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The past 20 months dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have shown us all that parks and green spaces are essential community infrastructure that protect public health by providing opportunities for physical activity, time in nature, social connection and respite — as well as access to lifesaving resources, like vaccines and emergency food. In cities, parks and green spaces also offer climate benefits: they filter air, remove pollution, buffer noise, cool temperatures, filter stormwater and replenish groundwater. Yet, not all communities have access to safe, well-maintained, and programmed parks and green spaces. Many studies across multiple geographic areas show that Blacks, Latinos and people who live in low-income, urban neighborhoods have less access to green spaces than people who live in more affluent or predominantly white communities.
Green spaces should serve every community in a fair, just, safe and healthy manner. For more than a century, park and green space inequities have unfairly affected low-income communities throughout the United States, especially people living in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. These inequities reflect historical and current-day policies and practices. As shown in Figure 1, the historical factors contributing to park inequities include racial segregation, biased planning decisions, exclusionary zoning and redlining, among others. Present-day drivers of park inequities include tax and fiscal restructuring, shifting responsibility for public services, and reduced ability of cities with limited tax bases and large low-income populations to provide park and recreation services.
Achieving Equitable Outcomes
Just as green space inequities have been produced, there are pathways to equity. In June 2021, Prevention Institute, a national health equity- and racial justice-focused nonprofit, released a paper, Changing the Landscape: People, Parks, and Power, which lays out three key dimensions of producing more equitable outcomes in the park and green space arena:
- Procedural equity covers processes that support the equitable and just provision of green spaces services and relates to all aspects of green space, from placement to design, construction and programming.
- Distributional equity primarily pertains to distribution and accessibility of green spaces across communities and the spread of facilities, amenities and features within green spaces.
- Structural equity addresses underlying systems-level factors and policies that give rise to green space inequities in the first place. This includes operationalizing equity and racial justice across agency staff and leadership and deepening a commitment to using accountability metrics to redress spatial and operational disparities.
While the traditional approach to addressing these inequities would have focused on creating new parks or improving existing ones, an emerging national park equity movement also emphasizes the need to transform the underlying policies, institutional practices, power dynamics and problematic narratives that have led to pervasive green space inequities in Black, Latino and low-income urban communities across the United States. Signaling a welcome turning point in the field of public health, in fall 2021, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — the nation’s largest health-focused philanthropy — will launch a new funding program: People, Parks, and Power: A National Initiative for Green Space, Health Equity, and Racial Justice. Recognizing that people and power drive policy and systems change, this new initiative will invest in the capacity of communities closest to the problem to accelerate long-overdue progress toward health equity, park equity and racial justice.