Protecting Black Lives in Parks and Public Spaces

mom and daughter walking

This blog post was written by Natasha Riveron and Marisa Jones.

Too many Black lives have been lost to police violence. As advocates for safe routes and safe public spaces, we must take a holistic view of safety, especially the safety of Black lives. Depending on police for community safety is not a sustainable or equitable solution. It actively puts Black lives at risk and perpetuates white supremacy culture. If you are wondering exactly what we mean by white supremacy culture, please refer to this article from Showing up for Racial Justice. If that phrase makes you feel uncomfortable, take a deep breath and keep reading. This work is uncomfortable and hard, but it is a matter of life and death for human beings; your neighbors and friends. It is time to dig in and commit to doing the hard work for a safer and more just world, starting in your own community.

We’ve written about non-police strategies to improve safety in parks, streets, and public spaces in the past, and current events call us to revisit this topic. As our country grapples with public health and civil rights crises, we are deeply disturbed by the use of police enforcement as a key solution for addressing these challenges. As cities across the country plan for reopening parks and public spaces, some are considering (or already) policing people’s use of parks to enforce six-foot social distance and mask-wearing guidelines. Data from the New York Police Department in New York City show that overwhelmingly, Black people (51.6 percent) and Latinx people (29.7 percent) were cited for violating social distancing regulations, even though Blacks make up only 22 percent of the city’s population, which shows that social distance rules are disproportionately enforced among Black New Yorkers. Only 13.6 percent of social distance violations went to white New Yorkers although they comprise over 30 percent of the city’s population. The Safe Routes Partnership rejects reliance on police as the primary strategy for promoting safety in public spaces – in parks, while social distancing, at protests, and in general. 

Safe Routes to Parks and safety in parks must address the very real and disproportionate risk of police violence toward people of color. While white people are taught to believe that police are an integral part of communities that protect them, Black people are taught to honor a specific code of conduct to protect themselves from police. This is often something explicitly taught to Black children as a matter of safety (see this video of Black parents explaining how to deal with police to their kids). Already, it is common for today’s generation of Black adults, who were raised by parents who experienced discrimination and Jim Crow laws, to not take their kids to parks because their parents never took them. University of Missouri Professor Kang Jae Lee studied African American use of parks and noted that “Park attendance in America is culturally embedded, meaning children who are raised going to parks will grow up to take their children. Many African Americans do not go to parks because their parents and grandparents could not take their children. In other words, many African Americans’ lack of interest in parks or outdoor recreation is a cultural disposition shaped by centuries of racial oppression.” Rather than making Black people and families feel safer at the park, increasing police presence is likely to make people of color feel more threatened – perpetuating the legacy of discrimination and oppression that has deterred Black people from reaping the benefits of public parks for decades.

While it is easy to view this as a vestige of the past, discouraging Black people from park use is pervasive today, too. Black people are still told explicitly that they don’t belong in public spaces. In late May 2020, footage of a white woman calling the police to falsely accuse a Black man of threatening her after he asked her to put her dog on a leash in an area of New York City’s Central Park designated for birding went viral, and many of us likely remember headlines of a white woman calling the police on Black people barbequing on Lake Merritt in Oakland, California back in 2018. While these specific examples made headlines, they are not outliers. This article explores the common phenomenon where white people police black people for participating in outdoor activities like birding or just being in the park. Simply because something is common does not mean people will see it as acceptable. In fact, it shows how desensitized our society is to thinking of people of color and white people belonging in different places. To create a more just world, where people of all races and ethnicities can enjoy the myriad benefits that parks offer, we must disrupt norms that allow white people to involve police because their biases, whether conscious or unconscious, lead them to believe that a Black person shouldn’t be there.

As communities consider strategies for improving personal safety in parks and public spaces, it is imperative that considerations include the question “Safety for whom?” Here are some ways that we can improve safety and decrease the need to call police in the context of Safe Routes to Parks work.

