From Recovery to Resilience: Insight from Our Richmond Panel Event

(Hero image; Mending Walls RVA – The Blackwell Drip by Chris Visions and Heide Trepanier.)

In November, HKS hosted a conversation with some of Richmond, Virginia’s civic, community and business leaders about what urban justice and community resilience look like after COVID-19.

The pandemic broadly exposed societal inequalities across race, gender, income and opportunity in Richmond and U.S. cities large and small. As urban centers emerge from the pandemic, policy and planning decisions made at the local level will have social, economic and environmental impacts for generations to come.

Historic Richmond is Virginia’s capital – a diverse and livable middle tier city that turns 300 in 2037. Our panel discussion explored the opportunities and challenges Richmond faces to focus on equity and building resilience while implementing the Richmond 300: A Guide to Growth Master Plan.

Panelists included Andreas Addison, Richmond City Council, First District; Brandi Battle-Brown, entrepreneur and owner of Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar in Richmond’s Brooklyn Park neighborhood; Max Hepp-Buchanan, Director of Riverfront & Downtown Placemaking at Venture Richmond, RVA’s downtown advocacy organization; and Rob Jones, Executive Director, Groundwork RVA, which is dedicated to making Richmond greener, more sustainable and more equitable.

Here are the event’s top five takeaways.

Parking or parklets? Transformative urban design provides new public space, economic resilience

In September 2019, Richmond had 21 different parklets on (Park)ing Day, an annual global event in which design and firms and artists claim a parking spot on city streets and create a temporary parklet for people for one day. HKS Richmond teamed with DPR on its parklet and claimed a $5,000 grant to install a permanent parklet in 2020, but COVID-19 waylaid plans.

Proposed Richmond Parklets

Over the spring and summer in 2020, Venture Richmond’s Hepp-Buchanan and the Richmond AIA, partnered with the city to develop its Picnic in a Parklet program to create permanent (three year permit option) pop-up public spaces in parking spaces on the street fronting restaurants and small businesses suffering due to the pandemic.

The program has had difficulty finding its footing for myriad reasons; one is rooted in Richmond’s car-centric transportation system that prioritizes driving to reach and park within business districts.

But the pandemic presents a bit of a conundrum: businesses want reassurance from the city that permanently removing parking spaces won’t hurt their business, yet the new outdoor parklets where people can relax and enjoy a meal will help small businesses stay open in the near term.

Battle-Brown decided to forge ahead with her parklet for her juice bar business, Ms. Bee’s, in Brooklyn Park. Hers will be the first parklet designed, permitted and built under Richmond’s Picnic in a Parklet program, and Hepp-Buchanan believes that once other businesses see the results, momentum for the permanent parklets will build.

Designing Battle-Brown’s parklet as a pro bono project, the HKS Richmond team developed a concept to celebrate Ms. Bee’s brand identity. Battle-Brown’s parklet is public space, meaning it can be used by anyone, as well as customers from neighboring businesses. “Having an outdoor space where people can bring their kids, their dogs, and feel safe because they have enough room to physically distance is going to be a real boost,” said Battle-Brown. 

Ms. Bee’s Parklet concepts
Ms. Bee’s Parklet concepts

Ending redlining of black neighborhoods didn’t spur new investment: now’s the time

The civil unrest that consumed the nation following the death of George Floyd was a powerful inflection point. But in Richmond – the city known as the birthplace of the country’s slave trade – citizens there saw Floyd’s death as another painful event in a procession of racial injustices from Jim Crow segregation to the city’s practice of redlining: from the 1930s through the 1970s, the federal government created maps outlining Black and immigrant neighborhoods in cities to denote areas  deemed “hazardous” for lenders. As a result, citizens living in these so-called redlined areas were bypassed for mortgage loans and other types of credit, spurring decades of disinvestment and a decline in property values.   

Congress banned redlining some 50 years ago, yet these neighborhoods are still suffering the consequences. Satellite analyses show that Richmond’s wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods have 30% more parks and tree canopy than the city’s redlined communities. In lower income neighborhoods with fewer trees and vegetation, heat absorbing pavement makes these areas five degrees hotter in the summer on average than the tree lined streets. Unsurprisingly, people living in Richmond’s four hottest zip codes have the highest rates of heat-related emergency room visits.  

