Parks for All

"Park equity" gets a new focus as cities tackle inequality in all facets of public life.
by | September 2019
India Basin in San Francisco (Flickr/Liz Henry)

Five years ago, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department acquired a 5-acre brownfield property at India Basin, the city’s easternmost point abutting the bay. It’s a dusty, vacant strip of land, where the rusting remnants of a derelict boat yard protrude out onto scenic waterfront alongside warehouses and fields of yellowed grass. By 2025, however, that space will undergo a $125 million renovation, becoming—in the words of the department’s General Manager Phil Ginsburg—“an equitable, culturally relevant and beautiful waterfront park” connecting nearly 2 miles of shoreline near a low-income black neighborhood.

Ginsburg calls India Basin “one of the most important park projects in modern San Francisco history.” It’s part of a growing national movement for “park equity” or “reasonably equal access to quality parks,” as described in a July report from City Parks Alliance and the Urban Institute. The idea is getting a renewed focus as equity in general moves to the forefront of most cities’ agendas. Many are recognizing that poor and minority communities often lack parks, especially ones that are well-maintained with quality amenities and programming. The report notes that parks in high-poverty neighborhoods tend to be smaller and have more litter.

To address this inequity, several municipal governments are using public data to identify where parks need to be built or improved, all while endeavoring to let neighborhoods take the lead in creating these green spaces.

“We’re actually hiring people from this community to be part of the planning of this park project at an executive level,” Ginsburg says of India Basin. “We’re not just asking them to show up at a community meeting. The idea is to do something special for this neighborhood, and have it be a space where the community that lives there now feels welcome—like this was built by and for them.”

The report identifies myriad ways other cities are making this a priority. Los Angeles created a citywide property tax assessment district bringing in $25 million annually for youth infrastructure, including parks. The Red Rock Trail System in and around Birmingham, Ala., used federal grants and county funds to build 100 miles of trails connecting poor and affluent communities to recreational opportunities. Minneapolis crafted a six-year capital improvement plan featuring parks planning with an equity framework.

And Miami-Dade County, Fla., is analyzing how parks benefit specific groups of people. “In conducting community outreach,” the report explains, “Miami-Dade County and the city of Brownsville, Texas, have included engagement strategies in Spanish to ensure the Latinx populations were included in the process and to help determine where investments for parks were being directed.” Seattle took a similar approach in preparing a gap analysis report while drafting its comprehensive plan.

Park equity aims to promote equity in mental and physical health, but cities also see this as an economic issue. “The creation and maintenance of strong park systems can encourage economic prosperity,” the report finds, “particularly in low-income or disinvested communities, which might have higher vacancy rates and a less stable affordable housing stock. Infusing vibrancy back into public spaces transforms the perception of place and can become a strategy for wealth building for existing residents and businesses.”

The report’s authors caution against “green gentrification,” wherein the creation of more and better parks contributes to pricing residents out of their neighborhoods. But planners can adopt the best practices of building parks on blighted or neglected lots, making sure construction and upgrades align with affordable housing goals, and, more than anything else, letting the needs of area residents guide the process.

In the meantime, the India Basin project moves forward. Construction won’t start until 2021, but in June the Recreation and Parks Department, the Trust for Public Land and the San Francisco Parks Alliance invited public input on the park’s design.

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer