What comes to mind when you think of Washington, DC? What about its outdoor space? Many Washingtonians come for the politics, but the city offers so much more than lobbying and legislative affairs and more outdoor space than the National Mall. The city has changed dramatically over the years, and women’s experiences of the outdoors have changed with it.
To learn more about real life in this city, I spoke with 20 women, aged 24 through 73 and living in DC anywhere between five and 30 years, in a series of interviews and focus groups about their experience of the outdoors. These women are not representative of all of DC, but they all bring their own perspective to the city. The meaning of “outdoors” here is purposefully open-ended and depends on the interpretation by the participants; it can mean anything from hiking to bike commuting to gardening.
Nestled between Virginia and Maryland, the Washington metro region extends for miles in every direction. Many women I spoke with drive anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours to get to mountains and hiking trails, but this story focuses on the city and its immediate environ. The city itself is divided into quadrants with the Capitol building as the central point: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast. The Potomac River runs along DC’s southwestern border, and the Anacostia River splits off from it to flow down the middle of the Southeast quadrant.
Long known as “Chocolate City,” DC’s vibrant, mostly Black population has shifted over the past few decades as it has become a mecca for young college grads and international immigrants. As a result, the city is engaged in an ongoing conversation about race, diversity, and gentrification. The geographical divides in terms of race, class, and municipal attention are clear, and while some neighborhoods are gentrifying, others are being neglected. They are two sides of the same development coin, and in both cases, some residents end up shut out (from either skyrocketing rental prices or lack of city services). It’s worth noting that most of the women I spoke with are white, and only one grew up in the DC area.
Several participants had thoughts about race and the outdoors in DC. One white woman in her 30s said, “When I’m doing something outdoors, sometimes I’ll look around and be like, oh, a lot of white people here. Which is not the same as what the city makeup is. And it’s like, is the outdoors racist? Why? […] Is there any way that we can have more diversity in the outdoors?” More than one person noted that more can be done to increase both awareness of outdoor spaces and activities in DC and facilitate greater participation in those spaces and activities. One participant said, “There’s probably lots of people who are not doing any of the things that I do, and they maybe don’t feel welcomed for different reasons. Sometimes all it takes is someone saying, would you like to participate, or did you know this is available to you.” On the other hand, a Black participant was impressed by the diversity in the community garden scene, so diversity is not a one-size-fits-all-circumstances issue and depends on context.
Race came up in more subtle ways during my conversations as well. For example, a white woman referred to a particular park as Meridian Hill Park, and a Black woman referred to the same park as Malcolm X Park. The differences in names reflects a complex history both locally and nationally: the nonprofit Washington Parks & People writes, “The Malcolm X nickname came from Angela Davis, who, in a 1969 rally, called for the park to become a symbol of Black pride. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem introduced legislation to formally change the name of the park, but it never passed Congress. The hilltop became a hub of Black activism for more than 50 years.” Now colloquially known by both names, the park is a community gathering place and a monument to this history.
According to the participants, the city’s outdoor space – and their use of it – has changed markedly over the period of time they’ve lived there. For some, that’s since the 1970s, but for others, it’s the 1990s or 2000s. In every case, they have noticed shifts both in the city and in themselves.
Several women said that when they first arrived, DC had a reputation as an unsafe place. One woman said that coming from Chicago in 1980, “My first impressions were […] that it was a scary city. There were lots and lots of neighborhoods […] that you cannot go there, you will get murdered. It was pretty true, too. So that was very shocking to me because I’ve always been a walker, an outdoor person.” Another woman said, “When I first got here in 1995, it was a more dangerous city or at least perceived as a more dangerous city.” Another, who arrived in 1992, said that she heard the same thing but “I think it was well blown out of proportion.” These women who have lived in DC for decades told me that at a certain point, they decided to screw the warnings and live and walk where they pleased.
The data do show that crime in DC was at a high in the 1980s and 90s, when the city was known as the “murder capital” of the United States [source]. Crime has fallen significantly since then, but, like any city, there is still some crime. Northwest DC, more affluent and with a generally whiter population, has long been seen as the safest quadrant, but the data vary depending on neighborhood and type of crime [source].
