Overcoming Barriers to Park Equity

August 24, 2023, Feature, by Jai Cole

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How parks and recreation can address historical inequities on multiple fronts

Park equity is having its renaissance right now. I have been working toward equity for a while, and during the first 20 years of my career I didn’t see a fraction of the movement toward racial equity in parks as I’ve seen since 2020. A lot of things happened that year: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, protests, the impeachment trial, derechos, wildfires, murder hornets, locust swarms and more. Amid all those things, I believe it was the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that pushed equity into the forefront. It had never been more apparent than during the pandemic what a lifeline parks are to our communities — and just how paralyzing the pandemic was for communities without equitable access to parks.

According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), in the 100 most populated cities, neighborhoods where most residents are people of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods. In addition, parks that serve a majority of people of color are half as large and serve five times as many people as parks that serve a majority white population. Further, parks that serve primarily low-income households are, on average, four times smaller than parks that serve a majority of high-income households. There have been important correlations found nationwide between the quality and access to urban parks and the income and racial diversity of the surrounding community (according to this 2013 study and 2018 study).

This is a problem, but how did this happen?


On Tuesday, October 20, 1929, the stock market dropped 22 percent, and the Great Depression began. Across the country, 15 million people became unemployed, the Dust Bowl drove farmers into the cities to compete for the limited amount of work, and homelessness and poverty were widespread. Bread lines and soup kitchens became the norm. While President Herbert Hoover didn’t believe that the government should have a direct role in creating jobs or bolstering the economy, his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed the opposite. In very short order, he was elected in 1932 and then created the New Deal. The New Deal brought us some of our most recognizable infrastructure projects across the country, like the Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona, New York’s Triborough Bridge, LaGuardia Airport and the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. It created jobs, brought women into the workforce, and for us park folks, it created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was responsible for building a lot of the most famous elements within our national, state and sometimes local parks, such as trails in Acadia National Park in Maine and the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in Denver.

But the New Deal also created the Housing Act of 1934, establishing the Federal Housing Administration. This act created government-backed loans, low fixed-interest rates, the 30-year mortgage, and largely was attributed to creating the middle class — the white middle class, that is. In order for these mortgages to be backed by the government, the Homeowners Loan Corporation created Residential Security Maps. In these maps, they color-coded cities to determine where it would be easiest to get a loan: green for the best areas where businessmen lived, blue for still desirable areas largely made up of white-collar families, yellow for declining areas with working class families, and red for high-risk or hazardous areas made up of foreign-born people, low-income white people and Black people. This is where the term “redlining” comes from, and we still see its influence today.

Why the history lesson and what does this have to do with parks?

Redlining affected not only the demographics of neighborhoods by dictating who could get loans, but also it largely influenced the investment in infrastructure made in those areas. Real estate is about location, location, location, right? Well, if the right location largely dictates the value of your house, and the value of your house dictates your property taxes, and property tax is the major government funding vehicle, it’s easy to see how areas rated green would have better schools, roads and — parks. How does something that happened 100 years ago impact us now? Well, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, three out of four of the redlined neighborhoods in the 1930s are still low-to-moderate income today, and 65 percent are still majority minority, while 91 percent of areas classified as “best” remain middle- to upper-income today, with 85 percent of them still predominantly white

Creating a More Equitable Park System

So, how do you create a more equitable park system? A good starting point is to analyze who has the greatest access to parks. Do you see results like the TPL study where predominantly Black and Brown communities have less access to high-quality parks? Do you need to invest more to provide equitable parks and open spaces in minority communities?

Here at the Fairfax County (Virginia) Park Authority (FCPA), we are addressing equity on multiple fronts. We just finished our Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Access (PROSA) Plan that will guide us toward improved park access, park equity and a stronger balance of park experiences countywide. This will be our way to measure how we’re serving all of our community and help us prioritize projects to get the biggest bang for our buck. Our PROSA strategy has four main components: improve 10-minute walk access to FCPA park entrances, enhance access to complete park experiences, enrich habitat connectivity between environmental corridors, and analyze and prioritize park and recreational needs and projects through an equity lens. We found that while 52 percent of county residents have a Fairfax County park located within a 10-minute walk from their home, 48 percent do not. We want to make sure that more of our residents can access nature and recreational experiences with fewer barriers. Improving the 10-minute walk access to parks ensures parks and green spaces are located equitably, serving all residents and maximizing their positive impact on the overall quality of life for everyone.

