Urban parks are a smart investment for health, but not everyone has a park nearby. These local policy solutions can help bring parks to every neighborhood.
When I want to get some fresh air, exercise outdoors, or connect with the healing power of nature, I go to one of the many green spaces close to my home. These local parks contribute to my mental and physical health, and improve my quality of life considerably.
The pandemic underscored just how important parks are to creating strong, healthy communities. Parks protect health and promote mental wellbeing by providing people of all ages and abilities opportunities for physical activity, time in nature, social connection, and respite. Research shows that time in parks can decrease levels of stress and anxiety by 50 percent.
Parks and green spaces also have environmental benefits that can help guard against the health harms of climate change: they cool temperatures, cleanse air, filter stormwater, and replenish groundwater. Research reveals that neighborhoods within half a mile of a large park are six degrees cooler than neighborhoods without nearby parks.
Simply put, urban parks are a smart investment for health and essential community infrastructure that should serve every neighborhood.
Advancing Park Equity
Far from being accidental or coincidental, persistent inequities in the quantity, quality, and distribution of parks are born from historical policies including redlining and racial covenants that resulted in parks being built in neighborhoods that are mostly white and well-off. These disparities are perpetuated by current policies, systems, and norms that underinvest in the communities that need parks the most.
Now, many cities want to address these long-standing inequities. And while the most obvious solution may be to acquire new parkland or upgrade existing parks, local policy and systems change can also increase park equity. This approach is particularly useful in older, built-out communities where undeveloped land is not readily available or where economic constraints may limit new park development, maintenance, and operations.
In a recent report, Prevention Institute identified a number of promising policy options to advance green space equity. Here are just three of those solutions that are gaining traction across the United States as cities pursue a park system that can be enjoyed by everyone:
● Prioritize equity in city decisionmaking. By centering internal processes and practices around the goal of equity, city parks departments and green space agencies are taking steps to close gaps in parks access. For example, patterns and trends in development, community planning, and financing have influenced where parks were built in San Diego for decades, leading to stark differences in access to open space. Now, the city is prioritizing investments in park-deficient neighborhoods, ensuring long-ignored communities receive their fair share. What’s more, the city is putting all development impact fees—one-time payments made to the city by developers—into a citywide pot to be used primarily by neighborhoods where new parks are most needed and will be most used.
● Change land use policies. Underutilized city lands and public right-of-ways have the potential to be turned into pocket parks, urban plazas, and community gardens. In fact, the greening of America’s unused spaces is taking place in cities of all sizes. In Chicago, alleys have been transformed into safe, green, community spaces with plants and public art. In Cleveland, residents and community groups have used grant funding to reimagine vacant lots as community gardens, orchards, and vineyards. Adopt-a-lot programs in places including Baltimore and Pittsburgh have empowered residents and neighborhood groups to steward and care for hundreds of city-owned vacant lots, turning them into green community assets. About 15 percent of the land in U.S. cities—more than 9 million acres—is deemed vacant or abandoned, providing ample opportunities.
● Establish joint use agreements. Green spaces and recreational facilities owned or operated by schools, other public agencies, and private entities, including non-profits such as YMCAs and Jewish Community Centers, can offer a simple solution. From Hernando, Mississippi to Tucson, Arizona, cities small and large have established joint use policies with local school districts, so that when school isn’t in session, the school yard is opened up to the neighborhood to enjoy. According to the Trust for Public Land, public school districts own two million acres in America. Transforming them all into shared spaces would create access to the outdoors for 20 million people.
People, Parks, Power
The People, Parks, and Power initiative, a joint effort of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, led and managed by Prevention Institute, is working with 14 community-based organizations in urban, low-income communities of color across the nation that are taking on these and other policy innovations to increase access to parks and green space.
In the past, imbalances in political and economic power and a legacy of racial discrimination in the conservation movement have excluded groups led by people of color from full participation in park and green space work or have tokenized their involvement. Over the next two years, these 14 groups—with influence from Black, Latino, Indigenous, youth, queer, and women leaders—will organize and build power among community residents and advocate for local policy and systems change to advance park equity. Together, the funded organizations will advance national momentum toward an equitable future, addressing community priorities central to the environment, health, and racial justice.
The Importance of Policy Change
To truly reap the health, social, and environmental benefits of these vital public spaces, we need to make sure everyone, everywhere, can visit a park nearby. While funding and building new parks is crucial, this approach on its own will not reverse park inequities. We have an opportunity now—by changing policies, institutional practices and power dynamics—to bring parks to all communities.
Pamela Russo, senior program officer, joined the Foundation in 2000. The major area of her work is improving health at the community level, based on the understanding of health as the result of interactions between social, environmental, behavioral, healthcare, and genetic determinants.