Why Investing in Play Must Be Part of COVID Recovery

By Ronda Jackson, Vice President of Government Affairs, KABOOM!

Ronda Jackson joined KABOOM! in April of 2017. In this role, she is working to galvanize nonprofit allies and build partnerships with federal, state, and local government officials to achieve playspace equity. Prior to joining KABOOM!, Ronda was the Assistant Director of Public Sector Innovation at Living Cities where she worked with cross-sector leaders in cities across the nation to build a new type of urban practice aimed at dramatically improving the economic well-being of low-income people.

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Infrastructure is on the tip of every mayor’s tongue. It’s no wonder, with billions in federal funding on the table for the first time in a generation and rapidly compounding infrastructure needs. American Rescue Plan dollars represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in communities, support resident priorities, and move the needle on racial equity all at the same time. Parks and playgrounds exist in an ideal sweet spot in each of these areas, and cities should consider making investments in these vital pieces of community infrastructure as part of their recovery and resilience strategies.

Parks and playgrounds are a priority for city leaders and residents alike

City leaders and residents alike appreciate the value of playgrounds and recreational space. In 2021, the National League of Cities asked mayors to list their top priorities and the factors that most supported communities during the pandemic. Infrastructure was overwhelmingly the #1 priority, and availability of parks, recreation, and green space was the #2 supportive factor.

Parks and recreation consistently rank as top priorities for residents. In November 2020, voters approved $3.7 billion in new funding for parks, public land, and climate resiliency, and park usage surged in many towns and cities during the pandemic. In Philadelphia, for example, visitors to urban parks jumped 50% in 2020.

Playspaces support the outcome areas that COVID hurt

Guidelines issued by the Department of the Treasury specifically allow the use of American Rescue Plan funds “to facilitate access to resources that improve health outcomes, including services that connect residents with health care resources and public assistance programs and build healthier environments, such as … [h]ousing services to support healthy living environments and neighborhoods conducive to mental and physical wellness.”

Decades of research have shown that play is a central factor in determining the course of a child’s development and future life outcomes, meaning that communities who have trouble accessing play are systematically disadvantaged in profound ways.

We also know that the COVID pandemic has had disastrous effects on children’s wellbeing, effects that are more pronounced for children of color. In a recent survey, 31% of parents said their child’s mental or emotional health was worse than before the pandemic. The effect is amplified for families of color who have experienced higher rates of job loss and housing insecurity during the pandemic.

Investing equitably in parks can help close racial gaps in access to quality playspaces

Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have fewer quality playspaces where they live and learn. A study in the academic journal Pediatrics found that non-white and low-income communities were fifty percent less likely to have one public recreational facility in their community than white and high-income neighborhoods. There are entire city zip codes in major U.S. cities where none – yes, not a single one – of the elementary schools have playgrounds.

In addition, parks that serve primarily nonwhite populations are half the size of parks that serve majority white populations, and serve five times more people per acre.

These inequities are not new. In fact, the struggle for access and inclusion in playgrounds, parks and swimming pools has been a central part the fight for racial justice in America from the early 20th century up to today.

The American Rescue Plan represents a generational opportunity to create neighborhood assets that support the health of all residents. It’s a bold but achievable goal that many communities are already pursuing. More municipalities should consider seizing this moment to invest in play infrastructure as part of their COVID recovery plans and achieve many goals at once.


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