A new report ranks San Francisco’s park system as one of the best in the country — as long as you are not a low-income resident.
The city-based nonprofit Trust for Public Land launched its 10th annual ParkScore index report, which judges park systems in major U.S. metropolitan areas by factors such as park spending per resident, acreage, accessibility, and equity.
Though San Francisco landed sixth place overall in the nationwide ranking, moving up two spots from years prior, members from the nonprofit say the city’s nonwhite and low-income residents aren’t enjoying ready access to these urban oases.
Although better than many urban areas, including Oakland, the report found that San Francisco neighborhoods with high concentrations of residents who identify as people of color had 56 percent less access to parks than white neighborhoods. This was calculated by measuring the available park space within a 10-minute walk.
“Everyone anecdotally knows there’s disparities in how parks are distributed. At the end of the day, that’s not right, and that’s not fair,” said Will Klein, the project manager for parks research for the Trust for Public Land.
Overall, most any San Franciscan can find a park, playground, or green space within a 10-minute walk from where they live. The city was the first to achieve this feat in 2017 and, since then, only Boston has earned this distinction.
But the swath of Golden Gate Park and the Presidio is located in the northwestern part of the city and surely tips the scales, as the former borders six neighborhoods and the latter borders five. Nearby Presidio Heights has a majority white population of affluent residents. The Inner Richmond, which touches Golden Gate Park, also has more white people living there than people of color.
The nonprofit added the equity metric this year as a nod to racial reckoning in the country and to point to ways park systems can improve.
In fact, San Francisco scored better than other metropolitan areas in the country. Of total park systems reviewed, nonwhite residents had an average of 44 percent less access to parks, and low-income residents had 42 percent less park space. San Francisco was more equal than other Bay Area cities, like Oakland.
Still, there’s lots of work left to close the gap, as the implications go far beyond who has a park nearby, said Alejandra Chiesa, Bay Area program director for the Trust for Public Land. Chiesa said accessibility to outdoor spaces enables residents to benefit physically and mentally. Some medical experts have found that exposure to the great outdoors can lower stress hormones and blood pressure.
“Parks are a big component of healthy livable communities. An equitable society and community is critical for a healthy city in general; it can’t be divided,” Chiesa said. “Someone shouldn’t have all the access while other people don’t.”
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It’s something residents and leaders clearly feel strongly about. Robert Morrissey, a 69-year-old Tenderloin resident, was sitting on a bench at the Alioto Mini Park at 20th and Capp streets in a matching camouflage-print sweatsuit, picking at his food.
Morrissey said he visits the Mission mini-park at least every other day after picking up grub from Pete’s Bar-B-Que. “Anything I can consider a park is great, but the bigger, the better. It’s so good for the psyche, and the environment.”
Perhaps the pandemic emphasized the role of parks and social equity even further. As one of the only places to socialize and exercise safely, those with access to capacious outdoor areas had a leg up compared to those who didn’t. Grassy fields at Mission Dolores hosted extracurricular in-person classes or learning pods for Zoom-fatigued students.
But others provided much needed space to hold outdoor Covid-19 testing and vaccination sites. The first major mass Covid-19 test organized by UCSF and the Latino Task Force took place at Garfield Square on 26th Street.
“Parts of San Francisco have been used for a Covid-19 response, for free meal and PPE distribution,” Klein said. “I think that speaks to the trust that people have in local parks and the parks agency.”
So with the advantages of expanse in mind, Klein and Chiesa are still challenging the country to spread the wealth of space to low-income communities. In another of the report’s findings, low-income neighborhoods in San Francisco had about 55 percent less park space than high-income neighborhoods. While the Mission has its fair share of parks and green spaces, and even a few large ones like Mission Dolores and Bernal Heights Park, it also has many playgrounds and “mini” parks, like Alioto and the one at 24th and York streets.
Spacing can cause these parks to be extra crowded at times, but that doesn’t really bother Adela, who says she’ll just leave and go to another one. As a nanny to a one-year-old and mom to a seven-year-old, she visits playgrounds and parks every day, and feels lucky there’s several in the Mission. Four days a week she goes to Mission Playground, which was rumbling with running children and a live band one recent June afternoon.
She and her other nanny friend, Hiliana, used to frequent Dolores Park but transitioned to the playground, because the kid Hiliana nannies is getting “older and wants to run and jump around. We let them play — except the sand pit. That’s dirty,” Adela explained.
Although the Mission offers numerous places to play, it’s a bit of a different story in the Bayview, said Hiliana, who is also a mother. There are “outdoor spaces” within walking distance, but they’re not as inviting for children and don’t feel as safe to frequent. “I don’t take my kid there; there can be some crazy stuff going on,” she said.
That may change soon, according to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, who, through a spokesperson, said its next biggest project is the India Basin Shoreline Park. This will be located in the heart of the Bayview and transform a former brownfield into a waterfront park, fit with shoreline trails and recreation activities. It expects to break ground on June 17, and one portion of the park is expected to be completed by spring or summer of 2022.
“It will connect residents of public housing with a clean, restored shoreline. It’s completely shaped by the community, and is very much an example of environmental justice,” the spokesperson said in an email.
The Department also acknowledged the shortcomings in park access. The spokesperson said nearly “80 percent of its capital dollars” last year went to projects in equity zones, which are neighborhoods with the highest concentration of at least one vulnerable population. In total, about $239 million will come from the 2020 Health and Recovery bond, and “nearly all” projects will be in equity zones.
“Institutionalized racism has shaped the history of the country, and park systems aren’t immune,” the spokesperson wrote. “We are working to undo that history and creating the most accessible and equitable public parks system in the country.”