Support your network and community members to acknowledge implicit biases and embrace the full humanity of Black people

We lead with the most foundational recommendation that is also the most challenging. For too many people, seeing groups of Black people or other people of color is threatening. It is that feeling of threat that triggers the defensive actions that are inappropriate to the situation, like calling the police on a Black person doing a completely normal activity like spending time in a park. Implicit bias is a normal neurological function, but it is reinforced through socialization. It is important for white people to actively examine the implicit biases that lead them to believe that Black people are threatening.

Research shows that white people do not think Black people feel pain the same way that they do, a pernicious bias that extends even to trained medical professionals. Distilled, white people do not appreciate the full humanity of Black people. Full stop. That is why we lead with the hardest recommendation: working with yourself, neighbors, your organization, and your community to acknowledge implicit biases.

Without this step, the following recommendations fall apart.

Promote alternatives to calling the police

People call police for a wide variety of reasons ranging from mundane noise complaints to life threatening, violent situations. There are events on that spectrum that merit calling the police, but many of them do not merit the risk of putting Black lives at risk. As advocates for safe, equitable streets, work to eliminate unnecessary interactions with police that make parks and public spaces inherently less safe for Black people.

  1. Help people think through when it is truly necessary to call to 911: Showing Up for Racial Justice’s D.C. chapter put together this customizable resource guide and flowchart of alternatives to calling the police. It helps people think through their decision to call the police and provides alternative numbers to call for professional help or mediation.
  2. Identify professions better suited to address the reasons members of your community call the police: Work with the community to identify common issues that take place in your neighborhood park and on the routes to them. For example, people who are living unsheltered in parks may be concerning to local residents, but this population is already over-policed, and police are often dealing with problems more suited for social work professionals rather than law enforcement. What are ways that we can connect folks to resources they actually need and/or connect directly with professionals trained to manage issues more specifically?
  3. Strengthen community connections and mutual aid networks: If people get to know their neighbors, they are more likely to handle interpersonal conflict and common problems in ways that promote connection and teamwork rather than calling the cops. One concrete way to do this may be to hold regular neighborhood block parties or organize a group of neighbors to participate in a training in mediation, de-escalation, or first aid. Check out this pamphlet, “Strong Communities Make Police Obsolete,” from May Day Collective in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Recent events like the Coronavirus pandemic have underscored the importance of organized neighborhood networks for mutual aid.

Design spaces and programs to promote safety

The historical legacy of why people feel or don’t feel safe in parks and public spaces runs deep. Before making decisions about how things could or should be in the future, it’s important to understand how things used to be and what decisions were made that affected our communities. Learn about the history of your community and the decisions about land and space that affect people’s perception of place and safety. Talk with community elders about how things used to be and what changed. We need to learn from past mistakes so that we do not repeat them. In addition to long-term work, there are shorter term strategies communities can employ to make parks feel safer by changing a few elements of the design and use of space.

  • Involve the community from the start: Community residents are the best experts about their needs and desires for use of space. Engage residents in deciding how to design, redesign, program, and reactivate parks or green space in their communities. One example of a project aimed at bridging neighborhood residents to a local park is the Parkside Edge of Fairmount Park in the Parkside Neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA. Neighborhood residents were involved in designing a gateway from their neighborhood to the park that felt welcoming and reflected what they wanted to see and use.
  • Clean and green: Cleaning up and beautifying existing parks and green spaces as well as by greening vacant lots can reduce criminal activity nearby. 
  • Repurpose space: In Youngstown, Ohio, an old tennis court was drawing illicit activity, so Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation planted grass, added a split rail fence, and installed four LED spotlights to illuminate the area. You can read more about their process here.
  • For further reading on how design solutions can help address some of the historical injustices built into our communities through policy and funding decisions, two pieces we recommend include this collection of interviews with designers and planners and this recent piece on designing justice into cities. 

Some situations do actually merit calling the police, but that action should happen with a full understanding of potential consequences in the context of your community. All advocates and decisionmakers should take steps to think through ways that they can decrease unnecessary interactions with police particularly for people most vulnerable to police violence.

If there are additional materials or actions that you think would be appropriate to include here, please let us know at We will update this post to reflect those suggestions.