Inequities in Parks and Recreation

June 28, 2024

It’s summertime – at least by the date on the calendar it’s summertime. The days are longer and brighter, and the temps are higher. It’s the time of year when folks start spending more time doing outdoor activities, taking their children to local parks and beaches, and visiting state and national parks to hike, fish and camp. We take for granted that we have access to green spaces or clean beaches. We assume that everyone has the same access to nature and quality outdoor spaces.

The truth is, that is simply not true. The National Recreation and Parks Association defined Park access as “The just and fair quantity, proximity and connections to quality parks, green spaces and recreation facilities, as well as programming that are safe, inclusive, culturally relevant and welcoming to everyone.” Access to spaces as defined by this definition falls short.

Historically outdoor spaces in the US are marked by segregation and exclusion, which led to the development of Parks, trails and recreational areas that were specifically designed to exclude people of color. Even after desegregation, social norms and unconscious/implicit bias continued to create barriers, making outdoor recreation less accessible to BIPOC.

Communities of color, particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations, are less likely to have access to quality parks and green spaces. This disparity is rooted in historical practices like redlining and discriminatory zoning laws that have led to a lack of investment in these neighborhoods. Consequently, parks in predominantly minority communities are often smaller, fewer in number, and poorly maintained compared to those in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Low-income communities, which often overlap with BIPOC communities, are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to park access. These areas are less likely to receive funding for park development and maintenance, resulting in fewer and lower-quality green spaces. The economic barriers also extend to the ability to travel to better-equipped parks in other neighborhoods, further limiting access to quality outdoor recreation.

Studies have shown that parks in marginalized neighborhoods are more likely to have inadequate lighting, outdated equipment, and limited amenities. This not only diminishes the recreational experience but also raises safety concerns, making these spaces less inviting and less utilized.

Even in places outside of the city where recreation opportunities are abundant, economic disparities prevent folks from being able to access them. Places like the Olympic National Park for example. The cost of outdoor gear, transportation to remote locations, and entrance fees for national parks create a barrier for many BIPOC folk, further restricting their ability to participate in outdoor activities.

The inequities don’t just stop with limited quality access for BIPOC and low-income communities. There is also the lack of access for folks with disabilities. Many parks lack the necessary infrastructure to be truly inclusive, such as accessible pathways, restrooms, and playground equipment. Even when facilities are available, they are often not maintained to standards that ensure usability for all.

The absence of accessible design features can exclude individuals with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities from fully participating in recreational activities. Programming that is not inclusive or adaptive further marginalizes these individuals, denying them the opportunity to benefit from outdoor recreation.

For the folks in the LGBTQIA community and for women, there are often safety concerns that can deter them from using parks, especially during certain times of the day. Poor lighting, lack of security, and the presence of harassment or violence create environments where they do not feel safe. This issue is compounded in marginalized communities where park maintenance and security are often underfunded.

Not to mention that Parks and recreational programs frequently fail to reflect the cultural practices and preferences of marginalized communities. For example, traditional celebrations, cultural games, or sports popular in specific communities might not be accommodated in park design and programming. This lack of cultural relevance can lead to disengagement and underutilization of park spaces.

Community engagement in the planning and management of parks is crucial to addressing these issues. However, marginalized communities are often excluded from these processes, leading to decisions that do not reflect their needs and preferences. Genuine community involvement is essential to creating inclusive and welcoming parks.

So as you can see, the idea that everyone is able to access outdoor spaces is simply not true. In order to make Parks and recreation truly equitable there is a lot of work to be done. Policies need to be reformed to ensure the equitable distribution of funding and resources for park development and maintenance in marginalized communities. Improving safety measures such as improving lighting and security to make it more welcoming and safer for everyone. Involving the community, especially in marginalized communities of BIPOC and low income, to make sure the parks meet the needs of that community. The design of parks needs to be more intentional and inclusive, prioritizing accessibility in park design to accommodate folks with disabilities and incorporating features that reflect cultural practices of diverse communities.

Lots of work indeed. However, this work has begun in the city of Seattle. Seattle has something called The Park CommUNITY. On the website it states “The Park CommUNITY Fund advances park equity in Seattle through a community-led funding process. The fund invests in large and small capital projects using participatory budgeting and equitable grant-making practices. Seattle Park District has allocated $14.8 million to the Park CommUNITY Fund for investment in Seattle communities between 2023 and 2028.”

There lots of projects that are currently being worked on to improve quality and access to Seattle Parks. Like improving lakeside access to the waterfront at Be’er Sheva by updating a 30 by 150-foot beach with a boardwalk, family picnic areas and improving walking paths. Adding a lawn, improving the lighting and restoring salmon habitat as well as creating fishing and kayaking access at park this park in the neighborhood of Rainier Beach.

If you want to learn about other projects you can go to and see all the different projects that the Seattle is working on.

So the next time you go hiking, or fishing. The next time you are playing with your children, nieces and nephews at a wonderful and beautiful park, try to remember that not everyone has the ability or access to enjoy these activities. That in fact it is a privilege we have to be able to go hiking at Rattle Snake Lake, or camping in the Olympic National Park, or have the children in our families play on safe equipment. It is a privilege that we can walk on clean beaches and hang out on Alki without having to worry about how we are going to make that happen. Take some time to appreciate it. Enjoy it, but don’t take it for granted.

Rochelle Hazard