I was a “free-range” kid before that term existed. In the rural Southeast, neighbors’ homes lay miles beyond pastures and tracts of forest. I was a serial trespasser on other folks’ property, but we were all spread so far apart that no one seemed to notice. I followed cow paths to creeks and swam in them. I discovered small clearings and built forts in them. During summers, I was outside—usually unsupervised and often alone—between nearly every meal. There were only three family rules for being outside: one, when the sun is straight overhead, come home for lunch; two, when the sun starts to set, come home for dinner; and three, don’t mess with poisonous snakes.
I advocate for parks today partly because of nostalgia for growing up this way. But there’s also a more urgent reason to support parks: they make our communities healthier. In the growing #FindYourPark and Park Rx movements, people across the country are recognizing parks’ benefits for health and well-being:
But not everyone has equitable access to these benefits. People who live in low-income communities and communities of color are less likely than those living in majority white neighborhoods to have a park, playground, or other exercise facility nearby. All too often, vulnerable communities have also been sited—by design or disinvestment—in places with lower air quality, less tree cover, and less access to healthy food or safe places to be physically active. These include locations near highways, industrial zones, and brownfields. In places with limited zoning, like Houston, these patterns are especially stark. Parks that do exist in vulnerable communities are routinely under-resourced, lacking restrooms, drinking water, or safe lighting. And if someone can’t afford a personal vehicle and doesn’t have access to public transportation, then traveling to parks or healthier place is out of reach.
These inequities will likely increase if the proposed 2018 federal budget is passed. Cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation, and the National Park Service, among many others, will impact funding for clean air and water, healthy food, disease prevention, public transportation, walking, biking, and parks—all strategies that we know improve community health.
That is why park advocates’ work is more important now than ever. That is why I no longer take my free-range childhood or local, state, and national parks for granted. And that is why this spring, it’s not enough to find our parks and enjoy them—we must work to ensure that everyone, regardless of where they live or who they are, has that same opportunity.