Designing for Public Space Inclusive of Unhoused People

by Katie Kingery-Page, PLA, ASLA, and Skylar Brown, Student ASLA

Persons living unhoused in the former Pershing Square, Los Angeles, 2013
Persons living unhoused in the former Pershing Square, Los Angeles, 2013 / image: Levi Clancy via Wikimedia Commons

Use of public space, such as plazas, streetscapes and parks, by people living unhoused (a.k.a homeless) is persistently viewed as a social problem. Many cities in the United States have attempted to use legal ordinance to place strictures on where unhoused people may congregate or receive services. Several homeless advocacy organizations track such ordinances and they have been detailed in the mainstream press.

According to a recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, “Homelessness is caused by a severe shortage of affordable housing. Over 12.8% of the nation’s supply of low income housing has been permanently lost since 2001.” Homeless advocates widely agree that criminalization of being homeless in public does not help the conditions of homeless people or result in better access to services.

An equity worldview requires cities to plan public spaces for all people. Landscape architects have a strong role to play in promoting inclusion of services and amenities for unhoused people in urban parks. This post begins by asserting why fear of the homeless in public parks is unfounded, then takes a look at recent examples of inclusive parks, built and unbuilt.

Misconceptions of Homelessness

Referring to people living unhoused as “the homeless” implies that their condition is permanent and even of their own choosing. While there may be some cases in which this is true, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, many people find themselves suddenly without housing after a job loss, rent increase, or home foreclosure. According to the same report, “Family homelessness has been on the rise since the inception of the foreclosure crisis in 2007.” In an attempt to respect the varied circumstances and dignity of these persons, we use the phrase “persons living unhoused” throughout this blog post. But because “homeless” is a widely used term, we don’t exclude it from our writing.

Attempts to exclude people living unhoused from public parks are often based on two rationales: discomfort at viewing the circumstances of unhoused persons and fear of violent crime. It should be obvious that the first (one’s discomfort at encounters across socioeconomic class) has no moral standing. Fear of crime, however, can be understood as an instinct of self-preservation, but empirical facts do not support this fear. There is more evidence that persons living unhoused are a vulnerable population than a threatening one.

Examples of Inclusive Parks

Major parks are often redesigned to explicitly bring more vitality to an area, while tacitly eliminating existing homeless audiences. Pershing Square in the downtown area of Los Angeles has gone through many changes over the years. It has been viewed in positive and negative ways mainly focused on its issues with the homeless population (Shannon, 2016). The square is under redesign by design firm Agence Ter, whose winning proposal will bring the square back to the street level, and will also bring back shade, nature, and flexible open space (Wick, 2016). The design is focused on bringing back nature and developing resilience within the urban footprint, but will also have to reckon with the evident needs of people living unhoused who were the dominant site users prior to reconstruction.

The next four examples are efforts to create inclusive public spaces that acknowledge the wicked problem of homelessness. These examples are attempts to shift the public perception of “who” belongs in outdoor space.

Eddie Maestas Park, Denver, CO

Eddie Maestas Park is located within downtown Denver, Colorado. This small triangular park is located along the intersection of three streets. This park has become home to many homeless individuals because of its proximity to the Denver Rescue Mission, The Samaritan House, and the St. Francis Center (Jost, 2009). These three organizations work towards providing a place for people to eat, sleep, socialize, seek counseling, employment help, and provides access to healthcare. The site was redesigned by Em Dub Design, LLC with the homeless in mind because of its constant use by the population, but has also faced scrutiny by the general public living nearby (Jost, 2009). In the past decade, rejection of unhoused users of Eddie Maestas Park has taken the fore, as Denver spent large sums of taxpayer money to enforce ordinances that criminalize public sleeping in the park (McGhee, 2016).

Oppenheimer Park, Vancouver, British Columbia

Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver is located within one of the least affluent districts in the city. Major issues with the site prior to a 2010 reconstruction included drug activity and the fact that individuals did not feel safe within or near the park (Arvidson, 2015). The design team, Space2Place, wanted to focus on the historical aspects of the park while also embracing the marginalized and homeless. The design team started by creating a design with open sight lines. Following ideas of defensible space, open sight lines mean people are more likely to see and report issues and contribute to a higher perception of safety. Oppenheimer Park has become a strong example of sites that provide for the homeless rather than focusing on isolating them from the area.

The Living Room Project, Seattle, WA

Seattle’s The Living Room Project, not a park, but a single-day temporary landscape, began with the premise, “Those living outside often find themselves without a place to exist during waking hours, with emergency shelter necessarily focusing on overnight accommodations.” Artists Sloan Dawson and Sara Zewde, Associate ASLA, created the alley installation using culture and arts funding. While The Living Room Project inspires with its premise, it also begs the question of whether such programming could be supported permanently in a public park.

Pocket Park in Wichita, KS

An unbuilt design project by co-author of this blog post, Skylar Brown, Student ASLA, proposes the renovation of a Wichita, Kansas, downtown pocket park that honors civil rights hero, Chester I. Lewis, while also incorporating features to serve the city’s downtown homeless population, currently the most frequent park visitors (Brown, 2018). Activating an adjacent building wall with roll out café seating creates a private/public partnership and increases natural surveillance for defensible space. The park design uses a secure front entry to limit nighttime uses, a measure the designer felt necessary to protect proposed interpretive features of the park from vandalism. Two design alternatives explore varied openness of sight lines and separation between café seating and park space. Both proposals feature a social services kiosk, a public access bike repair station, shade and places for daytime rest.

Unbuilt proposals for Chester I. Lewis Park in downtown Wichita, Kansas / image: Skylar Brown 2018
Unbuilt proposals for Chester I. Lewis Park in downtown Wichita, Kansas / image: Skylar Brown 2018

Moving Forward

The cautionary tales of the disinvested place Pershing Square had become in the early 2000s and the recent police actions to sweep unhoused persons from Eddie Maestas Park bring sharp focus to Laurie Olin’s reflection on the future of Pershing Square, “The real question is…who’s going to look after it and how are they going to program it?” (Berg, 2016). Strategically, cities and landscape architects need to ask even larger questions, such as what social infrastructure is in place to meet the needs of persons living unhoused? Homelessness in the United States is a wicked problem due to its connection to much larger societal issues, like escalating income inequality, lack of affordable housing, and barriers to accessing mental health care. Public parks that embrace all persons’ right to exist in public space should be part of a city’s larger social infrastructure strategy.

Unbuilt proposals for Chester I. Lewis Park in downtown Wichita, Kansas / image: Skylar Brown 2018

References

Arvidson, Adam Regn. May 2015. “Every Kinda People.” Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Berg, Nate. June 2016. “Better Luck This Time.” Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Brown, Skylar. 2018. Narrative and Design: commemorating the Civil Rights Movement through an inclusive design for Chester I. Lewis Park in Wichita, Kansas. Master’s report retrieved from K-State Research Exchange.

Charner, Flora. February 2014. “A Tale of Two Cities: Curitiba.” Americas Quarterly.

Jost, Dan. November 2009. “Homeless Haven.” Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Shannon, Kelly. June 2016. “Landscape Architecture as Necessity.” Video recording from The New Landscape Declaration Summit, Landscape Architecture Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 10-11, 2016.

Wick, Julie. May, 2016. “Photos: The Winning Bid For Downtown’s Pershing Square Has Been Chosen,” Arts & Entertainment, online at laist.com.

Katie Kingery-Page, PLA, ASLA, is an Associate Professor, College of Architecture, Planning and Design, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning, Kansas State University. Skylar Brown, Student ASLA, is a Landscape Architect Intern at Davis Partnership.

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