Parks for All, Not Just the Privileged: Data-Driven Approaches to Park Equity
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Los Angeles has recently hired its first forestry officer and announced a goal of planting 90,000 shade trees by 2021. The city is looking to increase shade near busy public transit stops and other islands of extreme heat by adding tree-cover and other shade infrastructure. Mayor Eric M. Garcetti noted, “Maybe you haven’t thought about it this way, but shade is an equity issue.” He went on to use the example of a public transit-dependent older resident awaiting a bus on a hot July day. The city is looking at nearly 750 bus stops using data to overlay the hottest parts of the city with the busiest stops. Los Angeles is not alone in recognizing parks and greenspace as equity issues. An emerging trend for cities is using local data to drive resource allocation decisions in their parks and recreation systems.
City Parks Alliance has just released Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems: Case Studies and Recommendations to document seven examples of communities leveraging data and the power of parks to help achieve their equity goals. Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Los Angeles County are leading the way by prioritizing resource allocation using statistics such as diabetes, asthma, and obesity rates, youth population, and concentrations of poverty, as well as blight, unemployment and other socio-economic indicators. Not only is this data-driven approach the right one, it is also a wake-up call for recognizing the potential of city parks to help address some of these challenges and in response to decades of disinvestment in some communities.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected in 2014 on a platform promoting greater equity. In 2014, his city released the “Framework for an Equitable Future,” which included the Community Parks Initiative, a program to invest in under-resourced public parks in the city’s densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher-than-average poverty rates. Park staff analyzed capital investment data from the past 20 years to help inform future investments and worked to establish long-term community partnerships to sustain the ongoing care of the city’s parkland.
In 2018, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh committed to the goal of bringing all parks in all city neighborhoods up to a high level of quality by developing a data-driven methodology coupled with residents’ input and priorities on maintenance, rehabilitation, capital improvements, and programming. After collecting the data and receiving feedback from 10,000 residents, the conservancy and the city created the Parks Plan, a plan to address investments in park equity. As a result of this extensive public engagement, voters then passed a parks tax referendum in 2019 that is expected to generate $10 million annually and will provide the baseline funding to implement the Parks Plan.
Vibrant parks are at the center of resilient and equitable cities. Urban green spaces provide recreational opportunities improving physical and mental health, do double duty as stormwater management and flood mitigation tools, serve as community gathering spaces, and offer many other benefits. Unfortunately, public funding for parks and green infrastructure, especially in low-income communities where their many benefits are often needed most, is frequently limited, leaving many residents without access to quality parks, recreational opportunities, and other positive environmental conditions. What’s more, low-income communities that do receive park and green space investments often have to balance these benefits against the threat of displacement for long-time residents and businesses as rising rents sometimes accompany quality of life improvements.
City Parks Alliance believes that all residents deserve access to high quality parks, and we believe that cities are wise to prioritize access for all residents for the health, environmental, and community benefits. That is why we also recently commissioned Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems: Emerging Strategies and Tools, as part of a national initiative to help cities address park equity while promoting innovative strategies for funding parks and green infrastructure. Urban Institute led the research and published the report, which explores funding models and their equity considerations in cities of various sizes across the country.
These two reports taken together help identify replicable bright spots around the country where cities are prioritizing equity in their funding and resource allocation strategies. All funding models have equity implications. Some resource allocation decisions are designed to address inequity head on, others may inadvertently contribute to higher land values and housing costs leading to further displacement or green gentrification. Cities that acknowledge these inequities and seek greater community involvement and transparency in resource allocation decisions are more likely to reduce the negative impact on some of the most vulnerable residents. While new sources of funding are always of interest, reallocation of existing funding, and new partnerships to share the costs of park development, operations and programming are some of the most innovative and successful approaches in bringing parks and their benefits to lower income communities.
The research identified 19 different funding models and some of the equity implications that cities, agencies and the communities should consider. For example, the federal Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program provides funding for underserved communities in urban areas. Federal and state transportation grants recognize parks’ role as important parts of transportation networks, linking communities with public transportation hubs, city services, and job opportunities. Brownfield conversions use Environmental Protection Agency funds to transform polluted industrial sites into green community assets potentially addressing environmental justice issues. Developer fees, incentives, and concessions, when well-designed and enforced, can help ensure public benefit from private development.
One of the most exciting trends in park funding is leveraging the co-benefits of parks and the establishment of new partnerships to share the costs of establishing, programming, and maintaining parks. While the multiple benefits of parks and green space have been long recognized, measuring and leveraging these benefits for cost-sharing is relatively new. We are both inspired by these trends and committed to following the developments and lessons that come from early adoption of these new practices. This is an important time for parks and the role they can play in the equitable health and resilience of our cities.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.