Equity and the Commons: The Importance of Fair Access to Public Green Spaces

Posted on June 20, 2024

Graphic of a city skyline with a pinkish, foggy-looking sky.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Mary King, a writer and public space researcher based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She works for Envisio. Connect with Mary on LinkedIn!

What I’m working on: An essay and interview series that explores public spaces in cities!

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Public green spaces are lifelines in an era of increasing climate disasters. It’s taken a while, but in the last decade there has been a mainstream shift toward seeing public green spaces as critical tools in the fight against climate change, with major publications like Bloomberg releasing resources on treating common public space as critical pieces of city infrastructure. 

Parks and public green space have a huge impact on climate-change-related wellness. Data on green space in cities is clear: prioritizing green space over concrete, parking lots, and roads is one of the most effective ways to lower temperatures in a city. Parks reduce heat-related death and injury, and contribute to the overall lowering of greenhouse gas emissions of a city. 


The Role of Public City Space in Climate Disasters

Despite this clear data, there is a real issue of inequity in terms of access to green space in North America. Trust for Public Land found that 1 in 3 people in the United States—including 28 million children—do not have access to a park or green space within a 10-minute walk from their home. According to Forest Tree Equity Score, lower-income American urban neighborhoods have on average 26% less tree coverage than their wealthier neighbors, and score higher on average Fahrenheit temperatures—up to a stunning 6 degrees warmer. And on a day where the rest of a city is already reaching record-breaking high temperatures, a 6-degree increase (in a poor neighborhood that may also not have access to AC, for instance) can be quite literally a matter of life or death. 

In an era of rapid climate change, access to public green spaces is a matter of justice. Socioeconomic disparities, geographical inequities, and systemic barriers often mean that marginalized communities are left without the support they need in times of crisis.

The good news is that local governments can prioritize parks as pieces of critical disaster infrastructure, by seeing them as part of the fight against deadly climate impact. 


Local Governments and Public Green Spaces

I’ve talked before about how local governments are in a unique position to make effective climate action plans due to their ability to mobilize collective action while still remaining relevant on an individualized level. And the same goes for their ability to develop comprehensive strategies to ensure fair access to public spaces.

Cities have begun to recognize that increasing tree canopy (Philadelphia) and increasing everyone’s access to public park space (Bloomington) is a matter of equity, particularly when it comes to climate change. 

One of the biggest mistakes policy people and leaders can make is seeing public space as neutral, or irrelevant, terrain—particularly as we reach new temperatures and climate-related crises. It’s a similar line of thinking that causes cities to leave areas underdeveloped in terms of green space—out of an urge to avoid a problem, or even to discourage crime. 

But these are backward ways of thinking about parks. Green spaces have been positively linked to crime reduction by multiple peer reviewed studies, and this is data that has been shown for decades. Data also shows that when there are infrastructure investments and resources that create healthy opportunities for people, people tend to use them. 

Investing in parks can turn a pressure-cooker situation, both literally and metaphorically, into a cooler place. 


Get Started: Three Local Government Strategies for Public Green Spaces

  • Community engagement. Involving diverse community members in planning and decision-making processes ensures that the unique needs of different groups are considered. This was a major tactic of Bloomington, Minn. during their massive Park System Master Plan process. They engaged with folks online, in person, through workshops, and more. Feedback and opinions were collected from hundreds of individuals during community conversations held in nine parks. Based on public feedback, they discussed potential changes to the nine parks and created preliminary sketches to conceptualize the new designs—and showed the results of their community engagement on their public dashboard.
  • Setting clear goals to facilitate buy-in. The City of West Hollywood is an example of another community that was able to push forward green infrastructure as a climate action, and they’ve done it by setting clear, measurable performance goals. On their dashboard, they’re very explicit about the steps required in their Urban Forest Management Plan, and the areas to prioritize based on data-driven health benefits from shade.
  • When in doubt, prioritize based on vulnerability. If you aren’t sure where to start in your park revamp, prioritize starting with projects that are already suffering from the urban heat island effect. A smartly planned park can help mitigate the negative impact of more than just heat, too—parks can also help with flooding and irrigation issues. Community gardens, walkable spaces, and shade need to be made a priority for isolated, at-risk neighborhoods. 


Equitable Access To The Commons

On Nov. 21, 2023, the Biden-Harris administration announced approximately $2 billion of funding via the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to support community-driven projects that would strengthen climate resilience. This fund is definitely timely, as the UN and scientists all over the world are warning that the years ahead will involve worse instances of extreme weather-related disasters, more wildfires, more flooding, and, of course, an increase to heat-related injuries and death as the urban heat island effect continues to worsen. 

Treating public green space as “commons” to be shared and improved for the betterment of all, instead of as commodities, is an important thinking shift toward supporting communities before, during, and after climate emergencies. Ensuring that these commons are actually accessible to all, particularly the most vulnerable, requires proactive and inclusive strategies from local governments.

Green spaces are not passive entities in a city for only certain demographics to enjoy—they are actively improving life and health in the struggle against the worst impacts of climate change. By treating parks as critical infrastructure improvements that must remain accessible and usable, local governments can avoid the climate related tragedies in otherwise underserved areas.

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