Author: Chris Mehl
Urban trail efforts are increasingly focusing on providing equitable access to trails. Trails and parks can create substantial benefits for public health, property values, and quality of life.
Unfortunately, in many communities these resources are inequitably distributed. They can be less abundant in poorer neighborhoods with a larger share of minority residents, which can be exasperated by a history of segregation in public places and lack of racial and ethnic representation in trail and conservation organizations. In addition, in more urban areas, historically minority or low-income areas tend to be more densely developed, leaving less space for building new parks or trails.
The benefit of parks and trails is greatest for those who live closest to these resources, and a disparity in access can have significant health, social, and economic implications, while also exacerbating environmental justice concerns in communities.
More and more, cities are pursuing improved access goal by incorporating the benefits of trails and pathways as part of their planning, development, and revitalization standards—moving beyond trails as a recreational amenity and incorporating trails as critical contributors to goals in public health, climate resilience, and transportation.
Improving park and trail access is also an important tool to help revitalize urban neighborhoods, and relatively new tools like crowdsourcing can help cities collect more accurate and extensive trail user data when measuring performance and future needs.
Benefits of Improving Trail Access
Communities can take a variety of steps and approaches to improve trail access. A study of parks in southern California urban centers, for example, found that parks are used less in high-poverty areas than in low-poverty areas, driven partly by safety concerns; and that parks in high-poverty areas have, on average, eight fewer staff than parks in low-poverty areas.
In Los Angeles County, California, a study that follows a large sample of children over time demonstrated that children who live a walkable distance from parks are much less likely to be obese or overweight. Health benefits can be achieved through formal parks and recreation programs, but also through accessible green space or other small, informal places that encourage play. For instance, children who lived within 500 meters of a park had a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) at age 18, with larger effects for boys than for girls.
How communities assess inequities in access to green space also is important. An equity-mapping analysis found that low-income and concentrated poverty areas have significantly less access to park resources—and that creative strategies to utilize nontraditional public spaces such as schoolyards and vacant lots will be necessary because there is very little available park space in the most underserved neighborhoods.
In Taos, New Mexico lower trail use among Hispanic and low-income residents is likely due to differences in access, not because these residents do not want to use trails. Low-income residents with a park or trail within a 10-minute walk of their house were 50 percent more likely to have used trails during the previous year.