The blog of the Urban Institute
August 13, 2019

How Cities Like Birmingham, Alabama, Are Unlocking New Funding for Parks and Green Space

More than 100 miles of trails in and around Birmingham, Alabama, connect residents to jobs, schools, healthy lifestyles, and each other.

The Red Rock Trail System—a planned 750-mile network of bike infrastructure and pedestrian paths—was spearheaded by the Freshwater Land Trust and funded through a planning grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, federal transportation dollars, community fundraising, and investments from the Jefferson County Department of Health.

This diverse set of partners—including civic, environmental, and health organizations—demonstrates what can happen when a community recognizes the value of trails, parks, and green space and aligns funding to make them a reality.

Our new report explores how communities like Birmingham are thinking creatively about park funding, blending multiple funding sources while forging strong local partnerships with nontraditional stakeholders.

This strategy can unlock new funding streams and secure park allies, enabling park systems with high needs and low resources to make progress on their funding goals. Park systems that serve residents in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color—groups that have faced historical barriers to accessing high-quality parks—can especially benefit from this approach.

Connecting parks to social benefits can generate new support

Many Americans agree that parks bring significant benefits to their communities, and mayors continue to prioritize parks and recreation.

Evidence also shows that access to high-quality parks can improve physical and mental health, cognitive development, social cohesion, and public safety.

Yet many park systems struggle to secure sufficient, sustainable funding for operations and maintenance, and in lean financial times, park budgets are among the first to be cut.

Recognizing the disconnect between funding and benefits, some jurisdictions are looking at ways to link the benefits of parks directly or indirectly to funding from other agencies and sectors through partnerships.

Take, for example, the well-understood potential of parks to house green infrastructure that provides native plant habitats, mitigates pollution, improves water quality, and supports stormwater management. In some communities, water departments and utilities have formed a symbiotic relationship with local parks by placing green infrastructure in parks, enhancing capital assets, providing opportunities for public education, and sharing operations and maintenance costs.

Better evidence can lead to better funding

Efforts to identify and track the social impacts of parks on nearby residents are not common. These underresearched areas include school attendance, public safety, and measures of inclusion and well-being for nearby residents.

When funders draw links between social benefits and parks, they tend to do so implicitly (guided by beliefs that high-quality parks will lead to certain outcomes) rather than requiring evidence. For some parks, these beliefs may be enough to achieve financial security, particularly if the funder makes a long-term commitment.

But for other communities, studies that demonstrate the local impact of parks on social outcomes can provide convincing evidence that parks are good investments for funders involved in certain issue areas (e.g., a local health department or a community foundation focused on early childhood development).

An evidence-driven “business case” argument, as opposed to a general argument appealing to charity, may be more effective at securing park funding from nontraditional partners. 

How can parks start collecting evidence?

Park agencies can integrate evaluation into projects that create new parks, expand or improve existing parks, or roll out new park programming. Those involved should start by listing the desired outcomes from a given investment or project.

Once this is laid out, park systems and their partners can measure and report on impacts over time. Measurement could be as simple as understanding the status quo for residents before the park against their outcomes after the park. For a more rigorous evaluation, the outcomes of park-adjacent residents could be compared against a comparison group (e.g., other communities).

Evaluations don’t need to be complex to deliver valuable insights. As the evaluator of the equitable development plan for the 11th Street Bridge Park project in Washington, DC, colleagues at the Urban Institute created an evaluation framework that resonates with local stakeholders’ priorities and communicates implementation progress.   

With evidence in hand, park leaders and community partners can make the case that parks are worth funding and advance their outcomes of interest. In Birmingham, the Red Rock Trail System master plan (PDF) captures economic, health, environment, and community benefits, which helps align funding for the park system.

If, for instance, evidence can show that parks reduce (not just displace) crime, boost school attendance and graduation rates, and decrease avoidable hospital admissions, parks can be considered tools in crime prevention, education, and health systems. When these connections are made, they can unlock new funding sources for parks and their communities.

Two women walk on the Rotary Trail in Birmingham, Alabama, part of the Red Rock Trail System. Photo courtesy of the Freshwater Land Trust.

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