Imagine walking down a street on a hot summer day. Your brow is sweating, and your feet are aching. Then, you come across a park. Its shady, friendly solace beckons you. You walk in, pick a bench or nice square of grass to sit on, and enjoy a few minutes of peace in your day.
While everyone should be able to enjoy the peace of a park in their community, that is not always the case. In many ways, the struggle to ensure everyone has access to a park is a microcosm of how our elected officials, community leaders, and citizens are beginning to address and solve inequity in urban areas. It’s not an easy job, and there are many challenges to solving it effectively.
For this blog, we are using our expertise to address why every community can benefit from parks and ensure everyone has access to a park.
Why Does Everyone Need Access to a Park?
The answer to this question has filled pages of books for the past century. We have separated the benefits into four categories: health, financial, environmental, and community wellness benefits.
Health Benefits of Parks
1. Parks are areas for free play and exercise. Parks give people a space to focus on their physical health with little to no cost. Whether you are walking, playing, hiking, running, doing yoga, or anything else, parks allow everyone to improve their physical well-being in a safe, natural area.
2. Parks, and public green space, mitigate the urban heat island effect. Urban areas with more heat-absorbing surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt, have a higher ambient temperature than areas with more greenery, parks, or open space. In cities, the temperature difference can be as much as five between neighborhoods with green space and those without it.
3. Parks also reduce ground-level ozone. Having a higher ambient temperature also traps ozone pollution closer to the ground, which can result in more respiratory problems or asthma for residents. Imagine trying to walk to work, to the store, to your car, and being surrounded by smog and heat. Greenery and parks are a simpler way to negate both effects while beautifying an area.
Environmental Benefits of Parks
1. Parks are an opportunity for animal life to find refuge in urban areas. As we see development matching population growth, parks are a way for displaced animal life to find refuge and maintain ecosystems. Environmental diversity is key to sustainable environments, and parks create a safe place for people and animals to coexist.
2. Interconnected parks create nature highways. As part of protecting animal life, having connected park spaces allows environments not to become isolated. This practice maintains biodiversity. Parks are an excellent opportunity to provide interconnected green spaces that benefit people and wildlife as they move from park to park. Of course, this requires more advanced planning to ensure these connections are not cut or changed.
3. Parks function as natural stormwater controls. As areas become less porous because of roads, concrete, homes, etc., stormwater and runoff must be channeled safely into the ecosystem to prevent flooding and water pollution. Parks, even small ones, can filter and control rainwater to return it safely back to the groundwater systems, rivers, and streams. Nature perfected this process over thousands of years, so that’s hard for even our best stormwater engineers to beat.
Financial Benefits of Parks
1. The presence of parks elevates property values. Many studies have shown that homebuyers will spend more money to be closer to a park than not. Among workers in the tech industry or those who work from home, parks are increasingly valued. Higher home values lead to a larger tax base for communities to draw from.
2. Parks can serve as sites for community events. Parks can serve as areas for concerts, festivals, fairs, craft shows, and more, giving local businesses a chance to make more revenue or draw more tourists and consumers out.
3. Parks also create jobs. Parks are employers as well. Depending on the park's size, they can create jobs and opportunities for people in the community to start their careers in park management, maintenance, or other recreation-focused professions. They can be home to educational and training centers as well.
Community Wellness Benefits of Parks
1. Parks are vital spaces for social and community interaction. Parks create space for people to meet, socialize, and hang out for free. They help develop a sense of community within a community. Parks provide an opportunity to meet and connect for people who may not be guaranteed as much interaction in their home or work life (such as maybe the retired or the self-employed).
2. Well-maintained parks lower crime rates in communities. There is a popular misconception that parks can lead to higher crime rates, but recent research has shown that is not the case. When a park is well-maintained, it encourages positive interactions between community members. It sends a signal that someone is watching over it.
Sometimes the misconception about parks leading to higher crime will lead communities to take steps to discourage crime in parks, such as fencing them in or limiting entry. It turns out, these same steps can have the opposite effect and can deter the positive benefits of parks in general. Not only that, limiting park maintenance or investment in high-crime areas creates a deficit for all community members.
3. A well-maintained municipal park sends the signal to communities that their leaders are investing in their community’s appearance and well-being. This is not a statistically measurable effect, but it can make a difference in a community’s relationship with its leaders and its own identity. Especially in areas that have historically been neglected, focusing on parks can be a first step in reversing historical trends of disinvestment.
Parks and Equity in a Community
All these benefits are great, but communities only truly benefit from parks when everyone in the community has access to parks. This is not always the case. Historically it has been common for affluent, and primarily white, communities to have the largest, most well-maintained parks. How did that happen?
1. Budgeting for parks is challenging. Municipal budgets are tight. Municipalities have many projects to address to keep their constituents happy, from road improvements to facility maintenance and more. Parks are not always the top priority on the list, and it can be a challenge to set aside funding for a park when other concerns have to come first. Likewise, some communities have larger budgets than others because the budgets are sustained by tax revenue. In those situations, there may be money ‘left over’ to support parks maintenance. This leads to some areas (ones that are larger, ones that are wealthier, etc.) having ‘better’ parks than others, and it can be a struggle to find a good middle ground for park development and maintenance.
