Welcome to summer! And welcome to your nearby park!
Chances are, during the three months of this season, you will find yourself at a public park at some point. They seem to be everywhere, and they are as diverse as their locations—whether in the Rocky Mountains or a little chunk of greenery in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. You might find yourself hiking a trail through woods, playing basketball at a city playground, having a barbecue in pavilion by a lake, catching a free concert at a bandshell, or simply cutting through a bit of public green space for some shade and fresher air on your way somewhere else.
Chances are, though, if you’re white or have more money, you’ll be closer to a park, the park will be bigger, and it will have nicer amenities, be better taken care of.
According to the Trust for Public Lands, 1 in 3 U.S. Residents do not have a park or green space within a 10-minute walk of home. That means 100 million people, including 28 million children do not have access to parks. The Trust also reports that parks serving a majority of people of color are, on average, half as large and serve nearly five times more people as parks that serve a majority-white population. Parks serving primarily low-income households are, on average, four times smaller than parks that serve a majority of high-income households.
A 2019 study by NPR and the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found that low-income neighborhoods in U.S. cities are more likely to be hotter than the wealthier neighborhoods.
And that’s not just uncomfortable, it can be deadly. Each year, an average of more than 700 people die of heat-related causes. According to NPR, “Heat waves kill more people than any other extreme weather event.” As climate change brings even hotter temperatures, that’s only going to worsen, but the shade trees and open green space of a park can let an area—or people—cool off.
The health benefits of access to parks are broad and widely known. Here’s what the CDC says:
“People who have more access to green environments, such as parks and trails, tend to walk and be more physically active than those with limited access. The closer people live to a park and the safer they feel in the park, the more likely they are to walk or bike to those places and use the park for physical activity….
“… Parks can provide environmental benefits as well, by reducing air and water pollution, protecting areas from inappropriate development, and mitigating urban heat islands. They help people reduce their risk of illness and injury by providing safe spaces where people can play and exercise away from busy streets and commercial zones.”
Parks were, literally, lifesavers during the height of the pandemic, the one protected space of community interaction and exchange that could continue.
There have been isolated calls to privatize parks here and there. ITPI Executive Director Donald Cohen outlines one disastrous sell off of Oklahoma’s Lake Texoma State Park in his (now in paperback!) book The Privatization of Everything. Currently, West Virginia is weighing proposals to commercialize Cacapon Resort State Park to turn it into a “destination campground” by a private developer. Donald Trump put selling off parts of National Parks on the table and rolled back preservation of public lands in dramatic fashion, a story told well by the Center for American Progress, which called Trump “The most anti-nature President in U.S. history.” And a very cranky columnist for Canada’s National Post complained that parks are toilets for half a dozen dogs and should be sold to developers. And, it’s important to mention, some of the public-private partnerships skirt the lines of privatization.
As of 2020, state and local parks faced a $5.6 billion and $60 billion deferred maintenance backlog, respectively. Between the years 2008 and 2019, state parks’ operating expenditures steadily dropped, from more than $3 billion to about $2.5 billion in 2019.
But for the most part, the public supports its public parks. Thing is, though, we need more of them, and they need to be well planned and well maintained. And luckily there are forces that far outweigh the few voices favoring reducing public ownership and control of public lands.
Reimagining the Civic Commons, an initiative that recognizes the power of parks as common spaces that create community among and between us, points out that, “In many cities, public spaces are underfunded, maintenance and programming are overlooked, and public spaces are treated as individual assets rather than a network of related and interconnected places.”
At the height of summer heat last summer, President Biden took important action to increase funding for and access to public parks.
In August, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. It includes providing the National Park Service$250 for conservation efforts to be administered the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), $250 to carry out additional conservation, ecosystem, and habitat restoration projects, $200 million in park deferred maintenance, and $500 million to hire 5,000 more National Park Service employees over the next ten years
Also in August, Biden signed a United States Government Interagency Memorandum of Understanding on Promoting Equitable Access to Nature in Nature-Deprived Communities, which directs numerous federal agencies to work together on a variety of initiatives (the memorandum is worth reading in its entirety, both for the way it lays out the problem, and the efforts it expects agencies to address it).
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) included funds for parks and recreation for populations and households disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which included parks and recreation facilities. The National League of Cities encouraged cities to direct its funds toward getting children outdoors and into nature, and creating opportunities for play during and beyond the school day. ARPA funded nearly $16 million for Michigan state parks, $13 million for parks and recreation improvements in Riverside, California, and $5.5 million for parks and fields for Starkville, Mississippi. Those are just a small fraction of the funds states and local governments set aside for public parks.
But ARPA funds were once-in-a-lifetime cash infusions. What we need is to fully recognize the value of our parks not just by visiting them but by supporting them in every way we can. They are essential public goods–available to all–that need to be in every local, state, and federal budget. It should be a no-brainer. You can say it’s a walk in the park.
Photo: Cape Cod National Sea Shore