Opinion

Lack of green spaces in under-represented communities is a health crisis that can’t wait

coronavirus COVID-19 community spread los angeles california park canyon closed memorial day crowds phase 2 opening shut down spread masks social distancing
Griffith Park on March 22, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The global pandemic revealed several gaps in U.S. infrastructure, with one notable problem being a lack of local park access nationwide. As Americans were in lockdown, local parks became the best getaway available. For those who live in underserved communities, the pandemic highlighted the problem of what’s called “park deserts” — neighborhoods lacking adequate (or any) outdoor green spaces. 

This dearth of parks in underrepresented communities is not only a problem of persistent inequity in America, but also a health care crisis that experts say needs to be addressed before the next pandemic hits.

According to a new report released Thursday from The Trust for Public Land, “in the 100 most populated cities, neighborhoods where most residents identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods.” A similar inequity is found in low-income neighborhoods.

This park divide, according to recent studies, is the product of years of redlining — an illegal practice of refusing goods and services to neighborhoods based on race. Redlining meant developmental favoritism for white neighborhoods, which still benefit from that practice. For example, parks are smaller and paved over more in nonwhite neighborhoods, creating what is dubbed “heat islands” — areas of higher temperatures — and with those temperatures come poor health conditions. The quality of U.S. parks is so bad that The American Society of Civil Engineers has rated them a D+. 

The value of robust local park systems in the U.S. (or anywhere) is not necessarily in dispute. 

In recent years, for example, studies have shown that two hours of time spent in green spaces, sometimes dubbed “forest bathing,” offer significant health benefits, such as lowering depression, obesity and blood pressure, while also raising the immune system

According to The Trust for Public Land’s report, access to green spaces during the pandemic was associated with lowering COVID-19 mortality. They also note that the value of green spaces extends beyond their individual health benefits and into other aspects of healthcare. “During the pandemic,” they write, “57 of the 100 largest U.S. cities used parks for COVID testing, vaccination, or PPE distribution centers, and 70 distributed free meals, underscoring the role of parks as critical public health infrastructure, especially in times of crisis.”

There is now renewed attention on the problem of park disparity, but whether the support will be there in Congress is yet to be known. 

Current funding for local parks is scattered across several potential resources. The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, which passed the House this year and is now in the Senate, does attempt to address some of this need by including the Outdoors for All Act, which designates funding for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership grant program. Specifically, it gives funding priority to projects through matching funds that “enhance access to park and recreational opportunities in an urban neighborhood or community.” And the bipartisan, Parks, Jobs, and Equity Act, currently in the House, hopes to provide a one-time stimulus of $500 million for urban parks.

As the U.S. is now on its way into a second COVID-19 summer, the Biden administration is pushing for a $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan, aiming (in small part) to fund the reconnection of underserved neighborhoods that were cut-off as a result of projects like highways, and turning schools into “environments of community resilience with green space.” The case for the plan was bolstered by the administration’s recent America the Beautiful Report, which spells out the current poor status of U.S. parks, and which calls for reaching out to “Nature-Deprived Communities” to address the issue of missing green spaces. 

In other words, the U.S. has an opportunity to go big on park inequity, but that effort has to embrace systemic change by fully funding neighborhood park projects in underserved communities. 

In talks with Republicans, the administration lowered its price tag to $1.7 trillion to beat the Memorial Day deadline for making a deal. To date, however, the Republican proposal, a $568 billion counteroffer presented in April to the White House, only focuses on the minimal and traditional infrastructure projects (roads, bridges, public transit systems, drinking water and wastewater, etc.). Republican infrastructure talks leader, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), has indicated a willingness to go slightly higher, with rumors of a $1 trillion counteroffer coming Thursday, but park reform is likely far from being on the agenda for a package that size. 

For parks to remain outside of the Republican proposal after 2020 is essentially a failure of both hindsight and foresight, missing the important roles they played during the height of the coronavirus and their real value for strengthening the future of U.S. health care, in improving not only the physical health of those most at risk during a pandemic, but also their role in safely mobilizing disease testing and the distribution of supplies throughout the country. 

There are plenty of reasons to add green spaces to our cities, from fighting climate change to raising the economic standing of neighborhoods, but the absence of green spaces is a health crisis that takes time to turn around, and initial congressional action on improving our parks can’t wait until the next pandemic. 

Brandon Withrow is a freelance journalist focused on travel and the outdoors with bylines in The Daily Beast, Business Insider and Sierra Magazine.