Panelist Jones contributed to an in-depth New York Times article in August that dives into the racial inequities exacerbated by redlining. The data demonstrate that climate justice and racial justice are undeniably linked.

“The silver lining of the moment we’re in is awareness, when voices are being heard and we’re able to really talk about directing resources toward mitigating the impacts that were created by policy – not by chance, but by policy,” said Jones in relation to the Richmond’s efforts to redress the historical and negative impacts that Black and marginalized communities have been carrying for literally centuries.

 Councilman Addison added that the city has committed to expanding green space and access to ensure that every resident is within a 10-minute walk of a shady park. “We can’t simply create new pocket parks and green space and say it’s available. It must be accessible,” said Addison. “We’ve got a lot of work to do related to safe sidewalks, bicycle routes and public transportation so people can access it.”

George Floyd image on the Robert E Lee confederate statue on Monument Ave.

Rezoning ordinances must include higher density and green space as part of new development

In 2017, Richmond’s civic, business and community leaders began a deep community engagement process that produced the city’s Richmond 300 Master Plan to design a sustainable, equitable and beautiful Richmond worthy of every resident and neighborhood. Now that the final plan has been approved, our panelists concurred that when the city tackles rewriting its zoning ordinances – an intensive 3- to 5-year process that includes extensive public input – that any proposed high-density project must allocate green space as part of the development.

Hepp-Buchanan, who served as co-chair of the Richmond 300 advisory council, likes the plan’s lofty green space goals, but says the true test will come in rezoning parts of the city “so it’s not just the scraps of space we’re fighting for, but that we prioritize accessible green space, ensuring it is part of the urban fabric and intertwined in how our city continues to grow.”

Gentrification: embrace growth while ensuring longtime residents don’t get pushed out

Speaking of growth, Jones noted Richmond’s attractiveness as an affordable alternative that draws new residents from nearby Washington D.C., New York and beyond. The pandemic revealed that office workers can work remotely from anywhere, making less dense, second-tier cities like Richmond even more desirable.

“Living where you work is really desirable, and businesses and people relocating here helps our tax base in theory,” said Jones. “But growth that isn’t planned doesn’t include access to green space, isn’t balanced with affordable housing and doesn’t take the character of existing neighborhoods into account. The influx of new capital can drive displacement.

We need to make sure that what we’re doing is not just attracting growth but also benefitting the people who have lived in the community over time. You want places where teachers and artists and postal workers can afford to live as well. So how do we create that mix and make sure folks who have been here during the lean times can afford to stay?”

Addison believes one solution lies in converting housing stock of blighted and tax delinquent properties into a tax-incentivized affordability level to create housing that can support low-income households that they can buy or strive to buy.

An inclusive, participatory budgeting process elevates the conversation

In 2019, Addison lead a Richmond City Council effort on a participatory budgeting process to help policy makers see and hear neighborhood-level concerns and conversations and make budgeting decisions appropriately.

“We can create sustainable policies, mandate energy efficiency initiatives, create green space – but we also want to protect what we have and what’s valuable to residents already. If we have property that’s going to be developed, we not only want it to increase property values, but policy only goes so far and urban design frameworks are not the whole picture,” Addison said.  

“That’s why community participation is important because as the eyes and ears of the residents is where you get valuable feedback. You learn what’s going on, what’s working and what we’re missing. How can you design for a community if you don’t know what they want or need?”

Addison believes the city’s Masterplan should require a consistent evaluation process. “We’ve set the expectation and we need to build measurement into the process to know where we are and whether we’re meeting our vision to leave no resident behind.

Because at the end of the day, if we do this right for the next 10 years, I think you’ll see an amazingly different city that’s one we’re proud to live in and call home.”

It’s a Wrap

Midway through the panel discussion, Battle-Brown’s young daughter appeared on screen – bespectacled, pig-tailed with a wide grin and two front teeth missing. She plopped into her mom’s lap and whispered into Battle-Brown’s ear (she asked for candy). Her bubbly presence served as a reminder as to why HKS hosted this panel talk in the first place: coming together with knowledge and common purpose to work toward what we all want: communities that offer a quality of life experience that is shared across income and education levels, backgrounds and employment. A place that works for everyone.