2. Historically, separate but equal policies prevented parks in non-white areas from being as well developed and maintained. We have looked at historic comprehensive plans that demonstrate how separate but equal was not equal at all. Influential areas were given more funding for parks, were given more designated space for parks, and were also allocated more general greenery throughout their neighborhoods. Parks outside of these communities were smaller, less green, and less maintained.
The impacts of those decisions still reverberate in our communities long past the design of those plans. Today, we see how under-served and under-represented communities tend to have far less greenery in general, including landscaping, parks, and open green space. This contributes to the urban heat island effect and ground-level ozone levels in those areas.
The good news is that more municipalities and governing agencies recognize these historical inequities in green space and combat them by redeveloping parks and reallocating funds. However, the intention to do good is not always enough. This leads us to our next point.
3. The methods to design for communities do not reach all community members. In the past, it was not unusual for design firms to decide what a community needed without consulting the community at all. The experts came in, surveyed, determined, and designed. We see this in parks within communities that do not reflect the community's culture or needs.
In a general design industry culture change, designers and municipal leaders try to meet communities where they are to hear their feedback on community improvements. However, those intentions do not have an equal impact, and frequently it is the members of under-served and under-represented communities that are the least heard. In our experience, we have seen greater success in reaching these communities when the following practices are used:
a. Holding the meeting in an area that is easily accessible to community residents If the meeting is not held in a central, public location within the community (a library, a church, etc.) then residents could have a harder time reaching it or feeling comfortable within that space.
b. Ensuring the meeting place is within the realm of public transit If you are trying to reach a community that does not have access to personal transit, then where you go should be accessible via public transit. Even more helpful, providing tickets or funds to residents who come to the meeting via public transit.
c. Broadcasting the meeting’s purpose and location throughout the community Meet community members where they are so they know what to bring to the meeting. Make connections within the community with leaders that can help bring the community together.
d. Thinking out of the box, to reach people who usually aren’t met Considering community members who don’t work 9-5 on weekdays means you have to plan your meetings to suit their potential work hours. If you are holding a virtual meeting, you could consider people who do not have reliable access to the internet or who may need assistance setting up for the meeting. It takes intentional, detailed preparation to make a community meeting genuinely open to all, and no one solution will work in all situations.
4. Once a park is created, there is far less focus on maintaining it, especially in under-served communities. Some communities don’t have the budget for more intense maintenance than mowing and blowing away leaves. Some communities may be unaware of how damaged parks are affecting their community because there is no proper line of communication (and the available lines are dominated by one group, not all).
Without proper maintenance, a park will eventually serve its community less and less effectively. As we said previously, parks are great for economies. However, if a park is not well-maintained, the opposite happens. A poorly maintained park can deter potential new residents or discourage visitors, and it can also drive down the value of neighboring homes. Outside of economics, having these undermaintained spaces can leave a community feeling neglected. Finally, poorly maintained parks with broken equipment or damaged landscapes can be dangerous to their users.
5. Communities are not well-connected enough to reach the best parks. A few initiatives throughout the landscape architecture and planning disciplines work to ensure that every resident is less than a certain measurable, numerical quantity from a park. Less than a ten-minute walk. Less than a mile. Initiatives like this recognize that everyone should live near a park and have access to it. It reflects the growing desire for community leaders and parks designers to create more parks.
While admirable, these initiatives create equality, but not necessarily equity, because those numbers don’t reflect safe access. By safe access, we mean necessary pedestrian infrastructure that allows community members to access parks safely, such as greenways, sidewalks, crosswalks, and more. We see this disconnect frequently happen when parks plans are made separately from transportation plans (both of which are urban plans usually developed by community leaders and revisited every five or ten years).
Therefore, while a particular neighborhood may be a fifteen-minute walk to a park, that fifteen-minute walk may have no sidewalks or require someone to cross a major road or highway. This is especially common in under-served communities that were historically split by major highways. The same deterrents can also happen in the distance-based model. A lack of public transportation from neighborhoods to parks can also lead to a park being inaccessible.
This lack of connectivity can thwart the best intentions in giving everyone a park close by.
With These Historical Practices in Mind, What Strategies Can Community Leaders Use to Ensure Everyone Has Access to Parks?
1. Inform your fellow leaders of the importance of parks. We began this blog with the reasons parks are important. It takes more than one person to build a park. Many economic, social, and health benefits justify the cost of parks’ construction and maintenance throughout communities. Informing your fellow leaders, or informing your representatives of their importance, can ensure that more parks are funded and built.
2. Develop comprehensive plans that ensure parks are not only well planned but well connected to communities. Comprehensive plans are planning documents that summarize the multiple aspects of a community’s growth. They include plans for transportation design, residential development, economic development, and parks development. They allow community leaders to synchronize initiatives for social and economic growth to uplift and enrich the lives of their citizens. In terms of ensuring that parks are equitable and accessible, comprehensive plans are hard to beat.
3. Ensure that the community’s needs are heard. We touched on this before, but it cannot be said enough to make sure everyone has the parks they need. Too often, communities are overlooked because they could not have a voice at the decisions table. That must change for our communities to change.
Parks are important to a community’s wellness. They provide natural beauty for their human residents and a home for their animal residents. They help reduce pollution and temperatures in urban areas. Parks invite people to go outside, exercise, hang out, and meet each other. They increase home values and create venues for commerce.
Everyone should have access to a park, but that is not always the case. We hope this blog has inspired you to get involved with your local community and engage with decision-makers to see how we can work together to create a future that offers public open space for all.