Parks and other types of urban green spaces are often perceived as nice-to-haves rather than must-haves. However, as I have argued and shared in numerous articles (like Nurturing Neighborhoods), urban green spaces contribute significantly to the quality of life in communities and offer benefits well beyond their boundaries. For those who share this perspective or want to learn more about the relationship between parks and health equity, I suggest reading the book Urban Green Spaces – Public Health and Sustainability in the United States (2019) by Viniece Jennings, Matthew H. E. M. Browning, and Alessandro Rigolon. The intended audience for the book includes researchers, students, and practitioners in urban planning, parks and recreation, public health, and other fields. As a park planner and ‘plannerd,’ I found this book to be a page-turner and finished it in one sitting during a flight. Highlighted below are three issues that stood out to me:
Equality vs. Equity
Urban green spaces offer a variety of health benefits and are at the nexus of environmental justice and health equity, as explained in Chapter 4. The terms equality and equity are sometimes used interchangeably as if they have the same meaning. But there is actually a significant difference, as the authors point out in the chapter through this well-used graphic. While equality “assumes that the same level of provision can support these individuals in the same way… equity acknowledges the inherent differences between the three individuals and customizes the level of support based on those needs” (p. 58). This explanation and illustration remind us that to address health equity issues, resources must be allocated to communities according to their unique needs and circumstances. Within the context of parks and recreation, this could translate to the prioritization and allocation of additional funding for projects in areas with a high level of park need as determined through a study like a comprehensive parks needs assessment developed with extensive community engagement.
What I enjoyed most about the book is its review of intersectional approaches to planning urban green spaces in communities. The authors define intersectional planning in Chapter 5 as “the integration between planning for green spaces and for other planning elements such as transportation, housing, and water management” (p. 71). It makes absolute sense for us to employ intersectional approaches to planning because fragmented or uncoordinated efforts have proven to be less effective and less efficient in meeting the growing and diverse needs of communities. After all, coordination is key to successful planning efforts (see this article). Instead of speaking in just theoretical or abstract terms, Urban Green Spaces gives examples of intersectional planning projects in the U.S., including plans undertaken in New York City, Denver, and Los Angeles County. This is helpful, especially for practitioners wanting to learn about the benefits and limitations of intersectional approaches to planning.
Another key issue that the book highlights is environmental gentrification, which refers to the displacement effects of green space and environmental cleanup initiatives. This is an important concern and has been raised early and often in the current process of developing an update to the Los Angeles River Master Plan. Chapter 5 of the book mentions the High Line in New York, the BeltLine in Atlanta, and the 606 in Chicago as rails-to-trails projects that have fostered gentrification. There is, however, a growing number of efforts in the U.S. that seek to better integrate the development of green space with the production and preservation of affordable housing. The most widely known example is the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. which proactively addresses environmental gentrification concerns by integrating new green space development and affordable housing. Specifically, an Equity Development Plan was developed as part of the project which includes anti-displacement strategies such as creating a community land trust to build affordable housing, developing policies to preserve existing affordable housing and create a housing fund through an impact fee, and implementing ordinances that prioritize local hiring.
I highly recommend Urban Green Spaces to both scholars and practitioners with an interest or focus on advancing sustainability and health equity through parks and other green spaces. For me, the book is a wonderful resource to have because of my profession as a park planner, my involvement in various intersectional planning efforts, and my desire to stay informed about the latest research on parks and public health.
Photo credit: Book cover from Springer.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.