Students help shape plan for neglected greenway

June 10, 2011 1:00:16 PM PDT
Like many hard-pressed urban places, the city of Richmond is full of forlorn and neglected spaces. One of them is a 1-1/2-mile-long section of the Richmond Greenway in the Nystrom neighborhood, a former railroad spur turned into an underused bike path with far more tar than greenery.

"It's a forgotten, 'throw all your stuff here' kind of a place," said Diane Keosang, one of 25 Kennedy High School students who have worked on proposals to transform the tar-way into a true greenway as part of Richmond's master plan for a healthier city.

Recruiting teenagers to help solve complex urban planning issues might seem counterintuitive. But young people are among the most visible and active users of public space, said Deborah McKoy, executive director of the UC Berkeley Center for Cities & Schools. The center is a national initiative that brings students together with Berkeley graduate school mentors in education, environmental design, and city and regional planning.

Despite their high profile in communities, McKoy said, "young people are often marginalized or invisible in planning and design process."

In Richmond, their voices are being heard. Among their recommendations for the greenway, which cuts through the heart of the city's 33.7 square miles, are putting a soccer field and solar lighting where there are now broken bottles, weeds and chain-link fencing.

The students presented their findings at City Hall on May 6 at the culmination of Y-PLAN, a 12-week collaboration among the UC Berkeley center, Richmond city manager's office, and junior and senior students from Kennedy's U.S. history and economics classes. The students are participants in the school's Architecture, Construction and Engineering Technology Academy.

"Richmond is a good place," senior Angelo Burkes said. "But it doesn't look that attractive. We need to make a better feeling around the city."

The student proposals are not simply an academic exercise. Several teen ideas about what makes a safe and lively park were incorporated into Martin Luther King Jr. Park, an unsafe and long-derelict spot that reopened last week as a centerpiece of the Nystrom United Revitalization Effort (NURVE), a public-private partnership designed to make Richmond "a safe, diverse and thriving place."

Among the student concepts was secure fencing that would not make the park look like a fortress. It now surrounds a revitalized sports field complete with bleachers and artificial turf ? built in part courtesy of a $200,000 grant from the NFL.

NURVE, which includes the greenway, was launched in 2002 by residents and local foundations in response to profound community need. Nystrom is one of the poorest communities in California, with a high school graduation rate of 28 percent. In Richmond, 16.4 percent of families live below the poverty line, compared with the state average of 9.8 percent.

A 2009 study of children in Contra Costa County, which includes Richmond, found that 30.4 percent of children between ages 2 and 5 who received Child Health and Disability Prevention program assessments were overweight or obese. Residents of low-income neighborhoods often rely on parks for exercise, unable to afford gym memberships and living in communities often lacking safe streets and backyards. Nystrom is no exception.

In many ways, the challenges of the neighborhood date back to World War II. That's when more than 60,000 people, including women known as "Rosie the Riveters," came to work at the Kaiser Shipyards, quadrupling the city's population in two years. The housing projects that grew out of that era include Nystrom Village, one of the three original public World War II housing projects. Redevelopment of the blighted 1943 complex is a top NURVE priority.

Joe L. Fisher, president of the Coronado Neighborhood Council, an area traversed by the greenway, recalled that when he was growing up, Nystrom was "an 'up' land, a well-to-do community." But today, he said, the neighborhood sends a very different message to young people.

"You see brown grass rather than green grass," the 68-year-old real estate broker said. "When our kids visit other communities, they're in awe. They see streets without potholes, sidewalks without dandelions, lawns all manicured, with grass that is green. I believe that when you look at trees and plants and beauty, it subliminally does something to your attitude, your health, your thinking."

Contrary to the stereotype, McKoy said young people want quiet and serene outdoor spaces with water elements that can help mute the cacophony of the city.

Residents already have re-greened portions of the greenway.

At an urban agriculture summit last weekend, held in a vaulted greenhouse at Sunnyside Organic Seedlings, residents and community leaders talked about their vision of Richmond as a garden city.

Doria Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit agriculture group Urban Tilth, described the 42 raised beds along the greenway, including 18 varieties of berries, planted by volunteers. Together, they have transformed a two-block stretch from an ad hoc dumping ground for household trash into a community garden alive with produce.

"You never see berries out there," Robinson told the crowd. "The kids pick them clean."

LaShonda Wilson, management analyst for the Richmond city manager's office, said the city is applying for funding for a greenway master plan.

"Youth have a completely different perspective on how to utilize space and what makes spaces interesting," Wilson said. "By being involved, they have ownership over the space."

Mijuan Moore, a Kennedy senior, said his view of his hometown already has changed. "Everywhere I go now," he said, "I look at a messed-up area and think about how it could be better."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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