Prioritizing Access to Parks and Open Space

Public parks and open spaces are critical—and beloved—components of communities. Studies have shown they improve environmental sustainability and resilience, physical health, community connection, and mental well-being. However, not everyone has easy access to high-quality park space near their home, resulting in myriad inequitable outcomes.

The role of parks as critical community infrastructure has become even more clear as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. During this period of physical distancing, parks, trails, streets closed to automobiles, and public plazas have been some of the only places allowing people to exercise, relax, play, or reach key destinations—crucial activities for lowering stress levels, reducing symptoms of depression, and maintaining physical health.

The pandemic has also highlighted the longstanding reality that disparities in park and trail access and quality reflect patterns of segregation based on race, income level, and other demographic factors. Investing in parks in areas previously lacking in sufficient open space can help prevent chronic illnesses and reduce symptoms of depression, and the benefits of exposure to green spaces are often amplified in lower-income communities. The need to invest in a high-quality public realm for all is critical.

ULI members, particularly private-sector developers, play a major role in improving access to open space—for example, through creating parks in new developments or investing in park maintenance for existing parks located near developments. Developers can see the benefits of their investments through faster project approvals, widespread community support, and increased project value.

ULI’s ongoing work on enhancing equitable access to parks and open space, as a partner in 10 Minute Walk, is focused on providing tools to both the private and public sectors to improve park systems across the country. At the heart of this work is technical assistance to communities through ULI’s Advisory Services program and national study visits, led by staff from the Building Healthy Places and Urban Resilience teams.

During the second half of 2019 and the first two months of 2020, ULI brought experts from across the country to Austin, Texas; Camden, New Jersey; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Los Angeles, California; Kansas City, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; and Lynnwood, Washington. More than 50 members and partners made meaningful contributions to parks departments and other civics agencies by providing recommendations on topics ranging from funding for the redevelopment of a landfill to serve as a waterfront park to creation of an equitable citywide park system.

In June 2020, the Building Healthy Places team released two reports focused on creative ways to increase access to high-quality parks in communities. Successful Partnerships for Parks: Collaborative Approaches to Advance Equitable Access to Open Space explores case studies and examples of partnerships to support equitable park development and operations, and distills lessons learned from these projects, to inform potential partnership arrangements. Pavement to Parks: Transforming Spaces for Cars into Places for People presents stories of cities and organizations that have worked to transform or enhance spaces formerly dedicated to cars into parks and open spaces that support recreation, community engagement, sustainability and resilience, and neighborhood connectivity and revitalization. Particularly in communities where land for new parks is scarce, these underused spaces provide opportunities to expand the number of parks and amount of open space.

In fiscal year 2021 and beyond, ULI will continue to focus on encouraging partnerships among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to improve equitable access to parks and open space through additional technical assistance, district council partnerships, and research. A new 10 Principles report—10 Principles for Enhancing Equitable Access to Parks—and a report focused on defining and measuring the quality of parks and park systems will be released in early 2021.

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