As a public health practitioner and history buff, the realization that two young Black boys having a moment to experience joy and green spaces collectively is one I can’t take for granted. When I reflect on my upbringing and engagement with parks, I quickly learned that access was about so much more than just proximity. The park was literally on the same street I lived on, but I wasn’t allowed to play there. So many things about the park, for me, were broken. The path to get there was fragmented and the fixtures were outdated. The people who occupied the space were not children and had other intentions.

There is this phrase that someone’s ZIP code is a better indicator of their health than their genetic makeup. Research has shown that access to green spaces creates connections to nature and promotes opportunities for engagement and physical activity. Playgrounds and parks are developmental necessities that stimulate emotional, social, and physical growth. But they are also about the basic need to belong. When our communities are subjected to this kind of chronic disinvestment, kids miss out on having a place that is both joyful and safe.

It feels like we have exhausted the story of redlining — but we have yet to share consistently how the communities where affluent white families lived could build wealth and benefit from planted trees, built parks, and beautification. The consequences of historically redlined neighborhoods are not limited to poor health outcomes. The results of residential segregation have baked inequality into our cities and added an additional layer of restriction for marginalized families to thrive. All of that to say, racial exclusion in recreational spaces denies Black children the benefits and simple joys of play.

Being engaged in social determinants of health work for some time now, I finally know the best questions to ask about equitable access to parks, “Who designed these parks, and who are these parks designed for?”, “Why is it in my community, yet why am I not able to appreciate this outdoor space?”, “Is this just another dedicated white space that has been conceptualized, built, and managed by upper- and middle-class white men?” Because when people of color show up to locations worth attending, we have been excluded and our presence is perceived as out of the ordinary, dangerous, or even criminal.

Institutional racism is not only making people sick but also literally taking years off their lives.

The social determinants of health make it clear that racism has once again demonstrated its ability to shape experiences and outcomes. Our work commonly calls out historical racism in housing practices, but we don’t consistently follow the thread. City planning and institutions helped to shape the patterns that restrict and limit access to parks. When you combine economic inequality, legalized segregation, and intentional disinvestment in Black and Brown communities … what else would you expect? If the research tells us that having access to green spaces benefits people by improving their physical and mental health, then the opposite must also be true — the absence of green spaces diminishes opportunities for good health.

Read the full article about green spaces by James Bell III, D.S.W. at Johnson Center.