Improving Systems to Achieve Equitable Park Access

October 1, 2019, Feature, by Rachel Banner, Jared Mummert and Cindy Mendoza

2019 October Feature Improving Systems to Achieve Equitable Park Access 410

How three cities are embracing NRPA's 10-Minute Walk initiative

NRPA believes that everyone should have just and fair opportunity to access local parks, recreation facilities and programs. Easy access to parks is linked to increased physical activity, improved mental health, stronger community bonds and enhanced sustainability; yet, more than 1 in 3 people do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. In addition, those who do, don’t always have access to quality and/or welcoming park spaces. That’s why the NRPA Board of Directors has adopted “ensure access for all” as one of four strategic priorities.

What Is Equitable Access?
NRPA’s work on the 10-Minute Walk, a national campaign to improve safe and equitable access to quality parks and green spaces, is the foundation for this strategic direction. Since October 10, 2017, the campaign has engaged more than 270 mayors and other elected officials representing about 20 percent of the U.S. population. To support the campaign, NRPA has provided grants and technical assistance to 32 communities to develop plans, policies and funding opportunities and created a 10-Minute Walk learning series that features interactive webinars and member-led network calls. We’ve heard amazing stories of how park and recreation agencies are ensuring their communities have access to great parks now and into the future. Below are just a few of those stories.

Engaging Communities to Inform Programs and Policies
Anchorage, Alaska, set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Chugach Mountain Range, experiences extreme temperature changes between its short summers and long winters, and daylight ranging from six hours in December to more than 19 hours in June. Anyone relocating to Anchorage faces challenges adapting to such a dynamic environment. Parks, trails and recreation opportunities play a crucial role in that adapting.

The city’s population is as diverse as its environment. It is home to indigenous people who have lived in Anchorage for millennia and many military families, and it welcomes immigrants who speak more than 107 different languages. According to The Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) ParkServe, 74 percent of people in Anchorage have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. While that number is higher than the national average, it is not equitable across all populations in the city. This was the impetus for Anchorage to join 10-Minute Walk and work with NRPA’s team on an NRPA 10-Minute Walk grant.

Over the grant year, Anchorage focused on addressing barriers to park access by engaging historically underrepresented communities to help create an inclusive park system and by recognizing the traditional lands of the Dena’ina people. In this endeavor, Anchorage Parks and Recreation partnered with Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s office, the Anchorage Park Foundation, Alaska Native Heritage Center, Alaska Literacy Program, Catholic Social Services’ Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS), and the National Park Service. These partners united under Welcoming Anchorage, an initiative to build a more inclusive, welcoming community, and recognize the economic, cultural and social contributions immigrants and refugees make across the community.

Welcoming Anchorage launched a listening tour in winter 2018 to hear from indigenous and new Alaskans about their experience with park and recreation services. Three listening sessions were hosted by the Alaska Native Heritage Center — one with students from the Alaska Literacy Program, one with RAIS clients and their children, and one with Alaska Native elders and youth — and were followed up by an in-person and online survey.

Uniting around the Anchorage 10-Minute Walk goal and articulating plans with clear messaging to all partners helped overcome the challenges of varied stakeholder interests and many participant languages. Through the grant funds and with assistance from the Alaska Literacy Program and RAIS, most of the spoken languages were covered during the sessions, creating a safe, inclusive environment.

From the sessions and the follow-up survey, the project team learned of barriers to access, such as the need for season-appropriate gear and fears of wildlife encounters — a frequent occurrence — for indigenous and new Alaskans. However, they also learned that 39 percent of participants are using parks and green spaces and view them positively. In addition, participants would like culturally relevant art, more signage, edible and native landscaping, and culturally relevant markets. The city will use this information in developing plans to address community feedback and make parks and green spaces more welcoming to all Alaskans.

Using Policy to Overcome Acquisition Challenges
Tukwila, Washington, a Seattle suburb, is an up-and-coming city with a diverse and growing population. The Duwamish River runs straight through the city, providing opportunities to enjoy nature in an urban setting, and Tukwila Parks and Recreation, which manages the city’s 159 acres of parks and 12 miles of trails, works diligently to enhance the quality of life for its residents.

Forty percent of Tukwila’s population was born outside of the United States, and most of its residents are people of color. Equity is a core value, and, in 2017, the city developed an equity policy that defines equity as “eliminating systemic barriers and providing fair access to programs, services and opportunities to achieve social, civic and economic justice.” Although 71 percent of Tukwila’s residents have access to a park within a 10-minute walk, quality and access continue to be top priorities.

To accomplish the equity policy for parks, Mayor Allen Ekberg and Parks and Recreation Director Rick Still selected criteria to prioritize development and maintenance of parks. These criteria included access to parks within a 10-minute walk, income, rates of chronic disease and other factors, such as language and racial diversity. Through this process, Tukwila identified a community that had a critical gap in park access and obtained an NRPA 10-Minute Walk grant, initially to focus its efforts on addressing the gap. Specifically, the city aimed to develop a community engagement model for acquiring and developing new park space that it hoped could be replicated in other neighboring communities.

As team members began engagement, they learned just how much their community needed a safe park space. “Everybody deserves a safe place to play,” says Tukwila Parks and Recreation Manager Tracy Gallaway. “The challenge with this area is that even though there are parks within a 10-minute walk, they are not always safely accessible. This prevents children from playing outside and leads them to play in parking lots, which, in some cases, causes the families to get evicted.” To address these problems, the city began negotiations with the property owner for a long-term lease. However, after months of investing time and effort, no agreement was reached.

