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Prioritizing Equity in Planning (and Paying for) City Parks

By Catherine Nagel, originally published: NextCity.

It has been said that no great city is truly great unless it has great parks. When we think of our nation’s leading cities, it is the iconic parks — Central Park in New York, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Millennium Park in Chicago, Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Griffith Park in Los Angeles and Boston Common — that leap to mind. Beyond these singular parks, however, a broader view of city park “systems” reveals a more nuanced portrait, one tinted by inequity in funding and facilities.

Thousands of lesser-known neighborhood parks are the backbone of America’s park system. Often, they are the nearest — and sometimes the only — natural environment available for urban communities. Yet, despite their importance, public agencies struggle to meet the basic budgetary maintenance and programming needs of these parks. All too often, this equity imbalance falls along racial and economic lines.

Over the past several decades, the funding landscape for urban parks has changed dramatically through public-private partnerships that are taking on a greater role in park design, programming and operations. While philanthropic and civic sector investments have helped fill a growing need for outdoor recreation opportunities, especially in downtown areas, similar investment from public and non-traditional sources is needed, as well. Continue reading

Is Your Park System Fair?

Probably not. Maybe in the historically ethnic sections of town too many parks have broken-down playgrounds or a few too many weeds. Maybe over the past couple of years, dollars have been flowing heavily to the same few parts of town. If so, your city wouldn’t be alone in this. Many places are trying to do better. In Minneapolis, this has meant a revamped approach to park projects.

Since there is never quite enough funding to go around, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board’s new 20 Year Neighborhood Park Plan includes a rigorous system to prioritize capital investment and large rehabilitation projects for neighborhood parks. The system is uniquely point-based, and also stands out in its emphasis on racial and economic equity. Continue reading

Change the Culture and the Rest Will Follow: Park Departments and Equity

If a Google search of parks and equity was your only measure of who is taking on this issue, it would seem that New York is miles ahead of other cities, as it appears over and over in the search results. But in fact, New York is one of many major cities in the US focusing on the equity issue as best as they can.

Norm Krumholz, Cleveland city planner in the 1970s, was one of the first to define “equity planning,” which he described this way: “You keep your eye on who gets helped and who gets hurt and for the people who usually get hurt – you try to make sure they don’t get hurt as bad.”

Who gets helped and who gets hurt in a city may best be seen through the lens of our public parks – a potent symbol of a city’s equity balance.  In this ongoing struggle, two park agencies, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and Portland (OR) Parks and Recreation, have hired staff specifically to address equity.  Art Hendricks is the Equity and Inclusion Director for Portland Parks & Recreation, and Michelle Kellogg is the Equity and Inclusion Project Manager for MPRB.  Continue reading

Beyond Fairness: New Strategies for Achieving Equity in City Parks

Despite widespread acceptance regarding the value of city parks, we have surprisingly few ways to measure their individual and collective success. The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore Index is one tool that measures how well the 75 largest cities are meeting their park needs. The City Parks Project’s green access and equity maps for Los Angeles Equity1also look to capture equitable access to parks. These and other efforts are finding ways to measure access and investment to help guide city spending. But equity is more than access and even more than spending.

At a time when cities are looking to new models for operating their parks more equitably and efficiently, more effective tools and data are needed to make the case for strategic investment.  In particular, making the case for equity is important since new strategies are often employed in those neighborhoods where there is a strong voice, potential partners and a perceived greater chance of success, leaving neighborhoods that lack resources – and clout – behind.  Continue reading