On Wednesday, Dec.16, the city of Palo Alto, California, reluctantly resolved a legal dispute regarding the use of Foothills Park, which since 1965 was only open to Palo Alto residents. That Thursday was the first day in over half a century that non-residents could enjoy the park’s green spaces.
There is no such thing as a right to park space. We view government obligation as related strictly to our bodies: food, water, and life. This summer’s uprisings forced a reevaluation in Palo Alto of government obligation as it regards the unofficial right to collectivity itself; the ability to enjoy open space anywhere, by anyone, without having to produce one’s identification.
Many of the surrounding cities along the Peninsula—the stretch of neighborhoods lined up between San Francisco and San Jose parallel to Highway 101—are pock-marked with unaesthetic apartment complexes, fad restaurants, and designer gyms. These are just a few of the markers of gentrification fueled by the political expansion of technology business, legally in Washington, D.C., and materially in the Bay Area. But for all of the changes made visible in surrounding towns like Mountain View and Redwood City, Palo Alto has suffered fewer adjustments, largely due to its history.
The city has long been a destination for monied white families and comparatively offered a fraction of rentable properties and apartments, preferring to sell homes that are now listed in the multiple millions. Palo Alto surgically designed itself, and not just for families with the cash for a down payment: redlining, restrictive covenants, and racist homeowner associations defined Palo Alto explicitly up until the years when these practices were overturned, and implicitly up until Dec. 17, the first day that I could visit Foothills Park without fear of legal retribution.
Palo Alto residents had petitioned city officials for years to open the park to all, calls that for many reasons did not hold as much weight prior to this summer’s uprisings. Protests around the Bay Area, outside the homes of political and technological elites and at the steps of county buildings, pressured city officials to interrogate its own racism. Though the majority-white city had long treated its redlined sister of East Palo Alto as an ineluctable consequence of suburbanism, residents said in so many words, “no more.” In September, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olsen sued the city of Palo Alto to end its restriction on Foothills Park, which threatened their disobedience with $1,000 fines up to six months in jail.
Following the lawsuit, the Palo Alto City Council voted on Nov. 3 to open the park up, striking the ban that had been in place for more than half a century. Despite the local and national contexts that spurred the lawsuit, two city council members, both of whom are people of color, voted against the reopening of Foothills Park, implying with their dissent that the cost of innovation in their Silicon Valley town is approximate to that of a down payment. Had the two city council members been joined by their colleagues, Foothills Park would have been the only private park in California.
It is unsurprising that opening Foothills Park faced resistance in a liberal white Bay Area town. In critiquing the current iteration of environmental justice, The Black Institute, an action-oriented nonprofit that comments on public policy, wrote, “The attitude remains ‘separate, but equal.’ Racism has been institutionalized in the policies and decision making processes of lawmakers, governments, and corporations.” This tension, between the public and private, is a furious and insidious remnant of our collective capitalistic origins. Moreover, it’s telling that Palo Alto enacted the ban in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement.
The Black Institute published a special report in January 2020 of the consequences of environmental and geographic racism as they relate to park location within New York City, and chemical and pesticide use in those parks. Though their research focuses on New York City parks, their analysis of environmental racism’s impact can be extrapolated to Palo Alto and help us understand why public spaces impart private—that is, individual and thus racist—consequences. “Of the fifty parks or playgrounds sprayed in Manhattan in 2018, only 8 locations were not in Harlem,” the report reads. “Forty-two locations were in Harlem where about 62% of the population is Black or Brown.”
While we don’t have data on the use of chemicals in the Bay Areas many parks, we do know that financially wealthier municipalities enjoy more parks, and financially poorer and politically disempowered cities like East Palo Alto enjoy fewer green spaces. Green spaces and parks are directly correlated with air quality and life expectancy. Parks not only beautify a city’s public space, but they are an active investment in the lives of its residents; denial of parks to certain people from “other places”—a phrase that has the ring of a xenophobic dog-whistle and the laughable irony of boxing out one’s direct neighbors from park space—is a direct challenge to their worthiness of a quality life.
The brazen attempt to control admission to a park, which we should understand as a legally sanctioned effort to control the bodies of non-residents and their movement, implies that some people are not deserving of parks. The logical conclusion of this, too, is that some people are not deserving of the space to have a picnic, the room to stretch their legs, and the unreplicable sense of awe and pause that comes with being outside, among the trees and water and grass. The right to space, and call for a holistic understanding of health and equity, is not a new idea or demand. Iterations of this call can be found in every movement against and within the United States, a persistent reminder that we deserve to commune with one another, and evidence that collectivity is health and equity.