The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of public space, demonstrating that it’s more than a “nice to have” amenity; it is a critical community asset. Parks and green spaces have significant physical, mental, social, and environmental benefits, and there are several national initiatives to improve access to and the availability of park resources.
On Election Day 2020, 11 states passed ballots approving $3.7 billion of new funding for parks, conservation, and green space. This funding demonstrates a growing appreciation for public space and provides needed resources for activities that are typically underfunded.
In past economic downturns, parks and recreation departments have been among the first to see widespread budget cuts. But throughout the pandemic, agency leaders have been nimble and creative in cobbling together resources to combat financial constraints and limited staffing. They have leaned on developing partnerships with other public agencies, seeking private and philanthropic support, and liaising with communities as a strategy for keeping parks and green spaces funded.
Despite these efforts, not everyone has access to quality parks. Stakeholders have a laundry list of goals to accomplish with the new funding, but ensuring equity is at the center of new and existing initiatives will help that funding go even further. As local parks and recreation leaders, community organizations, and other agencies brainstorm how to use the new funding, they should consider the following five principles to achieve more equitable outcomes for users and strengthen park investments.
Understand the community’s prioritiesA locality’s demographics can determine how spaces are used and if the built environment reflects the community’s interests and priorities. When the residents are not engaged in the process of developing or programming, parks and green spaces may be underutilized or misused. Centering residents as decisionmakers in how funding is used can be spur economic development and ensure more equity. In some cases, community members act as stewards of the project by sustaining and maintaining infrastructure. By employing equitable funding strategies and engaging residents early in the process, policymakers can help create more park equity in historically low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Recognize the legacy of segregationParks and green spaces were not always open for all. The legacies of slavery, racial violence, redlining, and other forms of oppression have barred people of color, specifically Black Americans, from accessing public space. This inequity continues to surface through “not in my backyard” mindsets, exclusionary zoning, and other discriminatory practices whereby people of color lack the same quality of amenities as white people. National parks surveys show only 2 percent of visitors are Black, and fewer than 5 percent were Latinx and Asian Americans. Local leaders need to examine how racist trends have permeated their public space and limited equal access. To address inequities, they must consider how to combat the narratives about the space and who can use it by elevating the experiences of those who have been left out.
Fund park operations and maintenance, not just developmentAlthough the development of parks and green spaces is mostly funded through traditional funding sources, including dedicated taxes and appropriations, localities are often forced to be innovative to find funding for park operations and maintenance, leading many to fall into disrepair after years of use. As numerous examples demonstrate, parks in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have poorer facilities or be less maintained. During the pandemic, there has been an increase in the use of park systems, especially those in urban areas. Taking care of new and existing assets can increase the sustainability of the infrastructure and improve the quality of parks in underresourced neighborhoods.
Keep park programming affordablePark funding goes beyond development and operations and maintenance, as leaders also need to fund programming to engage the diversity of community members through free or low-cost equipment, events, and classes. Parks can foster diverse spaces that benefit the people who need them the most. The California Parks & Recreation Society is investing in outdoor infrastructure and programming to help build a wellness culture during the pandemic. The parks group has partnered with the National Fitness Campaign to provide grants for improving access to fitness using green spaces. This initiative and others like it allow people to continue accessing parks, with few or no cost barriers.
Hire and retain adequate staffing for parksDuring the pandemic, surveys by the National Recreation and Park Association showed that the decreased revenue to parks resulted in several staffing cuts and layoffs of part-time and seasonal staff. These professionals are critical to the operations of parks, maintenance of infrastructure, and programming efforts. As outdoor spaces remain essential, there will be growing demands to keep them staffed despite fiscal constraints. With the new funding available, local leaders will need to ensure park spaces are adequately staffed.
Several states that passed ballot measures in the 2020 general election have committed to increasing opportunities for underresourced areas, communities of color, refugees and immigrants, people with disabilities, and the poorest residents. As Carol Coletta, president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership, explained at a recent conference, “Equity does not sit in opposition to a thriving, appealing city. It is central to it.” With the additional funding for parks and recreation, policymakers can ensure equity is at the center of new and existing initiatives to make the most of the new funding and let their cities thrive.