As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded across the country, Californians have found solace in close-to-home parks and open spaces. Yet millions of Californians do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of home.
In this way, the pandemic has highlighted inequalities across the state. One-third of California residents don’t have access to safe, welcoming outdoor places — not just during emergencies — but all of the time.
With the Legislature returning to Sacramento to work with Gov. Gavin Newsom and pass a budget by June 15, they have the opportunity to champion parks and open space and address park equity to ensure more Californians can enjoy the public health benefits parks deliver without having to crowd into a few areas or have access to a car.
In June 2018, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 68, the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access for All Act. The measure allocated $750 million to fund local park development, representing the single biggest investment for park equity in state history, and demonstrating that Californians believe everyone deserves access to a great park.
So why isn’t our state government funding the next round of projects that will help us meet that goal, even as the pandemic underscores the importance of local parks?
Proposition 68’s promise was on full display just before shelter in place orders were issued, when California State Parks announced the initial round of local park competitive grants funded through the Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Program, or Statewide Park Program. The agency originally planned to announce the winning projects in late 2019, but received an overwhelming 478 applications from every corner of the state requesting $2.3 billion in grant funds. Of these, only 62 received funding from the $250 million appropriated by the governor and Legislature.
These funded projects range from the $8.5 million rebuild at Heber Park in the city of Calexico to the $6.4 million park renovation in the city of Eureka. Of the 62 grants awarded, 28 fund new parks, 14 are for park expansions and 20 for renovations.
About 430,000 people live within a 10-minute walk of the 62 park projects. That’s 430,000 additional Californians who could have a place to get outside during this crisis, while still following state government social distancing guidelines. But despite their promising numbers and broad distribution, these are just the first steps of a long journey to drastically improve park equity in our state.
Our data show that today a third of Californians don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. Researchers, public health officials and experts agree that parks are crucial for public health, the environment and strong communities, as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted.
Each of the 478 communities that applied for the first round of State Park Program grants worked hard to show what a difference these projects would make. They volunteered, showed up at meetings, shaped park designs and rallied their friends and neighbors to the cause — all these communities lacked was money to make it happen.
Unfortunately, funding for another round of the Statewide Park Program was not included in the budget Newsom announced in January. This current crisis has made one thing clear: Californians want more parks.
All of the worthy park projects not funded are shovel-ready and community approved. Now it’s up to our elected leaders to deliver on the promise of Proposition 68. That’s why I’m calling on the Legislature and the governor to correct the omission and include $250 million from existing Proposition 68 funds to the Statewide Park Program for another round of competitive grants not only to increase park equity but serve a green economic stimulus.
Most of us have more questions than answers about what life will be like for the foreseeable future. But we know that Californians are resilient, and life will return to a new normal eventually — and when it does, we want to ensure that every person, in every neighborhood, has access to a great park.
Guillermo Rodriguez is the California state director for The Trust for Public Land. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters