RICHMOND, Va. -- - Parks in Richmond have seen record-setting numbers of visitors during the pandemic as people seek an outdoor escape. A new exhibit opening at the Valentine Museum on Wednesday looks at the origins and evolution of Richmond’s parks and green spaces.
“Breathing Places: Parks & Recreation in Richmond” explores the design, use and evolution of parks, recreation areas and natural spaces, according to the Valentine. Artifacts, documents, and photos take you from the founding of Richmond’s first park, Capitol Square in 1851, to modern uses of places like the James River or Byrd Park.
“I love to see how Richmonders have adapted our parks to our own uses,” said Christina Vida, the Elise H. Wright Curator of General Collections at the Valentine.
Just like you cannot ignore the joy outdoor spaces bring people across Central Virginia, Vida said history shows the earliest public spaces excluded or banned people of color from using them. The exhibit explores this history through historical documents written by both city and federal leaders.
“White Richmonders were encouraged to do that, and spaces were created to do that. Whereas Black Richmonders were in those spaces a servant, working with white children, maybe even doing the labor of keeping those spaces,” Vida said.
The footprint of the current parks system began to take shape in the 20th century, and Vida said that design shows up through health, heat, and greenery mapping of modern Richmond. Graphics within the exhibit show how redlined neighborhoods lack adequate green space and record a higher average heat reading than other parts of the city.
“It has a perfect correlation to heat islands today to health disparities to emergency heat situations,” Vida said.
While the exhibit does explore this history of public spaces, it simultaneously focuses on how usage of public spaces has changed throughout the decades, with an explosion of sports, recreation, and fitness activity in the late 20th and 21st centuries. Vida said parks and green spaces are living treasures that “are not locked in the past.”
“You can learn about how actively they’ve changed over time, and then walk around the city, walk around your county, understand that there is still time to go out and make an impact. You can make change. We’ve got centuries of Richmonders who have been doing just that let them be your example to go out and make a change,” she said.
Breathing Spaces is open from May 5 to January 2022. You can visit without a reservation Tuesday through Sunday. The Valentine is also planning various outdoor activities to promote and highlight the exhibit through next year.