Sustainability Infrastructure

These cities are addressing inequality in parks access

a public pool in Astoria, Queens, in New York City

Story at a glance

  • In U.S. cities, residents with lower incomes are often less likely to find green space nearby in their neighborhoods.
  • A new report from the City Parks Alliance gives recommendations for using parks funding allocations to improve equity in city parks systems.
  • Their report includes examples of seven cities “on the cutting edge” of making access to their green spaces more widespread and equitable.

Residents with lower incomes are less likely to find green space nearby in their neighborhoods in several major U.S. metro areas. But American cities have started addressing long-standing disparities in access to parks and green space, new research finds. A report from the City Parks Alliance showcases cities that are leading the way in distributing funding for parks more equitably, using data-driven approaches.

The research, published on Tuesday, includes recommendations and seven case studies of cities that have made equity in park funding a priority. These cities include San Francisco and L.A. County, Calif.; Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Minneapolis and Detroit.

Catherine Nagel, City Parks Alliance executive director, says, “There’s been a greater awareness of the unintended consequences of many of the linear parks, which inadvertently have contributed to rising real estate values around them. I think cities are really trying to figure out how they pay more attention to neighborhoods … [without] driving further displacement.” 

The recommendations of the report include getting leaders from one or more sectors of the city to champion, explain the need for and work toward better equity in parks funding. In some of the cities featured in the report, it was the city’s parks and recreation department that led the effort, but in others, it was the mayor or nonprofit sectors that played a role.

“It was fascinating because each city is doing it differently,” says Nagel. “But this is really at the cutting edge of how cities are thinking about how to use their funds.”

Another recommendation of the report is to define equity goals and collect data in transparent and consistent ways to reach those goals. Otherwise, it’s hard to know systematically if your city is making progress and where the gaps remain. The cities’ data-driven approaches also help leaders and residents understand the scope of the benefits coming from their city’s attention to the issue. (That’s also one of the report’s key recommendations: to educate and engage the community on the equity data collected.)

“One of the things that we were struck by was that,” Nagel says, “it wasn’t just a one off.” She adds, “Cities were really looking at how they could monitor this over time.”

For example, the case study on New York City’s efforts to improve equity in parks funding notes that the city’s parks department partnered with the CUNY School of Public Health (part of the city’s public higher education system) to examine the effects of the new park reconstruction initiatives on community health metrics, such as physical activity, park usership and social cohesion. This study is already underway, with preparations to engage thousands of New Yorkers over the next couple of years, and the results are expected to be ready in 2022. 

Nagel says the different strategies implemented in the cities included in the report are “replicable for cities of all sizes.” The report is full of ideas and examples that other city leaders can borrow from and adopt to ensure any of their residents have the option of spending time soaking up the many health and social benefits of parks.