#WLAM2018 – The Public Art of Designing Transportation Equitably

During World Landscape Architecture Month 2018, Toole Design Group will be featuring the themes, projects, and staff that form our Landscape Architecture and Urban Design practice. Tune in to our Instagram and Twitter channels for daily updates, features, and more throughout April!

By Stephanie Weyer

As cities grow, the unsustainable financial and health costs of transportation are often borne by lower-income and often non-white households. In dense and congested places, it generally costs more to live near reliable and convenient transportation options, while in suburban and rural areas few options are available. Opportunity costs like longer travel times, and significant health and quality of life costs in the form of higher crash rates disproportionately affect communities with the least means to improve their situation. This reality is one that I, along with my colleagues at TDG feel a personal responsibility to recognize and actively work to change. Giving people safe, reliable, and convenient options for walking, biking, and transit use can help to equalize the playing field.

Much of what I do at TDG is driven by the belief that everyone deserves safe, reliable, and efficient transportation systems. When my colleagues and I work with traditionally underserved or underrepresented communities, there are often layers of distrust, disinvestment, and discrimination that need to be confronted outright to gain support and excitement for the project at hand. And our approach to what works from community to community is constantly evolving. While we contribute our expertise in evaluation, planning, and design of streets that support active transportation, we work to do so in a way that responds to residents’ local knowledge and desire to shape their own communities.

Listen first. Design second. Listen again.

In South Providence, RI this approach has resulted in an energetic response from residents lending their vision to City Walk, a program to improve walking and biking connections between nine neighborhoods, the downtown area, and two city parks. The population of South Providence is 40% foreign-born, and 57% of South Providence residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. Nearly 35% of community members live in poverty, one of the highest rates in New England. To encourage and facilitate participation by all community members in City Walk visioning, my TDG colleagues are conducting all public meetings simultaneously in both English and Spanish and encouraging frank discussions on gentrification, displacement, and personal safety through a community advisory group, one-on-one interviews, listening sessions, and a street team comprised of residents with strong community ties.

Not only has this approach provided valuable input on walkability issues and biking and green space wishes, but community members are also closely involved in developing a plan for public art. Residents are proud of existing neighborhood art, and our team has responded by giving public art a leading role in our application of complete streets ideas on this project. Through discussions with our project team, City staff, and a local public art consultant, people from the community have shaped and influence the types of art being considered, and they’ve emphasized maintenance of artwork and commissioning local artists to complete new work as central issues.

In Providence and in many other communities around the country, our job has been to facilitate a dialogue while using our planning and design expertise to confirm opportunities and limitations. By standing back and letting those who experience a space on a daily basis be the arbiters of their future, we as designers are more prepared to deliver project designs that objectively improve safety and access while also giving communities a landscape that feels genuinely theirs.

Thanks to Lydia Hausle for contributing to this article.

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