It is no secret that my children have always loved going to the park. There is something about the carefree nature of Elijah’s face at the peak of the swing, or Jaiden’s thrill coming off the slide, that just warms my heart as a parent. I also admire the ownership they take whenever we go outdoors. They walk around and explore like each item is theirs as they go from seesaw to slide to monkey bars.
As a public health practitioner and history buff, the realization that two young Black boys having a moment to experience joy and green spaces collectively is one I can’t take for granted. When I reflect on my upbringing and engagement with parks, I quickly learned that access was about so much more than just proximity. The park was literally on the same street I lived on, but I wasn’t allowed to play there. So many things about the park, for me, were broken. The path to get there was fragmented and the fixtures were outdated. The people who occupied the space were not children and had other intentions.
There is this phrase that someone’s ZIP code is a better indicator of their health than their genetic makeup. Research has shown that access to green spaces creates connections to nature and promotes opportunities for engagement and physical activity. Playgrounds and parks are developmental necessities that stimulate emotional, social, and physical growth. But they are also about the basic need to belong. When our communities are subjected to this kind of chronic disinvestment, kids miss out on having a place that is both joyful and safe.
“If the research tells us that having access to green spaces benefits people by improving their physical and mental health, then the opposite must also be true — the absence of green spaces diminishes opportunities for good health.”
It feels like we have exhausted the story of redlining — but we have yet to share consistently how the communities where affluent white families lived could build wealth and benefit from planted trees, built parks, and beautification. The consequences of historically redlined neighborhoods are not limited to poor health outcomes. The results of residential segregation have baked inequality into our cities and added an additional layer of restriction for marginalized families to thrive. All of that to say, racial exclusion in recreational spaces denies Black children the benefits and simple joys of play.
Being engaged in social determinants of health work for some time now, I finally know the best questions to ask about equitable access to parks, “Who designed these parks, and who are these parks designed for?”, “Why is it in my community, yet why am I not able to appreciate this outdoor space?”, “Is this just another dedicated white space that has been conceptualized, built, and managed by upper- and middle-class white men?” Because when people of color show up to locations worth attending, we have been excluded and our presence is perceived as out of the ordinary, dangerous, or even criminal.
Institutional racism is not only making people sick but also literally taking years off their lives.
The social determinants of health make it clear that racism has once again demonstrated its ability to shape experiences and outcomes. Our work commonly calls out historical racism in housing practices, but we don’t consistently follow the thread. City planning and institutions helped to shape the patterns that restrict and limit access to parks. When you combine economic inequality, legalized segregation, and intentional disinvestment in Black and Brown communities … what else would you expect? If the research tells us that having access to green spaces benefits people by improving their physical and mental health, then the opposite must also be true — the absence of green spaces diminishes opportunities for good health.
In the Health Equity in Grand Rapids’ “Neighborhoods of Focus” Social Determinants of Health report, we asked, “Did the people within this community have equitable access to parkland?” We concluded that there is some disparity in the amount of parkland between our target neighborhood and the city of Grand Rapids, Mich. National benchmark data show that the typical park and recreation agency offers 10 acres of parkland per 1,000 people. The Neighborhoods of Focus had just over half of that with six acres per 1,000 people, less than Grand Rapids overall with seven acres per 1,000 people. This disparity could indicate inequitable access to recreation and further inequities across a host of other health-related domains.
“[U]ntil Black people feel safe, welcome, and included in a space, it isn’t a public space.”
People of all ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses should be able to enjoy higher levels of health and well-being because they have access to safe and functional outdoor spaces. And more specifically, the truth is that until Black people feel safe, welcome, and included in a space, it isn’t a public space. Full inclusion suggests we confront and address this history of exclusion and its subsequent impacts, and then actively rebuild against it.
This means we must address two fundamental issues — access and belonging. That means putting community and racial equity at the center of our decision-making. It means working alongside communities to understand their assets and joining them in creating better outcomes for all children. It means taking action.
The Health Equity report revealed the potential a health-in-all-policies approach can have. We can consider the health impacts and outcomes in both park design and recreation programming decision-making. This can best be done by meaningfully engaging those we serve — in needs assessments, planning design, and evaluation. This is the path to addressing the genuine needs of local populations and the underserved while encouraging usage.
The findings in this report are discouraging in some ways, yet they also reveal hope, opportunity, and tangible ways we can reverse these trends across all the social determinants. But who is responsible for adding one more thing to their already overflowing plate? How do we put this interest in the betterment of marginalized groups and put that into action?
“The findings in this report … reveal hope, opportunity, and tangible ways we can reverse these trends across all the social determinants.”
This isn’t an insurmountable ask if we partner in this work. My role in public health extends beyond programming and educating the public about the benefits of recreation and outdoor spaces. I am active in my community by participating in community forums, volunteering at farmer’s markets, and serving on boards and coalitions. And when I do, I see people with goals and aspirations for their community that can be stunted by a history of marginalization, exclusion, and stigmatization. This is why I am grateful for partners who are willing to acknowledge what has occurred in our collective past and contribute to shaping a more equitable and inclusive future. And this report gives us a helpful launch point for more conversation — and more action. Because the work isn’t done.
So, as I sit back and watch my kids run back to go down the slide for the thousandth time, I bask in the fact that children just want the opportunity to be creative and imaginative. My children are fortunate in the sense that going to green spaces is a common occurrence. This privilege is not a realization for everyone. It is our responsibility as decision-makers and people of influence to ensure that racism no longer plays a role in stifling that.