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Access to parks for youth as an environmental justice issue: Access inequalities and possible solutions


Young people in low-income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Denver have less access to play in natural areas

This study looks at access to play in parks for youth from several neighborhoods of Denver, Colorado.  The authors focus specifically on disparities in opportunities for children and youth to play in nature in these urban parks as an issue of inequality.  They test the hypothesis that youth living in low-income and ethnically diverse areas will have less access to parks, examine how park access varies with residential density and distance to downtown, and investigate solutions to increase access to play in parks for low-income youth.

Neighborhoods around Denver were classified as urban or suburban based on their density and proximity to the downtown area and separated into low, medium, and high-income levels based on 2010 census data.  A stratified random sample of 12 neighborhoods was selected with 6 urban and 6 suburban areas, and 4 from each income level. Using GIS, aerial photos, and site visits, all the parks or other green spaces (community gardens, school yards, etc.) in or within a quarter-mile radius of each neighborhood was described in terms of formal or informal play infrastructure (such as play structures versus rocks and ponds) and presence of vegetation that creates enclosed spaces—the sort of “refuges” in which children prefer to play.

Accessibility to parks was then measured using a weighted GIS spatial network analysis, and a walkability index was created for the surrounding streets that incorporated the speed limit, presence of sidewalk, and tree canopy as factors that might limit or increase the likelihood that youth would walk to a local park. Finally, equity of access to parks in each neighborhood was measured using demographic statistics like percentage of non-white population, household income, land value, percent population under 18, and incidents of crime. Equity and access variables were analyzed using multiple statistical tests.

Rigolon and Flohr found that youth from low-income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Denver had less access to parks than youth from higher income white neighborhoods.  Furthermore, they had fewer opportunities for play in natural green spaces, which were located farther away from low-income and non-white neighborhoods.  This means that they had less access to the potential health benefits of contact with nature and physical activity, a critical issue in health equity.

Based on their own experience of presenting their results to community groups, the authors propose solutions to the inequities they found through a bottom-up action framework that includes key stakeholders like community organizations in the process of setting policy goals and design guidelines.   Local universities could use a proposed “suitability analysis” methodology to help set priorities and decide on locations to maximize the potential effectiveness of interventions like renovating school yards or improving the safety of access streets.  Rigolon and Flohr emphasize the important role that public-private partnerships, including non-profits, universities, and community members can play in this process, avoiding the “ecological gentrification” often seen in more top-down approaches to greening neighborhoods.  Instead, non-profits can help fund communities to build, improve, and maintain open spaces for children and youth.                                            



Rigolon, A., Flohr, T.L., (2014). Access to parks for youth as an environmental justice issue: Access inequalities and possible solutions. Buildings, 4(2), 69-94.


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