city and other groups on plans for spaces around the city. Minorities were less likely to participate in those discussions, and in some cases, the firm's surveys found they were less likely to use or feel welcome in those spaces.

The mission is also partly personal. The son of a German mother and African-American father, Jones said his interest in landscape architecture was sparked by the differences he experienced growing up, between the parks he enjoyed in Germany and what he saw when he returned to his father's hometown of Camden, N.J.

"That gap in equity reveals itself in a very obvious way in public spaces and the urban fabric of our cities," said Jones, who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1998. "It's something we have to begin to address, and we see the role of the design firm as being central in beginning to have those conversations, forge those partnerships … to bring about change in those areas."

One of the firm's biggest challenges is the distrust felt by residents who are suspicious of developers and tired of providing feedback on plans that often fail to come to fruition.

Persuading people to participate is tough, said Sampson, 19, who co-founded the Inner Harbor Project in 2012 as a freshman at City College in an effort to give more voice to youths, who felt targeted by merchants and harrassed by security officers.

"It is always a tough sell because you have to make the youth feel comfortable and because we have been kind of excluded for so long," she said. "You kind of persuade them to go on your word."

Others said residents turn out to meetings, only to realize that it's too late to influence the decision because city officials already had made up their minds.

"It's a whole lot of things in the mix that make residents feel unsure about the city and what they promise to do," said Devon Wilford-Said, a longtime advocate who sits on the board of the Pleasant View Gardens resident council. "But if we were at the table when they were doing the planning, first of all, they would hear our views … and then maybe it wouldn't be so hard."

Governments and planners around the country have moved away from the top-down decision-making of the 1960s often associated with urban renewal.

But the public meetings now used are often a weak replacement, with limited reach because of people's busy schedules and limited success at eliciting what people really want, said Setha Low, director of the public space research group and a professor of environmental psychology at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

"Participatory planning — it's really important," Low said. "The problem is that as any planner will tell you, it's flawed."

Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur acknowledged the city needs to improve the way it does outreach.

"When you end up with more city staff than residents at the meeting, then it's just not a good situation, and that has happened a couple times," Stosur said. "That really made us very seriously and quickly want to retool the way we're doing it."

His office has sent representatives to farmers' markets, schools and community meetings to try meet people where they are as it develops plans for the schools. It's also developing a network of more than 100 "ambassadors" to solicit ideas and submit data — including the racial makeup of who's responding — as it updates the city's sustainability plan, which will explicitly make "equity" a focus.

Low said there are some best practices that can be used to design spaces even if public feedback is lackluster. For an area created by demolition, for example, gestures to history, whether a sign, statue or other representation, tend to help people accept the new space.

Development that does not understand or respect the social fabric that preceded it is a big problem in Baltimore, especially in African-American neighborhoods, according to Watkins, who described his sense of exclusion from the "new" Baltimore in an essay for Salon last year.

But he said allowing people to feel included will take more than parks; it will take safety improvements and increased economic power in the form of jobs, paychecks and homeownership.

"For me, until we get to the root of all these issues, nothing's going to make a difference," he said.

Jones and others hope to convince him otherwise.

"As designers, we can simply sit back and take the position that those issues are beyond our ability to affect … or we can choose to take a more creative and proactive approach that devotes time and energy toward breaking down some of those barriers that continue to carve up our cities," Jones said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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