This past year has proved that parks are not just a nicety - they are a necessity. As Americans endured the health and economic challenges brought on by a global pandemic, the outdoors became a lifeline. Local parks from Washington to Tennessee to Virginia saw dramatic upticks in usage from people seeking exercise, safe social connections, and the restorative effects of nature. Parks proved their mettle as essential public infrastructure, serving as venues for everything from meal distribution to COVID tests and vaccinations to gathering spaces for protest and mourning.
This year also exposed vast inequities across every facet of society, including our park systems. If you lived within walking distance of a park, you could safely get outside, gather with friends, exercise, and maintain your mental health. But if you were one of the 100 million Americans who don’t have a park close to home, you were vying for the same patch of outdoor space as many of your neighbors. And as the data around access to parks shows, that was too often the case for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, the same communities that were hit hardest by the virus.
This report examines the park equity gap in America and our evolving relationship to our parks and public land during this historic crisis, including:
- Parks and Equity - New data from The Trust for Public Land shows major disparities in access to the outdoors. In the 100 most populated cities, neighborhoods where most residents identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods, and similar park space inequities exist in low-income neighborhoods across cities, highlighting the urgent need to center equity in park investment and planning.
- Parks and Health - Parks are widely recognized as critical for health and wellness, reducing anxiety, stress, and depression and improving physical health. And during the pandemic, 57 of the 100 largest U.S. cities used parks for COVID testing, vaccination, or PPE distribution centers, and 70 distributed free meals, underscoring the role of parks as critical public health infrastructure, especially in times of crisis.
- Parks and Climate - From unprecedented wildfires to record hurricanes to off-the-charts heat, the past year has shown that communities don’t have time to wait for the parks and green spaces they need to keep their neighborhoods cool, resilient, and prepared for change.
- Parks and the Economy - Nearly two-thirds of city park departments faced budget cuts in 2020, and the fiscal environment could worsen this year. And yet, as the data shows, communities need more parks, not fewer. Cutting parks budgets actively deprioritizes public health, especially in low-income communities and communities of color, threatening progress for our park systems just when people need them the most.
- Parks and the Future - In too many communities, access to the outdoors is still considered a privilege when it should be a right. Now that we have the data to pinpoint where parks are most needed, the time has come to set a new standard for outdoor access and hold our elected leaders — from congressperson to councilmember — accountable for ensuring quality parks for all.