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Parks Are The Heart of a Healthy Community

Photo: Courtesy of Leo Rivas

Parks are the unsung hero of the pandemic – that’s why efforts to ensure they’re taken care of and serving everyone are more important than ever.

Pre-pandemic, millions of us travel to national parks, forests, and monuments. But COVID-19 has uniquely spotlighted the value of the public lands in our backyards — urban parks, trails, state, and regional open spaces. Over the past year, visitation to close-to-home outdoor spaces has skyrocketed.

Nationwide anecdotes and an expanding body of research on nature and health reinforce what many of us already know personally: These outdoor spaces are critical for our physical, mental, and social wellbeing — that is, for those who have safe, affordable access to them. Many of us don’t. But that can change.

We’re already seeing momentum toward a culture that puts parks at the heart of health and community.

Equitable access to parks and public lands

Black, brown, and working-class neighborhoods are disproportionately deprived of nature and its benefits. This is the moment to lean into and expand efforts to close that gap: services like Trailhead Direct in Washington State that promote mass transit options to parks and trails; programs like New Mexico’s Outdoor Equity Fund that invests in youth access to nature in the communities that need it most; and advocacy for new parks and trails, like the Park to Playa Trail in South Los Angeles, and revitalization of old ones, like Skyway Park in South King County, Washington.

Safe and welcome outdoor recreation

Across the country, community outreach programs like those through Unlikely Hikers and Outdoor Afro help new outdoor recreationists have a good first outing experience and connect with others like themselves who are newer to outdoor recreation and want a safe, welcoming community to explore parks and public lands. Collaborations with parks management and staff that supports multi-language signage, culturally appropriate amenities, and programming are also ensuring parks feel like they’re for all of us.

Educational resources are critical. Campaigns like #RecreateResponsibly not only help us safely navigate parks and trails during pandemic times, but also prepare for various weather and terrain, and pack enough food and water to help keep us safe on outdoor adventures, big and small, anytime.

Kicking off a new era of outdoor recreation

As our collective love of the outdoors continues to be reawakened, we’re all called to re-envision the possibility of our shared outdoor spaces: an era of outdoor recreation and rejuvenation where we all belong, whether it’s a road trip to Yellowstone or just a trip to the park down the road.

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