Racism is a parks and public space issue

Resource | août 28, 2020


Systemic racism and white supremacy are prevalent and visible in our parks and public spaces where Black, Indigenous and racialized people experience suspicion, surveillance, harassment, violence and death.

Park People cannot achieve its mission to “activate the power of parks to improve quality of life in cities” without acknowledging that systemic racism, oppression, and injustice are part of the daily lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people in parks and public spaces.

Park People’s work champions equity and inclusion. It is one of our core values, expressed as “parks are for everyone.” 

However, we must do more to address the fact that racist systems of gatekeeping in public spaces mean that, in practice, parks are not for everyone. It is our job to actively work with communities across Canada to disrupt and dismantle the implicit and explicit structures of power, privilege and racism in parks and public spaces. 

With humility, we admit that we are at the beginning of this process. This statement is a declaration of our intention to begin dismantling systemic racism as an organization including assessing our strategic plan, theory of change, programs and hiring, training and management practices. Coming out of this process we will establish a concrete organizational strategy to address systemic racism as Park People.   

We support and stand with Black, Indigenous and racialized people and we are committed to listening and learning from their voices to shape our actions as we move forward.

Here are some useful readings we’re reviewing to better educate ourselves. We hope you’ll join us.

Anti-racism readings

This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are a few readings that have resonated with us in confronting the pervasiveness of racism, and specifically anti-Black and Indigenous racism, in the planning, design, and management of parks and public spaces both in the U.S. and Canada. 

Racism in Canada is Ever-Present, But We Have a Long History of Denial, Maija Kappler, May 2020

  • Kappler confronts what she notes as Canada’s “angel complex” in comparing ourselves more favourably to the anti-Black racism that exists in the United States, by highlighting anti-Black racism in Canada’s history and contemporary society and linking that with anti-Indigenous racism. She argues that “[p]art of our reluctance to examine [anti-black racism in] our history is connected to the reluctance so many Canadians have in acknowledging the Indigenous people who lived on our land before European colonialists murdered them and tried to stamp out their way of life.”

Subdivided, Ed. Jay Pitter and John Lorinc. 2016.

  • Through essays from a variety of voices, this book will challenge your thinking to move beyond mottos like Toronto’s “diversity is our strength” to meaningfully integrate anti-racist and urban justice work into how we build our cities. While the book is centred around the Greater Toronto Area, its essays on subjects such as policing, arts, housing, mental health, and public space are relevant across Canada.

Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, Robyn Maynard, 2017.

  • “Black existence in public space is itself seen as criminal and thus subject to scrutiny, surveillance, frequent interruption and police intervention,” Maynard writes. Through in-depth research, Maynard traces the roots of present day anti-Black racism, surveillance, and policing to Canada’s 200-year history of slavery. She writes of how “both historically and in the present, policing Blackness occurs alongside and as a part of the policing of Canada’s Indigenous communities,” as a way of upholding “the aims of settler colonialism.” As a key site of racial profiling and policing, Maynard explains the psychological harms Black communities experience in public space:. “The hostile and scary imposition into the lives of Black communities is experienced as a form of violence and intimidation, in which the act of leaving one’s house is fraught with danger and anxiety for fear of harassment by police.”

Urban Density: Confronting the Distance between Desire and Disparity, Jay Pitter, April 2020

  • A response written to the racial and socioeconomic inequities in the impact and response to COVID-19 by cities, Pitter calls for a deeper evaluation of place-based solutions, such as opening streets for people, that recognizes racial inequities in our cities. “While mainstream urbanists are loudly advocating to widen sidewalks and public parks – two important but narrow points of focus – individuals living in forgotten densities are pleading to have their urgent concerns heard,” she writes. “Black men, disproportionately profiled and murdered by police on streets, are weighing the risk of ignoring directives to wear a mask and possibly contracting the virus or wearing a mask and suffering the humiliation of being asked to leave stores when attempting to shop for essential supplies.” 

Why Race Matters in Planning Public Parks, Brentin Mock, March 2016

  • Mock writes about how privileging white voices in public consultation perpetuates inequities in what is prioritized for parks planning and design. He highlights a study of  Houston parks planning process that found different community priorities for amenities when consultation specifically reached Black and Latino communities. Mock argues that cities “need to be inclusive of voices typically under-represented in planning processes, namely those of racial minorities and low-income populations.”

Public Space, Park Space, and Racialized Space, KangJae Lee, January 2020

  • Lee writes about the implications stemming from how “many parks have been socially constructed as white space….conceptualized, built, and managed by upper- and middle-class white males.” When doing an interview with a local woman to look at why Black visitorship to a park was so low despite the racial make-up of the neighbourhood, he finds that “Jennifer’s description [of a park being for white people] 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.” 

Diversity? Inclusion? Let’s talk about racism first, Brentin Mock, April 2014  

  • In an article aimed at parks and public space managers and organizations, Mock argues that to confront racism and parks “diversity just starts the conversation; only justice can complete it.” He writes that “[i]t is not enough to merely scholarship in a few Black and Latino kids to a parks academy or camp project. Nor is it enough to hold up a few examples of African Americans or Native Americans who are doing nature hikes and biking programs in the mountains.” He argues that park managers and operators “have to abandon their siloed expertise around ‘parks’ and attend the academies of racial justice thought leaders.”

Placemaking When Black Lives Matter, Annette Koh, April 2017

  • In calling for a “politics of placemaking”, Koh argues that “inclusion [in public space] doesn’t undo existing injustices.” Discussing examples like Jane Jacobs’ suggestion that neighbourhoods need “eyes on the street”, Koh writes, “we should ask ourselves if those eyes are attached to a person socialized to see non-white people as inherently dangerous.” Likewise, Koh points out that language around “activating under-used space” is reminiscent of “justifications that Indigenous people weren’t properly improving the land that colonists wanted to control.” In highlighting these examples, Koh calls for public space professionals to engage deeper with systemic racial and class inequities.