Episode 98: Part of a System of Public Goods with Benita Hussain

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Especially during COVID-19, Benita Hussain shares how getting 100% of US residents with park and greenspace access within a 10 minute walk of their homes is more important than ever and requires leaders to give decision making and design to the community itself.

For more about flipping decision-making and shifting power to communities, download Leadership Upside Down, a framework for a new type of leadership by The Movement Podcast co-host Josh Cohen. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Hussain: Benita Hussain

Cohen: On today’s episode of The Movement podcast, we learn that there is one solution that can solve many elected leaders’ top priorities all in one fell swoop. You’ll learn what that is from Benita Hussain, the director of the 10-Minute Walk campaign for The Trust for Public Land coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Cohen: Our guest today has spent her career helping build sustainable cities. Benita Hussain is currently the director of the 10-Minute Walk campaign with The Trust for Public Land. Previously, she was an advisor to Mayor Tom Menino in Boston; director of external affairs, cities, and climate change for Bloomberg Philanthropies; and director of conservation solutions for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Welcome to The Movement, Benita.

Hussain: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Cohen: All right. And L’erin Jensen is joining us, as always.

Jensen: Hey, everyone.

Cohen: All right. So let’s get started. I want to dive into this concept of the 10-Minute Walk campaign, and maybe just share with us a little bit about what the goal of the campaign is, what it is, and why it’s so important.

Hussain: Well, the 10-Minute Walk campaign is kind of what it sounds like, which is that we are really committed to bringing parks and green space within a 10-minute walk of home of all residents in the U.S. by 2050. So we are currently working with about 300 cities to meet this pretty ambitious goal, and we specifically are using that metric around that 10-minute walk which is basically half a mile because we want to ensure that we’re talking about something that is actually achievable. It really creates for livable, walkable communities that are actually just a lot more fun to be in. So we just had a lot of fun thinking through how to make all of our cities meet this really, really great goal.

Cohen: Well, and I love the simplicity of, you know, a 10-minute walk. Right? I mean, it’s like—it’s something that you can easily visualize, and it’s super simple from that standpoint. You know, and you’re starting to see a little bit of this similarly around the 15-minute—what do they call it—the 15-minute neighborhoods, 15-minute cities.

Hussain: Yeah, walk cities. Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Yeah, where you’ve got basically everything you need within 15 minutes. And, you know, that’s really a very similar kind of concept to what you’re talking about, a little bit more complex, I guess, than just the green space, but I love the simplicity of being able to say, “Look. Anywhere you live in the city, 10 minutes, you should have access to quality green space.”

Hussain: Yeah. And we think of the 15-minute-walk city as sort of a partner framework for us for all of our cities, because the idea behind both these concepts and, you know, with the 15-minute-walk city being that everybody should have access to all of the services that they need within a 15-minute walk of home, how could you not have parks and green space be a part of that equation? We’re just trying to go a little bit even closer by the 10-minute walk versus 15-minute.

Cohen: You mentioned 300 cities that you’re currently working with already, and do you have a sense on what—you know, you want to have everybody in the U.S. have this 10-minute walk. Obviously, some of our more rural communities, that might be a little bit more difficult just because that’s—you know, that concept. So how are you measuring that as far as, like, these cities—like, is it all cities? Is that kind of the goal there that you want to get, you know, move from 300 to all of them?

Hussain: It’s certainly all urban residents. And that, you know, that terminology of being in an urban area is very specific. And certainly the 10-minute walk is probably more achievable or more sooner achievable for places that are denser because it’s inherently a dense metric. But, you know, when we talk about that goal of bringing 100% of U.S. residents within a 10-minute walk by 2050, there’s actually a really strong policy goal within that. Many, many of our 300 cities have already adopted that as a hard target, so sort of a North Star for their city similar to—you know, the way I compare it after having worked for other leaders around climate change, it’s a similar idea around creating really ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions by 2050. You know, we’re really just talking about urban transformation and really setting, again, that North Star goal.

Many of our cities are actually pretty rural and/or sprawling, yet they have still set that goal for themselves because the mayors of those cities and the city councilmembers all really see the idea behind what we’re doing as something that’s really important for their cities from a health perspective, from a community-cohesion and resilience perspective, and certainly for, you know, the ones that really care about this issue, but climate change. Right? Green space and parks are a really important part of building green infrastructure in their cities and reducing carbon emissions. So a lot of them are connecting that ambitious goal to the policies and the priorities that they have for their own cities.

