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Urban parks and green spaces protect our health by providing opportunities for physical activity, time in nature, social connection and respite. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, they’ve helped us maintain our sanity when, day after day, we and our children have been cooped up indoors. Parks also filter air, remove pollution, buffer noise, cool temperatures, filter stormwater and replenish groundwater.
But access to parks and green spaces is starkly unequal across lines of race and class. Too many communities go without these health-promoting resources, facing greater exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards and higher rates of premature death from chronic illnesses, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Tracking the Data
To better understand the potential health impacts of expanding park acreage in areas that face park deficits and lack trees, Prevention Institute partnered with the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA’s) Department of Environmental Health Sciences and an advisory board of community-based organizations to study census tract-level data made available recently through the U.S. Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP). We looked at life expectancy — the number of years a person can expect to live averaged across the population.
This new research (tinyurl.com/yxta6lu8) is based on data from the Los Angeles, California, region, but provides insights for park agencies across the country. In Los Angeles (L.A.) County, more than half of residents live in areas with high or very high park need, and these areas are concentrated in low-income communities of color.The research reveals that:
Increasing park acreage in areas that face park deficits and low levels of tree canopy could lead to significant population-level increases in life expectancy.
Targeted investments in park infrastructure would significantly benefit the health of Latino and Black community members.
This is especially important in communities, like South Los Angeles, where the median life expectancy is 77 years, which is well below the upper bound for the county as a whole. In Beverly Hills, less than 15 miles away, life expectancy is as high as 90 years — 13 years longer.
The research suggests that if all the census tracts in L.A. County expanded park access up to the county median, it could add up to 164,700 years in life-expectancy gains for residents living in park-poor tracts. Latino and Black community residents comprise almost 72 percent of the gain (118,000 years).
Park inequities in Los Angeles and other cities across the United States reflect the systematic production of inequities through historical and current-day policies, practices and procedures. Factors contributing to park inequities have included racial segregation, biased planning decisions and exclusionary zoning, among others. Present-day drivers of park inequities include shifting responsibility for public services and reduced ability of cities with limited tax bases and large lower income populations to provide parks and recreation services.
Achieving park equity will require developing new policies and practices and reforming existing ones to prioritize investments in communities experiencing the greatest park deficits. Other actions agencies could take include: collecting data on park inequities and making it publicly available; building relationships with community-based organizations that work in and with marginalized communities to secure their input regarding park investments; evaluating agency policies and initiatives to assess their impact to reverse or reinforce park inequities and make corrections as necessary; and including line-item funding in public finance measures for parks (e.g., bonds, assessments, etc.) to explicitly eliminate park deficits. They also should ensure transparency and community oversight of park investments.
Most importantly, park agencies should engage with and listen to people living in low-income communities of color that have been historically excluded from park-related decision making. The materials in the Advocacy Toolkit for Park Equity, Life Expectancy, and Power Building (tinyurl.com/yxta6lu8), which were developed based on the research described above, are designed to support community-based organizations, their members and others who are building power to secure equitable investments in park infrastructure in disinvested communities.
Note: This work was supported by the Urban Institute through funds provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It was guided by an advisory board that includes the Center for Health Equity at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and seven local base-building organizations: Community Coalition, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, Long Beach Forward, National Health Foundation, Social Justice Learning Institute, Pacoima Beautiful and Promesa Boyle Heights.
Elva Yañez is the Director of Health Equity at the national nonprofit Prevention Institute (firstname.lastname@example.org).