This Op-Ed represents the opinions of The Trust for Public Land.
When the pandemic upended the ways that Americans work and play, people turned to parks. As museums, performance halls and gyms closed, green spaces offered their own kind of theater in the dance of light on a stand of pines, their own music in the splash of water over rocks. Throughout the travails of 2020, parks—woodlands, bike trails, even rivers—continued to draw adults and children eager for a safe space in which to exercise, visit with one another or just clear their heads.
Now, even with cold weather and shorter days, nature can still help us maintain our physical and mental health. This winter, public health experts advise that, recreating responsibly, we can continue to enjoy the outdoors, perhaps with a winter hike and an extra layer or two.
Epidemiologists have cautioned that the virus builds up indoors. They point to recent studies revealing the relationship between viral transmission and fresh air, including one out of Japan that looked at 110 cases of COVID-19 and found that the risk of getting the virus was almost 20 times greater inside than outdoors.
Throughout this long and uncertain COVID winter, our parks will be there for us. And when warmer days return and the worst of the pandemic is safely behind us, it will be time to return the favor to our parks. With parks the most popular place in town, many green spaces have taken a beating, and as this year proved, too many communities lack adequate green space to begin with.
Of course, parks will eventually shed their current, peculiar role as one of the safer places people can venture amid the pandemic. But the other health benefits they provide will remain. Numerous studies have found a strong connection between proximity to green space and greater physical activity, reduced stress, improved mood, sharper concentration and lower rates of obesity among teenagers.
In addition to public health, an investment in the nation’s state and local parks would help address some of the other most pressing societal challenges we face, including racial injustice, the economic downturn and the climate crisis.
Parks are a great equalizer. Frederick Law Olmsted, the master landscape architect who designed Central Park, spoke of their democratizing power. He noted that in an increasingly stratified society, parks bring people of all backgrounds together. This summer, parks were also the scene of rallies calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
But a recent study that we at The Trust for Public Land conducted determined that across the country, all parks are not created equal, pointing out the inequities stemming from decades of systemic racism.
Currently, more than 100 million Americans, including 28 million children, do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. What’s more, our organization analyzed census data from 14,000 American cities and towns and found that people of color—when they do have parks within a 10-minute walk—are likely to encounter smaller, more crowded spaces.
The findings revealed that parks serving a majority-minority population are, on average, half as large as parks that serve a majority-white population. Our analysis also found that parks frequented mainly by low-income households are, on average, four times smaller than parks that serve a majority of high-income households.
Building new parks and renovating existing ones would not only start the process of righting these historic wrongs. It would energize our ailing economy by creating jobs and bolstering tourism when the time comes for people to travel again.
Indeed, parks have proved their mettle as a smart investment. Our analysis shows that conservation and park projects return $4 to $10 for every dollar invested. And a report on the economic impact of parks by the National Recreation and Park Association and the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University found that, in 2017 alone, local park and recreation agencies generated more than $166 billion in economic activity, while supporting more than 1.1 million jobs.
Then there are the environmental benefits of new parkland. Climate change is unleashing ever more menacing storms, wildfires and droughts. Research shows that conserving land and planting trees can help address the climate crisis. That is because plants absorb and store carbon dioxide. In 2018, CO2 accounted for more than 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Densely forested parks also counter urban heat islands, studies show, with cooler temperatures extending up to a half mile into adjacent neighborhoods.
There is an undeniable appetite among Americans for investment in open space. On Election Day, voters from Montana to Massachusetts approved more than two dozen ballot measures that together will invest almost $3 billion into projects supporting land conservation, climate resiliency, clean water, wildlife habitat, and parks and trails.
The fabric of American society and the future of the planet demand that we build on that success. That is why we are leading a coalition of more than 200 environmental and community organizations, including the United States Conference of Mayors, the Sierra Club, Outdoor Afro and REI Co-op, in urging Congress to include parks in any future economic stimulus package. Specifically, we are calling for a one-time, historic investment of $500 million in local parks, which too often are deemed a privilege or a luxury, when they should be a right.
One example of how that money could be leveraged to deliver parkland centers on the nation’s schoolyards. There are approximately 100,000 public schools in the United States, but only 10 percent provide the public with access to their grounds. Converting asphalt schoolyards into vibrant green spaces—and opening them to the public during non-school hours—would solve the problem of park access for at least 19.6 million people, including 5.2 million children.
Such an investment—in schoolyards, community parks and trails—would ensure that everyone has access to the health-inducing, mind-clearing, spirit-lifting spaces that constitute our nation’s parkland.