The women I spoke with certainly noticed a change. The woman who arrived in 1995 told me, “When I lived here […] as a single woman, and was told don’t go east of 16th Street, the fact that I was raising a family on 14th less than 15 years later was just astonishing.” A 24 year old woman who arrived in DC in 2012 told me, “My line used to be 14th Street.” She now has a friend who lives on 10th, but she says that when leaving the friend’s house late at night she still walks quickly until she reaches 14th.
Other women also note specific neighborhoods or times of day where they feel less safe, but on the whole they agreed both that DC has become much safer and also that as they spend more time there, their increasing familiarity with the city has made them more comfortable in it. They were sometimes unsure about whether this improvement has been in the perception of safety or actual safety.
There is one twist on this general narrative. One woman, who has moved in and out of DC several times, said that when she returned in 2013 after a long hiatus, “Everything was on lockdown, and things that you used to be able to do outside, there were so many more impediments.” She was speaking here of features like blocked-off roads, cement barriers, and security guards. She attributed this new focus on security to the events of September 11, 2001. As a result, she feels more constrained but “way safer as a person” walking and biking around the city.
Most participants said they personally had never been the victim of a crime on the street, but two women out of the 20 told me about experiences of assault. Both said this experience changed how they saw the city but that they made a “conscious effort” not to stop walking or participating in their normal activities. One woman said,
“But if I stopped walking it would just make it less safe. If everybody stops being outside, if everyone stops doing the things that they love, then A. […] the guy who assaulted me wins, and B. it’s less safe for everyone else because there’s safety in numbers. If lots of people are outside doing the things that they love, then it’s a more comfortable environment.”
Many other participants echoed the idea of “safety in numbers,” to the extent that some do not go hiking, etc. alone. For those who do walk or hike by themselves, many recalled the days before cell phones and GPS and welcomed this technological development.
Participants often discussed dogs on both sides of the safety debate. Several women mentioned that having a dog was a primary reason to go outside since dogs need walks but also because they feel safer walking with a dog than walking alone, especially at night. Those without dogs occasionally noted that they dislike being on a trail with lots of dogs and cyclists, and that this makes them feel less safe and at ease.
The other, most current kind of safety story I heard related to biking. In some cases this was concern for cyclists’ safety, and in others it was concern for pedestrians. One woman told me her friend’s wife recently passed away after being hit by a bicycle.
Participants had a lot to say about bicycling. One participant said, “Biking for commuting 33 years ago was highly unusual [with the only cyclists on the road being couriers], and now I would say it’s very, very usual.” Another noted that increased bike lanes have made biking in the city much easier and safer. CityLab reported, “Nearly 17,000 cyclists regularly rode their bikes to work in Washington, D.C. in 2016, according to Census estimates, which is about 5 percent of the city’s commuters. That’s nearly triple the ‘mode share’ it had in 2006, putting it in second place on the list of top biking cities in the U.S.” It’s also important to note that in that same article, CityLab reported that fewer Black residents bike to work than white, and “bikes became a symbol for changing demographics” in the city.
Many of the women I spoke with bike in the city regularly both to commute and for fun, but many others expressed fear that keeps them from biking. A few used to bike more than 20 years ago, but they stopped because of the increasing traffic brought on by the growth in the city. Biking on trails came up as well, with some participants enjoying it and others saying that cyclists are too numerous and aggressive on trails. One participant told me, “I love the trails just to see how the city’s connected.”
Bikeshare programs were a popular topic of conversation. Since 2010, DC has hosted a company that uses bikeshare docks, which participants say is very useful but wish there were more docks for greater accessibility. Last year, several new companies began piloting “dockless” bikeshares: bikes that are left on sidewalks to be found by potential users and can be unlocked and operated by smartphone. One participant said that if these dockless bikes get more people out and about without cars, she approves; most everyone else, however, complained that users leave them strewn in inconvenient places like the middle of sidewalks and driveways. One participant brought up the fact that they are not usable by everyone because they require a smartphone to operate.
Nearly everyone said they would like to see more bike lanes and other protective infrastructure as well as more education about the rules of the road for both cyclists and car drivers. This, they said, would convince many more people to try biking in the city and make everyone safer.
