NRPA’s three strategic pillars — conservation, health and wellness, and social equity — have been hailed both within and outside our organization as a concise, clear statement of the values and beliefs that underlie the importance of parks and recreation in today’s society. The pillars have arguably become a focus for all of parks and recreation.
But while conservation and health and wellness have been readily endorsed as part of the mission of parks and recreation, NRPA’s third pillar, social equity, has not been so easily understood. It is sometimes a difficult concept to embrace, and it is made even more so because it is not always clear where the responsibility and accountability for making decisions that promote social equity lies. We strongly believe that parks and recreation are for all people regardless of age, ability, income, ethnicity or geography. But the question remains — how do we activate this pillar as part of our mission?
Social Equity Vital to the Mission of Parks and Recreation
Advocates and leading thinkers throughout the history of the park and recreation movement ranging from Joseph Lee to Jane Jacobs have grappled with issues of social equity. Our founders fought to ensure the principles of fairness, equality and social justice always remain part of the mission of public parks and recreation.
Robert Garcia, founder of The City Project in Los Angeles and tireless advocate for social and environmental justice, characterizes the goal of social equity for parks as “equal access to the full range of values served.” He says it is not realistic to provide equal funding to every park, “but you can provide the benefits of parks across a range of alternatives that will benefit all people equitably.”
We know well the democratizing impact of public parks on our cities and communities. Freedom of expression in the public square is at the heart of American democracy. These are places where the free flow of ideas, cultures and association of people can occur between people of all ages, abilities, incomes and ethnicities. This is our birthright, and our parks have become an essential part of American culture and character. In fact, there are few better examples of how well our Union functions than public parks — parks are open to all, accessible to all and equally distributed for the benefit of all. Or are they?
Increasingly, it appears the broad social benefits that come from public parks, especially in urban metropolitan areas, are being threatened. Further, those threats are often greatest in communities where the majority of residents are poor, minorities or under-represented.
Read the rest of the article by Richard Dolesh on “Equity in the Big Apple” in the Social Equity Issue of Parks & Recreation (August 2014).
Robert Garcia will be a keynote speaker at the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) Congress October 14, 2014.