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If we are successful in preserving and enhancing the greenspace in existing communities, perhaps it'll be one silver lining to this horrific pandemic. (Photo: Flickr/cc)

The Common Sense Case for More Urban Parks

New parks should be built with community needs and biodiversity in mind.

Elizabeth Reid-Wainscoat

We all have our own coping mechanisms to get us through the pandemic. For many of us, a visit to a park offers respite in times of stress. But it's increasingly clear that there aren't enough parks to meet that crucial need—especially in urban neighborhoods.

Whether it's neighborhood open space or a national park getaway, Americans took to the outdoors this year in record numbers. After a drop in attendance due to closures in 2020, the National Park Service saw a summer surge. A Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks heard anecdotes of traffic jams and record-breaking attendance.

When it comes to ensuring equitable access to greenspaces, urban parks can provide a much-needed localized solution.

While investments are needed to preserve and expand our existing national parks, we should also look for opportunities to protect natural areas closer to home. 

When it comes to ensuring equitable access to greenspaces, urban parks can provide a much-needed localized solution. National parks are often far from existing communities. But many neighborhood parks are free, walkable or near public transit, and accessible to visitors with disabilities.

Urban parks also act as stepping stones for wildlife looking for food and shelter along migration paths. Patches of protected open space can serve as vital refuges as wildlife moves between larger, disconnected habitats. Without these critical small-scale habitats, populations can become isolated and at risk of inbreeding and starvation.

In Southern California, the federally endangered Palos Verdes blue butterfly is only found in coastal sage scrub on the Palos Verdes peninsula. Protecting the open space and parklands in this area has been essential to the species' survival.

North of the peninsula in Baldwin Hills, more than 40 bird species, including the California Gnatcatcher and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, also depend on coastal sage scrub for their survival. Community members and school children are restoring native habitat in the hopes of bringing back the Cactus Wren, a bird that hasn't been seen in the area for two decades.

One lesson to be gleaned from this pandemic is that access to open space is essential to communities' physical, mental and environmental health. However, park funding has traditionally been an afterthought when local agencies outline their budget priorities, and the impacts are clear. As of 2021, 100 million people in the U.S.—including 28 million kids—don't have a park within a 10-minute walk from home, according to the Trust for Public Lands' research.

Of the 100 most populated cities included in that analysis, neighborhoods that identify as BIPOC have access to an average of 44% less park acreage than predominately white neighborhoods. When communities of color do have access to a park within a 10-minute walk, it is usually small and over-crowded—not the kind of parks that allow for social distancing and provide shade.

This needs to change. Policymakers should remember that the benefits of nature are a right, not an afterthought.

Cities and counties must prioritize funding to improve and build more local parks. What better way to use federal stimulus dollars than investing in something that helped so many people during a health crisis?

New parks should be built with community needs and biodiversity in mind. Existing parks that lack greenspace should be improved with native plantings to ensure neighborhoods with the least amount of access to open space can still enjoy some benefits of nature. Native landscaping also attracts and helps pollinators like monarch butterflies, a threatened species experiencing significant loss of habitat.

If we are successful in preserving and enhancing the greenspace in existing communities, perhaps it'll be one silver lining to this horrific pandemic. Hiking trails, local parks and urban greenbelts have become the locations of choice to safely meet and socialize.

Even when COVID-19 no longer impacts our daily lives, it's likely that our deepened appreciation of the outdoors will remain. Let's remind our elected leaders to prioritize and protect the natural habitats in our own backyard.


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Elizabeth Reid-Wainscoat

Elizabeth Reid-Wainscoat is a campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Urban Wildlands program.

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