Park Access

Park Access

What does this indicator measure?

This indicator measures the percentage of the population living within a half-mile of a park, beach, or open space that is larger than 1 acre. A half mile is an approximately 10-minute walk for many people.

The connection to health

Everybody should have access to parks and other open spaces near their home. Parks can encourage physical activity, reduce chronic diseases, improve mental health, foster community connections, and support community resilience to climate change and pollution. Many studies have documented that living within walking distance of parks and open spaces encourages physical activity (especially for children)—helping to lower rates of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, obesity, and diabetes.80 This is especially true when combined with physical activity programs81 and efforts to increase safety.80 Parks and greenspace can also lower stress, improve cognitive functioning and mental health, help people like veterans recover from traumatic events, and promote health-protective social connections.82, 83 Reducing paved surfaces, like roads and parking lots, and increasing greenspace and parks can also reduce heat-island effects (where hot air builds in heavily developed areas) and filter out pollutants.83 While park access is important for everyone, access is disproportionately lower for low-income communities and communities of color, who are also more likely to live near parks without sufficient space or facilities.84

Where to start?

Improving access to parks requires a range of strategies to assess park conditions, plan for equitable access, and make parks safe and active. Jurisdictions seeking to improve park access should first Plan for Park Access. Planning efforts should typically start with an assessment of current park conditions, community needs, health conditions and gaps. In addition to the park access indicator in the Healthy Places Index, planners should consider use or burden measures such as park space per person within service areas, as well as historic capital and operations expenditures by park, neighborhood and user—with an eye to improving access and conditions in communities that have been historically left behind. A variety of tools exist to assess park access and conditions, such as the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore and Climate Smart Cities Tool, the National Park Service’s Parks, Trails, and Health Workbook, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Parks and Trails Health Impact Assessment Toolkit, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s Park Access Tool and Community FactFinder.

Because neighborhood residents are experts about their community needs, jurisdictions should ensure that park planning, design and programming incorporates residents’ ideas. California’s Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Program offers excellent best practices in community engagement during park planning:

Meet with residents near the project. Hold at least five park design meetings with residents at convenient locations near the project site for residents lacking transportation. Also schedule meetings at various times to accommodate work and family. Invite residents to provide their ideas. Use at least three methods to invite residents and consider language, cultural and access and functional needs, as well as child care and food. Encourage neighborhood youth, seniors, and parents to be a part of the design process so that the needs of different generations are met. Engage in dialogue during meetings. Ask residents to identify their needs and design ideas focusing on these key factors:

Selection of the recreation features and their design; Most practical location of features within the park; and Safe public use and park beautification such as landscaping or art.

Especially in places with high Severely Cost Burdened Low-Income Renters and low Homeownership jurisdictions should work to Stabilize Residents and Neighborhoods before initiating larger scale park construction or rehabilitation to ensure that people are not displaced, if improvements spark increased rents

In addition to planning, jurisdictions should Make Parks Green, Safe and Active to ensure that they maximize health benefits. Parks should be designed with active uses and safety in mind, and coupled with programming to maximize use, ensure safety, and increase physical activity. Jurisdictions should also ensure that existing parks are well maintained, and that communities know about the parks and activities open to them.

Improving park access and park quality can be expensive, but there are several funding tools available to California jurisdictions and park districts. The State Department of Parks and Recreation administers grants through its Office of Grants and Local Services, and has improved or created over 7,400 parks since 1964. ChangeLab Solutions has produced an excellent guide to funding tools—Local Agency Strategies for Funding the Development and Maintenance of Parks and Recreation Facilities in California.

In addition to traditional funding mechanisms like taxes and developer fees, this guide suggests partnering with non-profit hospitals’ community benefit programs to fund park improvements. Jurisdictions can also approach their local public health department for assistance in navigating health funding. Jurisdictions should carefully evaluate the distribution of their existing resources and expenditures, for instance assessing their Capital Improvement Plans and budgets to ensure equity in park funding. As part of these processes, jurisdictions should consider auditing existing park facilities and conditions (with community input and participation), assessing the relative equity of past/planned funding allocations, and investing in areas that are park poor, or with overburdened facilities. Budgeting processes should be transparent and open to the public.