Park Funding for All!
Park access is a traditional civil rights value. To promote equal access, in 2006, California voters passed Proposition 84, a bond measure authorizing $5.4 billion in public investments to improve parks, water, coastal protection and natural resources. Assembly Bill 31 prioritized $400 million of those funds for investments in communities that are park poor (less than 3 acres of parks per thousand residents) and income poor (less than 80 percent of the statewide median household income — about $49,000 in 2016). Most of the money for local impact projects has now been invested.
Clearly vs. Vaguely Worded Priorities
The central lesson of AB 31 and Prop 84 is that clear standards must be defined in advance to measure progress and hold public officials accountable. AB 31 clearly spelled out standards and did well to prioritize the investment of $400 million, and it worked. People of color and low-income communities disproportionately have the worst access to parks and green space throughout California. Fully 88 percent of the AB 31 funds that were invested in park-poor and/or income-poor communities were invested in communities that are disproportionately of color.
In contrast, the other $1 billion in local impact funds under Prop 84 that were not prioritized under AB 31 did not reach the communities with the greatest needs. Instead, communities that are disproportionately park rich, income rich and non-Hispanic white received more than their fair share: 69 percent of the funds. Only 31 percent of non-AB 31 funds were invested in communities that are disproportionately of color. Communities that are disproportionately non-Hispanic white received $443 per person compared to just $196 per person in communities that are disproportionately of color. For non-AB 31 grants, even communities that otherwise qualified as park and/or income poor received only $236 per person, compared to $324 per person in communities that were neither park nor income poor.
Even though “local parks and urban greening” were listed as priorities for the bond as a whole, diverse communities with the greatest need received less funding under Prop 84 overall. These communities received only 46 percent of the total grant funds, and only 27 percent of the number of grants. In other words, communities that are disproportionately non-Hispanic white received 54 percent of the money and 73 percent of the number of grants.
Numerous recent studies have demonstrated that Latinos in the United States care deeply about the environment and climate change. Strong Latino support for environmental protection and government action is due in part to disparate exposure to pollutants, the effects of which are amplified for children who engage in conventionally healthy behaviors, such as playing outdoors. Prop 84 was successful because of massive support from the Latino community: 80 percent of Latino voters voted in favor of Prop 84 compared with only 48 percent of non-Latino voters.
The lessons are clear. Not taking environmental justice concerns into account can result in policy failure, and vague references to “equity” alone do not work and can exacerbate inequality. To protect the democratic legitimacy of regulatory and funding efforts, the data has to be accessible by the public and in forms that non-experts understand and experts can analyze independently. It is necessary to define standards, implement strategic plans, enable midcourse corrections, and collect and analyze data to promote equity and civil rights compliance and improve future performance. The analysis under AB 31 demonstrates how to analyze a race-based problem — disparities in green access and health — to develop a race-neutral solution: park-poor, income-poor standards to prioritize projects and providing accessible parks for all.
Data is the necessary starting point for analysis. Agencies must collect, analyze and publish the data necessary to understand the impact of their programs and policies.It took years to collect the data under AB 31 and Prop 84. This required multiple requests for data to public agencies, formal public record requests, cleaning the data, collaboration by nonprofit partners and multiple grants from foundations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made significant progress to protect public health and the environment through its online data and mapping tool EJSCREEN. EJSCREEN now includes data on park access, exposure to toxins and pollution, health vulnerabilities and demographic data, including race, color and national origin.
Standards, planning and data are necessary to ensure equitable access to publicly funded programs and activities and compliance with civil rights laws. The following recommendations will help achieve these goals:
(1) Include people in planning, priorities and metrics, and analyze race, color, national origin, income and other salient factors. Include ways to measure people served, such as population density.
(2) Address the full range of values at stake: fun, health, education and human development; climate justice and conservation; culture, history, art and spiritual values; economic values, including jobs, contracts and displacement; and equal justice, democracy and livability for all.
(3) Define standards in advance to measure progress and equity, allow midcourse corrections, and hold officials and recipients of public funding accountable. Legislation, regulations and guidelines can establish criteria and a process to prioritize projects, programs and activities. AB 31 is a best practice.
(4) Ensure compliance with civil rights and environmental justice laws and principles in distributing benefits and burdens of publicly funded resources without discrimination. Follow the five-step planning process agencies like the Federal Transit Administration use: Describe what you plan to do; analyze benefits and burdens under defined standards; consider alternatives; include people of color and low-income people in the process; and distribute benefits and burdens fairly and without discrimination.
(5) Require that spending be justified and reported in relation to those standards, plans and civil rights requirements.
(6) Improve and standardize data-reporting requirements so that data is reliable and easy to use for accountability, compliance and research. The data has to be accessible in forms that non-experts understand and experts can analyze to understand what government is doing, improve outcomes and ensure civil rights compliance. This must be made routine at a fraction of the effort and cost that went into the analyses of AB 31 and Prop 84.
Standards, planning and data analysis help promote equal justice and guard against both intentional discrimination and unjustified discrimination impacts. The discriminatory impact standard plays an important role in moving the nation toward overcoming a legacy of segregation and promoting equal opportunity in housing, health, parks, transportation, jobs, contracts and other urban ecosystem services. Data analysis based on race, color and national origin is necessary to ensure public benefits and burdens are distributed equally to promote racial justice, human dignity and diversity, as the U.S. Supreme Court has recently reemphasized in decisions on fair housing and on affirmative action.
Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel at The City Project, a nonprofit environmental justice and civil rights organization based in Los Angeles. Ariel Collins is the Assistant Director at The City Project. Cesar De La Vega is the Juanita Tate Social Justice Fellow at The City Project.
Top Photo: Anahuak Youth Sports Association and City Project members enjoy Marsh Street Park along the L.A. River. AB 31 funds helped improve the park.
Click here for The City Project’s Policy Brief with demographic maps and analysis.