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Metropolitan Planning Council Opens Up Conversation About Black and Brown Lives in Green Spaces

The Metropolitan Planning Council last Thursday set out to open up conversation about the history, politics and economics behind black and brown lives and their use of green spaces.

The panel discussion, which is part of the council’s Equity in Action conversation series, was meant to celebrate progress, examine issues and promote accountability among members of the community and stakeholders for advancing change.

Featured speakers included Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Park; Tonika Lewis Johnson, founder of the Folded Map Project; and Brian McCammack, chairman of Urban Studies at Lake Forest College.

Several panelists made mention of the 1919 Chicago race riots and what needs to be done moving forward to promote a more racially equitable Chicago region.

McCammack said it’s important for people to recognize there’s cultural productivity to be found when black and brown lives come together to use green spaces.

Johnson said there’s a need for a shift in the public’s mindset when it comes to black and brown lives and their use of green space.

“Not only in Englewood do we have to deal with the negative perception of crime and poverty, but a lot of residents … don’t feel as though they can access public spaces, due to feeling endangered,” she said.

Johnson turned to cite examples of residents who are putting space to new use through the city’s $1 large lot program, which helps grant people access to vacant lots that can be transformed and reimagined.

“It is really important for residents to not only have ownership of the vacant lots, but how they use it creates hope and it also shows other residents what they can also do,” she said.

Irizarry spoke from experience about the importance of parks in the community.

“My Puerto Rican-ness was very much bolstered by my experience growing up in Humboldt Park—the neighborhood but also the park itself—which so deeply embodies and is a home for a lot of our cultural expression and community celebrations,” she said. “I understand from my personal community’s point of view how important our local parks can be.”

Irizarry recalled noticing how vacant lots became part of her neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, in part, because of arson fires that led to demolition.

About that time, her observations stirred questions about why her neighborhood looked as it did.

“It led me into a career in affordable housing,” Irizarry said.

Irizarry said people have questioned why she turned to start a career with Friends of the Park.

“For me, these things are all very connected,” she said, emphasizing that green space, much like housing, plays an important part in fostering a sense of community among people.

Friends of the Park has spent time documenting the inequities in parks and last year and released its 2018 State of the Parks Report.

Irizarry noted that a lot of inequities exist when it comes to the parks and said it shows “the African American community, the least invested in of all communities, in terms of programming, and the Latino community, the least invested in terms of acreage of parks.”

Irizarry said the programming made available by the park district is problematic.

“There are community groups doing additional [programming] on top of that, but our argument is that the community’s gains in wonderful community building should not replace government investment in the programming in that space,” she said.

Johnson said the answer to the problems facing the city’s neighborhoods goes beyond integration.

“There have to be equitable resources,” she said.

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