Paula Horrigan, Cornell University
Public space’s role in social inclusion and specifically, in refugee integration and inclusion, is explored in this paper which turns its focus to Utica, NY where refugees are fostering the city’s revival and growing pluralism and where a series of grassroots One World Utica (OWU) placemaking initiatives have been underway. An overview of the refugee experience illuminates how quality public space and placemaking can contribute to refugees’ recovery from trauma and displacement by restoring health and nurturing emplacement. But opportunities for reaping health benefits from public space–for refugees and others– are often absent or hindered due to a range of factors. For example, as evidenced by constrict theory, increases in ethnic heterogeneity and diversity often trigger heightened social isolation and anomie (Putman, 2007). Social isolation is further perpetuated by distressed and disused public spaces lacking sociability and activity, as is the case in Utica. Such public spaces deny opportunities to develop and strengthen social connections and place attachments. Therefore, because social connection is key to refugee integration and a recognized feature of an integrated and inclusive community, reimagining and enhancing the quality and inclusiveness of Utica’s public spaces is central to the OWU placemaking initiatives happening in the Oneida Square neighborhood and spearheaded by the Rust2Green Utica Community-University (Cornell) Partnership. Each OWU project honors and promotes Utica’s pluralistic distinctiveness. Each draws people together–refugees and non-refugees alike– into more welcoming, inclusive and vibrant places and offers opportunities for building social connections and affective bonds between people and people and between people and place.
Taking a city's pulse– the social life and choreography of people using its public places– was urban sociologist William H. Whyte’s passion as was his belief in the critical role public space plays in city life. Increasing, not decreasing, the contacts points or friction between people and place is the optimal aim of public space if it is to reinforce ‘citiness’ and produce urban vitality. Whyte’s research, in the Street Life Project, showed us that social encounter and exchange is the most vital measure of a city’s intensity. His seminal book (1980) and pioneering film, the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces disclosed and confirmed the details that make public spaces attract people and activity to them–tree canopies, moveable chairs, sun and shade, food vendors, events, and more. Above all, what attracts people most is other people.
That physical design matters to social interactions and relations is Whyte’s legacy and the groundwork on which subsequent research and practice regarding the design and use of public space has been advanced. Worldwide, there are now many good examples of cities putting public space at the fore and taking concerted steps to encourage its inclusive use knowing it can invite and privilege some, while oppressing and excluding others. Today, quality socially inclusive public space is considered one of a city’s greatest assets and expressions of its social sustainability. It plays a crucial role in bridge-building across differences, fostering cultural assimilation, expressing diverse multicultural identities, and furthering the meaning and place identity of neighborhoods and the city as a whole (Amin, 2008).
Public space’s role in refugee integration and inclusion is the topic of this paper. It will be explored through the case study of Utica, NY which is home to a burgeoning refugee population and an overall population that is growing increasingly diverse. An understanding of the refugee experience provides an essential starting point for further discussion regarding the needs that must be met to successfully become integrated and emplaced into a settlement community. Ways that public space, can support those needs and foster greater health and well-being will provide a prelude to a discussion of several current ‘One World’ initiatives in Utica which are directly addressing refugee inclusion with support from the Rust2Green Utica University-Community Partnership.
Utica New York
For many small and midsize cities in Upstate NY’s Rust Belt it’s as though the decades of progress made in encouraging and activating social life in public spaces never happened. Forward progress and momentum were dramatically curtailed by circumstances that unfolded to produce and reinforce anti-city dynamics and generate severely distressed inner cities across the region. Unfortunately, Utica, NY is but one of many that met a similar fate and for whom the negative impacts and outcomes of mid-century planning and urban renewal took a serious toll. In his 1990 book, City: Rediscovering the Center (1990) Whyte cautioned small and mid-size cities regarding the threat of losing their centers– the places where their social life intensifies and unfolds. He deemed them the most vulnerable to urban renewal, automobile and parking domination, and distributing, rather than concentrating, what people they still had living within their boundaries in the wake of suburban flight. By 1990, in Utica, it was already too late. Like so many other cities in the U.S., Utica had done exactly what Whyte had warned against and ‘dullified’ its downtown. Downtown was transformed into a fragmented, fractured and decentered place with a highly deflated social and economic pulse exacerbated by acute depopulation and disinvestment. In ‘renewing’ itself and aspiring to become a ‘modern city,’ Utica diffused people away from the center and increased distances between activities and uses. Acres and acres of downtown’s historic neighborhoods were razed. ‘Renewal’ came in the form of parking garages, at-grade parking lots, mega-blocks, truncated dead end streets, high-rise apartments, and shopping plazas, an entertainment auditorium and state and city government campuses surrounded by parking. While it wasn’t understood at the time, urban renewal, as the County History Center’s Director lamented, "… was destroying essential elements of the city's character and creating an identity crisis that would last for generations" (BUD, n.d.).
