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Over the past six months, COVID-19 has brought more than a health crisis — it has impacted the way we live and work in our communities across the nation. With policies encouraging people to practice physical distancing, enact curfews and shelter in place, there are now less interactions in the public realm to slow the spread of the disease. The U.S. National Park Service, along with local government-managed park and recreation departments, face challenges keeping parks open to encourage physical activity and promote good mental health. Park system leaders also recognize that park space may prompt large gatherings and expose employees to health risks by maintaining the green spaces. While ensuring access to parks is an opportunity to diversify daily life, it creates a severe concern for advancing the spread of COVID-19.
Yet, even amidst this balancing act, there is the growing recognition that access to parks and recreational spaces are not equitable. There are several communities that have historically lacked access to parks and continue to remain disconnected in a time when getting outdoors is one of the few permissible activities. In many cities across the United States, there are fewer quality parks in close proximity to low-income residents and communities of color, and even when they live close by, they are less likely to frequent these spaces. Barriers, like perception of public safety, park entry fees and perceived racial discrimination, have prevented residents across the more vulnerable income, education and race groups from accessing parks. Examining the value of parks in a time of physical distancing can help unearth the inequities in the types and quality of spaces available for residents and determine if the communities’ values and priorities are being addressed.
Prioritizing Equitable Investments in COVID-19
In citywide budget cuts, park agency funding is one of the first to go, although parks have tremendous benefits. Parks and green space promote physical activities, encourage mental well-being, are valuable for the environment and bring communities together. While many cities have closed their large parks to uphold the CDC’s physical distancing restrictions, others have embraced the opportunity for residents to utilize the outdoors. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nationwide trail use grew by 200 percent from March 16 to 22.
As we move from response to recovery to resilience in this period of COVID-19, there is an opportunity to apply the observations of park inequities to improve future park development and programming. These lessons were adapted from the 2019 Urban Institute report, “Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems.” They were always essential for inclusive city planning but are now even more important as community resilience strategies.
- Leveraging funding through multiple sources. Parks are mostly funded through traditional city sources, such as budget appropriations, dedicated tax and revenues, or earned fees. As priorities shift for COVID-19, many of these funding streams are dwindling or non-existent. Now is the time for park agencies to align investments with other local programs and policies, to tap new funding in creative ways, while benefiting the community.
Braiding and blending funding from different sources, such as philanthropic giving, federal grants and local bonds can be strategies to provide additional capital for parks. The Yonkers Greenway project in New York unlocked multiple sources of funding — state Department of Transportation funding, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfield funds and state environmental funds — to revitalize the downtown area with a large park.
- Engaging resident support in under-resourced communities. Smaller cities with financial constraints have to think creatively to source support for the operations and maintenance of parks and green space. Capital funding for parks is more likely to come from non-traditional sources, whereas taking care of and programming existing assets have typically come from the city or state. With this limitation in mind, the city of Brownsville, Texas, leveraged $3 million worth of volunteer hours for the maintenance of its parks through the Keep Brownsville Beautiful program. Involving the residents both eased the financial burden of maintaining the park and ensured they found value in the community asset.
- Increasing park equity through health system partners. Health equity is an important consideration during COVID-19 and a significant benefit of parks. Kaiser Permanente and the California Wellness Foundation funded the HEAL Cities Campaign for Complete Parks Systems to improve access to and active use of parks. Residents in Colton and Placentia, California, were engaged through advocacy workshops, planning meetings and other forms of stakeholder consultation to offer input in the planning and implementation of more equitable park policies. As a consequence of this, park agencies can demonstrate the health benefits of parks to encourage not just an increase in use, but also more funding.
COVID-19 has uncovered inequities in park quality and access that always existed in communities. These strategies, among several others, can help park agencies to remain resilient, but these alone will not be enough. Closing the park equity gap will require park and recreation agency leaders and their partners in government and communities to work together. New forms of funding will need to be aligned with citywide equity frames and complement national initiatives for inclusion. When equity is placed at the center of park investments and funding decisions, the benefits are better positioned for residents and the city is more inclusive.
Kimberly Burrowes is a Technical Assistance Specialist with the Research to Action Lab at the Urban Institute.