So much of a person’s health is tied to where they live. Just look at the Interstate 5 corridor, where people who live close to the highway have much higher rates of asthma hospitalizations and lung disease because they live next to a concentration of car exhaust emissions.
The sad fact is that redlining, a practice where banks refused to give home loans to racial minorities, led many of the most polluted parts of the state to be populated by communities of color. To truly close health equity gaps, we need to build spaces that mitigate the impacts of these past policy decisions.
Tacoma Public Schools and partners are taking an innovative approach to closing the health-equity gap: transforming school playgrounds into tree-filled community parks.
When a study found that Greater Tacoma has the largest park access gap in Washington, meaning many residents do not have a park within a 10-minute walk, community members teamed up with national park design experts to find ways to add green space in the neighborhoods that needed them most.
Over the next five years, Tacoma will update five school playgrounds into spaces that improve the physical and mental health of their communities. Parks provide a place for people to exercise and are a proven mental health resource, with studies showing that people who spend regular time in green spaces enjoy lower levels of stress and are less likely to experience anxiety disorders and depression.
Turning schoolyards into community spaces has another benefit: It’s cost-effective. As the price of land rises in Washington, transforming existing schoolyards into community parks is an innovative way to add needed public space without buying new land. This can be particularly meaningful for lower income communities that don’t have the funds for a community center or a brand-new park.
For example, the Jennie Reed Elementary School playground is nicknamed “Lake Reed” by locals because of frequent flooding. The playground update will help reduce flooding, allowing the space to be used year-round, both during and after school. The update will also replace play structures that are 70 years old.
A coalition of private and public funders, including Trust for Public Land, Tacoma Public Schools and Metro Parks Tacoma raised more than $1 million to develop these community schoolyards.
Beyond their social benefits, parks also help to mitigate the health damages of climate change. Building more green spaces improves air quality, reduces emissions and reduces the heat experienced in a neighborhood. One study found that areas within a 10-minute walk of a park are as much as 6 degrees cooler than areas beyond that range.
When confronted with huge issues like gaps in health equity, it’s easy to feel like the problems are too big to solve. But communities like Tacoma are showing that many solutions are within our grasp. Where we live matters to our health. Let’s improve it one park at a time.