COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Public Space, Park Space, and Racialized Space

KangJae “Jerry” Lee, Ph.D.
Jan 27, 2020
Jan 28, 2020

Editor's Note: When we were putting together our Playbook for Inclusive Placemaking, we found the research of KangJae "Jerry" Lee invaluable for understanding the ways that decision-making, design, programming, and management can make public spaces into"white spaces," even unintentionally. In this article, Lee expands upon his research and the history of racialized public spaces more generally.

“They don’t really say anything to encourage us to come. All we hear is that some groups went there… nothing positive that they say about, so we stay away from there. … My kids who go everywhere… haven’t had a desire [to visit the park]…they just don’t go. They make it sound like it’s not for us. People talk about it, but they talk about it like, it’s their [white people’s] place that they go.” — Jennifer (pseudonym)

In 2012, I was a graduate student conducting research on park visitors of Cedar Hill State Park in Texas. As part of my research, I interviewed Jennifer, a local resident, who detailed that many local African Americans had no interest in visiting the park. She attributed the pattern to the fact that the park did not do anything to encourage their use of the space and that it was mainly visited by White individuals. When I looked at park visitor statistics, Jennifer’s comments became even more clear: African Americans constituted less than 10 percent of daytime or overnight users of the park, even though the park was surrounded by largely African American communities. Cedar Hill State Park was often viewed by community members as a place for White people. Jennifer’s description had a striking resemblance with what Elijah Anderson and others call “white space,” the racialized spaces in which people of color are typically absent or not expected. In such so-called white spaces, the presence of people of color can be perceived as out of the ordinary, dangerous, or criminal.  

Public parks are important community resources that promote physical activity, mental health, social cohesion, and conservation. Despite these benefits, it remains clear that Black community members are less likely to benefit from these uses in places like Cedar Hill. The wide gap in visitation to the park was particularly alarming because it stands in sharp contradiction of the mission of public parks—providing recreational and leisure experiences to everyone. This story speaks to a wider pattern, one in which people of color have historically been both directly and indirectly excluded from the benefits of public space. 

Central Park as depicted in a Taylor map of New York City, 1879. The free Black-founded settlement of Seneca Village was displaced for the construction of the park from a location just northwest of the rectangular "old reservoir" in the middle. | Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What is perhaps most troubling is that Cedar Hill State Park is merely one of many parks that have been socially constructed as white space. In fact, substantial research suggest that American public parks have historically been conceptualized, built, and managed by upper- and middle-class White males. For example, the idea of Central Park in New York City, the first public urban park in America, was originally proposed by wealthy and powerful White businessmen and community leaders. While their motives for the park development were mixed, one of their primary interests was to create a safe recreation space for middle- and upper-class White women and children by demarcating racial and class boundaries. Moreover, the construction of Central Park evicted Black residents in Seneca Village, one of the few areas where Black New Yorkers were allowed to own property. To make matters worse, the displaced Black residents were not able to get a job at Central Park because the park was built by an all-White workforce. Thus, from the beginning public parks in the U.S. were founded to fit the needs of the white middle- and upper-class, further contributing to the reinforcement of racial boundaries.   

The history of state park systems in the US is also marked by similar patterns of racial oppression. Many state parks started to emerge during the first half of the 20th century, the era when Jim Crow laws and the “separate but equal” doctrine prevailed in the South. Not surprisingly, state parks in the South were off-limits to African Americans. In some cases, African Americans were able to go to “Negro areas,” racially segregated parks usually located adjacent to parks created for White visitors. However, these designated areas were extremely low in number and inferior in their functionality and aesthetic value. In 1952, for example, there were 180 state parks available to White people in nine Southern states, yet only 12 parks were available to African Americans (McKay, 1954). One of the greatest ironies of state park development is that many African Americans built or repaired state parks as members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) even though they were not able to visit these spaces. For example, when Millard Fillmore Rutherford, a Black former CCC member who worked at Fort Parker State Park in Texas, returned to the park to show his bride the dam that he built, the couple’s entry to the park was denied.

A sign from the 1930s advertising a "negro area" at segregated Shenandoah National Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Although these historical backgrounds illustrate how public parks might have been socially constructed as White space, it is important to note that public parks might be a fraction of the whole picture. Indeed, studies have shown that American society is replete with overwhelmingly White neighborhoods, schools, churches, workplaces, restaurants, and shopping centers. In 2012, my wife and I traveled to Denver, Colorado and visited a nationally known microbrewery. When we sat at the bar, nobody served us for more than 20 minutes. Bartenders simply ignored us. Other patrons didn’t seem to be bothered. We appeared to be the only people of Asian background in the entire taproom. Incidents like this constantly remind me that informal racial exclusion are at play in many public places Americans visit on a daily basis.

So what can we do to eliminate racialized public space? How can we tear down the enduring racial boundaries and make our society more harmonious and egalitarian—and is it even possible? Clearly, addressing these questions is a daunting task. As a social justice researcher focused on issues related to parks, race, and ethnicity, I generally direct people to two points of consideration. First, every public space has distinctive functions, management practices, funding mechanisms, and user groups. This specificity suggests that each public space needs its own strategy to promote diversity and inclusion. Second, despite the particularity in our society, racist ideology and “white normality” have been deeply entrenched in the social and political fabric of US society in general. In fact, a recent study showed that hate crime is on the rise in the US. 

Understanding these micro and macro issues—the unique contextual characteristics of one specific place and their connections or disconnections with the larger social structure—is imperative for making our public space truly open and welcoming to all. Translating these two points of consideration into specific policy, regulation, or actions is not an easy task, yet I do believe that people are becoming more aware of enduring racial inequality in our public spaces and that positive social changes are gradually yet surely happening.

KangJae “Jerry” Lee, Ph.D.
KangJae “Jerry” Lee, Ph.D.
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space