Designing Black Spaces

A Literature Review for the 11th Street Bridge Park
Written by Mehvish Jamal

As the Bridge Park embarks on its final phase of design and pre-construction, our team wanted to make sure we uphold our commitment to creating a space that is by and for the long-time residents of the park’s surrounding neighborhoods. We asked ourselves: How can we ensure the Bridge Park reflects the aspirations, desires and needs of our neighboring communities? How can we intentionally design this space to center Black audiences? We read the expansive research done on this topic by scholars, architects, urban planners and designers like Andrea Roberts, George Lipitz, Walter Hood, Ishmael Nuñez Pedraza, Jack Travis, BlackSpace Collective and more – read on for some of our key learnings from their work. (See below for a full bibliography.)

Spatial Imaginaries & Why Black Spaces Matter

There’s no denying the power of public spaces – from parks and plazas to sidewalks and street corners – in shaping a community’s sense of belonging, identity and security. But public spaces, depending on whose experiences they reflect and prioritize, can also make people feel unwelcome, unsafe or excluded. The Bridge Park is first and foremost a park for its neighbors. We want to ensure that the predominantly Black communities surrounding the park feel welcome, celebrated and centered at the Bridge Park.

As a result of the United States’ legacy of structural racism and its influence on the built environment, the way people experience and want to experience public space – their spatial imaginary – differs by identity. Our public spaces, intentionally and unintentionally, tend to disproportionately reflect and prioritize the experiences and imaginaries of white Americans. However, communities of color and other historically marginalized groups have their own spatial imaginaries, which place greater value on solidarity, collective ownership of space and public wellbeing. Given the dominance of white spatial imaginaries in our public spaces, we are lacking much needed Black spaces – spaces that reflect and affirm African Americans’ individual and collective understandings of their Blackness.

Recently, urban planners and designers have been working to create spaces that are inclusive ‘for all’. However, this risks ignoring the unique lived experiences of Blackness and the injustices disproportionately experienced by Black Americans in public spaces. In contrast, we should strive to create spaces that reflect Black spatial imaginaries which, by nature, are more liberatory and inclusive. These spaces can serve both the need for African Americans to have a sense of belonging and safety in public spaces, as well as the need for these spaces to serve our diverse society at-large.

Here are three actions the Bridge Park should take to help manifest the park as an intentionally Black space:

Conserve Heritage through Stories of Black Agency, Identity and Power

We know that heritage can foster a community’s sense of identity and belonging, and help residents and visitors alike understand a community’s past, present and intentions for the future. But who gets to tell histories? Whose voices are heard in displays of public heritage? Often, public history and heritage conservation efforts misrepresent stories of Black agency and power to instead center the role of white people. To foster truly inclusive places, these efforts must be co-created with Black communities to center narratives of Black agency and self-making, and must be integrated into the design process. The 11th Street Bridge Park has a strong track-record of elevating such narratives, as well as historic Black placemaking practices, through programming and public art initiatives that are aligned with our Equitable Development Plan’s cultural equity strategies. The Bridge Park’s design team should be intentional about integrating these heritage conservation elements into the physical design of the space as well.

Amplify Joy and Liberation

Similarly, who gets to tell the stories and experiences of Black Americans today? Too often, our society is dominated by negative, one-dimensional portrayals of African Americans’ experiences. In contrast, documented practices of Black placemaking create places that center joyous, affirmative and liberatory interpretations of Blackness. Narratives that center and celebrate Black agency, joy and affirmation must be embodied in Black spaces. Building on the programming efforts of the Bridge Park over the past eight years, the design team must find ways to spatially represent Black placemaking practices that emphasize affirmative, celebratory and liberatory interpretations of Blackness.

Design WITH Community

In our research, one key theme stood out above all – community participation in design is essential.. People of color, and African Americans in particular, are extremely under-represented in the fields that most influence our public spaces – architecture, development, design and urban planning. Therefore, these practitioners are often designing for audiences whom they do not themselves reflect. Much work needs to be done to continue to diversify these fields. In the meantime, if designers and architects do not meaningfully engage Black communities throughout their design processes, they will inevitably continue creating spaces that reflect a white spatial imaginary and misrepresent Blackness, all the while claiming to be inclusive and equitable. How do we design spaces that truly embody and celebrate a Black spatial imaginary? The answer lies in participatory, capacity-oriented and collaborative design processes that engage the intended users of space as active and central participants in design. As the Bridge Park enters its final stages of design, the design team must continue and expand the project’s early commitments to community participation. The Bridge Park’s design team must treat the park’s surrounding neighborhoods’ Black residents as co-creators of the space, shifting ownership and agency while avoiding practices that withhold true power, tokenize them or only engage residents for surface-level design considerations.

