The Trust for Public Land: How to Solve the Problem of Park Access

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This Op-Ed represents the opinions of The Trust for Public Land.

Walk around any American city and it’s easy to see: Not all neighborhoods are created equal. Some have vibrant, inviting playgrounds, lush green parks and trails, bustling business districts and plenty of welcoming public spaces to host a farmer’s market, fair or community gathering. Others don’t.

What accounts for this disparity? The answers to this question reach back across generations of public policy ranging from the unintentionally flawed to the outright biased. Although the causes of inequity are vast and systemic, the effects are specific, measurable, mappable, and—in many cities—literally concrete.

In May, my organization, The Trust for Public Land, released our annual ranking of park systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities. We base the rankings on the qualities that make park systems great—park access, park acreage, amenities like playgrounds and basketball courts, and funding to create new parks and maintain and improve existing ones.

This year, Washington, D.C., jumped to first place. In the District, 98 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, and 21 percent of city area is reserved for parks. D.C.’s small median park size (1.4 acres) trailed second-place finisher Saint Paul (3.2 acres) and third-place Minneapolis (5.7 acres), but the city’s improvements to park amenities pushed it slightly ahead of the Twin Cities to earn the top spot. Arlington, Virginia, and Portland, Oregon, rounded out the top five.

While this year’s index shows a slight improvement in park access nationwide, it also highlights a stark fact: When it comes to open space in this country, some neighborhoods have dramatically better access than others. In the 100 largest U.S. cities alone, more than 11 million people don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. Given current rates of investment in park creation, our analysis shows it would take more than 50 years to create enough new parks to fill this gap.

Think of what this means: Two generations of children growing up without reliable access to nature. If you grew up with a playground close to home and trips to state or national parks, it can be hard to imagine a life devoid of trees, grass and wildlife. Kids who have no access to parks don’t have the same chance to develop a connection with our environment, and this can impact the way they live, vote and raise their own children.

Perhaps even more urgently, a lack of parks and green space can impact public health and safety. Research has shown that exposure to nature is linked to health benefits, including improved mental health, reduced blood pressure and faster recovery for hospital patients who could see greenery through their windows. One study in Chicago found that buildings with more greenery experienced less crime, including 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes than buildings with the least greenery.

What’s more, as our planet warms, we’re approaching a future where New York City’s summers could feel more like Juarez, Mexico, today, according to an interactive tool created by Climate Central in partnership with the World Meteorological Association. The CDC says that extreme heat causes more deaths than all other weather-related hazards, like flooding or tornadoes, and the effects of extreme heat pose a greater risk to people living in urban areas. But according to NOAA, the temperature in a green, shady park on hot days can be as much as 17 degrees cooler than in surrounding neighborhoods. With around 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas, access to parks has never been more necessary.

Here’s the good news: We can address this crisis—and doing so will be far less difficult than you may imagine. The same data that helped us determine which American cities have the best park systems can also help us pinpoint strategic investments to build new parks that maximize increased access and benefits for every dollar invested.

Bringing everyone in America’s 100 largest cities within a 10-minute walk of a park would require adding 8,300 new parks to the more than 23,000 parks that exist today in our largest 100 cities. However, our analysis shows that just 1,500 new parks strategically sited in high-density cities currently underserved by parks—like Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and the New York metro area—could solve the issue of park equity for more than 5 million of the 11.2 million people who do not currently have access. One solution could involve turning asphalt schoolyards into green playgrounds, open to the community during non-school hours.

Parks are not perks—they are essential infrastructure for healthy, connected, equitable, empowered communities. Your zip code should not be a better predictor of your health than your genetic code—and parks and green space are an essential piece of the puzzle. We have all of the information we need to put a sizable dent in the problem of park access. The only question now is, what are we waiting for?

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