Jensen: Yeah, Benita. So let’s talk a little bit more about that, this pledge, so to say, by mayors and cities that have already adopted this commitment to the 10-Minute Walk campaign. It’s a key component of the campaign, so what have you learned from your experience as an advisor to these mayors that you’re using to help get more mayors to commit to the 10-Minute Walk?

Hussain: Well, a few things. One is that, you know, mayors and city leaders aren’t just—you know, it’s not all a monolithic population, but one thing we do know about working directly with city leadership and mayors is that one is, I think, many of them are quite competitive with each other, so I think that setting a target and helping them reach that target is good, and it’s important, and they like to learn from each other and compete with each other, which I could speak to in two seconds. And then the other is the fact that you will never meet a city leader or a mayor who is not deeply invested in the wellbeing of their cities. They just—they’re on all the time. There’s no way of delaying services; there’s no way of making plans that are, like, 10 years down the road. Right? They’re really thinking about, “What can I do now to make my cities and my communities healthier and more connected?”

And, you know, that is a mentality that I certainly learned working for Mayor Menino followed by Mayor Walsh as well as certainly from Mike Bloomberg. It’s really about developing deep connections and services for their cities and for their communities. And the other thing that we’ve just sort of learned in working with cities—one of my favorites that I call out is actually Boston. And Mayor Walsh, who I know and who I worked for a tiny bit of time, has already achieved the 100% target. What we know is that by working directly with the mayors and helping them set their priorities, there is a cascading of policies afterwards that help set up the city for success. So we really think it’s important for us to be engaging at the leadership level so that these commitments don’t sort of get lost among other priorities. And then working at the highest levels has been really, really helpful. And that goes for cities large and small.

Cohen: You mentioned these mayors being competitive with each other. Are they, like, reaching out and, like, you know, trying to bust the chops of the neighboring city and saying—

Hussain: Yes. [LAUGHS]

Cohen: —“How come you haven’t signed up too?” I mean, is it going that far?

Hussain: Yeah, in some cases it has. And so I should also mention that, you know, we as the campaign are not just about getting mayors to sign on and then, you know, trying to create this friendly game. It’s actually—we are also delivering the tools and resources they need to meet that goal. And so we do—we have all of the mapping capabilities for 15,000 cities, if they want it, to show them exactly where all of their parks and green space are in relative location to all of their residents, so hopefully they can meet their 10-Minute Walk goal.

So we have all that baseline information, and so many of our cities and mayors can already look at where they are in their database. Our database is called ParkServe. And again, you know, I just mentioned Boston, which reached that 100% park-access target in 2018. San Francisco hit that target in 2018 as well. And I have spoken to the mayor of Providence, Mayor Elorza at a recent conference, and he was like, “We are very, very close behind Boston.” I think they’re at, like, 98%.

Cohen: Hmm.

Hussain: And he said, like, “We are going to make that 100% work, if it’s the last thing I do.” I mean, in all jest, but he really feels, A, I mean, again, that competitive nature of that Providence-Boston, New England rivalry but also the fact that he sees this work as essential for creating connected neighborhoods in a city like Providence. And I’ll say that many of the smaller and midsized cities that we talk to are probably the most competitive because they’re growing so quickly, especially during the pandemic sort of with a lot of the flight happening out of big cities but also because they have the opportunity to build their cities in the ways that they envision soon, and they can really serve as, like, laboratories in ways that big cities sometimes get caught up in process and policies at the grander scale.

Cohen: I like that. And, I guess, I also think about that from the standpoint of these cities trying to understand what makes them unique and what makes them tick. Right? And I always think that’s fun to think about. Like, you known, I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina which has its own kind of personality, if you will, as a resort town, a touristy town. And then I came to Durham for graduate school in 2005 and really fell in love with Durham. And it’s just interesting to see how different cities, each are unique and kind of will lean into that aspect of uniqueness that kind of makes it who it is. And I could see how especially among some of the smaller ones they could say, “Hey, look. We’re going to make public access to green space one of those differentiators.”

And, like, I had a guest on a couple months ago from the Walton Family Foundation, and all the work that’s going on in Northwest Arkansas to make that region a greenway paradise is pretty inspiring when you look at it. And obviously having the Walton Family Foundation there to help certainly makes it a little bit easier, but I like that concept of kind of these smaller to mid-sized cities really looking at this as a way to help differentiate themselves.