Another very important aspect of PROSA is that we’re measuring both the access to parks as well as the access to experiences. That’s what we’re calling a “complete park experience.” A complete park is a park that has a little something for everyone, and there should be something there for people who are 8 months old to 80 years old. With an increasingly diverse population, park systems cannot and should not tell people how they should recreate, and a complete park has a good balance of amenities and opportunities to recreate in different ways.

Lastly, we are looking at demographic, population and socioeconomic data to determine areas of the county with the greatest opportunity to impact the lives of our community to make sure we impact the most people possible in places where park space might have gaps in access or are in need of a stronger balance of park experiences. At FCPA, we believe the predominant race and demographics of an area should not predetermine the quality or quantity of parks in that area, and our programs and services should be affordable to all residents.

Another major equity initiative we are undergoing is attempting to dismantle the historic revenue model that was created in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Many of our recreation centers were built during this time in predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods that are not accessible by public transportation. Under the current model, our recreation centers, golf courses, water parks, campsites, camps and other offerings in the revenue fund are 100 percent funded through fees and charges. The result of this makes many of our services unaffordable to the majority of our lower-income residents, and despite being a majority minority county, our user demographics skew white and wealthy in many categories. This work is going to take time, but we’ve looked at ourselves in the mirror and said, “That’s not right,” which is the hardest part.

Hostile Parkitecture

Hopefully, I’ve established how we got into the situation that we’re in and that it’s not just that we need more parks — since we all need more parks — but rather that we need more parks in the right places. What about the parks we have in areas that serve diverse populations? Once you’ve provided them, you’re done, right? Sadly, no, you aren’t. What’s in your park? Are the amenities that you are providing what the users in the surrounding community want? Are you guilty of hostile “parkitecture?”

You likely have heard of hostile architecture in cities, where they combat homelessness, skateboarding, loitering and other nuisance activities not by fixing their root causes, but by installing features that are designed to allow for only one desired use. Examples of hostile architecture include park benches with armrests to allow sitting, but not sleeping; boulders on sidewalks to allow walking, but not tents and encampments; spikes on windowsills and alcoves to prevent sitting and loitering; and studs on concrete ledges to prevent skateboarding. Does it work? Usually. Is it cheaper than the alternative of providing affordable housing, social services and safe overnight spaces, building more skateparks, and designing spaces that promote social gathering? Absolutely.

In my experience, we are sometimes guilty of doing the same thing when we design parks. My definition of hostile parkitecture is when we design park features in a way that dictates a specific desired use — despite the desires of the users. For instance, imagine your department wants credit for building a basketball court. But, rumor has it that basketball players are loud, and they swear, and the neighborhood doesn’t want people gathering there to play basketball games. So, your department decides the best compromise is to build two half courts next to each other so there are two hoops but users can’t actually play a game. As a former Division I basketball player, I feel I’m qualified to say that no, that is not a basketball court. How many baseball fields do you see with first and second base on one side of the park, and third base and home plate on the other? This is an example of hostile parkitecture.

Do you have a picnic shelter in a largely minority community? Does it have only one or two picnic tables and just one grill? This infrastructure is not conducive to holding a simple get together, much less a birthday party, holiday celebration or a family reunion. You should be providing shelters that can accommodate large groups. It’s no surprise why rentals of large picnic shelters are reserved by some of the most diverse residents here in Fairfax County, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was also the case in other diverse, rapidly urbanizing areas where many houses and properties can’t handle large groups for get-togethers.

When you provide amenities, specifically in local parks, do you come out to see who are using them? Do they look like most of the surrounding community? If not, that’s a problem. Imagine a largely Latinx/Hispanic community of people who value soccer and really want a place where they can play pick-up soccer games. You finally purchase a 10-acre parcel right in the heart of that community, and what do you build? A pickleball complex. It will be packed. Your user counts will be through the roof. You’ll be able to get those who advocated for their construction off your back. But, did you serve the community? No.

Just because you build it and someone comes, doesn’t mean you’ve served that community, you’ve just served a community.

Why Equity Matters

There has been some great work on park equity done by other agencies — including New York City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and many others. We’re a mile into a marathon that started more than a century ago, so we need to get ahead by learning from and copying the successes of others. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not going to be easy, but I’m so proud of how far we’ve come, and I hope that no matter where you are in your career, you understand the root causes of racial inequity in parks and take whatever steps you can to remove barriers to equity, whether they’re large systematic changes or small programmatic ones. They all matter. You matter.

Jai Cole is Executive Director of Fairfax County Park Authority.