Utica’s downward turn and the depression of its urban vitality began almost three quarters of a century ago. It’s important to know how downward the City has fallen and the losses its experienced along the way in order to appreciate how challenging its upward journey will be. For over 40 years population declined–from 100,000 in 1960 to 60, 651 in 2000, an all-time low. Today, downtown’s public spaces are underused and de-peopled and city leaders continue to regard parking as one of the highest and best uses of downtown land believing that by wooing cars rather than, “people, activity, function” (Whyte, 1990. p. 314) downtown can revive. Local economic development priorities remain focused on large-scale long-term projects driven from the top and reminiscent of urban renewal era tactics. One will clear 25 acres– 1/3 of downtown– to build a major hospital campus. Another will transform a former brownfield site into a multi-use waterfront destination, and a third will build a new entertainment district with a casino and sports facilities on ten acres of downtown land. Hopes are high these mega projects will fuel economic growth and restore Utica’s prosperity.
After a protracted period of decline, it was the arrival of new immigrants that started to change Utica in noticeably positive ways. Having hit rock bottom in the 90’s, some called the first decade of the 21st Century its “comeback decade” (Cooper, 2009). This comeback was directly attributed to an influx of refugees as Utica was becoming known as the “town that loves refugees” (UNHCR, 2005). In the early to mid-80’s Utica began resettling refugees from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Poland. Subsequent refugee waves came from the former Soviet Union during the late 80’s to mid-90’s. In the late 90’s Bosnians began arriving and in 1997 alone, over one thousand were resettled in Utica. They were followed by subsequent waves of refugees coming from Burma, Somalia, Bhutan, Sudan, Ukraine, Iraq and most recently, Syria (“MVRCR History,” n.d.). By 2010 Utica’s first waves of refugees had had an opportunity to become more integrated and established and had acquired stable employment and incomes. They were starting and owning businesses and gaining greater security through home ownership, English language proficiency and educational attainment. At the same time they were establishing socially supportive groups and places to connect through religious and cultural activities in the mosques, temples, and community centers they were founding. A once crumbling United Methodist Church that the city was ready to tear down in 2008 was saved by the Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica. This group transformed it into a thriving downtown Mosque adjacent to City Hall and it became one of downtown’s first highly visible signs of placemaking and affirmation of belonging by a new ethnic immigrant group. Utica’s refugees were being credited with buying and renovating vacant and derelict housing, filling labor force needs, and bringing new entrepreneurial activity to Utica (Singer & Wilson, 2006). Overall, long-term research on the economic impact of refugees resettled to Utica confirmed they were providing a net- fiscal benefit to the community (Hagstrom, 2010).
Population and demographic results of the 2010 census confirmed the positive impact of Utica’s refugees and encouraged optimism on many fronts. The city’s population had stabilized and actually grown to 62, 325 and population decline had come to a halt. Due to the efforts of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR) Utica has resettled over 15,000 refugees from 37 countries. Utica and Oneida County now has one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the US and the percentage of its foreign born residents is higher than any other city in Upstate New York. MVRCR, which is affiliated with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service, is one of nine United Nations (UNHCR) resettlement agencies nationwide. It holds to a “one-stop shop” model and provides both refugees and other immigrants with a single location where they can access resources. Beyond fulfilling the immediate and basic needs of resettlement, it provides housing-related assistance, job placement and training, cultural orientation, translation and language skills (ESL) and is regarded as a safe harbor and welcoming downtown community center. Above all, MVRCR is a crucial and indispensable social capital asset (Putnam, 2000) for refugees and the entire community and a key player in Utica’s prospects for revival. In a relatively short quarter century timespan, refugees have brought about unprecedented growth in Utica’s diversity. This diversity is visible in the city’s neighborhoods, businesses and cultural offerings and in the schools where 43 different languages are currently spoken. Today, 19.4%, or nearly 1 in 5 Utica residents is foreign born and 29.2% of residents speak languages other than English at home. A white population that in 1950 stood at 98.4 percent and fell to 60% in 2010 is currently estimated to stand at 57.2% (white-alone-not Hispanic or Latino). All indicators suggest that Utica will continue to welcome refugees to its borders. At this time, with the support of City government, MVRCR is resettling Syrian refugees which is welcome news given the anti-Muslim sentiment and backlash happening in the U.S. which in 2018 admitted only 22,491 refugees, its lowest number in 40 years.
