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Cities are beginning to use data to allocate funding to parks in low-income and blighted neighborhoods that haven't seen investment for years, a new report found.
Living close to a park has proven health benefits, including better sleep, lower levels of stress and reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease. Low-income residents are less likely to reap those rewards, thanks to a lack of green space in their neighborhoods. But cities are beginning to address that disparity, new research from the nonprofit City Parks Alliance found.
“To ensure more equitable funding approaches and to address the backlog created by historic disinvestment, a number of cities are beginning to establish data-driven equity criteria to guide park investment,” says the report, released on Tuesday. “Through thoughtful data analysis, combined with proactive community engagement, these cities are assessing community needs and interests and using that assessment to design new parks and improve and program existing parks.”
The report includes case studies from Los Angeles County and six cities—San Francisco, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—each detailing how staff used data to direct resources to parks in low-income and blighted areas that had been overlooked for years. The move toward more equitable park systems is an emerging trend in city administration, said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, a national membership organization for urban park systems.
“The years of disinvestment in so many urban communities across the country has really taken a toll on how communities are actually able to access quality park and recreation opportunities, so it’s been something that I think people have been aware of,” she said. “But we have really seen in the past four years or so an attempt to change the way that funding is allocated to make sure that all neighborhoods, particularly those that have seen disinvestment in the past, are receiving adequate and equitable funding.”
Tactics vary from place to place, but each municipality highlighted in the report relied on data to make impartial decisions about funding. During the budget process in Detroit, for example, city officials use multiple data points—including housing prices, rates of childhood obesity, minority households, foreclosure rates and high rates of violent crime—to identify parks in every corner of the city that haven’t seen capital improvements in years, sometimes decades. Likewise, in Minneapolis, officials enacted a 20-year plan to close the parks funding gap between neighborhoods, using racial and economic equity data to determine the distribution of funds.
The use of data is crucial, Nagel said, because it’s factual and nonpartisan, important factors in budget deliberations where elected officials can choose to play politics with tax dollars.
“It’s transparent. Everyone can see it,” she said. “I think it’s uncovering information that people just didn’t have access to in the past, which is opening up the doors for more conversation on how to address a range of issues.”
That basis also ensures that programs put in place can survive beyond one administration or budget cycle, she said. In New York City, for example, officials partnered with the public health program at the City University of New York to measure the positive impact of park investments on various health metrics. That work allows them to demonstrate a tangible return on the use of tax dollars, she said.
“These practices aren’t just a one-time incident. They’re really being implemented and sustained over the long term,” she said. “You have a baseline and you can measure the progress over time, and I think that’s what every city official and citizens are looking for—how to best and most effectively use limited public funds for the greatest good.”
Each of the strategies outlined in the report is replicable and realistic for smaller cities or municipalities to attempt because so much of the data is already publicly available, Nagel said.
“We’re beginning to see interest from small- and mid-sized cities, and I think that trend will continue,” she said. “Cities are looking holistically at their park and recreation systems and understanding them in the context of not only providing places for kids to play, but as tools to help address multiple challenges simultaneously.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.