It’s hard to write about the health benefits of parks with any sincerity while processing two more mass shootings, and the fact that one of them was motivated by white nationalism. As the New York Times Editorial Board bluntly observed, we have a white nationalist terrorist problem. In the current context of threatening, anti-immigrant rhetoric and acts of violence against people of color, it feels hollow to say that increasing park access could do anything to help. We know that trauma impacts individual health. And right now, there are a lot of people carrying trauma that no park can heal.
That being said, it is still important to address inequitable park access, because it is yet another symptom of our country’s bigger problem: racism. This racism is institutional and interpersonal. And, as the recent viral commentary from Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. so eloquently states, this racism is us. Wherever racism manifests, it is up to every single one of us to do something about it.
So, here are a few ways that racism shows up in the parks system, along with actions that community health advocates can take to address it.
A new review of 10 US metro areas used cutting-edge analysis to measure green space at the census block level. Its findings support what research has long indicated: people with low incomes, people with low educational attainment, and people of color are more likely to live in areas with fewer park acres per person compared to affluent, white areas. In recent years, reviews in other cities like Denver and Minneapolis found inequities in park access that could be traced to exclusionary zoning and discriminatory policies, as well as stark disparities in park funding between predominantly white communities and communities of color.
These differences in funding often echo historic patterns of disinvestment. For example, Chicago’s park development has been marked with charges of racial discrimination for generations. Even today, its practices are the subject of ongoing tension: “The park district points towards uniform spending across its three city districts—about $30 million each—as defense against allegations of discrimination… But the stark divergence of viewpoints between advocacy groups such as Friends of the Parks and the park district suggests fundamental differences in the end goal—equity versus equality.”1
There’s more to park equity than investments. For African Americans in particular, it’s also about acknowledging the park system’s history of discrimination.
In 2016, a researcher conducted interviews with black residents who lived near a state park in Texas. Their responses revealed common themes about why they avoided going to the park despite its close proximity. These included concerns about the history of racism in the area, how they might be treated by White park-goers, and the omission of African American history at the park site. (The park in question was once a slave-labor plantation, and before that, Native American territory.) Another 2018 paper by the same researcher explores reasons why relatively few people of color visit national parks, and offers this sobering reminder:
“Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many people of color were legally barred from, or segregated at, public recreational sites, including national and state parks. Efforts to integrate recreation areas often resulted in physical violence. Simultaneously, many conservationists who were instrumental in the establishment of national parks expressed little interest in encouraging minority citizens’ visitation.”
A report from the Center for American Progress about inequality in the housing system also outlines examples of how the development of new public parks in some cities displaced people of color from their own communities—not only indirectly through gentrification, but directly through land seizures:
“In the early 1850s, New York City lawmakers used eminent domain to destroy a thriving predominantly Black community in Manhattan, displacing thousands of residents in order to create the public space known today as Central Park. And just 30 years ago, Atlanta lawmakers demolished the United States’ oldest federally subsidized affordable housing project, displacing more than 30,000 predominantly Black families to create Centennial Olympic Park.”
In a City Lab piece summarizing the legacy of racism in America’s parks, the author writes, “It’s a non-starter to talk about ‘access’ without respecting [these] concerns.”
Finally, although record numbers of people are visiting national parks, most of them are still overwhelmingly white. So are the National Park Service (NPS)’s staff and employees of the outdoor and environmental sectors in general. And a 2014 report on the state of diversity in environmental organizations found that, while staff have become more diverse over time, changes in hiring practices aren’t happening quickly enough to keep up with America’s shifting demographics.
In 2013, the NPS created the Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion to address the lack of people of color in national parks, and the NRPA is working to address diversity gaps at state and local levels through its new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan. Attempts at changing hiring practices have been difficult, though, because parks departments are so often underfunded and have few vacant positions to offer. Institutional culture also plays a role. In an article about the NPS’s hiring practices, some former employees said that the agency “struggles to see solutions through the fog of its own overwhelming whiteness.”
However, when it comes to the environmental justice movement, people of color are leading the way. Native American tribes are uniting to put pressure on the federal government to preserve land for parks and national monuments. African Americans are highlighting a long tradition of environmentalism and how the idea of black people not wanting to be outdoors is a “whitewashing” of history. Initiatives like Outdoor Afro and #DiversifyOutdoors are using social media savvy to reach younger, more diverse park enthusiasts.
Investing for Equitable Outcomes: NRPA offers tools and resources to support its 10-Minute Walk campaign, a national movement to increase equitable park access and quality through local policy changes, master planning efforts, and increased funding. The Safe Routes Partnership has joined NRPA in developing the Safe Routes to Parks Activating Communities effort, and provides fact sheets with examples of strategies to advance equity. And a new report, Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems, outlines innovative and replicable models for funding parks in low-income communities and communities of color.
Acknowledging History: Parklands have complex histories that often include injustices against people of color. If the full history of your local park isn’t documented, start there. Reach out to local historians, institutions, and resident leaders to learn about its context. Then, honoring that context could be as simple as installing a new sign or as comprehensive as Greenville, SC’s Unity Park, which unites two formerly segregated parks and, drawing from resident guidance, includes designs devoted to sharing history that most people have never heard before. By recognizing, honoring, and accounting for these histories, it becomes easier to build the relationships, mutual understanding, and trust that leads to meaningful and sustained support for local parks.
Increasing Diverse Representation: Commit to learning from local and national outdoor organizations whose work is already resonating with people of color. How can you incorporate their insights into ongoing campaigns or planning processes in your work? Make an intentional effort to ask communities of color how they feel about their local parks. Their guidance may help your team identify hidden problems or under-used assets. If your organization isn’t in a position to hire new, diverse staff, explore how you can partner with or create opportunities for organizations led by black and brown people.
Each of us has power, even if modest, to take these kinds of actions or at least talk with someone who does. The moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but only if we’re collectively shifting it that way, fractions of degrees at a time.