Question & Innovate

Kimberlee Douglas

Professor and Director of Landscape Architecture
College of Architecture and The Built Environment

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. This matters because studies show that people who spend as little as two hours in nature each week report higher levels of wellbeing compared to those who don’t. 

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.

What are your research interests?

KD: 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 identifying 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 lifelong success.

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

KD: I developed the Park in a Truck (PiaT) initiative as well as the Park Ambassador (PA) 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 programming for park events.

What first sparked your interest in this work?

KD: 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.

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

KD: 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 overpromised 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.

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

KD: 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!