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Climate and Environment

Parks Are Important For Health And Climate, But Cities Aren't Spending Enough On Them, A New Report Says

The starting point for the Park to Playa Trail just feet away from the intersection of Presidio Drive and Stocker Street. It's a dusty small trail surrounded by some trees.
The starting point for the Park to Playa Trail just feet away from the intersection of Presidio Drive and Stocker Street.
(Chava Sanchez
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If you love a good park, Irvine is the place to be: 89% of Irvine residents live within a 10-minute walk to a park, according to a new report by the national non-profit Trust for Public Land. Its annual report, which ranks park systems in the 100 biggest U.S. cities, is considered the gold standard for park evaluations.

But that kind of park access is not the case for many southern California cities. Out of the 16 California cities included in the ranking, only one —Irvine — ranked in the top 10 (number 8, to be more precise). L.A. ranked 78. Santa Ana came in at a dismal 95. Long Beach was ranked 41st, Anaheim ranked 64th and Riverside ranked 75th.

According to the report, neighborhoods where most residents are people of color have 43% less park space than predominantly white neighborhoods.

Trust for Public Land used parks department data from each city to analyze the state of parks through five lenses:

  • Park equity compares per capita park space and whether parks are within a 10-minute walk in communities of color vs. white communities and in low-income neighborhoods vs. high income neighborhoods. Park systems score higher if disparities are low or non-existent.
  • Park access measures the percentage of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park.
  • Park acreage is based on a city’s median park size and the percentage of city area dedicated to parks.
  • Park investment measures park spending per resident.
  • Park amenities assesses the availability of six popular park features: basketball hoops, off-leash dog parks, playgrounds, “splash pads” and other water play structures, recreation and senior centers, and restrooms.
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Parks are increasingly being seen as essential infrastructure to defend against the effects of climate change. Centering equity in parks investment is essential, said Guillermo Rodriguez, the Trust for Public Land’s California director.

He said that not only do low-income neighborhoods of color have far less park space than predominantly white and wealthy areas, but communities of color also tend to use parks much more than those who live in neighborhoods with more park access.

“That's a really telling data point where policymakers really need to think about park investments and prioritize those neighborhoods that really need more space,” Rodriguez said. “These cities can do so much better. But unfortunately, not everyone has access to a local park.”

And as the climate crisis makes summers hotter, longer and more dangerous and causes less frequent, but more extreme storms and flooding, parks play a pivotal role in addressing some of these effects, he said.

“We need to protect our most vulnerable and parks and open space and our schools could be really great examples of demonstrating how you can have access, equity and address and mitigate extreme heat in California, for example,” Rodriguez said.

He says those investments can — and should — be creative. Part of Irvine’s success has been an innovative partnership with a local school district to open school playground to the public after hours and on weekends. L.A. county has invested in using parks to help capture stormwater to bolster water supplies, an important resilience tactic in the face of unprecedented drought.

“We can put resources today in these neighborhoods through the form of natural climate solutions,” Rodriguez said. “It sounds fancy, but it's trees. It's bioswales. It's putting in green space, tearing up asphalt, and putting in pervious pavement — so many very simple, cost-effective things that cities and the state of California can invest in to reduce heat, increase carbon sequestration.”

Trees and green space also provide shade, cool neighborhoods and improve air quality, he said.

But the report found that city spending on parks per resident has declined in most Southern California cities since last year. That’s why the Trust for Public Land and other advocates are encouraging additional park investments at the city, county, and state level. With California’s massive budget surplus, they’re calling for Gov. Gavin Newsom to add $1 billion for parks improvement over two years as the Legislature revises the budget this month, Rodriguez said.

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“It’s really redefining that nature-based solutions are just as important as energy efficiency, as investing in public transit to get personal cars off the road,” Rodriguez said. “But they have a faster return on investment when you put them into communities of color. And you can really address that equity issue when it comes to climate justice.”

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