In addition to biking, most participants reported walking and hiking as their primary outdoors activities. They walk in their neighborhoods, to work, and in destinations like parks both in and outside of the city. Many noted that they primarily walk to get from point A to point B, and they value DC’s walkability in everyday life. One woman commutes via metro, but she told me she’ll get off a few stops early “and walk past the White House, just to give me that walking time before I hit my door at work.” Many also run, not from point A to point B but as a form of exercise, in those same streets and parks.
In thinking about what makes the DC outdoors unique, several participants pointed to the L’Enfant Plan (and accompanying McMillan Plan) that created much of the city with a vision of what one woman called the “emerald necklace” and others referred to as “pockets of green space.” The Trust for Public Land ranks cities by their parkland, and in 2017 DC was #4 in the country with 97% of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park. In addition, more than one person specifically appreciated the increasing tree cover along the streets thanks to initiatives like Casey Trees. One participant told me, “In this city you can walk almost anywhere in nature.”
In addition to the many “parklets,” participants highlighted large parks like Rock Creek Park (which Misadventures featured in this recent piece). They disagreed about the extent to which Rock Creek feels “wild” – it is an enormous swath of woods in the heart of the city, but it also attracts crowds and is split by a major road. One participant brought up the sharp difference between the southern and northern parts of Rock Creek, noting that the northern part is a much larger, quieter forest while the southern part is essentially a trail next to a road. Multiple women brought up the high-profile murder of Chandra Levy (whose remains were found in the park in 2002) as a reminder that anything can happen, though they disagreed about whether Rock Creek feels safe. A few women reported that they don’t spend time there alone, while one woman said she runs in the park every day and another values raising her children in a house next to the park.
For the participants who are mothers, exploring with children was an important element of their outdoors experience. One woman said, “Kids need to be aired out, so that makes you be in the outdoors.” In a focus group, one participant told me that she used to spend more time outdoors when her son was younger, and now that his chosen sports (like hockey) have moved indoors she spends less time outside. Another said she had the opposite experience: “I spend more time outdoors because my kids are not so little. Now that they’re older, and now that my daughter has gotten over her deadly fear of bugs, we’re able to go in the woods more and longer.” One woman who does not have children but has friends with kids told me that when they spend time together, “We are experiencing a lot of the city in ways that we never had before, and that’s been really good, seeing DC through a kid’s eyes.”
Many of the participants spend time on the Potomac or Anacostia Rivers in activities like kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing, and rowing, and others expressed a desire to do the same. 30 years ago, participants told me, the rivers were not seen as a recreational space. They were contaminated, and there were no riverfront accessible areas; one woman told me the city had “turned its back on the river” and it hasn’t been until the last 10 years or so that the rivers have become a popular place. One woman who has been kayaking on the Potomac since 2000 said that when she began, “We would be on the river and there would be nobody else out there, and it felt so cool and really special”; however, since rental companies opened a few years ago, “the water is packed,” so now she goes in the off-season and off-hours for a quieter experience. This was a common refrain in general: so many places now become crowded on the weekends and during nice weather, and our local participants tend to enjoy them during off-peak times.
One woman who rowed in high school noted that the difference between the two rivers, for example in terms of wastewater treatment and pollution after major storms, was what “got me first interested in environmental issues” in terms of watersheds and activism, and she is now pursuing a career in these issues. DC Water has just implemented a new Anacostia River Tunnel in an effort to improve the city’s stormwater treatment, and the initial results are promising.
Experiencing the rivers in DC is not just about literally being on the water, since there has been significant development of riverfront areas in the past 20 years. One participant said she used to go to Baltimore harbor all the time, but since the development of several areas like the Georgetown waterfront and the newly opened Wharf, she has enjoyed the DC waterfront much more and feels it is something special about the city.
n addition to parks, trails, and the rivers, participants also mentioned more decidedly urban pursuits like farmers markets, community gardens, rooftop yoga, and outdoor restaurants. Most of them did not originally consider those activities as part of the scope of this project, but in my opinion, these outdoor activities should receive just as much consideration as any other. DC’s outdoors scene, even with its parks and rivers, is unabashedly urban, and the mix of activities and ways to spend time outside really do provide something for everyone.