Hussain: Yeah, absolutely. I actually was just on the phone with Lewisville, Texas a couple days ago. And, you know, the mayor there and all of the city council as well as the parks department, they are working in lockstep. It’s a small town outside of Fort Worth, and they are working in lockstep to meet that 100% target. I think their target is 100% by 2025. And so it’s actually more ambitious than that 2050 target, but they are working and mobilizing because especially now—I mean, I think none of us working in the parks and green space could have anticipated the level of demand and sort of the national news that this issue area became over the last six months, you know, the absolute critical need for healthy, open spaces for cities and their residents to literally survive the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders. And so Lewisville has really—I mean, we’ve been working with them for a few years. They’ve received a couple of grants from us, but they are really, really mobilizing because they just know how important it is for their residents now more than ever.

Jensen: The pandemic is the Earth’s funny way of telling us all to slow down, stop driving, get out, breath some air, breath some clean air, save us all from climate change.

Hussain: Yeah, for sure. Right, right. And, you know, obviously with that comes sort of the devastating aspects of it and us needing to really think about sort of equity within this larger equation. You know, we are here talking about the 15-minute-walk city and the 10-minute-walk-to-a-park services but have a very deep understanding, I think, all of us working in this space, that not everybody has that access, and, “How do we ensure that we’re prioritizing the populations that most deeply need these services first?” as cities think about the planning, the planning of their green spaces over the next, you know, 30, 40 years.

Cohen: Well, I want to dig into that in a little bit, but before we do that, I want to turn back to this thing that I think you mentioned earlier, because I’m kind of interested in this movement from commitment—right? Because you have the public commitment, that’s one thing. Right? I mean, and I’m sure you and your team get really excited when a new city kind of comes on board and they make that commitment. But, you know, you and I both know that commitments are only worth so much. Right? Then you have to get to that implementation. So it sounds like you have some resources to help with that. That ParkServe that you mentioned is one resource to kind of help the leaders in these communities turn that pledge into a reality.

And so I’m curious, like, what either other resources you have or what some of those best leaders are doing. And maybe Lewisville is maybe an example where they’re kind of getting everybody aligned with this one goal. But I’m really kind of curious how are the best communities really not just saying, “Hey, we’re making a pledge,” but just actually making it a reality.

Hussain: Yeah, and I think that that first step is that adoption of that policy. And, as you mentioned, it does end up helping align, you know, all sorts of players within the city around that. But, you know, we’ve seen cities do things big and small just to take that one step towards meeting that goal of 100%, places like Lewisville and actually Boston. I keep on mentioning Boston. I mean, they basically moved one percent to that 100% by changing the access point for just one of their point parks. Because when we talk about access we’re not talking just about, you know, half a mile or a 10-minute walk as far as the crow flies; we want to make sure that folks can safely reach those spaces. So that’s not crossing a highway, not having to walk through broken sidewalks or feel unsafe on their way there. And so sometimes it’s about just literally unlocking or breaking down certain fences or barriers to parks one park at a time.

One of the biggest tactics we’ve seen cities really take on—and this is becoming more true nationally—especially as cities’ land becomes more expensive, you know, we don’t want to say that—you know, we don’t want to make this a very expensive endeavor, even though it can be transformation. But the biggest tactic has been around this transformation of schoolyards into green spaces. So, you know, we all have the understanding that schools basically exist in every neighborhood in every community in all of our cities. What if we were to turn their fields and playgrounds into after-hours and weekend public parks alongside the school districts?

So that’s actually been the most transformational. Cities like Atlanta have—we’re working with the mayor’s office alongside parks and rec, alongside the school districts to create joint, mutual understandings. You know, and there’s, like, all sorts of legal agreements around this to open up Atlanta schoolyards, and we’re seeing shifts in access to, you know, by 15%. Right? Imagine giving 15% more of your population access to parks and green space just by opening up your schoolyards. And that’s true for Grand Rapids, Michigan as another city that we’re working on. Lewisville’s, Texas is also working on schoolyards, so it’s really—that’s a really important tactic that we’re seeing, and it also seems it’s a fairly easy one. Right? Because that’s really about paperwork and also, of course, some level of maintenance and operations. So, you know, we always want to make sure that we’re working with the communities on what their local needs are and, again, helping them with the data to demonstrate that change.

