Advocacy 

How Parks Support More Active and Equitable Communities

The concept of biophilia suggests that humans have an innate, instinctive bond with the natural world, such as trees, wildlife, parks, and gardens. Recent studies reinforce this notion, showing that natural environments are making direct contributions to human health. A recent article in Planning magazine (“Can trees save your life?”), highlights a study from the U.S. Forest Service, which found that Midwestern communities infested by the emerald ash borer experienced tremendous tree die-off over a 10-year period, and suffered an associated increase in human mortality over that same time.

Nature and health equity

As the health benefits of nature are becoming more widely recognized, it’s important to identify gaps in access to parks and green spaces. The American Society of Landscape Architects has highlighted disparities in Los Angeles, noting that 3.8 million residents of the city are too far from “a park to use one easily, conveniently, or frequently.” Researchers in Australia studying the country’s most populous cities have found that lower-income neighborhoods have significantly less access to green spaces compared to their higher-income counterparts.

A July 2014 research brief entitled “Environmental Equality: Providing Nearby Nature for Everyone” compiles a significant body of health literature that addresses the role of nature and green spaces in reducing health disparities. According to Kathleen Wolf, who co-authored the briefing, “the positive effects of exposure to urban green spaces may be amplified in lower-income, urban communities.” Among the studies she compiled, one found that low-income communities with high levels of residential greenery had similar mortality rates to higher-income communities. Other potential benefits of urban greening in low-income neighborhoods include reduced crime and greater social cohesion.

Design makes a difference

Given the health benefits of green spaces, it is critical for communities to strive for more equitable access for all residents. The following planning and design considerations can support such efforts:

  • Ensure sufficient parkland. The standard outlined in the Trust For Public Land’s ParkScore Index is that residents should be able to access a park within a 10-minute walk (approximately ½ mile).
  • Ensure park accessibility via walking, biking, and transit, and reduce physical barriers to access such as highways, train tracks, and fences. Incorporate universal design principles to encourage park accessibility for all ages and abilities.
  • Engage local communities in the planning and design process, to ensure park amenities match their preferences.
  • Plant trees and other greenery. Consider opportunities for tree planting along public streetscapes, in public plazas, at playgrounds, and on private property.
  • Give citizens hands-on access to nature. Provide gardening opportunities on-site, and engage local community groups in maintaining trees and plantings.

Cities taking a stance

Cities around the world are recognizing the benefits of making strategic investments in parks and green spaces, and targeting those investments where they will have the greatest impact. In New York City, Mayor Bill di Blasio announced a $130 million plan to rehabilitate parks in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In South Los Angeles, the Avalon Green Alley Network demonstration project will transform neglected, underutilized alleyways into safe, green public spaces. The fundamental message is clear: given the broad benefits of nature, as well as neighborhood disparities in obesity and chronic disease rates, it’s important to enhance access to parks and green spaces for those who need it most.

 
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    This once-dilapidated playground in New York was turned into an urban farm, offering a new and vibrant green space and healthy food source for locals. Photo: Emily Young.
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    Volunteers plant street trees, adding to the greenery of the public realm. Photo: Rebeca Ramirez / Happywashington.org.
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    Engaging local community members in the planning process helps to ensure that neighborhood parks match local preferences. Photo courtesy of BIG.
  • A study found that communities with lower incomes, higher poverty rates, and higher proportions of racial minorities also have the fewest opportunities for physical activity.