Public space, park space, and racialised space

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

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.

This is an excerpt from an article by Kangjae “Jerry” Lee, originally published on the Project for Public Spaces website.


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