Equality Isn’t Enough: Designing for Equity in Our Parks and Trails

January 20, 2020
Landscape Architecture Parks & Open Space DEI

How a data-informed approach can improve access to parks and trails and enhance economic, environmental, physical and social well-being. 

We instinctively know our neighborhoods and communities are better when people have ready access to areas where they can walk, run, play, gather, and interact with the natural environment. Parks and trails play a special role in the health of our society, and those of us who design and plan these spaces have a responsibility to ensure every person has access to amenities, facilities, and programming.

By its very nature, the term “public park” implies open availability to everyone. But are these spaces truly accessible to all? To answer this question, we must consider prohibitive barriers certain populations face – transportation challenges, racial discrimination, mobility limitations – and establish a clear distinction between designing for equality and designing for equity. The term “equality” implies the same levels of access, support or opportunity for everyone; “equity,” on the other hand, recognizes the unique circumstances that inform people’s lives, understanding that everyone does not start at the same place with the same needs, and seeks to level the playing field for all.

Equality means having the same (“equal”) opportunity for everybody: Everybody gets the same bike – but unique aspects of individuals and circumstances are ignored. Equity means addressing those unique aspects so that everybody gets the opportunity to participate: Different bikes are available for a variety of different needs people have. Image courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

What does it look like to plan for equity in our parks and trails? RDG’s collaboration with the Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department provides helpful insight. As an entity that oversees more than 4,000 acres of parkland, open space and trails, the City of Des Moines recognized its role in creating equity in park and trail facilities and programming across the community. LiveDSM, the city’s comprehensive plan, was developed with the primary goal of providing equally accessible and available programs and facilities to all people regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability or age.

Using Data to Inform the Plan

A growing body of evidence suggests that where we live can determine how well we live and is a significant factor of life expectancy (a person’s zip code, it turns out, may be a better predictor of health than their genetic code). The unfortunate reality, however, is that access to parks and recreation resources is unequal, especially for minority and low-income populations, meaning there are large segments of the U.S. population that aren’t benefiting from these spaces.

As part of the development of LiveDSM, RDG planners gathered data specific to Des Moines zip codes and concluded that the percentage of people living below the poverty line varies city zip codes varies widely. Using this and other critical data, we developed maps to determine priority areas of various types of need in the community.

The Equity Lens Map looks at understanding the makeup of Des Moines with respect to poverty, race, crime, density, well-being and shifting populations over time. Weighting these factors, this map identifies priority areas for exploring barriers and inequities and the means to address them.

Equity Lens Map, LiveDSM Comprehensive Plan. Image by RDG.

In addition to the physical health benefits outdoor areas provide, parks and recreation opportunities are also valuable to the mental health of the communities they serve. Investing in public spaces that are inclusive, equitable and accessible helps build a community where people feel connected to one another rather than isolated. The Health Shed Map reflects areas where we see potentially great health needs, based on the distance to existing trail access points overlaid with the incidence of citizens with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Health Shed Map, LiveDSM Comprehensive Plan. Image by RDG.

Data gleaned from the Equity Lens and Health Shed maps, combined with additional information, informed the development of the High Priority Gap Map, helping the City of Des Moines pinpoint the highest-priority gaps in system deficiencies. By looking at these gap areas, the park system identified places with the highest need for parks and recreation services and began developing comprehensive policies to address these high-need areas as well as funding sources, promotion of inter-jurisdictional cooperation and community support.

High Priority Gap Map, LiveDSM Comprehensive Plan. Image by RDG.

As the population of Des Moines continues to grow, Des Moines Parks and Recreation must consider how it will address inequalities in resources to create more healthy, safe communities. But Des Moines is just one of countless cities across the country that can benefit from a data-driven approach to designing for equity in parks and recreation. Through a data-informed planning process, critical information can be incorporated into discussions with neighborhood and community groups and it empowers municipalities to make informed decisions that ensure equitable access to parks and trails for all citizens.

Portions of this article were originally published in the LiveDSM Comprehensive Plan. Click here to read the full document.

Written by Mike Bell, Landscape Architect