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COVID-19 sheds light on park inequities, importance of investment

Expert says communities of color often lack access to parks

SAN ANTONIO – Equitable access to neighborhood parks has received renewed attention after the coronavirus pandemic proved how essential they are for communities.

Studies have shown that parks provide health, environmental and social benefits.

In September, the city of San Antonio reopened amenities at city parks including basketball courts, playgrounds and exercise equipment. They had been inaccessible since the start of the pandemic in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Edward Landry and Avian Barry took their three children and dog to Dawson Park as soon as it reopened.

“I’m thankful they opened the parks. That’s all my kids would talk about," Barry said while watching her children play.

Visiting the park is something they try to do weekly as a family, said Landry.

The family walks about five minutes from their East Side home to get to the park.

This year, San Antonio parks ranked 75 out of 100, according to the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that focuses on creating and saving green spaces.

Every year, the nonprofit scores parks around the country based on four things: access, investment, acreage and amenities.

Access is the category San Antonio scores the lowest. According to the Trust for Public Land, 43% of residents live within a 10-minute walk from a park. The national average is 55%.

The city is committed to equitable access to parks, according to Homer Garcia III, the director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Garcia said his department uses a tool provided by the Office of Equity when they are drafting plans for parks.

“They have a tool that all departments use to just help make informed decisions about where we make investments in our system,” he said.

Garcia said the city is also looking at ways to increase the percentage of residents who live within a 10-minute walk from a park.

History of park inequities

KangJae “Jerry” Lee, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University who has studied racial diversity and inclusion issues in parks and recreation for more than a decade, believes that our nation’s past created park inequities that still exist today in other parks of the country.

“A lot of people of color didn’t have access to outdoor recreations or parks because of the history of racial discrimination and institutional racism such as Jim Crow (laws),” said Lee.

Lee says today, people have a euphoric feeling about parks, but his examination of parks has uncovered they were originally created for a specific group of people.

“The idea of creating Central Park was initiated by very, very rich and powerful white male businessmen and political leaders. And they wanted to create infrastructure, recreational infrastructures for mainly middle and upper class white families,” Lee said.

How cities can create equitable access

Although people of color make up 75% of San Antonio’s population, Lee said communities of color are often overlooked in other parts of the country when parks are being designed.

Lee said park planners must listen to the wants and needs of the community by holding town hall events and conducting surveys.

He said that cities have to ensure that they’re truly receiving feedback from the entire community and not just a small fraction of people participating in town halls or surveys.

“Decision makers actually need to visit communities and knock (on) the doors in the neighborhood,” Lee said.

Garcia agrees that community engagement is critical.

“And that is what helps build, I think, a healthy park system,” he said.

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