Parks for (All) the People

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 31, 2017 in Governing.  

Once the site of an open-air drug market, Boeddeker Park in San Francisco’s struggling Tenderloin District was emblematic of urban decay. Its rusted, dilapidated playground was named the city’s worst. Today, Boeddeker sports a lush lawn, new play equipment, a full-size basketball court and a clubhouse that hosts programs for neighborhood kids.

Call it affirmative action for parks. Recognizing that its most disadvantaged residents have the least access to high-quality parks, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department has embraced equity as a guiding principle, prioritizing parks in low-income and marginalized neighborhoods. The transformation of Boeddeker Park shows how it can be done.

San Francisco is not alone in promoting affirmative action for parks. Minneapolis, for example, recently launched a 20-year plan to revitalize its parks, prioritizing the improvements in areas of concentrated poverty and communities where the majority of residents are people of color.

Why is this affirmative action necessary? Not only are parks in low-income neighborhoods more likely to be in poor condition, but there aren’t enough of them. One in three Americans — more than 100 million people — do not have a park within a 10-minute walk. Low-income people and people of color are less likely to have a high-quality park nearby than their affluent, white counterparts. There is only one acre of parkland for every 1,000 residents in impoverished South Los Angeles, versus 72 acres per 1,000 in affluent West L.A. neighborhoods such as Pacific Palisades and Brentwood.

The lack of a neighborhood park may seem trivial compared to other inequities. But it is more important than you may think. For one thing, when people have ready access to parks, they exercise more; access to a park can literally be a matter of life and death. And where the lack of access to parks overlaps with other inequities, it compounds the already deadly effects of poverty and racism.

To address this problem, a bipartisan group of more than 130 mayors has joined the Trust for Public Land, the National Recreation and Park Association, the Urban Land Institute, and the JPB Foundation in a “10-minute walk” advocacy campaign that seeks to ensure that every resident of urban America will have ready access to a high-quality park or green space. “Connecting people to parks is a sure way to build happier, healthier communities and improve daily life for millions of Americans,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in a statement put out by the campaign.

The campaign reflects a growing appreciation for parks as hard-working, multi-tasking urban infrastructure. Indeed, parks offer an astonishing array of health, environmental and economic benefits, from managing stormwater and flooding to reducing the urban heat island effect. They support carbon-free transportation, such as walking and cycling, that reduces the environmental impacts of car use. Parks help surrounding communities by boosting local businesses and revitalizing neighborhoods. They build community; their common spaces help neighbors forge bonds that make them safer and more resilient. And access to parks with robust programming has been linked to reductions in crime and especially juvenile delinquency.

But while the impact of revitalized urban parks is overwhelmingly positive, there can be unintended negative effects. An improved park can catalyze gentrification, pricing out long-time residents. Some park advocates are taking steps to mitigate displacement. Notably, Washington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park project includes an Equitable Development Plan designed to permanently protect affordable housing and create jobs in low-income neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Last year, the project won a $50 million grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to promote equity and improve the quality of life in areas close to the park.

Achieving equitable access to parks poses a range of fiscal and practical challenges. Hence the “10-minute walk” campaign, which marks the start of a multi-year partnership with mayors and cities across the country. These include America’s four largest cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston — and smaller cities such as Chattanooga and Oklahoma City. The campaign will work on policies and strategies to advance access, including innovations in park finance and construction, zoning changes to encourage park development, and expansion of “joint use” agreements that open school playgrounds, tracks and gyms for public use after hours.

Parks are more than just amenities; they are essential infrastructure for health, sustainability and prosperity. Ensuring equitable access to parks is part of what must be done to close the gap between our nation’s haves and have-nots. Whoever you are, wherever you live, the benefits of a high-quality park should never be more than 10 minutes from home.