Why Black communities’ lack of parks is an environmental justice issue

Since the Covid-19 pandemic emerged more than 20 months ago, green spaces in the nation’s cities have become valuable outdoor refuges, places to escape the tedium of life surrounded by four walls.

As the science around how the disease spreads has become clearer, and the nation’s collective mental health plummeted after being stuck at home for months, people were encouraged to spend a little time outside.

For so many people, that meant going to local parks. The only problem, there’s a serious lack of racial equality when it comes to parks and other greenspaces in U.S. cities. Newly introduced legislation in Congress aims to change that.

“This bill will increase equitable access to parks in low-income communities and communities of color that do not typically have easy access to nature,” said Damon Nagami of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy group based in New York City. “Reading under a tree, watching a bee pollinate flowers, and doing cartwheels on the grass should not be limited to more affluent communities. Increasing green space in urban neighborhoods will make it possible for residents to engage in recreational activities that improve their health, while mitigating the effects of climate change, removing pollutants from the air, and reducing the effects of urban heat islands.”

The amount of greenspace allocated by U.S. cities is about 15% on average, according to a 2021 report by the Trust for Public Land, an environmental nonprofit based in San Francisco. In Black-majority cities, which are more abundant in the South, the amount of greenspace available in many cities drops to single digits.

For example, just 3% of Baton Rouge’s metropolitan area is designated parkland, according to the Trust’s report. In Memphis, the number is 5% and in Atlanta it’s 6%. In New Orleans, another Black-majority city, the amount of parkland is over 25%.

However, even within white-majority cities, communities of color still face a dangerous disparity.

In the 100 most populated cities, neighborhoods where most residents identify as Black, Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods, noted the report.

In general, parks serving majority people of color are about half as large as those serving white populations: 45 acres compared to 87 acres, said the report. They also serve approximately five times as many people as the larger and whiter parks. In low income areas, parks are, on average, about a three-quarters smaller than those in high-income communities.

Environmental justice, although a pressing concern for generations, is the latest racially divisive issue to have emerged from the pandemic. 

“The collective traumas of the past year—from the devastating toll of the pandemic to the horrific killing of George Floyd—have reverberated through American society, prompting widespread attention and action on racialized violence, unequal access to health care, and economic stress,” said Ronda Chapman, equity director at the Trust for Public Land. “They have also underscored the urgent need for environmental justice and park equity.”

The new bill, reintroduced into Congress in late September after dying in 2020, is part of the major push for racial equality coming out of Congress and the White House, including President Biden’s hotly debated and racially progressive infrastructure agenda.

In addition to offering grants that will allow cities to expand parkland in urban neighborhoods and communities, the legislation is designed to empower underserved communities and youth while also providing employment and job training.

But the benefits of more parkland don’t end with racial equity.

Trees also happen to be nature’s cooling centers. Surfaces not in direct sunlight can be 45 degrees cooler, while air can be between 2 and 9 degrees cooler in areas with canopy cover, according to an accompanying report from the Trust that cited Environmental Protection Agency data.

The report also pointed out that parks can have a cooling effect up a half a mile away from their borders, while also helping cut emissions from inner-city pollution.

Georgia’s senior U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff is the only southern member of Congress to support the bill.

You can see how your city parkland compares using this ranking of the 100 most populated cities in the country.  

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