Be sure to follow our journey as we navigate the final stages of the Bridge Park’s design!

Disclaimer: This post summarizes key findings from a literature review that discusses and applies existing concepts and theories to the context of the 11th Street Bridge Park. This post does not produce new knowledge. Please see below for a full list of works refernced.

Written and researched by:

Mehvish Jamal

Project Consultant, 11th Street Bridge Park

Master in Urban Planning Candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design


Arnstein, Sherry R. 1969. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 34, no. 4, 216–224.

Bates, Lisa K., Sharita A. Towne, Christopher Paul Jordan, Kitso Lynn Lelliott, Lisa K. Bates, Sharita A. Towne, Christopher Paul Jordan, et al. 2018. “Race and Spatial Imaginary: Planning Otherwise/Introduction: What Shakes Loose When We Imagine Otherwise/She Made the Vision True: A Journey Toward Recognition and Belonging/Isha Black or Isha White? Racial Identity and Spatial Development in Warren County, NC/Colonial City Design Lives Here: Questioning Planning Education’s Dominant Imaginaries/Say Its Name – Planning Is the White Spatial Imaginary, or Reading McKittrick and Woods as Planning Text/Wakanda! Take the Wheel! Visions of a Black Green City/If I Built the World, Imagine That: Reflecting on World Building Practices in Black Los Angeles/Is Honolulu a Hawaiian Place? Decolonizing Cities and the Redefinition of Spatial Legitimacy/Interpretations & Imaginaries: Toward an Instrumental Black Planning History.” Planning Theory & Practice 19, no. 2: 254–88.

Berg, Nate. 2020. “Meet the Black Design Collective Reimagining How Cities Get Built.” Fast Company, August 17, 2020.

BlackSpace. 2019. Co-Designing Black Neighborhood Heritage Conservation. New York: BlackSpace Urbanist Collective, Inc.

BlackSpace. Manifesto. New York: BlackSpace Urbanist Collective, Inc.

Choi, Rebecca Meejoo. 2020. “Black Architectures: Race, Pedagogy, and Practice, 1957–68.” PhD diss., University of California Los Angeles.

Crockett Jr, Stephen A. 2012. “The Brixton: It’s New, Happening and Another Example of African-American Historical ‘Swagger-Jacking.’” Washington Post: Local (blog), August 3, 2012.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt). 1903. The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches. Chicago, A. G. McClurg. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1968.

Fullilove, Mindy Thompson. 2015. “An Antidote for the Unjust City: Planning to Stay.” The Just City Essays 1: 82-84. Ed. Toni L. Griffin, Ariella Cohen, and David Maddox. New York: J.Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York, Next City, and The Nature of Cities.

Fullilove, Mindy Thompson. 2016. Root shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it (2nd ed.). New York: New Village Press.

Greenwald, Rebecca. 2020. “Black Landscapes Matter: Q&A with Landscape Designer Walter Hood.” Metropolis, November 3, 2020.

Hood, Walter, and Grace Mitchell Tada. 2020. Black Landscapes Matter. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Hunter, Marcus Anthony, Mary Pattillo, Zandria F. Robinson, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. 2016. “Black Placemaking: Celebration, Play, and Poetry.” Theory, Culture & Society 33, no. 7–8 (December 2016): 31–56.

Koh, Annette. 2017. “Placemaking When Black Lives Matter.” Project for Public Spaces, May 23, 2017.

Lipsitz, George. 2007. “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape.” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): 10–23.

Melcher, Katherine. 2016. “Many voices, one project: Participation and aesthetics in community-built practices”. The Plan Journal 1, no. 2, 351–366.

Mock, Brentin. 2020. “The Toxic Intersection of Racism and Public Space.,” Bloomberg CityLab, May 26, 2020.

Pedraza, Ishmael Nuñez. 2019. “The Black Spatial Imaginary in Urban Design Practice: Lessons for Creating Black-Affirming Public Spaces,” Master diss., University of Washington.

Roberts, Andrea. 2020. “The End of Bootstraps and Good Masters: Fostering Social Inclusion by Creating Counternarratives” from Preservation and Social Inclusion. Ed. Erica Avrami, Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, Issues in Preservation Policy Series, New York: Columbia University Press.

Robinson, Juleon. 2021. “Commentary 1.” Antipode Online: Book Review Symposium.

Summers, Brandi Thompson. 2019. Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Travis, Jack. 2012. 10 Principles of Black Space Design. Bronx: Jack Travis, FAIA NOMAC RA.

Walden, Ebony. 2021. “Black and Brown Placemaking Rooted in Identity and Ownership.” Next City: Op-Ed, September 22, 2021.