Utica’s diversity trajectory, echoes what is happening throughout the U.S. and in many countries worldwide, where large and rapid increases in ethnic and social heterogeneity are underway. This demographic trend toward greater diversity is catalyzing complex social formations and the shaping of new collective identities. By 2044, the US Census Bureau projects more than ½ of all Americans will belong to a minority group and that minorities will comprise a new majority. Foreign-born Americans will number 1 in 5 by 2060, by which time the US will have become a plurality nation made up of a multitude of racial and ethnic groups (Colby and Ortman, 2014). Utica can already enjoy its distinction as a plurality city where 1 in 5 are foreign born and 44.7% are minorities.
Plurality and ethnic diversity, as Putnam argues (2007) is an important and valuable social asset for contemporary societies and a city like Utica. “Thus,” he writes, “the central challenge for modern, diversifying societies is to create a new, broader sense of “we” (p. 139) through developing and fostering social capital and networks. However, meeting that challenge is difficult as diversity is not always recognized, over the short to medium run, by societies that view immigration and ethnic diversity as ruptures and disruptions that “challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital” (p.138). Nurturing diversity as an asset is the hallmark of successful immigrant societies which make the greatest effort to diminish diversity’s negative impacts by creating new forms of social solidarity and new more encompassing identities.
Making the “we” challenge greater still is Putnam’s constrict theory, and findings from the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. This survey studied how diversity effects social capital and concluded that higher levels of interracial trust exist in more homogenous communities and lower levels in heterogeneous ones. Effectively, when living around greater ethnic diversity, people trust one another less. In more diverse settings, Americans distrust those who don’t look like them as well as those that actually do. Diversity, according to constrict theory, triggers anomie or social isolation and causes those living in ethnically diverse settings to “hunker down” and “pull in like a turtle” (p. 149). Other measures of social capital and civic engagement negatively correlate with ethnic diversity too, such as lower confidence in government, lower voter participation, and decreased happiness and quality of life perception. Social capital and networks, therefore, become even more crucial to the process of overcoming this hunkering down tendency and encouraging diversity. By lessening the social distances between people that would otherwise divide them, comfort with diversity, and mutual trust and cooperation increases. Proximity and shared experiences, in turn, foster a sense of inclusion and closeness, foster boundary crossing, shifting and blurring, and help to form more common social identities. (Alba & Nee, 2003).
Research by Ager and Strang (2008) suggests both refugees and others in a settlement community, want and expect more than absence of conflict and toleration of different groups. They seek more contact and interaction with one another and the mixing of groups. They identify ‘belonging’ as a crucial indicator of living in an integrated community. In Utica, a 2013 study by Zogby Analytics (2013) which sought public opinion regarding the impact of refugee resettlement on Utica, drew some similar conclusions. Local community leaders and citizens largely view immigration as a good thing, would welcome an increase in refugees and generally consider opposition and misunderstanding to be negligible. However, the study also identified a need for more proactive efforts in relationship to refugee integration. When asked whether current integration support services were adequate, a majority of community leaders interviewed said “no,” the community is falling short on “cultural awareness programs, interaction between local government departments to immigrant communities, community integration programs for immigrants, and the relationship building between native-born and immigrant communities” ( p. 54). In response to a polling question directed to 300 adults as part of the study, 85% agreed there should be more programs bringing immigrant and longtime residents together to learn more about each other (p. 63). The study concluded with several recommendations directed specifically towards social capital building and cultivating Utica as a multicultural community. They included forming and strengthening networks and community relations programs and generating events and media to counteract negative sentiment towards refugees.
