Federal funding transforms city parks, but more investment is needed to solve inequities

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Today, if you were visiting the Muldoon neighborhood of Anchorage, Alaska you would likely notice Chanshtnu Muldoon Park. It’s a 26-acre green space that features an inclusive playground, custom picnic shelter, access to Chester Creek, walking trails, ice skating ribbon, and during the warmer months, the Muldoon Farmers Market. While the park has created a buzz of economic and social activity, the reality is that if you’d visited the Muldoon neighborhood just a few years ago, you would have found a vacant lot neglected for decades, in an underserved community. That all changed when the community received a federal park grant of $750,000, which leveraged an additional $1.2 million.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the true value of parks. Parks across the country experienced a huge spike in visitors as people sought places to exercise, meet up safely with friends and family, seek respite, and come together as a community during hard times. Research shows us that, in addition to supporting physical and mental health and enhancing community cohesion, parks also support workforce development, boost local economies, and protect the environment. 

It’s clear that parks are a vital component of any city’s infrastructure and more local municipalities are making parks a priority, but budgets are still tight. With the pandemic, many park budgets were cut and staff laid off. 

The good news is that federal funding is available to cities. For example, the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP), a National Park Service grant program funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, helped Anchorage realize its vision for Chanshtnu. The program was created in 2014 and offers grants specifically to help underserved communities access or re-connect with the outdoors. Grants support the creation and renovation of state and local parks and other outdoor recreation spaces located in urban areas. To date, $46 million in federal funds have supported 68 ORLP projects, while leveraging more than $76 million in local, state, and private match funds. Best of all, ORLP is not paid for with taxpayer funds, but through offshore oil and gas royalties. Additionally, the program leverages millions in local public and private investment resulting from enhanced green space.  

Thanks to the ORLP program, the story of Chanshtnu Muldoon Park in Anchorage isn’t unique. The program has created vibrant community assets across the country. In Minnesota, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board developed a new 3.5-acre park on a former industrial site on the banks of the Mississippi River. In Oregon, the city of Portland worked with private partners to create a 25-acre park on a former brownfield. In Wisconsin, the city of Madison transformed an industrial site into a 6-acre park. In Colorado, the city of Denver developed a 4.5-acre open-space park on vacant land that now offers a dense residential neighborhood both recreation and youth science education opportunities. 

Everyone deserves a quality vibrant park yet, one-in-three Americans, including 28 million kids, do not have access to a close-to-home park. Disinvestment and neglect of redlined communities in the past have left many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color without access to quality parks and green space today. In urban areas, park inequity is even more stark. Nearly 40 percent of people living in America’s cities don’t live near a park. Furthermore, parks in communities of color are smaller and more crowded — they are almost half the size and serve five times as many people per acre as those for majority white populations. 

As we work to increase access to parks and outdoor recreation spaces, we must focus on rectifying this inequity. Too few federal conservation dollars are being granted to cities, where 80 percent of Americans live. Expanding and improving the ORLP is one important step in closing the park equity gap. Over the summer, the National Park Service announced the fourth round of grantees – 19 new projects and $16.8M in federal dollars awarded to communities to expand access to quality parks and greenspace. The National Park Service hopes to announce the fifth round of awardees in the spring of 2022. As Congress reviews budgets for next year, it’s vital that urban park federal funding remains robust.

Parks are critical to creating resilient, healthy, and vibrant cities. Federal and municipal governments each have a role to play in closing the park equity gap.

Catherine Nagel is the executive director of City Parks Alliance.

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