Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix is one of five finalists for the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, a recognition given every other year for urban spaces that contribute to their community.
A team of three judges visited Phoenix this past week to evaluate the park and its impact on downtown Phoenix. At an interview luncheon Tuesday, members of the community gathered to present their case. Among those speaking were community volunteers, performers who use the park, members of arts groups, a police officer, and some of the men and women who collaborated to create Civic Space.
All attending spoke in favor of the park’s versatile spaces, safety record and, most importantly, tolerance of the area’s inhabitants, who include many homeless and mentally ill. The nearby Westward Ho building is a low-income housing center for the elderly and many residents frequent the park.
ASU’s liaison to the park, Malissa Geer, explained that diversity makes the park what it is.
The rich social fabric is a necessary “learning experience for students to learn that safety does not equal homogeneity,” she said. “To learn that safety is not just ‘these people look like me.’”
As a large presence in the downtown area, the university needs to “break the fear” that pervades the perception of the neighborhoods surrounding the Downtown campus, Geer said. Safety is often not the true issue. The homeless are rarely dangerous, but rather, make other citizens — including many students — simply uncomfortable, she said.
Cmdr. Richard Wilson, the police officer who spoke at the interview, said that many students and parents question the safety of the park, but in reality there is little danger.
“I had one parent say to me, ‘My daughter saw a homeless person. What are you going to do about it?'” he said. “The fact is, this is a benign population. If you ask them why they’re here, they say, ‘Because I feel safe.’”
Geer said it’s important to activate the park — to raise the number of people using the park on a daily basis. The park is one of just a few in Phoenix with a security presence, and not only can the park be a beautiful place to visit, but a necessary encounter with urban living, Geer said.
“We want our students to actually understand diversity,” she said. “How can we displace the homeless and train social workers at the same time?”
The award for urban excellence measures, among other things, the impact on the community. One way that impact is shown is through inclusion of all facets of the population.
Already the park has garnered a $10,000 prize for being a silver finalist, and if selected for the gold it will receive a total of $50,000.
Other finalists include The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center in Dallas, Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago and the Santa Fe Railyard Redevelopment. Civic Space is the only project this year that is technically a city park.
The 2009 winner was Inner-City Arts of Los Angeles, an organization that services youth in the city’s Skid Row area by providing art instruction and education.
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