For refugees, forced-migration differentiates their experience from that of other immigrants. They seek resettlement in a host country for humanitarian reasons having been driven from their home countries because of war, violence or persecution. Further threats based on their ethnicity, race, religion, nationality or political and social affiliations make returning home impossible (UNHCR). Ten groups, originating in home countries with a history of conflicts and oppressive regimes, make up the largest percentage of U.S. refugees. They include, starting with the largest, refugees from Vietnam, Russia, Iraq, Bosnia, Lao, Burma, Somalia, Iran, Cuba, and Cambodia. Currently, in the US, 1 in 12 (8%) immigrants is a refugee who applied for protection either while outside the US, or an asylee, who sought protection from within the US or at one of its borders (Dyssegaard Kallick & Mathema 2016).
Forcible displacement and migration from one’s home country is deeply traumatic and demands tremendous reserves of resilience and courage. Refugees have not only suffered from poor living conditions, food and water deprivation and compromised health but may have also experienced or been witness to extreme violence. This includes killings, torture, and rape as was the case during the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Other traumas involve living in and movement to and from refugee camps and detention centers and finally settlement itself in an alien and unfamiliar receiving country. These traumas compound with other risk factors such as exclusion and discrimination to make refugees highly vulnerable to such things as anxiety, psychological distress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Lindert & Schinina, 2011). Displacement also ruptures person-place relationships and negatively impacts one’s psychological processes and ways of interconnecting with their environment (Fullilove, 1996). The psychology of place asserts psychological well-being depends on having “strong, well-developed relationships with nurturing places” (p. 1517) and maintaining linkages to those environments through the three key psychological processes of place attachment, familiarity and identity. All three undergo major upheaval and turmoil when people are forced from their homes or find themselves in settings that are not supportive of their lives. Place attachment, which is the socio-physical bond that is formed between people and the places that are important to them, (Low & Altman, 1992; Scannell & Gifford, 2010a) is upended and severed in displacement. Place familiarity–cognition of one’s environment through inhabiting and dwelling in it– is ravaged and supplanted by disorientation and needing to learn how to navigate and inhabit entirely new environments. Finally place identity, the sense of self and meaning a person derives from the place where they are passing their life, is radically disturbed and impacted.
Mental and social health and protecting and restoring it is a serious concern, for refugees and for the settlement communities that provide them sanctuary. There are a range of social determinants that create or enhance health vulnerabilities for refugees during all phases of their migration including in the settlement context. They include, among others, such characteristics as female gender and older age, cumulative trauma exposure and type of trauma, duration of forced migration, lower education and socio-economic status, poverty, and discrimination (IOM, 2017).
The UN Refugee Agency’s (2002) framework for refugee recovery sets out 4 principle recovery goals for refugees in the resettlement process, which include restoring safety, restoring dignity, restoring attachments and social connections to others and restoring meaning in life. Place attachment influences displacement experience– whether natural or in the case of refugees, human-caused, and the associated recovery and resilience processes (Scannell et al, 2016) that follow it. “Place attachment is not only a source of pre-disaster resilience as well as a target of destruction during disasters, but it is also a source of post-disaster resilience that can support the recovery of individuals, families, and communities” (p. 165). Sampson and Gifford’s (2010) research affirms the role of making place– placemaking– in developing and bolstering new place attachments or emplacement (Turton, 2004) and contributing positively to the restoration and recovery of resettled refugee youth. They show how refugee youth in their early stages of resettlement in Melbourne, Australia sought welcoming places of healing and recovery or therapeutic landscapes (Gesler, 1992) that provided positive place connections and a sense of belonging in their new environment. Overall, these ‘therapeutic landscapes’ were places of opportunity, safety, restoration and sociability and had physical attributes common to calm and relaxing public spaces, parks, gardens, green spaces and areas with trees and flowers. Such places offered beauty, greenness, tranquility, cleanliness and safety. Social places and social relationships, which provided the youth with a sense of security and belonging, were found among friends and family and in schools, parks, libraries, and places devoid of conflict and violence.
