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Ensuring Park Equity in Los Angeles

Guest Commentary by Kelly Bruno, President & CEO of National Health Foundation

This Earth Day, we are especially grateful for our outdoor green spaces, which have so often been sources of escape and mental respite during the past year of quarantine and social distancing. Be it parks, beaches, hiking trails or community gardens, outdoor green spaces have frequently been the only safe spaces for gatherings outside the home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seeking Equal Access

However, not all green spaces are created equal, and not all communities have equal access to clean and safe outdoor spaces. While the importance of having access to these resources has only grown during the pandemic, many in cities like Los Angeles find themselves without.

As the President & CEO of National Health Foundation (NHF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health of under-resourced communities facing systemic barriers to wellness, I see how our built environment effects the health and wellness of whole communities. Many neighborhoods in L.A., particularly low-income communities of color, have been under-funded and under-resourced for decades, resulting in inadequate park and green space.

According to a 2020 report from the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress, communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in “nature deprived” areas with little or no access to parks, paths and green spaces. This is due to generations of racist housing policies such as redlining, which forced Black and Brown Americans into certain neighborhoods, all while paving over those communities with highways and high-polluting industrial plants.

Promoting Access to Outdoors

This lack of access to parks and green spaces can be detrimental for our mental and physical health, but it has proved deadly during the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s too soon to confirm direct correlations, experts say it’s likely that a relationship exists between a lack of access to outdoor spaces and the disproportionately high COVID-19 infection rates among Black and Latinx communities.

To combat this barrier to improve health outcomes, NHF dedicated itself to uncovering and challenging the systemic exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) from accessing outdoor spaces in the Greater Los Angeles region. When a countywide safer-at-home order encouraged Angelenos to stay away from gatherings and venture into the great outdoors, NHF worked with long-time partner, Park Equity Alliance, and focused its public education efforts on highlighting the racial disparity in outdoor accessibility.

Improving Communities

As a powerful advocate for policies and programs that remove entrenched barriers faced by communities of color in accessing quality outdoor spaces, NHF played a vital role in ensuring $22 million per year in funding will be made available to eliminate park inequities in park-poor, low-income neighborhoods through its work with Park Equity Alliance.

NHF and its 42-member Pico Union resident leader group—Communidad de NHF—also kicked off a five-year Beautification and Street Improvement Plan campaign with the Department of Public Works to create better streets in the Central L.A. neighborhood. Since launching its community initiatives in Pico Union, NHF has engaged more than 3,000 Pico Union residents to unite the neighborhood in pursuit of improved health.

Passionate Voices

As a passionate voice for park equity, NHF is proud to be a client of Cerrell, whose experience advocating for California’s parks and green spaces dates back decades. In addition to working on behalf of the California State Parks Foundation, an independent, member-supported nonprofit that mobilizes a diverse network of Californians to be active champions for our state parks, Cerrell guided the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation’s development of a Countywide Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment. The assessment quantified the critical need for additional parks and recreation resources in L.A. County, and reframed our understanding of green and open spaces as key infrastructure in our communities. One key takeaway from the final report found that 51% of L.A. County’s population lives more than a half mile away from a park.

As we emerge on the other side of this health crisis, it is important that we reflect on the things we took for granted in our pre-pandemic lives. While many of us have thriving parks, green spaces and beaches within walking distance of our homes, so many communities of color do not. This Earth Day, it is vital that we all act as champions for park equity.
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