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Let’s close the park equity divide

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April is a time of emergence — for nature and people. Around my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, the hills are a riot of wildflowers, and the sun stays up long enough that I can usually get out for a golden hour stroll on the trails near my house after shutting down my laptop at the end of the work day.

The promise of spring feels especially vivid this year, as we emerge from the darkest depths of the pandemic. Through each turn of this crisis, Americans have headed outdoors in greater numbers, more often, and for more reasons than ever before. But this increased demand for the outdoors comes at a time when our nation’s park systems are already falling short. Today more than 100 million people in America, including 28 million children, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. And parks serving communities of color are, on average, half the size of those that serve a majority-white population. 

These disparities are nothing new. Researchers from Columbia University and the University of California recently found that neighborhoods with a history of racist housing policies, known as “redlining,” have less green space compared to other neighborhoods. “We find lingering effects of racist redlining policies from the 1930s. Future policies should, with the input of local leaders, strive to expand the availability of green space, a health-promoting amenity, in communities of color,” said study author Joan Casey, an assistant professor at the Columbia Mailman School. 

To respond to these longstanding disparities and improve park equity across the country, The Trust for Public Land, where I serve as president at CEO, is leading a coalition of over 200 groups calling for $500 million in federal funding for local parks in the communities that will benefit most. A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Parks, Jobs, and Equity Act in March. The legislation would create thousands of jobs by directing federal funding for new parks and infrastructure improvements to existing parks. Local leaders could also direct the funding to personnel, training, recreation equipment and park programming.

This is a critical time to invest in parks. As economic uncertainty reigns, the act can bolster a sector that’s responsible for 1.1 million jobs in the U.S., generates over $166 billion in economic activity and returns $4 to $10 for every dollar invested. And as the nation endures its worst public health crisis in a century, investing in equitable parks is also an investment in health equity. Numerous studies have found a strong connection between proximity to green space and greater physical activity, reduced stress, improved mood, sharper concentration and lower rates of obesity among teenagers.

Finally, as the climate crisis deepens, close-to-home parks will protect people from stronger storms, more frequent floods and hotter temperatures. Owing in part to the nation’s severe park disparity, today almost all deaths caused by excess heat occur in lower income neighborhoods. According to the Smart Surfaces Coalition, cities — where dark surfaces like roads, parking lots and rooftops trap and retain energy from the sun — are an average of nine degrees warmer than their outlying rural areas. And within cities, low-income neighborhoods, where parks and green spaces are too few, small and far between, are often 10 to 15 degrees hotter in summer than high-income areas. 

The Parks, Jobs, and Equity Act will help local leaders invest in critical infrastructure like parks that will keep cities cooler and cut air pollution, reducing rates of asthma and allergies, especially among low-income communities, the elderly and infants. “Parks aren’t just a nice place to play. They’re the lungs, the circulatory system of our city,” said Happy Haynes, the director of the Denver Parks and Recreation.

The pandemic has laid bare the dire costs of park disparities to Americans’ health, resilience and prosperity, especially for low-income people and communities of color. As Congress begins to debate the $2 trillion infrastructure spending package that the Biden administration proposed in late March, now is the time to recognize parks as essential infrastructure for healthy, resilient communities. Right now, Congress can choose to use this pandemic as a catalyst to close the park equity gap.

This month, in the lead-up to Earth Day, we’re calling on everyone who’s appreciated their local parks during the pandemic to speak up for the resources needed to make sure everyone has access to the outdoors close to home. 

Diane Regas is president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit dedicated to creating parks and protecting land for people. Follow her on Twitter at @DianeRegas.

Tags COVID-19 Earth Day green space Healthcare obesity rate Pandemic Parks racial disparity racial inequity

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