Placemaking and reterritorialization in the resettlement context, as happened in Melbourne, enables refugees to engage and negotiate the place in which they are now present while also negotiating their ongoing relationship with the place which they are absent from. In their placemaking practices refugees repeatedly share stories about their former place to preserve links to imagined or actual places of belonging. They also reorganize their new places according to familiar categories and bring familiar practices and objects from the former place into their new place (Turton, 2005). Emplacement processes like these provide self-continuity which is an important psychological need and factor in forming new place attachments and continuity in one’s life (Scannell et al, 2016). In the face of change, self-continuity maintains a sense of consistency via a coherent narrative, or story, that connects past and present events and behaviors of one’s life to each other. For self-continuity, individuals might seek features in the new place that are familiar to them and/or incorporate the damaged place of attachment into their personal narrative and in so doing preserve the place from being lost. (Scannell et al, 2016). They might bring rituals and cultural practices into their current place as evidenced in the ethnographic research on the emplacement and self-continuity practices of Bosnian refugees in NY State. By creating their own community cemetery as well as vegetable gardens in their backyards Bosnian refugees are creating new places that incorporate their cultural and religious practices and look like and remind them of the places they’ve lost (Keles, 2011).
Social connection’s pivotal role in refugee integration into settlement communities both within and between groups of refugees and host-community residents, is underscored by Alger and Strang’s research (2008). Their 10-part framework identifies it as a key driver of integration and as “the defining feature of an integrated community” (p. 177). As a process, integration requires mutual accommodation and needs to be seen as a two-way process of social connectivity between a community’s refugees and non-refugees. Social capital’s three-part formulation of social bonds, social bridges and social links (Putnam, 2000) combine to reinforce the social connections refugee integration requires. Social bonds involve connections linking members of a group with one another. For refugees this includes connections to family and friendships with others from the same ethnic group. Health benefits attributed to social bonds guard against depression. Social bridges involve connection between differing groups and provide a defense against isolation. They are created by the coming together of refugees and others to share and equally participate in activities and exchanges. Across time, social bridges serve to combat prejudice and beget new opportunities as relationships and mutual understanding are developed and safety and security are bolstered. Finally, social links are the connections between individuals and those structures and organizations providing them with services. Having access to supportive local services and resources that can deal with refugees’ needs– like MVRCR in Utica– is critical to integration across both the short and long term.
As discussed, the refugee experience involves deep loss of place and great pain and grief, it also involves “the struggle to make a place in the world” (Turton, 2005). Place matters to people and impacts the lives they lead, opportunities available to them, and the levels of happiness and fulfilment they achieve. For refugees, being able to form strong and positive place attachments and reap benefits from place, both in the near and far term, remains key to emplacement and life quality. Research by Carmona (2018) confirms how place quality of the built environment correlates with the place value and benefits it provides related to health, social, economic and environmental terms. Based on evidence, he concludes that place quality is a basic necessity for high-quality urban life (Carmona, 2018). “It is so important to our basic well-being that it should be the expectation of all” (p. 38) rather than being a luxury reserved for the wealthy or when times are good. This means that the place quality refugees ultimately find in the neighborhoods and public spaces of the cities they settle into, will either support or hinder their overall chances of having productive, healthy, and fulfilling lives. So will the opportunities those same neighborhoods and public spaces provide for refugees to engage actively in placemaking processes and practices that enable them to leave their mark and affirm their sense of belonging as exemplified in Utica’s downtown mosque and refugee community gardens. Public spaces with high quality place value, are a potent resilience resource and asset for a city aiming to support and foster inclusion and the health and well-being of refugees as well as all other urban dwellers. Public spaces include streets and sidewalks, public gardens parks and plazas, civic and cultural grounds and parts of transportation networks. They are the publicly accessible and shared outdoor– and sometimes indoor– spaces offering places to socialize, connect, express, celebrate, recreate, rejuvenate, de-stress, exchange goods and services, voice ideas and views, and participate in democratic life.
