Open space justice


Last week was Spring Break.  While I can no longer afford to take the entire week off from work, I could not let the week pass without some time for myself away from the classroom and clinic.  Luckily, I was able to spend three amazing days backpacking in the Superstition Mountains, about an hour outside of Phoenix.  The experience was both physically challenging and spiritually rewarding.  As many of us know, spending time in the outdoors – whether in a massive state park or a favorite city park – brings a broader perspective of the world to one’s own sense of self.

The trip also gave me a chance to reflect on what it would mean – as it does for tens of thousands of intercity residents – to be deprived of the ability to spend quality, reflective time in a park.  Many cities like to boast, of course, about an active population using abundantly available parks and recreation facilities.  Indeed, cities in the West often use outdoor recreation as a selling point for newcomers.  However, as with other environmental injustices, people of color and lower incomes often experience disproportionately “bad” park experiences in their neighborhoods, assuming they have any park nearby to experience at all.

Indeed, park amenities are hardly distributed equally in cities throughout the West.  Parks in more affluent neighborhoods have newer park facilities and impeccable landscaping. They also have larger budgets, and, therefore, receive far better maintenance than parks in other parts of town.  Further, access to parks in many neighborhoods presents problems.  Accessing a park in dense urban neighborhood might involve crossing a busy street or highway; and, unfortunately, many simply stay away because of the perception that urban parks are unsafe; this prevents people from enjoying their open space.

Sadly, it is often those deprived of park experiences that are most in need of them.  Research indicates, for instance, that low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from obesity and other diseases related to a lack of regular exercise.  Moreover, research on the physiological role of open space indicates that regular experience with the vegetated landscape reduces stress and anxiety. In a series of studies spanning nearly 20 years, Professor Roger Ulrich and others have linked photo simulations of the natural environment to reduced stress levels as measured by physiological indicators such as heart rate and brain waves. Indeed, participants in Ulrich’s studies indicated lower levels of fear and sadness when viewing nature related landscapes, as compared with urban. There is little argument overall that well maintained neighborhood parks, exercise, and outdoor activities improve mental health, increase community cohesion, and raise property values.

There are solutions of course, both public and private, for providing better park and open space access.  Obviously, cities need to be held accountable where park funding is disproportionately skewed toward more affluent neighborhoods.  But private organizations can also play a role.  For instance, in Los Angeles, the Center for Law in the Public Interest organized to prevent vacant land from becoming an industrial development and instead converted former urban blight into a thirty-two acre park known as the “Cornfield.”  Similarly, in the San Francisco Bay area the East Bay Regional Park District addressed park inequity by providing regular transportation services for community organizations that wish to access regional parks.  It also coordinates transportation for Headstart programs, summer day-camps, and other groups that serve low-income children in urban communities.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all people, from all places in the West, had similar opportunities?  Let’s make it happen.


Michael Harris is Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  He has worked as a Senior Deputy District Counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, as an Associate Environmental Counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a Project Attorney with Earthjustice.  He can be reached at [email protected]

The author would like to thank Daniel Vedra for his invaluable research and writing contribution to this entry.  Dan is a student at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and a student attorney in the College’s Environmental Law Clinic.  His 2009 paper, “Park Equity and Environmental Justice in Denver,” is available by contacting him at [email protected]

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