Houston parks have a history of being built for the privileged, instead of children


According to a new study, Houston's children have less access to parks today than they did 70 years ago due to racial and class inequalities in park placement.

Boys playing

Photo by Hisu lee on Unsplash

According to a new study, Houston's children have less access to parks today than they did 70 years ago due to racial and class inequalities in park placement.

The phenomenon persists partly because of biases toward developing new parks in privileged areas with smaller populations of children, according to the study, "The Successive Nature of City Parks: Making and Remaking Unequal Access Over Time" by Daniel Bolger and Kinder fellow James R. Elliott and Kinder scholar Elizabeth Korver-Glenn.

The researchers examined the history and shifting access to Houston city parks between 1947 and 2015. They found privileged, white residents have long enjoyed unequal access to city parks and influence over where new ones are established. Meanwhile, growing minority populations have increased their access mainly by moving into neighborhoods where whites once lived.

In the 1940s, Houston had 56 public parks. Despite being spatially equal to the parks as their white neighbors, Houston's African American residents had access to only four of the 56, due to Jim Crow segregation. This park-per-resident ratio came out to one park per 32,422 black residents and one per 7,076 white residents — a 4.5-fold differential.

“Prior to the Civil Rights movement, Southern cities built and publicly financed city parks mostly for whites only and located them in ways to keep black communities from expanding,” Elliott told Rice News. “As this happened, black residents were left to pool their modest resources to purchase land for their own parks, use a few publicly funded parks of inferior quality, or rely on the occasional philanthropic gift of others.”

By 2015, Houston's number of parks grew to 369, but more privileged areas with fewer children continued to get the new parks. Findings show that for every 1 percent increase in the number of children under 18 years old in a neighborhood, there was a corresponding 0.48 percent decline in nearby park access.

When ethnic equality is considered, parks access grew for minorities because of families relocating to areas with parks rather than parks being built in minority-majority areas. "As whites' numerical presence declined within Houston's city limits and Latinos' presence increased, the latter often moved into areas left behind by white residents, which is where many city parks already existed," the report says. "In this way, Latinos increased nearby access to parks mostly by moving toward them, not by having new parks come to them."

Additionally, the researchers found the likelihood of whites losing parks was less than for black or Latino populations and this was especially true if average incomes also declined. "Thus, working-class neighborhoods with growing minority populations have been the most likely to lose city parks over time," the report says.

"The implication for urban planners and policymakers is that their efforts today are not responsible for current inequalities in public park access. That's the good news," the report says. "The more difficult news is that if they and others wish to ameliorate existing inequalities, they will need to take a longer-broader view of the processes involved as well as what they leave behind."

Researchers hope their work will shed light on how a city's history and nature intertwine in unequal and unexpected ways over time. They also hope additional research will look into park inequality and result in solutions to address and counter these inequalities.

Heather Leighton


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