Tukwila faced difficulty closing the access gap not only because of unwilling property owners, but also because of rising real estate costs. Removing the barriers in the acquisition process required Tukwila to change the scope of its work to focus on creating more equitable policies. One barrier to acquiring land was the inability of low-income communities to provide a match for the King County Conservation Futures Tax Levy funding requirement. Through extensive work reviewing, developing and proposing revisions to the tax levy, the Open Space Equity Cabinet adopted a new code of standards. This would waive the tax levy funding match requirement for identified “equity areas,” as defined by median household income, rates of hospitalization for asthma, diabetes and heart disease, and urban areas lacking publicly owned and accessible open space within a quarter mile. This will allow Tukwila to acquire funding and create parks and open spaces for underserved areas.

After passing the policy and identifying a new area for development and acquisition, in March 2019, Tukwila applied for funding to purchase a different property through the tax levy. Ahead of the purchase and in the negotiations for the initial lease, the city utilized new community engagement strategies, such as Artist in Residence. The two artists in residence engaged the community through an inclusive, interactive arts-based method that allowed everyone, regardless of language, culture or other barriers, to express their desires for the new park space. Tukwila will use these engagement methods, policy frameworks and other lessons of park access to develop the Tukwila Parks, Recreation & Open Space Plan, ultimately aiding in the increase of equitable access across the city.

Using a Systemwide Master Plan to Set Priorities
With 424 acres of city parks and another 229 acres of county parks serving 49,897 residents, Murray City, Utah, appears to have plenty of parks. “Murray City has been an innovator in parks and recreation for the past 50 years,” notes Kim Sorensen, Murray’s parks and recreation director. “The key to our success is how we have balanced innovation with community traditions.”

The city has a proud history in the smelter and metal refining industry, which attracted a diverse European and Japanese population through the mid-1900s. This early cultural diversity influenced Murray City’s heritage and independent spirit, which are evident in the current emphasis on arts and culture, community events and protected open space. Today, the city’s growing population includes Latinx and mixed-race groups that call Murray home.

The 49,987 residents of Murray enjoy 13.1 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents: well above the median 9.6 acres per 1,000 residents for cities of this size, according to NRPA’s Park Metrics. However, TPL’s ParkServe® reveals that only 47 percent of Murray residents have access to a park within a 10-minute walk. Why is a park-rich city so park deficient?

  1. East Murray had no parks, forcing residents to rely on schools with traditional amenities. In West Murray, however, residents describe a different scene with access to winding paths, a splash pad and nature center.
  2. Citywide, park acreage is concentrated in large, centralized parks, special-use recreation areas and riverfront green space. In contrast, the city has only eight neighborhood parks lacking active recreation.
  3. Murray is divided by two major interstates: a railroad, a light rail line and the Jordan River — all within 12.3 square miles, making it difficult to get across town unless traveling by car.

In 2017, East Murray had an opportunity to expand recreation access through an interlocal agreement for a 10-foot-wide path along the Jordan and Salt Lake Canal. The Murray Canal Trail was jointly funded through city money and a Salt Lake County Transportation Alternative Program Grant. Although tremendously popular, the trail by itself lacks the types of amenities — art, play elements, signage and benches — that attract everyone. Crossing southeast Murray, the trail is a 2-mile-plus walk from the higher density residential areas. Still, nearby residents are excited about the trail. One resident describes it as “the best thing that’s happened in East Murray.” Then she adds, “In fact, it is the only thing that has happened [in East Murray]. We need more parks and green space!”

Sorensen is aware of the competing demands for improved park access across the community. “Murray City’s parks, facilities, trails and golf course are heavily used. Our programs are incredibly popular. Some of our facilities are older and need improvements,” he notes. “Residents tell us they want new amenities, including dog parks, outdoor fitness equipment and more pickleball. We’re raising funds to renovate the historic Murray Theater to support the performing arts. We’ll add a new public plaza when City Hall redevelops in a few years. New housing is being added in Central and West Murray, which will increase park needs. At some point, we have to ask ourselves: What are our priorities?”

The department began updating its Parks & Recreation Master Plan in response to that question. Sorensen asked project consultant, MIG, Inc., to look at areas lacking 10-minute walk access and to identify community priorities. Using ParkServe® as a starting point, MIG mapped 19 areas that do not have a city park within a half-mile, evaluating where schools, churches, detention basins, golf courses, private open space and parks outside the city could help meet needs. Simultaneously, city staff hosted a series of pop-up events, stakeholder interviews and an online questionnaire to understand what types of recreation options, locations and funding options the community would support. They identified four key areas for future parkland or recreation facilities. The Master Plan, projected for completion in December 2019, will carry forward Murray City’s approach to balancing diverse community needs, while providing a menu of solutions to expand park access and ensure that recreation options are accessible year-round.

Improving Systems to Achieve Equitable Park Access
As evidenced by these three communities, the work of NRPA’s 32 partner communities and countless other park and recreation agencies, improving systems to achieve equitable park access requires an intentional process and sustainable solutions, grounded in equity and inclusion. In this process, it is our responsibility as public agencies to understand the history of the people in our communities, like the native Dena’ina people in Anchorage, and of the land on which we work. It requires us to examine our communities as they are today, including community-level barriers such as a lack of park spaces and system-level policies like the matching requirements in Tukwila, Washington. Finally, it demands that we work with our communities and partners to prioritize future investments that will provide the best health and environmental outcomes and opportunities, such as in Murray City, Utah. While every community has different needs, there are common solutions, such as system master plans, funding distribution policiesand programming-level policies that can help improve communities now and into the future.

Share your equitable access experiences, including successes and challenges, and learn from others by joining the 10-Minute Walk Learning Series.

Rachel Banner is NRPA’s Director of Park Access. Jared Mummert is an NRPA Program Specialist. Cindy Mendoza is Director of Parks and Recreation for MIG, Inc.