Millions of Americans lack access to quality parks, report reveals

Years of patchy investment in public parks has left 100 million Americans, including 27 million children, without access to decent nearby green spaces during the coronavirus lockdown, a new report reveals.

Local parks have been a godsend to many people during the pandemic as schools, gyms and walking trails have closed to minimize physical contact and curtail the spread of the virus.

Multiple studies have shown that spending time in green spaces reduces stress and improves physical and psychological wellbeing for adults and children.

But the annual parks score index by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) has revealed wide disparities in access. For instance 98% of residents in Washington, Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, are within a 10-minute walk to a park, compared to less than 50% of those in cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, Mesa, Arizona, and Oklahoma City.

Even within cities, access to green spaces – like access to healthy food, healthcare and good schools – is also inequitable, with low-income households and people of color least likely to live close to parks with basic amenities like bathrooms, playgrounds and basketball courts.

For instance in New York City, where the mayor, Bill de Blasio, last month pledged to open 100 miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists, the places with least per-capita park access include Morris Park in the Bronx and Corona in Queens – which are both predominantly black and brown neigborhoods where coronavirus has hit hard.

As summer edges closer, it’s clear that public parks will play a crucial role in providing safe, affordable leisure spaces for millions of people unable to work or travel. Yet, evidence detailed in the report suggests park services could face drastic cutbacks as local governments face unprecedented economic challenges as a result of the shutdowns.

A survey of 300 park commissioners in mid-April by the National Recreation and Park Association found that about half had already been instructed to slash budgets by 10% to 20% for the current fiscal year.

Nationwide, the parks system took years to recover from budget cuts after the Great Recession that derailed planned improvements and expansions. The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic is expected to be both deeper and longer.

“Park advocates are gearing up for a fight,” said Bill Lee, the senior vice-president at TPL, which is calling on the federal government to provide financial aid for parks in the next recovery bill. “We need our parks, and we will not allow park systems to be collateral damage from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

For environmental justice activists, there is some hope. The unprecedented crisis could enhance appreciation for parks – and encourage a wave of local activism to fight for fair access.

Rue Mapp, the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, said: “This is an opportunity for us to rethink public lands and to get people out of the mindset that nature is somewhere that you have to drive to.”

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