Years of research has shown that spending time in nature reduces cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma and mental illness. The last 18 months have underscored the immense benefits that our parks and public greenspaces provide. As the nation struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic, parks were outdoor oases that allowed millions of Americans a safe place to escape the confines of their homes. And parks in 98 of the nation’s 100 most populous cities doubled as venues for meal distribution, COVID testing and outdoor classrooms.
But parks and the benefits they provide are not evenly distributed in those cities. New research is demonstrating that the absence of these green spaces is disproportionately and negatively affecting our nation’s communities of color.
This year’s annual ranking of city park systems, The Trust for Public Land ParkScore® Index, revealed that in our nation’s 100 largest cities, neighborhoods where a majority of residents identify as people of color have 44 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhood. Similar disparities exist between low- and high-income neighborhoods.
Across the United States, about 100 million people – including 28 million children – don’t have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home, according to analysis by The Trust for Public Land. And parks in communities of color are half the size of parks in predominantly white neighborhoods, while serving five times more people.
The health impacts can be stark and long-lasting, studies show. Communities with less access to public greenspace are hotter in summer, have worse air quality and are more susceptible to flooding. Moreover, children and adults living in park deserts get less exercise and suffer from diminished health. Conversely, proximity to parkland boosts concentration, relieves anxiety and reduces depression, among other benefits. And nature access is also associated with reduced mortality.
These disparities are reason enough to address the inequities that exist in the distribution of urban parkland. But new research conducted during the pandemic makes action even more imperative.
Researchers at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have recognized connections between lack of park access and poor COVID-19 outcomes. “Access to parks and green space is vitally important for the health and well-being of individuals,” wrote CDC researchers. “Building a stronger infrastructure of neighborhood parks and green space throughout the country will help limit the impact of future public health disasters.”
In addition, a forthcoming study in the journal Environmental Research suggests a direct correlation between access to public green space and COVID-19. Analysis of the link between exposure to vegetation and virus fatalities in more than 3,000 American counties during the first half of 2020 showed a reduced COVID-19 mortality rate in greener areas. (The study adjusted for age, education level, household crowding, and physical activity.) Researchers speculated that people living in greener communities also benefited from reduced air pollution and stronger immune systems.
Access to parks is an essential component of public health in our country, and we are beginning to see recognition of that reality.
It’s why we at The Trust for Public Land launched the Equitable Communities Fund, with a goal of raising $50 million to jumpstart park projects in underserved communities, as well as providing a financial lift to nonprofit groups hurt by the pandemic. We’ve identified 62 communities across the nation where the fund can be put to work immediately; 14 of those communities have received the first round of grants.
One such grant went to the White Oak Bicycle Co-Op, a small nonprofit in Red Bank, Tennessee, outside Chattanooga. The volunteer-run Co-Op, started by three friends during the pandemic, recognizes that a main barrier to owning a working bike is lack of income. As such, it provides free access to bicycles and repair services to those in need. The grant will help the nonprofit buy equipment like a trailer, tent, and tools. (The Trust for Public Land became aware of the Co-Op through our work on a one-mile trail connector between Stringer’s Ridge Park in North Chattanooga and White Oak Park in Red Bank.)
At the federal level, the Department of the Interior recently announced expansion of the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership grant program to fund access to the outdoors in urban areas. California will provide increased funding for urban greening and park access as well. With any luck, other states with similar unexpected surpluses will follow suit. The Biden-Harris administration, too, has issued a call to action to restore and conserve America’s lands and waters. Among its top priorities: the creation of more parks and outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities.
But much more is needed, and can be achieved by passage of the bipartisan Parks, Jobs, and Equity Act—a historic $500 million federal investment in local parks. This critical funding could save 100,000 at-risk seasonal jobs and/or create 8,000 new ones, while generating $1.37 billion in economic activity. And it could fund over 1,000 new or upgraded parks where they’re needed most—a significant step toward our goal of ensuring that everyone has access to the outdoors.
A coalition of nearly 300 nonprofits, community groups, and companies, including Outdoor Afro, the Sierra Club, REI Co-op, and my organization supports the legislation. Our coalition partners are committed to closing the park equity divide, and we encourage all elected officials and organizations to join the effort.
This is a chance to change the infrastructure of neighborhoods in a way that pays dividends for a long time to come. With new understanding of parks as critical for public health–and data from the 2021 ParkScore Index showing where investments will have the most impact–it’s time for Congress to act and help make the outdoors equally accessible to all.