The Gehl Institute’s recent report, Inclusive, Healthy Places (2018), promotes inclusion efforts happening at the intersection of public space and public health and directed towards populations and neighborhoods that have experienced exclusion, disenfranchisement and disinvestment or that have public space access challenges. Their “Inclusive Healthy Places Framework” is a tool for change that aims to align the vast repertoire of research and knowledge on placemaking, health and inclusion together with a new practice agenda. This new agenda “to create public spaces designed to support inclusion, individual and community health, and health equity” (p. 6) challenges still dominant tendencies for public spaces to be planned, designed and stewarded “without considering all users or an entire range of well-being” (p.5).
Public space’s place quality, as related to the quality and quantity of health benefits it provides, relies on where it is, how it’s designed, its attributes and characteristics, the physical and social activities, users and uses it supports and enables, and the meanings it gathers and conveys. Programming, access and
accessibility, and levels of safety and security are also among its drivers. In successful public spaces these factors and more combine to produce numerous positive impacts and outcomes for users.
While there are far too many positive benefits of public space to mention here, a few are worthy of mention due to the fact that they address refugees’ vulnerabilities and needs related to social, mental and emotional health. Instances of stress and depression are very high for people suffering from social exclusion and other hardships and for those from ethnic minority backgrounds living in cities (e.g. Ward Thompson et al, 2004). Opportunities to visit public parks and green spaces and have contact with nature provides therapeutic benefits that include relief from mental fatigue, released stress, improved moods and opportunities for escapism and being away (e.g. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1981; Lee & Maheswaran, 2011). “Greenness” and the presence of trees and grass (Kuo et al, 1998) actually attracts people to public spaces which in turn increases opportunities for social contact and improved mental and physical health. From community gardens, refugee gardeners have been shown to receive significant physical, mental, emotional and social benefits and a sense of identity continuity connecting them to their past and prior home places and countries (Hartwig & Mason, 2016). Working and interacting closely with plants has been shown to enhance self-esteem, support recovery from depression and reduce aggression (Aldridge & Sempik, 2002). High quality public spaces are also known to support physical health, fitness and exercise, lower blood pressure, decrease fear, increase energy and increase resistance to illness and heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma and fatigue.
At its best, public space acts as social bridge that attracts and brings together different people face-to-face and in so doing, builds mutual tolerance and acceptance (Jacobs and Appleyard, 1987) helping to overcome fears and prejudices and build social ties and solidarity (Putnam 2007). Other social values and benefits derived from well-designed public places include greater female empowerment, social integration and reduced stratification, lower crime, stronger civic pride, empowerment of older people and people with disabilities, and better educational outcomes (Carmona, 2018). Public space physically and socially can express and represent a city’s evolving identity. It is where cultural and community events, celebrations, and rituals expressive of multiple identities happen and where people who are different–in background, beliefs, age, ability, ethnicity, gender, income– forge their collective place identities as a reflection of who they are and who they are becoming. Therefore, when public spaces in a city are designed, programmed and used to honor and echo their multicultural identity (Johnson, L. & Roitman) they provide greater opportunity for belonging, equity, and inclusion and enable all citizens, regardless of race and socio-economic status, the right to exercise and affirm their rights to the city. These rights include access and most importantly, the active right of democratic participation in shaping and changing the city so it reflects and incorporates new identities and forms of urban sociability (Mitchell, 2003).
Utica’s One World Placemaking Initiatives
In pluralistic Utica, what’s happening in the design and recasting of the city’s public spaces to foster greater integration and inclusion of refugees and reflect the welcoming attitude and optimistic outlook of the City and its citizens? As inferred, quality public spaces in downtown neighborhoods are in limited supply due to Utica’s history of urban renewal, limited finances and other constraints. Its fractured urban fabric is accompanied by a fragmented social fabric characterized by wide income and opportunity disparities and spatial divisions along racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines. Nearly one half of Utica’s population live in one of its 12 downtown census tracts having concentrated minority (Black and Hispanic) and foreign-born populations and high percentages of people living in poverty (44.4%) and experiencing unemployment (17.5%). Without question, many downtown residents in these neighborhoods endure threats to their health and well-being. While the challenges are great, several ‘One World Utica’ (OWU) placemaking initiatives are currently underway in and around the very ethnically diverse Oneida Square neighborhood where many refugees are resettled. They are the result of nearly a decade of ongoing collaboration between university (Cornell) and community partners through the Rust2Green Utica (R2GU) Community-University Partnership (Horrigan, 2015). R2GU’s principal university partners (students and faculty, including this author) come from landscape architecture and urban planning, so much of R2GU’s work to date has focused on placemaking in the public realm. Knowing that economic capital was in short supply, R2GU has relied on Utica’s wealth of social capital to propel change. By bringing community knowledge together with academic and professional knowledge, R2GU has been steadily–albeit slowly– producing tangible impacts and outcomes throughout the city. With its roots in placemaking and action research, R2GU’s approach has itself been asset-building. By engaging directly with community members and focusing in neighborhoods and with populations that are distressed and underserved, R2GU has been creating a scaffolding for greater equity, empowerment, innovation, and action on multiple scales.
