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Promoting Equity in Access to Park Land And Open Spaces

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Agustin Leon-Moreta and Silvia Saenz-Montenegro 
October 24, 2019

Equity in access to open spaces is a critical policy challenge across communities. Social equity has become a central question for public administration theory and practice. Hence, in this article, we outline some fundamental elements for the analysis of the accessibility and impact of open space programs on a local level. In addition, we focus on differential access to open spaces because differential accessibility is the main way in which open spaces enhance or limit equity. Also, open spaces may differentially benefit the diverse population in communities. Hence, the accessibility of open spaces is a critical question for enhancing social equity for two reasons. Firstly, open spaces create more livable communities, and secondly, wide disparities are prevalent in the accessibility of open spaces in American cities.

Open spaces are important for both their individual and collective benefits. In terms of individual benefits, open spaces provide people with opportunities for recreation and physical activity that are proven to benefit people’s health. In the same vein, open spaces foster a civil, cooperative life among residents. If residents have opportunities to interact with one another, the larger community will benefit. In other words, if civil interaction increases, the community will benefit in a variety of areas beyond the individual recreational benefit of open spaces. For example, via inclusive open spaces, a greater social trust may grow and benefit the community’s public safety and wellbeing.

Furthermore, communities will be oriented more to the collective good, not only the private benefit they can derive from open spaces. For example, since private parks can only be accessed by some groups of residents, these parks might reinforce isolation or segregation among diverse groups in cities. However, multiple levels of government can help to promote equity in access to open spaces: a local public good.

First of all, municipal governments have significant power for enabling access to open spaces. There is also a rationale for interlocal cooperation in the provision of open spaces in metropolitan regions. Cooperation requires that local policies be aligned with equity practices by which all citizens receive the benefit of open space programs. But how can municipal governments foster equity in the provision of open spaces? It depends on the configuration of governmental units in the metropolitan area. For example, it is easier for a consolidated government to coordinate open space programs within its region. But in a region of fragmented municipalities, there is a need for interlocal cooperation to support open space programs that are accessible to all populations while ensuring that all municipalities take part in the financing burden necessary to support those programs. So, if the fragmentation of municipalities is a problem, it might be necessary to delegate open space programs to entities like special districts.

Second, the county government can play a leadership role in the provision of open spaces. Particularly in municipally fragmented regions, the county may serve as a regional government to coordinate the provision of open space programs on a county-wide basis. If a functional county government is unavailable, special districts may alternatively serve that important role. The bottom line is that municipalities might need to delegate the coordination of open space programs to a governmental entity overlying those various municipalities.                                                                                      

Also, the state government serves an important role. The state government’s role could be that of a policy leader by supporting the efforts of local governments in improving the accessibility of open spaces. The state’s role might be essential since local governments are not always able to support their open space programs or enhance equity in their access to all residents. Ultimately, the state government can assist, for instance financially, or even require their local governments to improve the accessibility of their open spaces. At a minimum, the state government could support any financially distressed municipalities because, in these municipalities, other budgeting priorities are likely to be favored instead.

Finally, the nonprofit sector can clearly play a role in promoting equity. Nonprofit organizations can get involved when governments are not able to deliver open spaces equitably. Nonprofits can help in correcting the disparities that could be prevalent in the provision of open spaces. Of course, that valued role will depend on the adequate funding of nonprofit organizations so that those organizations can, in effect, supplement open space programs that address existing disparities.

In brief, open green spaces are public goods that, unfortunately, are unevenly accessible in American communities. It is therefore necessary for local governments to put in place programs that improve access to those spaces for their diverse populations. Such programs also call for coordination among local governments, particularly in a fragmented metropolitan area, as the provision of green spaces by the private sector may not be sufficient to enable equitable access to those spaces. Thus, with the support of intergovernmental cooperation, local governments will be able to enhance the accessibility of open green spaces for all residents.


Authors: 

Agustin Leon-Moreta is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico School of Public Administration. He received a PhD in Public Administration and Policy from the Askew School at Florida State University. His research has appeared in Public Administration Review, the American Review of Public Administration, Urban Studies, State and Local Government Review, and Public Administration Quarterly.

Silvia Saenz-Montenegro has over fifteen years of working experience in the private sector. In May 2017, Silvia received a Master’s degree in Organization, Information and Learning Sciences from the University of New Mexico. She is interested in evaluating how to use distance learning in the workplace effectively. Her research interests additionally include barriers in distance training and distance education.

 

 

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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