It’s impossible to talk about the DC outdoors without the National Mall. Every participant mentioned it, but they were divided: some said they only really spent time there when they first arrived and played tourist, when guests come to town, or for special events like the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival or political protests, whereas others go regularly because of their commute, exercise run, or other activity. When asked to remember a moment outdoors that stuck with them, though, many discussed the Mall. Often, it was something specific, like sunrise over the tidal basin while the cherry blossoms were in bloom. Many also alluded to the Mall as something that makes DC unique, and the word “awe” came up several times. One woman told me, “It’s a monumental city, and I think you feel that when you’re out walking around here.” (DC also features monuments all over town, often in the small “pocket parks.”) Another participant, when asked what makes DC unique, replied, “Aside from the usual?” The Mall is synonymous with DC to the extent that its image sometimes stands in for the whole city, and it necessarily came up in every single conversation I had in the course of this project.
Everyone recognized the importance of the Mall, but not everyone discussed the meaning of the space. One woman really made me think when she said, “Other cities probably have big, open spaces like this, but here it is not just an open space, an outdoor space, but it’s also a space layered with political meaning. The story is evolving, in who gets included in the space and represented and how people use it.” She recalled walking past the AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out along the grass in the 1990s and, more recently, seeing a man show his two-year-old child where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. These experiences, she said, really brought home for her that the National Mall is “a powerful space that helps shape the national story.”
The biggest takeaways in terms of change over time have been an increasing sense of safety and comfort in being outdoors (and this is true of all the participants, no matter when they arrived in the city) and an increase in crowds and people – on bikes, on the water, on the Mall. The rise of biking is an enormous development, but some are still wary of it. The city’s history of designing outdoors spaces, from the original L’Enfant Plan to the newest waterfront development, has created an urban oasis with a multitude of ways to be outside.
However, residents are not stopping there. The women I spoke with have not only witnessed changes over DC’s history; they are also helping to shape its future. Several of them are involved in outdoors-related volunteering in the city, ranging from empowering women cyclists with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to a political movement to save McMillan Park from development. Most of them expressed an affection and appreciation for the city’s outdoors but also had plenty of ideas of how to improve it. With their help, DC will continue to explore how to create and improve its outdoors. I look forward to seeing what they do next.
Candace has lived in DC for 28 years and uses a wheelchair. She spends almost all day outside thanks to her dog-walking business, and for her the DC outdoors is a constant source of frustration. “I moved here for school [in 1990]. I immediately hated it. There was broken glass everywhere. There were no curb cuts, I could not use the busses, I felt completely trapped. Getting even one mile away was a complete nightmare.” Now, she says, things are better, but her mobility is still affected by a lack of curb cuts, lax enforcement of snow removal, and more.
Rachel grew up in the nearby town of Alexandria, Virginia and attended DC private schools. For her, time outdoors was mostly on a school sports field, rowing with her crew team on the river, or at summer camp. Moving back to DC after college was an important step for her in her understanding of the city: “I think I identify much more as a DC area person because I lived here independently as an adult.”
Sandra has lived in DC for 19 years and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years ago. For her, living in a walkable city is a necessity because her condition does not allow her to drive and because walking is part of her pain management strategy. She commutes five miles by foot each day, honing her photography skills on the National Mall along the way. “A moving object stays in motion,” she told me.
Harriet has lived in DC for 30 years. She walks along the C&O Canal or Roosevelt Island nearly every day, and she said, “The C&O Canal saved me [during a sad, transitional period in her life]. It was like therapy. It’s restorative.” She told me, “I think this city is extraordinary because of its nature.”
Tara has been in DC 19 years, and she enjoys early morning walks and outdoor wine festivals. She used to have more outdoor adventures when one of her best friends lived in the area, but she does less now. She told me, “The older I get, I feel like I don’t have as many friends who want to… Now that I think about it, maybe it’s not that they don’t want to, maybe it’s that I don’t ask as much as I used to.” Many women echoed the fact that they don’t get outdoors as much as they used to or would like to because they settle into everyday life and don’t seek out those experiences as actively. A few women said they’ve remedied this by joining groups that organize outdoor events, which gives them an easy, communal way to get outside.
Kimisha Cassidy is finishing a master’s in Geography at the George Washington University. She would like to thank everyone who participated in this research as well as the GW Geography Department, particularly Dr. Nikolay Shiklomanov and Dr. Marie Price.