Social Equity: What It Means for Parks and Recreation

September 1, 2016, Department, by Barbara Tulipane, CAE

Barbara Tulipane, CAE, NRPA President and CEOSince NRPA adopted social equity as one of our Three Pillars almost five years ago, the question of why we should care about social equity and what we can do to improve it in our communities has continued to challenge us.

Throughout the history of our nation, public parks have demonstrated the principle of social equity, even if in practice they might not always have been built or located equitably. 

Parks by their very nature are the embodiment of our democracy. They are places that exemplified some of our most important human rights — freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from fear. As our nation developed, so, too, did our collective commitment to our birthright — that parks should be accessible to all people, no matter their economic status, ethnicity or religious creed. 

Sadly, we have not always lived up to that principle. As our cities and neighborhoods grew, the reality was that the “haves” often got much more in the way of parks and recreational amenities than the “have-nots,” and what those disadvantaged communities received was often of much lesser quality and quantity. This disparity has vexed us a nation, and it continues to vex us as a profession dedicated to the equal treatment of all people in the provision of park and recreation programs and services. 

So, what does this have to do with NRPA and with you? Well, for one thing, the ultimate goal of NRPA’s new strategic plan is to create healthy, sustainable and equitable communities for all people. And, for another, social equity is the lens through which NRPA will evaluate progress in our health and conservation efforts. 

Why do we struggle with what we should do about improving social equity and yet readily embrace our role in improving conservation and health outcomes? Perhaps because it’s easier to define and measure our efforts in these lattermost areas, while even defining the term “social equity” is a struggle. We learned first-hand how difficult this can be when NRPA was asked by a funder what criteria we used to define an “underserved community.” It was not surprising to learn that there is no widely accepted definition. Communities cite many reasons why they may be “underserved,” and no one factor is determinative. And, I have yet to visit an agency that doesn’t have an underserved community. 

To speak forthrightly and honestly about social equity means that we must also be willing to talk about race, income equity, environmental justice, education opportunity, national origin, religious orientation and more.  

Yes, social equity is a difficult subject, but it is at the heart of why public parks exist and it is deeply important in the contemporary discussion of how we provide park and recreation services and amenities. As we begin to fulfill the goals of our new strategic plan, social equity will be at the forefront of NRPA’s goals to help our members contribute to creating more equitable, sustainable communities. In coming months we will address what all of us can do to promote social equity, and how you can specifically do so within your own agency. There is a role for everyone, especially you. 

Barbara Tulipane, CAE,is NRPA's President and CEO