Raquetta Dotley looks out of her South Chattanooga apartment and sighs as she thinks about her small neighborhood park shoehorned in next to a cellulose plant and a biofuels factory that processes used grease and lard into animal feed.
Four miles away across the Tennessee River, however, lies the meticulously maintained Coolidge Park, with its stone paver walking paths, fountains and an antique carousel. One key difference between the two areas? Dotley’s neighborhood is 90% Black, while the two neighborhoods encompassing Coolidge Park are 75% and 96.5% white, according to Census data.
It’s hard, Dotley says, to miss the message her community receives.
“It draws a hard line, like we’re not supposed to be over there because they didn’t design that for us in the first place,” said Dotley, 38. “We can get in our cars and drive a mile and see these nice parks on this river. You start to ask, ‘is this intentional,’ ask ‘why there was more investment into that particular place than our area?'”
It’s a pattern repeated across the United States, where the nicest parks tend to be in the wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods, according to a new study by the nonprofit land-access advocacy group Trust for Public Land. Nationwide, parks serving primarily nonwhite populations are half the size of parks serving majority white populations, and are five times more crowded, the report found. And parks serving majority low-income households are, on average, four times smaller and four times more crowded than parks serving wealthy neighborhoods.
While health experts have long called for Black and Latino neighborhoods to have better access to parks and outdoor recreation opportunities, the coronavirus pandemic has shined a spotlight on the interlocking health challenges people living there face — challenges exacerbated by the lack of parks in which to exercise, get fresh air and even reset sleep rhythms.
Experts say the lack of access to parks means people living in dense, urban areas have a harder time getting as much physical exercise as recommended, and are missing out on equally important mental health wellness opportunities. Black and Hispanic Americans also tend to have higher rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease because they are less likely to go to the doctor or have health insurance, and their overall health is poorer due to systemic poverty.
Those pre-existing conditions have resulted in disproportionate rates of COVID-19 deaths among these demographic groups. Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 infections at a rate that’s 2.1 times higher compared with white Americans, while Latinos are 1.1 times more likely to die. Federal officials say discrimination, lack of access to health care, the kinds of work many people in those communities perform, poor housing and overall poverty are likely driving those higher death rates.
Compounding the issue: Some cities closed down parks as the pandemic spread, taking offline the few parks that some urban residents did have access to. In many cases, cautious school officials also locked up playgrounds to prevent people from congregating, further limiting access to outdoor areas with fresh air and opportunities to exercise away from others.
Public health experts say improving the health of those communities helps improve life for all of us, from lower insurance premiums to increased workplace productivity, along with fostering a sense of national unity.
“Think of the potential we would have as a society if health wasn’t a barrier for people, if everyone was in tip-top shape,” says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland, and an expert on disparities in healthcare. “One of the most cost-effective ways to improve health is to find open space and use it.”
City planning experts say the lack of access to parks reflects longstanding economic inequalities nationally. While older, denser, poorer neighborhoods have fewer park options, modern suburban neighborhoods approved by majority-white local governments were designed with both private backyards and shared open space. For a long time, mortgage redlining and other racist housing policies kept Black families living in dense apartment blocks and limited their ability to move to those suburbs like their white neighbors.
Put another way: “People with money moved to areas where they could build houses around parks,” says Adrian Benepe, senior vice president and director of national programs for the Trust for Public Land, which helps to conserve farmland and build or improve urban parks.
Benape argues the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the dangers of condemning people to live in dense, urban areas without access to parks or other open space, and that investing in parks does more than just improve the property values of people who live nearby.
Experts say it’s too early to conclude that lack of access to outdoor spaces has helped drive up coronavirus infection rates in Black and Latino communities, but say there’s likely a relationship between the two.
“I’m hoping that the disparities we’ve been identifying result in a commitment to resolve them,” says Galiatsatos, the public health expert. “If this virus can teach us one thing, it’s that disparities are here and present. We have control over ending both the pandemic and the disparities. The pandemic will end eventually, and we will need to figure out how to remove the disparities.”
Growing up in greater Los Angeles, Melissa Martínez remembers the joy of running free through Chet Holifield Park, no longer bound by the strict rules of their two-bedroom home shared with her parents and her six brothers and sisters. Holding hands, Martínez and her siblings would walk the short distance to the park from their Montebello home, where on weekends, her extended family hung hammocks from the pine and palm trees, and grilled carne asada to celebrate birthdays or baby showers.
“Community parks were so, so important to us because we didn’t have a huge backyard,” she says. “Financially, we didn’t have that green space. So we relied on our community to provide that for us. And that’s very much a basic right to have that green space. And if we don’t have that, where are we supposed to go?”
Today, Martínez is a volunteer with Latino Outdoors, leading kayaking trips, hikes, picnics and other adventures at Washington, D.C.-area parks. The nonprofit’s mission is to help Latinos feel more comfortable using the outdoor spaces that already exist, but that can feel unwelcoming to people of color. Latinos represent about 5% of visitors to National Parks, and Black Americans make up just 2%.
The lingering effects of the Jim Crow laws banning Black Americans from parks set aside for white people — some of which persisted into the 1960s — discourages many people of color from using parks further from their homes, Martinez says.
Even how those parks are policed matters too: A law enforcement presence that might be comforting to some people might feel oppressive to Black or Latino families worried about being hassled, Martinez adds. Multiple studies have shown police officers are more likely to target Black or Latinos for the same minor crimes committed by white people, like smoking marijuana in public.
“These systems of oppression were never pulled out of public lands in a way that feels comfortable,” she says. “Land management right now very much belongs to white people. It’s very much been created by systems of white supremacy.”
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an internationally renowned urban planning professor, says reversing longstanding inequities about park access requires a concerted and sustained effort, especially when trying to add more parks in dense areas. Short of bulldozing existing buildings, city leaders can consider alternatives such as “parklets” — small patches of greenery atop parking spaces or between existing structures, she says. Gentrification in many cities means available open land not owned by the public is quickly being turned into housing or stores, further limiting options.
“These are the neighborhoods that need these open spaces the most, because they do not have private open spaces,” says Loukaitou-Sideris, an associate provost at the University of California, Los Angeles and a distinguished professor of urban planning in the Luskin School of Public Affairs. “While having large parks is wonderful, you can’t fit large parks into these very dense cities and the land costs are huge. So you have to think about creating smaller spaces distributed through neighborhoods.”
Loukaitou-Sideris says providing basic access to parks for all Americans helps foster a sense of equality while providing an opportunity for people of all backgrounds to interact.
“Public space is an important good in a democracy. That’s where, historically, people from different walks of life would come together,” she says. “You want a society that can give these different amenities to its residents on some level of equality.”
Back near Dotley’s apartment in Chattanooga, it’s painfully clear the city lacks equality in parks access. Historically, Black neighborhoods have small parks with few amenities, while wealthier white neighborhoods across the river look and feel like country clubs, with fountains and wide, green spaces.
Dotley, who works for a nonprofit community foundation in the city’s Alton Park neighborhood, often takes Black children into those nicer parks in white neighborhoods, teaching them that all parks are open to all people.
“We want to live long healthy lives, and one of the points of a park is to give us a place to get outside,” she says. “I say, I live in this city too. I am a resident and I can use it too. We want to participate. We want to engage and activate in parks.”