Strategy overview

  • Dedicating public spaces to recreation and greenery: Parks and green space can improve physical and mental health, create opportunities for residents to interact with each other, and improve environmental conditions and climate resilience.
  • Encouraging physical, cultural, and social activities: Parks can be used as places for physical activity, particularly when sports or exercise equipment is installed. They can also serve as locations for community gardens or farmers markets, enhancing neighborhood access to healthy foods. Finally, public spaces are often used as venues for cultural activities, hosting classes, exhibitions, performances, and more.
  • Improving the environment: Parks improve air quality, reduce temperatures, and absorb rainwater, improving public health, mitigating extreme heat, and reducing the risk and severity of flooding in surrounding areas.
  • Addressing gentrification concerns: Parks often increase the value of land in nearby neighborhoods. Because of this, they can be significant accelerators of gentrification and displacement. New investments in parks and green spaces should include measures that reduce the risk of displacement and ensure that current residents benefit from new spaces, facilities, and programming.

What evidence supports this strategy?

Meta-analyses of community spaces like gardens and parks suggest meaningful health, social, and environmental gains can be achieved from properly implemented programs. Further rigorous research is needed to 

  • A 2019 meta-narrative review of 38 urban green space interventions found significant positive environmental, health, wellbeing and social effects. Effective initiatives identified include greening of urban streets, sustainable drainage systems, greening of vacant lots, and park-based and greenway/trail interventions that paired changes with promotional campaigns.

  • A 2010 review of community garden case studies, interventions, and cross-sectional designs found youth gardening projects and programs were found to produce positive academic, dietary, and developmental outcomes, and overall community gardens were found to improve health outcomes and nutritional awareness.

  • A 2011 longitudinal study of 12 communities in Southern California found recreation programs relatively close to children’s homes were significantly and inversely associated with obesity.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Providing access to parks and public spaces has been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are environmental quality, safety from crime, and social capital.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring environmental quality in your community: Examine air quality. These data are available from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index.

  • Measuring safety from crime in your community: Examine reported property crimes per 100,000 people and reported violent crimes per 100,000 people. These data are available from the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

  • Measuring social capital in your community: Examine the number of membership associations per 10,000 people and the ratio of residents’ Facebook friends with higher socioeconomic status to their Facebook friends with lower socioeconomic status. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns and Opportunity Insights’ Social Capital Atlas, respectively.

Best practices in implementation

  • Ensuring resident voices are reflected in development plans: When preparing to make new investments in parks and green spaces, leaders should engage heavily with community residents via listening sessions, co-creation sessions, and other public events. These activities help build community trust and buy-in, and they are necessary for ensuring that park design, features, and characteristics reflect the preferences of future users.
  • Partner with community groups: Schools, community-based nonprofits, and other neighborhood groups can be helpful advocates for new investments in parks and are crucial in ensuring that engagement efforts reach the broadest set of neighborhood residents.
  • Ensure current residents benefit from new investments: Because parks often enhance the value of surrounding land, leaders should be proactive in making investments and enacting policies that prevent displacement. Constructing new affordable housing, helping renters become homeowners, passing anti-displacement legislation, establishing value capture mechanisms, or establishing community land trusts can be helpful tactics, among others.

Evidence-based examples

Infrastructure initiatives to support biking, walking, and non-automobile options
Supportive neighborhoods
Exercise classes and other physical activities in a community space to boost health and social cohesion
Supportive neighborhoods Stable and healthy families
Plots of land owned by local governments, non-profits, or other groups that are dedicated as a gardening space for public use on a membership basis
Supportive neighborhoods Stable and healthy families
Combines physical activity opportunities and social support to build, strengthen, and maintain social networks that encourage positive behavior changes
Supportive neighborhoods Stable and healthy families
Weekly markets in public spaces offering fresh fruits and vegetables, nutrition education, and more
Supportive neighborhoods
Consists of expanding areas (and access to those areas) for physical activity in communities, such as exercise facilities or trails
Supportive neighborhoods Stable and healthy families