The OWU initiatives, discussed briefly in the pages that follow, have emerged from the ground up and each has built on or grown from the other. All have relied on diverse partners pooling their resources to make them happen and each has morphed and evolved in sync with available and leveraged capacity and resources. City government has been a largely supportive partner, but also at times a reluctant one due to having strained resources and immediate priorities directed towards large scale economic development as mentioned earlier. The OWU initiatives coalesce around a ‘One World Utica’ theme echoing America’s motto “e pluribus unum”–out of many one. This theme directly speaks to the multicultural diversity of the surrounding context and Utica’s distinctiveness as a pluralistic city shaped by immigrants and, most recently, by refugees. Together, these OWU initiatives hope to play a positive role in the city’s evolving public narrative and place identity by fostering belonging and pride and upholding diversity, equity and inclusion as central civic values.
The OWU initiatives are unfolding in a neighborhood geography in and around Oneida Square which anchors downtown’s south end. The neighborhood’s public space infrastructure shows many signs of distress including run-down and abandoned buildings and sites and treeless and worn out streets and sidewalks that are devoid of amenities. However, it is also an area rich in ethnic and cultural diversity and has a high density of residences, several immigrant and refugee run shops and restaurants, and a mix of neighborhood-scale businesses on the blocks abutting the square’s central roundabout in the vicinity of the iconic 1891 Civil War Monument. The neighborhood has an exceptional amount of social capital and assets–all reached within a 10-minute walk. In addition to many churches, and social service organizations, it is home to the city’s highest concentration of arts and culture institutions and National Historic Landmarks including the Utica Public Library, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, and Stanley Theatre. Until very recently, it was also home to the Refugee Center (MVRCR) which, having seized on the opportunity to expand its services and establish a One World Welcome Center within its interior, relocated 8-10 blocks away. In its new location, MVRCR continues to be a vital social link supporting refugee integration and inclusion. The Oneida Square neighborhood’s public spaces can become, by design, its physical and social glue and a driving force behind its revitalization. Overall they harbor a good degree of inherent and potential place quality and value that is available to be leveraged and developed as is demonstrated in the projects that follow.
The One World Garden, traces its roots to 2012 and breaks ground in 2019-20. Of all the OWU projects, it most directly addresses Utica’s refugee population by creating a sacred greenspace that is being designed to provide therapeutic health benefits related to restoration, healing from trauma and stress, social inclusion and integration. It is a direct outcome of the Refugee Center’s desire to give back to the city by creating a permanent amenity benefitting the surrounding neighborhood and entire community. R2GU’s OWG design and accompanying research plan studying its impacts on refugee resilience once built, was one of 10 nationwide finalists for a 2012 Open Spaces Sacred Spaces grant from the TKF Foundation which supports the making of sacred green public spaces in distressed inner cities. Because it was ultimately not funded, R2GU has worked diligently since to secure funding which will now come to the City largely from NYS Parks and the Environmental Protection Fund. OWG will transform 3 adjoining vacant city lots into a new green oasis and cultural hub offering contact with nature and retreat as well as social and educational experiences focusing on multicultural expression, refugee and immigrant stories, human rights, inclusion, tolerance, and understanding of difference and diversity. It will include a Spiral Shelter and Meditation Lawn surrounded by lush gardens and enclosed by a sculptural Living Stories Scroll Wall. Outside the main sanctuary a parking area will double as a Festival Plaza for staging multicultural events. The Passage of Cultures will extend to and from the garden providing access from both Genesee Street and Park Avenue where new street trees will be planted along the sidewalks leading to Oneida Square. Many community partners, artists and refugees worked together to conceive the garden’s vision and will be part of realizing it as well as maintaining it once built.
