Parks, trails, community gardens, and other urban green spaces serve as fundamental building blocks to create healthy, vibrant communities. In principle, public parks belong to everyone. In practice, access to parks and recreation areas is anything but equal. Many communities with low household incomes and communities of color have few—or no—green spaces, and existing parks and recreation areas may be poorly maintained, understaffed, unwelcoming, and unsafe.
Urban green spaces create myriad social, health, environmental, and economic benefits for communities. Access to neighborhood parks can:
- Facilitate social interaction and bring communities together. Parks can serve as meeting places where social ties are strengthened, making community residents feel more connected and secure.
- Support physical health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that people who live within walking distance of parks are three times more likely to meet recommended levels of physical activity than those who live beyond walking distance.
- Support mental wellbeing. Research shows that proximity to parks and natural spaces provide respite and stress relief from the pressures of urban life,, lengthen the lifespan, and improve people’s moods and sense of wellbeing.
- Enhance child development and help protect children from preventable chronic diseases.
- Prevent youth crime, aggression, and violence.
- Boost local economic development by preventing health problems, improving workforce opportunities, and generating new commercial opportunities.
- Provide environmental benefits like regulating air temperature, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, dampening noise, capturing stormwater runoff, and protecting habitats for urban wildlife.
Park-poor communities, on the other hand, are systematically limited in their access to these benefits.
Strategies to promote park equity
Inequities in park access across neighborhoods are the result of policies, laws, and practices— some deliberate, some inadvertent, some historical, some ongoing—that have segregated communities along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. And it’s no coincidence that communities that don’t have their fair share of parks and green spaces often have more than their fair share of polluting land uses and freeways. But because we didn’t arrive at this point by accident, we can legislate, fund, plan, and design our way out. Strategies include:
- Fund community-based organizations that work in and with park-poor communities to undertake organizing and other power-building strategies to change the structural policies and systems that created park inequities in the first place. This funding would primarily need to come from private foundations.
- Increase local, state, and federal funding allocations for green space and recreation services, prioritizing areas of high need.
- Advocate for formal recognition by relevant government agencies of the existence of park inequities and impacts on specific populations. Importantly, make sure there is agreement about what equity is and isn’t.
- Enact local, state, and federal policies that prioritize budget allocations to reverse inequities in the distribution of park space.
- Secure commitments from sponsors of state and local conservation finance measures (e.g., bonds, assessments, etc.) to include line item funding to ameliorate park and recreation inequities. Then continue to monitor the implementation of the funding measures to ensure that equity is a through line from concept through grant-making implementation.
- Ensure community input in selecting, designing, and improving parks and green spaces by codifying inclusive public outreach, participatory budgeting, and engagement guidelines and processes as standard elements of park planning within government agencies.
- As part of park development efforts, examine the potential for displacement of long term residents, especially renters, and proactively incorporate anti-displacement strategies, such as increasing affordable housing, rent control, or related policy measures; co-locate parks and affordable housing wherever possible.
- Conduct comprehensive park needs assessments, incorporating relevant park, health, and other data as well as proven GIS methods to document park inequities and evaluate the efficacy of potential sites and strategies to alleviate them.
- Acquire small and non-traditional parcels in park-poor areas—such as vacant lots, alleyways, public utility right of ways, and unnecessarily wide streets—and transform them into parklands as a cost-effective means to alleviate the lack of park space.
- Ensure that parks are safe and welcoming places for people to socialize and be physically active. Pay special attention to the needs of low-income individuals and families, people of color, non-English speakers, older adults, people with disabilities, and women—groups that often face additional barriers to taking advantage of parks and recreation areas.
- Collaborate across sectors—from public health, planning and transportation agencies to environmental and social justice groups—to maximize the reach and effectiveness of park advocacy and planning efforts. Develop partnerships with community-based organizations and other public facilities, such as schools, to expand free and low-cost recreational options.
Metro areas like Los Angeles County are exploring ways to close the park gap. In 2016, LA County voters overwhelmingly approved Measure A—the Safe, Clean Neighborhood Parks and Beaches Measure—which is expected to generate $95 million per year—money that could make a real difference when it comes to addressing inequities in park funding and upkeep in LA’s park-poor communities. Now—as the county moves toward implementing Measure A—equity commitments that voters made at the ballot box need to become reality by ensuring that funding guidelines and processes steer investments toward communities that need parks the most.
Photo of Athens Park in Willowbrook, an unincorporated area in South LA, by Manal J. Aboelata.
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