Central Park: Black Bodies Green Spaces, White Minds

Dr. Jennifer D. Roberts
5 min readJun 5, 2020

The historical and contemporary use of white privilege for the exclusion of black bodies from green spaces in the United States

Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, may not have envisioned black bodies, like Christian Cooper, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery, enjoying a leisure day in New York City’s bucolic Central Park when he designed the space in 1857 to allow people “access to fresh air and sunlight”. While Olmstead embodied egalitarianism in his approach and believed “that common green space must always be accessible to all citizens”, the idea of “all citizens” was, and is still not, politically, socially or economically inclusive.

(Photo): New York City’s Central Park

As an active living scholar, I examine the relationship between man-made spaces, such as the presence of sidewalks in our neighborhoods, and physical activity, either for play or transport, like walking to school or work. I had sidewalks to run and play when I was a little girl growing up in Buffalo, NY. However, as a black child born to a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood on the heels of the 1960s civil rights movement, I did not always have the freedom to play on “any” sidewalk. My hometown is one of the most persistently racially segregated areas in the country and the black-white, east-west divide along Buffalo’s Main Street represents the interrelationship between racial privilege and place. This interrelationship was further emphasized when the east side of Buffalo was cut in half with construction of the Route 33 expressway during the urban renewal period of the 1960s to support white flight. Urban renewal, or using James Baldwin’s idiom, “negro removal”, not only displaced Buffalo’s east side black residents and businesses, it also destroyed one of the city’s green space treasures, a Frederick Law Olmsted park, the Humboldt Parkway.

(Left Photo): Humbolt Parkway in 1953. (Right Photo): Route33 — Kensington Expressway

All humans are entitled and have the right to spend time in “nature-made” spaces. I cannot tell you how many times I have had the perplexed white gazed retort, “you like to hike too”, or the self-imposed anti-nature indoctrination from some black communities. Yes, a main rationale for public parks…

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Dr. Jennifer D. Roberts

Assistant Professor, PHOEBE Laboratory Director @UMDPublicHealth • Co-Director @NatureRxUMD • Alum @BrownUniversity, @EmoryRollins, @JohnsHopkinsSPH • 🏃🏾‍♀️