Creating a Network of Green Spaces in Urban Areas

Working with communities to develop high-quality outdoor spaces that improve environmental, social and physical health.
Kimberlee Douglas, director of landscape architecture at Jefferson’s College of Architecture and Built Environment. Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

More than 80% of the U.S. population lives in cities and that number is expected to grow. With that increased urbanization comes a shift in the landscape and the loss of forests, grasslands and other natural areas. For many people living in cities, the main access to nature is in the form of urban green spaces like parks, gardens and walking trails. COVID-19, with lockdown and social distancing, created a newfound appreciation for spaces like this and the many physical and emotional benefits being around nature can offer. One study showed that people who spend as little as two hours in nature each week report higher levels of wellbeing compared to those who don’t. This is one among a plethora of research showing that being amongst nature can lower depression and stress, improve sleep and cognition, and could even lower the risk of premature death.

Unfortunately, the access to urban green spaces is not equitable. A recent report of the U.S. showed that “in the 100 most populated cities, neighborhoods where most residents identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to an average of 44% less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods.” Another report showed that 70% of low-income communities also live in areas lacking green spaces.

Researchers like Kimberlee Douglas, director of landscape architecture at Jefferson’s College of Architecture and Built Environment are working with communities to repurpose urban vacant lots into low-cost, high-quality green spaces in under-resourced neighborhoods. Read on to learn more about her projects and research goals.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research.

A: I am interested in connecting children with nature – research suggests there are a myriad of benefits for children from being outdoors, yet these experiences are often isolated and exclusive (think ecological injustice). I started this research with wanting to bring nature into the everyday life of urban youth by using contiguous vacant lots to create a network of high quality outdoor spaces.

Children are growing up in a very different world than their parents; one of the most significant differences is most children, in urban areas or otherwise, do not engage with, or have access to, nature. What is necessary to succeed in life is not only excelling in tests but also developing skill sets such as perseverance, curiosity, optimism and self-control. All of these are skills that can be learned from the outdoors – children learn all sorts of skills maneuvering a log or watching an ant drag food back to its nest or identify what bird is singing – unfortunately children in under-resourced and low-income communities lack stimulating and safe outdoor environments. There is a movement to develop ‘green’ playgrounds in schools but we feel more needs to be done to provide these environments in a contiguous green network where children can be immersed in nature. We feel this has huge implications for combating poverty by empowering children to achieve self-sufficiency through contact with nature, their neighbors and their neighborhood resources. These spaces will help in developing skills necessary for life-long success.

Q: What’s one project in which you are exploring your research goals?

A: I developed the Park in a Truck (PiaT) initiative as well as the Park Ambassador Program. PiaT is a community-operated green network, established through low-cost, fast-turnaround renovations of vacant lots that not only improves environmental, social and physical health in under-resourced neighborhoods, but also unites efforts to keep them intact and helps residents lead revitalization and reinvestment efforts. This open space initiative builds upon the ongoing community development work of many great organizations by repurposing underutilized spaces to fill in the gaps. No one should ever be far from a safe, high-quality green space.

The Park Ambassador is a paid intern whose role is to be an advocate, educator, manager and liaison for the parks. The PA’s role is to ensure the success of the park by creating an environment that welcomes the community and manages the park’s maintenance and programs. The PA provides information on the park’s design and implementation, provides daily maintenance and assists in rule enforcement and programing for park events.

Q: That’s really interesting! How are you evaluating the impact of this work?

A: In the community-engaged research project, Power Tools: A Youth Focused Community Engaged Research Approach, we will measure the social, mental health and community impacts of the Park in a Truck process, specifically around self-esteem and negative stereotyping among black urban youth (6-8th grade). We will explore how, and to what extent, participating in a PA Program that teaches 11-13 year-olds the value of their neighborhood, the value of nature and the value of their input and participation in planning their parks and community, can combat negative racial socialization and boost self-esteem and mental health.

We are now working hand in hand to improve the neighborhood and I continue to engage with them on what improvements or programs they are interested in adding to the community.- Kimberlee Douglass.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: Touring Philadelphia schoolyards and realizing most playgrounds were asphalt and chain link fencing. At the time I worked for a large design firm and did not often do local design projects. I realized I wanted to work with communities to co-create natural green play-spaces and outdoor environments for neighborhoods most in need.

Q: What’s a unique fact, surprising statistic, or a myth about your study subject?

A: That those in the urban environment don’t think ‘nature’ is important or necessary for their children. And while Philadelphia boasts that 95% of their residents have a park within a 10-minute walking distance, many of those so called parks are unusable.

One core value for our work is that we do not ‘hit and run’ but continue to serve the community in a variety of capacities depending on where they are in the process of creating equitable accessible green space. We keep showing up until that trust is established. For instance, while working in Mantua, the location of the first park in a truck, it took me three months to get my foot in the door – the area and its community have been over-studied and over promised and did not trust anything I had to offer. We are now working hand in hand to improve the neighborhood and I continue to engage with them on what improvements or programs they are interested in adding to the community.

Since that first park was built we have developed an open source “Park in a Truck” toolkit so people of all abilities can turn local empty lots into parks. The toolkit gives detailed step-by-step instructions on the park design, build and maintenance.  The goal is to translate the toolkit into different languages and expand the Park in a Truck program nationally.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?

A: Teaching is rewarding in so many ways, but I think what I love most about my job is the ability to make a difference in people’s lives whether it’s a student or a community.

Q: What’s something you’re passionate about outside of your research?

A: Growing food – I have a 1,500 sf vegetable/fruit garden (and growing!) that I grow all sorts of things- it enables me to share with folks who do not have access to healthy organic food.

Q: Is there a piece of advice that stuck with you or that you try to pass on to young researchers?

A: While we often hear ‘follow your passion’ which in my case was how PiaT came about, our interests change and we need to possibly follow many ‘passions’ in order to find a trajectory of research. Engage in exploratory activities – it’s fun and may lead to a great idea!

Q: What led you to Jefferson?

A: I wanted to do research on outdoor environments and children and I wanted a collegial atmosphere – Jefferson was it!

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