Cohen: ParkServe, is that just an internal resource, or is that something that the general public can access? Or maybe there’s some similar kind of open resource?

Hussain: Yeah, so it’s an open source data. Yeah, it’s open to the public; it’s free. It has a number of layers, and the data is—it’s TPL.org/parkserve, and it is open to cities to use, and cities are able to actually upload and download GIS layers, so if they have updates, if they have actually opened new parks that we don’t even know about they have the ability to update the data on this open source platform. And it’s also divided using Census tract data around income level, around ethnicity, as well as around age groups, age brackets, so, you know, really helping optimize how cities can invest their parks dollars to ensure that the populations that they are hoping to serve are getting served.

Jensen: So Benita, I want to pivot back to this conversation about equity that you mentioned just a few minutes ago. The very concept of a 10-minute walk to a park for all citizens seems like it’s based on a foundation of equitable access because in some parts of cities, usually lower income or communities of color, there historically hasn’t been the same amount of access that you see in other richer, whiter parts of the city. So how do you and 10-Minute Walk campaign ground your work in equity?

Hussain: It’s a really important question, and one of the things that we always note as we talk about this work and as we talk about the scaling of this 100% park-access target is the fact that, you know, ultimately what we’re talking about is changing the ways that we view and plan our cities and asking city leaders and their residents and their communities to help us with this inherently requires us to rethink land use practices or sort of reverse land-use practices that have always historically been discriminatory, exclusive of certain populations. And it’s typically BIPOC populations. And so there is a lot of intense need for this, for the idea of bringing parks and green space to high-need areas and also a lot of investment of time and energy.

And I think that, you know, two cities I like to sort of talk about when thinking about driving ensuring that their investments in parks and green space are going towards sort of BIPOC communities first include Memphis, which is one of those sprawling cities that I had just mentioned. They have a target of 100% by 2030, and Mayor Strickland has very much committed through his comprehensive long-term plan to say that parks need to be distributed as community centers around his city and that the ultimate goal for the ways that their investing is to make sure that, again, the lowest-income neighborhoods and the most underserved neighborhoods are served first, are invested in first, and that there are job-growth opportunities and economic-growth opportunities associated with those parks and green space.

And then I think Saint Paul is doing great work around this. Mayor Melvin Carter has really put community feedback and community design front and center when it comes to parks and green space. And that’s actually the most important tactic that we encourage—right—which is we need to flip the decision-making and shift some of the power of community design and this urban transformation to the communities themselves to ensure that wherever those investments are going are still being responsive to the cultural and community needs at the local level. So there are mayors out there who are really, really thinking about this first, but it’s an essential part of our work as well.

Jensen: What are some of the things that, like, city councilmembers and mayors are hearing when they’re hearing from the community?

Hussain: Well, a couple of things. One is, you know, we know and actually The Trust for Public Land had actually put out research just recently showing that, you know, using that ParkServe tool and using various forms of data, that parks and green spaces in sort of lower-income neighborhoods tend to be four times smaller and four times more crowded than parks in sort of higher, affluent neighborhoods. Those parks that serve BIPOC communities tend to be half the size of those that serve White communities.

So that’s actually quite in line with much of the feedback that we hear, you know, even at the local level, which is, you know, “How are you making these spaces equitable in size? And how are you making sure that these spaces are invested in in the long term, that is maintained and programmed, that is having events and activities that make the spaces inviting for local communities? How are you creating safety in these areas and to make sure that people can use the space?” Because I think that quality question is real; it is one that is very localized, and communities have to give that feedback and have to be brought in in a long-term way to help city planners and help cities understand how to best serve those communities and neighborhoods.

Cohen: I think, that’s a really good point. I feel like sometimes you see parks, it doesn’t feel like the community; it feels like it was drawn in some lab somewhere and then plopped down there, and it doesn’t feel like it necessarily has the essence of the community. And some of that, I’m sure, is just the nature of everything is not going to be custom to a community, so I get that. But, you know, I think there’s almost infinite ways to create public green space. Right? It can be parks; it can be walkways; it can be green space it can be playgrounds; it can be fields. You know, like there is—it’s infinite. Right? And so I think you really could understand from the community what they need out of these, and that really helps make sure it’s not only safe but it meets their needs.