In 2013, at a time when OWG was on hold, R2GU began pursuing other placemaking projects that could enhance the place quality of the neighborhood’s public spaces and benefit refugees and residents. It then worked with MVRCR to create designs for a pair of refugee community gardens on Park Avenue which were constructed that summer. It also convened a large group of neighborhood partners and undertook the community engagement, concept and design visioning phase of developing a creative placemaking framework for the neighborhood called Taking Steps Toward Creative Placemaking in Oneida Square. In 2015, R2GU partners took a bold first step and implemented one of the framework’s recommendations. Over a period of 6 months they conceived and planned a free family-friendly One World Flower Festival which was held on Mother’s Day weekend that year and celebrated “One World” diversity, Mother’s Day and renewal. They tactically transformed the square’s public spaces by physically enhancing them with low cost, colorful collectively made creations, and programming that included multicultural music, dance and arts performances as well as booths with ‘making’ activities and resources on health and gardening (Horrigan, 2018). Three subsequent festivals have been coordinated by R2GU partners. More permanent improvements to both the square and a series of public spaces R2GU has identified along Genesee Street are now slated to happen in the next 2 years. These creative placemaking projects are being funded by a State and Municipal Facilities Program Grant the City has secured and R2GU will now help implement. The placemaking projects will involve significant community participation and will include a One World Welcome Mural, several One World Hubs’, and a series of interconnected activity nodes extending northward from Oneida Square along Genesee Street.
For three years, Levitt AMP Utica has helped catalyze what is hoped to be the long-term transformation of Kopernik Park into a beautiful, safe, stress-relieving and socially inviting place. This is the neighborhood’s largest–albeit small– green space which, until recently, has been both underused and neglected. Following on the success of the first One World Flower Fest in 2015, R2GU partners immediately applied for their first Levitt AMP grant. With the funding secured, they went on to produce a 10-week series of free concerts the following summer using the Refugee Center’s parking lot, adjoining street and Kopernik Park. The Levitt Foundation funds free music in underserved communities and in their disused public spaces in order to inject them with new life and vibrancy. Yet another successful application last Fall means there will be a fourth year of concerts in 2019 produced under the main direction of Utica Monday Nite, a local non-profit and longtime R2GU partner, whose mission is making arts and humanities available to all. As in preceding years, the 2019 season will engage a cadre of volunteers. It will offer music, sales of refugee crafts and participatory placemaking activities and make small-scale improvements to the park. This year partners also aim to deepen participation by and partnerships with refugees and minorities and use more deliberate and impactful strategies to attract a more diverse demographic to the park’s concerts.
This paper has provided insights regarding the refugee experience and focused on the needs for emplacement and restored health and well-being that are at the center of refugee resettlement. It has disclosed the importance of social bonds, bridges and links in refugee recovery and emplacement and the proactive role resettlement communities must play in fostering connections and two-way exchanges between refugees and others. It has shown the role that quality public space plays in overall urban vibrancy and health along with the potential it holds for fostering refugee integration, social inclusion, place attachment and belonging, as well as relief and recovery from trauma and displacement.
Finally, it has profiled one city, Utica NY, where refugees and multicultural diversity are rapidly changing the city’s identity and sense of place. It has reported on Utica’s One World placemaking initiatives and the role the Rust2Green Utica University-Community Partnership has been playing in supporting them. It has demonstrated how these new and transforming public spaces are being designed and programmed to foster greater sociability and inclusion, express the city’s diverse multicultural identity and provide myriad health benefits and opportunities for restoration to the refugees and others who use them. These One World initiatives, happening in the Oneida Square neighborhood, are being developed as places where refugees and non-refugees can interact and bridge their differences, where diverse cultural and creative expression is welcomed and where safety, security and sanctuary can be assured. Through placemaking efforts such as these the hope is that Utica’s public spaces will grow in quality and value and draw people together to experience and benefit from all they have to offer.
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