COVID-19 — is everyone receiving the benefits of urban parks equally?

COVID-19 — is everyone receiving the benefits of urban parks equally?
© istock

As summer comes to a close, while there are few positive things to say about 2020, one thing is certain: this is the year that so many of us around the world developed a newfound appreciation for being outdoors.

At a time when leisure travel is upended or nonexistent, social distancing is enforced globally and public discourse around equality and justice is surging, we have also truly taken to parks and public spaces like never before. Being outside has become a universal coping mechanism for maintaining our physical, mental and emotional health.

Today, the overwhelming demand for outdoor spaces is real. A recent national survey found that 70 percent of city-dwelling Americans agree that parks are critical to preserving an individual’s physical and mental health amid today’s challenges. As a result, convenient and accessible destinations within city limits are in high demand all over the country and for good reason: time in nature is known to reduce stress, improve focus and promote fit minds and bodies. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But not everyone is realizing these benefits — especially those living in lower income communities.

Research has shown that parks serving majority low-income households are, on average, four times smaller and four times more crowded than parks that serve majority high-income households. We also know that disparities in park access can be linked to obesity and affect longevity and mental health. On average, about 55 percent of Americans have easy access to a local park within a 10-minute walk of home. In cities like Washington, D.C., that number jumps to 98 percent, but in low-access cities like Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis, access plummets to less than 40 percent. 

With parks providing a surmounting list of health benefits, a key question for today’s leaders is: How do we make sure that all city residents have equal access to green space?

First, we must treat parks as vehicles for inclusivity and economic security. They are not just beautiful landscapes, but necessary public health infrastructure and essential for strong, climate-resilient cities. 

As we’ve seen during lockdown, parks make our cities more livable, and now is the time to prioritize them. And we can do this creatively. For example, in San Francisco, city officials converted closed public golf courses into public green spaces, and from Oakland, Calif., to Providence, R.I., cities have closed miles of streets to cars so that people can exercise and be active at a safe distance.

ADVERTISEMENT

Many city leaders have long thought of parks as critical urban infrastructure, to be maintained, improved and expanded, especially as municipal budgets are further strained. For example, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s comprehensive 3.0 plan looks to the $166 billion in annual economic activity and 1.1 million U.S. jobs that parks and green spaces can generate as part of the city’s park access goal. 

But city leaders cannot do this work alone. Community-based collaborations and innovative partnerships are catalyzing significant progress towards 100 percent park access. Local organizations and nonprofits with deep roots in local communities have been building greenways, converting abandoned lots and advocating for bike and walking paths for decades; 10 Minute Walk, where I serve as director, also partners with many of them, as part of this national effort. Park Pride, a nonprofit organization in Atlanta, is working with Mayor Keisha Lance BottomsKeisha Lance BottomsCOVID-19 — is everyone receiving the benefits of urban parks equally? The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's big speech attracts widespread praise Atlanta mayor evokes John Lewis: 'The baton has now been passed to each of us' MORE’ administration to use area schoolyards as public green spaces. Global to Local in Tacoma, Wash., is providing resources for the city’s significant refugee population to help them advocate for improved park access. At a national level, Reimagining the Civic Commons brings together coalitions of advocates to create revitalized and connected public spaces. I encourage each and every city leader to seek out these organizations in your community — partner with them, fund them, advocate with and for them.

Finally, as we turn an eye towards the long road of recovery ahead, we must remember that parks are not perks. We call on today’s city leaders, philanthropists, corporations and voters to treat parks as critical infrastructure, for they represent a necessary investment in the equity, economic opportunities, health and wellbeing of our communities that will reap benefits for decades. We ask that parks remain in the budget, on the ballot and off the chopping block during discussions and legislative sessions in the weeks and months ahead. Because now is the time that we give all city-dwellers the urban backyards they so desperately need — and deserve — right now.

Benita Hussain is a climate activist and director of the 10 Minute Walk at The Trust for Public Land. Follow the organization on Twitter @10minwalk.