Hussain: Yeah, and the community connection is really important. I actually—when we talk about this work, I think it’s really important for us not to say that we’re just here to plop down green spaces and then walk away and that parks are sort of independent entities from the rest of the city. We talk about them as being part of a system of public goods that a city must invest in. And so, you know, we do like to piggyback with the clean transportation movement; we like to work with compete streets. Right?

We like because we think it’s—you know, if we’re talking about bikeability and walkability and safe streets, that inherently should sort of dovetail into being able to access really beautiful spaces as well. We do work closely with the climate communities and cities that really are ambitious around that because we know that green space is a really important part of combatting urban heat. And so I think—and that’s this other element of equity I was going to mention earlier, is when we know that low-income or BIPOC communities are more deeply affected by the impacts of climate change, what better next step than to invest in that green infrastructure that can actually help mitigate some of that, some of those impacts? So these are all important sort of sectors that we try to connect into who are also thinking about the similar issues.

Cohen: L’erin, what was that? We talked about that probably about a month or so ago. Was it Denver?

Jensen: Yeah, it’s Denver. And actually just before this I was reading an article that Benita wrote, and she mentions Denver because 90%—if I’m not mistaken, it’s 90% of Denver’s residents live within a 10-minute walk already. And so my immediate thought went to, “What’s the 10% that doesn’t? It’s probably that Black-and-Hispanic neighborhood on the other side of the highway.”

Hussain: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, without having the maps in front of me—it’s a consistent question where—and I will say that, you know, Mayor Hancock is very, very engaged on this issue for sure. And we just—they’re one of serve— another one of our champions because we just figure—we just know how critical and important it is for them to meet that 100% goal.

Cohen: Before we wrap up here shortly, I want to dig into this a little bit just because you have so much experience working with mayors directly and now kind of working with mayors at scale, really. You know, the challenge of being in that role is that everyone has a pet thing that they’re interested in. Right? You know, so this community might be interested in green space; this one is interested in economic development. That’s what makes that job hard, is because you’ve got everybody wanting their thing—right—whatever that thing is. And so I’m sure one of the things that you’ve realized is that this work that you’re doing on the 10-Minute Walk campaign can, like, tick a lot of those boxes. I’m guessing that’s the case, but I’m—maybe you could share if that’s actually the truth and maybe what that actual case is.

Hussain: So we do, you know, in sort of our cheeky way like to think of parks and green space as being sort of this, like, quadruple threat—right—because they are a very cost-effective way of meeting a number of city priorities. Right? One is around climate, which we talked about; one is around connecting neighborhoods and sort of that social connection that was, again, so much more clearly critical during the last six months. And, again, Mayor Elorza of Providence has emphasized about his deep goal around the parks and green space ambitions. You know, and again some of it is related to serve clean transport.

So, I think, that’s exactly right.

What we are trying to do is ensure that we are not being tone deaf to the fact that, A, you know, especially in the next year that budget cuts are real for all levels of government but that we are using the levers that we can and trying to meet the priorities of those cities and saying, you know, “I know that you are entrusted in greenhouse gas reductions. Like, how about we make parks, green space, and green infrastructure a part of your city planning? Why not?” You know? Mayor Peduto just on that piece for in Pittsburgh is very committed this campaign as well but is specifically docking that target into the city’s climate resilience plan. And, again, Memphis has it as part of their job creation plan. So I think that’s exactly right, is this—you know, I think it would be tone deaf for us to say, “This should be the most important issue on the docket,” but we can say, I think, quite honestly that this is an issue that can fit really neatly into a number of your priorities.

Cohen: That’s cool.

Hussain: Yeah.

Cohen: That’s cool. Where can our listeners learn more about you and the work you’re doing on the 10-Minute Walk campaign?

Hussain: Certainly can come to our website, which is 10minutewalk.org. Can find us on Twitter, which we are pretty active on at @10MinuteWalk Twitter handle. But, yeah, we’re—you know, always feel free to reach out via those two channels, and we’ll always get back to you. We try to be as responsive as possible.

Cohen: Benita, thank you so much for joining us to introduce us to 10-Minute Walk campaign to get 100% of U.S. residents within a 10-minute walk of quality green space, which I live within a 10-minute walk of quality green space, and I can vouch for the fact that it is awesome.

Jensen: Same here.

Hussain: Great. Well, thank you, guys. This was super fun. Thanks.

Jensen: Great having you.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.

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For more about flipping decision-making and shifting power to communities, download Leadership Upside Down, a framework for a new type of leadership by The Movement Podcast co-host Josh Cohen.