Parks serve as sacred spaces to connect, hold vigils and launch peaceful calls for justice; however, the reality is that not all of us have equal access to parks.
By Eduardo Garcia and
Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat from Coachella, represents the 56th Assembly District, Assemblymember.EduardoGarcia@assembly.ca.gov.
Parks have always been central to health, safety and cultural hubs. This has never been truer than now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed parks in prominent focus as places to enjoy fresh air and take breaks from sheltering in place.
With the recent, deeper societal uprising taking place, we have also seen parks serve as sacred spaces to safely connect, hold vigils and launch peaceful calls for justice. However, the unfortunate reality is that not all of us have access to these spaces, just when they are so greatly needed. Moreover, it is our most vulnerable and underserved communities, often communities of color, that are most impacted by this shortfall.
This situation is detrimental to Californians and demands urgent attention.
Three years ago, the Legislature and key park-equity stakeholders came together to craft and pass a $4 billion parks, water, and natural resources bond – Proposition 68 – that, along with other conservation investments, included $725 million for the Statewide Parks Program, intended to ensure the development of parks in California communities that lack them.
Back then, we already knew that equitable access to parks and open space was severely limited, but no one foresaw how the current pandemic would further amplify this stark inequity, where visitation to some outdoor spaces is being restricted to those who live nearby, and others are being turned away.
Recently, we have been forced to confront the reality that systemic inequity exists all around us. Historic underinvestment in some communities is part of this. It’s the reason why Californians in wealthier communities feel that access to the state’s forests, beaches and other outdoor areas is a birthright, while others have never even seen the ocean and have to travel long distances to get to the closest local park.
We must work together to ensure access to nature for all, in our backyards and neighborhood parks, as well as in our state’s mountains, deserts, rivers and beaches.
Yet the new economic reality of the pandemic means we will need to wrestle with how to prioritize a wide breadth of issues with diminished revenues. As this happens, it’s imperative the administration and the Legislature maintain rather than delay progress on ensuring equitable access to the outdoors, especially since investing in parks and outdoor recreation at this moment makes dollars spent on other important priorities, such as public health and education, go further.
Research shows that being in nature benefits mental and physical health. Therefore, an investment to promote outdoor access is an investment in our collective resilience and wellness – helping kids go to school ready to learn and giving health providers more time to focus more on preventive care.
Our state is on track to making some necessary and meaningful investments in outdoor access and equity. In February, California State Parks announced the grant awards from the first $255 million appropriated from Proposition 68 for the Statewide Parks Program, the single largest investment the state has made in communities for local park development.
State Parks and the administration understand that accelerating Proposition 68 investments and resources back into communities is invaluable. Because of this, the state has included an additional $395 million for the Statewide Parks Program in this year’s budget for grants to nonprofits, local park districts, cities and counties to continue to deliver on the promise that California embodies: equitable access to nature near and far, for all Californians.
Additionally, the Legislature also appropriated $20 million for an Outdoor Equity Grants Program – Assembly Bill 209 – to provide funding for programming to connect youth to outdoor recreation opportunities.
California faces difficult decisions ahead on the state budget that should be guided through a lens of equity. We believe the Legislature must continue to prioritize resources expanding access to nature and parks that will uplift our most underserved communities, whose residents would benefit most from such potentially life-changing investments.