Creating Connections Between Culture and Nature

Traveling around the Triangle, we see traffic congestion while commuting to and from work, new apartment buildings in the skyline, and more and more construction of highways and roads. These are just results of the Triangle’s popularity across the country as it tops the “best of” lists and more people migrate to live in this flourishing region.

However, all of this economic growth leaves the potential of important elements in our community to be displaced and even erased. This is where Extra Terrestrial Projects (ETP) comes in.

“Our goal is to create a connection between culture and habitats in the region by informing equitable environmental projects such as the blueprints for the Durham Belt Line Equitable Engagement Plan,” said Tara Mei Smith, Executive Director of Extra Terrestrial Projects.

When the city of Durham approved the plans to turn the Durham Belt Line, an old railroad track encircling downtown Durham, into a bike trail, ETP realized that many communities that would be affected by this development knew nothing of it. As seen with the Atlanta Belt Line, there were major concerns about displacement of the existing communities on the path of the trail.

An early survey of the Durham Belt Line engaged 250 people with a median income of $90,000, but the median income along the trail is about $36,000. ETP saw this systemic problem across many community engagement processes.

“ETP are thoughtful representatives for citizens of the city. They are respectful and intentional about getting to know the people in the communities they work in, and they take the time to build real relationships,” said Heidi Hannapel, co-founder of Landmatters.
ETP was able to bring possible effects of the plan to the residents, which resulted in the voicing of concerns about the equity in the the conduction of the survey and of the use of the Beltline. The Neighborhood Improvement Services department for the City of Durham created a blueprint for an equitable engagement plan regarding the Belt Line and awaits funding for implementation of that plan.

“We want everyone to have a voice and be sure they are benefiting from these projects so that historic communities such as East Durham and the Hayti neighborhood in downtown Durham are not further displaced,” said Smith.

The Hayti Heritage Center, a cultural arts and arts education venue, belongs to the once thriving business and residential district. After the Durham freeway was built, this district was invisibly split from the heart of downtown, and the community was decimated.

“Over 600 homes and businesses were destroyed or displaced by the freeway, and very few original structures like the Center survived,” said Angela Lee, Executive Director of Hayti Heritage Center.

The Hayti Heritage Center was awarded in February 2019 with a grant from the Safe Routes to Parks Activating Communities program, a national program that provides assistance to improve safe, secure park access for people of all ages and disabilities in low-income communities and communities of color.

The grant allows Hayti Heritage Center to receive training and individualized consulting to reconnect the Hayti community to downtown Durham in partnership with ETP. “Our goal is to establish safety, fitness, and equitable access for pedestrians and bicyclists to and from the heart of Durham,” said Lee.

It won’t be just another asphalt road leading to downtown Durham. With art curation from Hayti and knowledge of the local plant environment from ETP, this connection will exhibit the preservation of the local culture. “ETP are wonderful partners and help to inform on the natural elements of the land,” said Lee. “We want to respect the environment, space, and planet while preserving our community, and ETP does a great job supporting those efforts.”

ETP’s thoughtful and equitable approach to creating green spaces for everyone sets them apart as an organization. The organization helps shine a light on the importance of everyone benefitting from development projects such as the Durham Belt Line. They see value in dedicating time to community engagement and lifting up voices who feel unheard.

“Social equity and environmental stewardship is everyone’s work,” said Smith. “You have to think about the communities you belong to and start making changes there.”

To learn more about the Fund for the Triangle and our Environmental programs, click here. And then join us in conserving land for our future!