During the pandemic, more Americans than ever were able to take advantage of municipal parks in the biggest cities across the country. However, an annual report recently released by the Trust for Public Land shows a significant disparity in park access among different races and income levels. Areas without green spaces can run five degrees hotter than other parts of the city.

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“In a majority of ParkScore cities, white neighborhoods and high-income neighborhoods have a disproportionately higher share of park space,” said Linda Hwang, The Trust for Public Land’s Director of Innovation and Strategy.

Related: Climate-adaptive park in Copenhagen wins Arne of the Year Award

There are myriad benefits of community parks, obviously including a safe place to exercise or play, as well as space to relax, walk dogs, watch birds and fly a kite. Parks are also a source of natural air filtration, with plants absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen back into the air. This helps offset the pollution from the surrounding city. While city parks offer shade and a cooler option than asphalt and concrete, they aren’t fairly distributed within most cities.

after image of parking lot turned into colorful park in NYC

Late in May, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land released its 10th annual ParkScore index, which ranks park systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities. The rankings are based on five criteria. Park equity is a category that was added this year, as a means to help city leaders identify inequities when making budget and location decisions about parks. According to a press release, “Park equity compares per capita park space in neighborhoods of color vs. white neighborhoods and in low-income neighborhoods vs. high-income neighborhoods, and 10-minute-walk park access for people of color and lower-income residents. Park systems score higher if disparities are low or non-existent.”

Park access is the second measurement. It identifies the percentage of residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a park. The third criteria, park acreage, calculates the median park size for each city as well as identifying the percentage of the city dedicated to park land. The Trust also looks at the amount of money spent by each resident as park investment. Finally, the amenities such as basketball courts, dog parks, playgrounds, water play areas and restrooms are considered.

child playing on green riding toy at a park

The 2021 ParkScore index reported that 75% of residents across the 100 largest cities in the country live within a 10-minute walk of a park. This marks the highest access score in the Index’s 10-year history, partly because of an agreement to open school playgrounds as public spaces during the pandemic.

However, the report also found that, “Residents of neighborhoods where most people identify as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, Indigenous and Native American, or Asian American and Pacific Islander have access to an average of 44 percent less park space per capita than residents of neighborhoods that are predominantly white. Residents of low-income neighborhoods have access to 42 percent less park space than residents of high-income neighborhoods.”

Brendan Shane, climate director for The Trust for Public Land said, “Across the country, we know cities are growing hotter and that floods and severe storms are increasing. Parks and green spaces are critical infrastructure to make communities more resilient, but residents in communities of color and in lower-income communities have access to significantly less park space than others. It’s not right and it’s not fair. Now is the time to invest in the parks and green space these communities need to absorb flood waters and cool extreme heat. If we don’t, the most vulnerable will have to bear the worst effects of a changing climate.”

child looking at flowers in a park

The addition of the equity measurement rolled the top results from the past few years, bringing Washington, D.C. as the highest ranking city, an area where people of all races have equal access to city parks. This is always important, but especially so in the year of a pandemic where the Trust for Public Land says 57 of the 100 surveyed cities used their parks for COVID-19 testing, vaccination or PPE distribution centers, and 70 cities used the spaces to offer free meals. Having a lower equity score also means having less access to these critical services.

Other cities also benefited from the equity recognition, rising Baltimore from 58th in 2020 to 30th this year and bringing Toledo, Ohio up 27 spots to 50th. Newark, New Jersey, also jumped 27 places to 42nd.

Boston and San Francisco were the only two ranked cities where 100% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park or other open public area. This didn’t keep Boston in the top 10 though, with a ranking of 12th. 

kids playing basketball in a park

Boise, Idaho also wasn’t in the top 10%, but did rank No. 1 as the best park system for dogs. Seventh-place Irvine, California received top marks for basketball hoops while Madison, Wisconsin, took the prize for the best playgrounds.

Although the number of parks increased for the year, The Trust for Public Land anticipates cuts to municipal budgets as a result of the economic problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, they found that 63 of the 100 most populated cities’ park departments are facing budget cuts.

father and son playing in fountain at park

“We need parks more than ever, and park advocates are gearing up for a fight,” said Bill Lee, Senior Vice President for Policy, Advocacy and Government Relations at The Trust for Public Land. “The Trust for Public Land is helping to lead a coalition of more than 300 organizations, businesses, and community groups supporting a major investment in park equity through the bipartisan federal Parks, Jobs, and Equity Act, and we are challenging the private sector to invest $50 million through the Equitable Communities Fund to create parks and open space in historically marginalized communities.”  

The 10 highest ranking park systems in the United States are:

Rank City ParkScore (Max: 100) 
Washington, DC 84.4 
St. Paul, MN 80.0 
Minneapolis, MN 79.7 
Arlington, VA 79.6 
Chicago, IL 77.2 
San Francisco, CA 76.3 
Irvine, CA 76.0 
Cincinnati, OH 75.9 
Seattle, WA 75.4 
10 Portland, OR 75.0 

+ The Trust for Public Land

Images courtesy of The Trust for Public Land