Home / Health / Articles / Local parks can improve community health, but most Americans lack access

Local governments use parks to advance community environmental and economic goals, and promote equity. And of course, they bring improved physical and mental health benefits for residents. However, access to publicly-run local parks is patchy across the country.

How do local parks benefit health?

Parks access encourages the surrounding community to be more active. Having a park within walking distance in addition to supporting infrastructure such as sidewalks or crosswalks can help people reach the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended amount of physical activity. This can also improve mental health, reduce the risk of disease, and strengthen bones and muscles.

How many people have access to parks?

39% of Americans live within a half mile of a park.[1]

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Park access is lowest in Southern states. Around 30% of residents in Mississippi, West Virginia, and South Carolina live roughly within a half mile of a park. Over 90% of residents in five states live within walking distance of a park: Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, and Minnesota.

Park access also differs by race and ethnicity; neighborhoods in dense urban areas with fewer resources tend to lack local parks and open spaces. For example, a 2016 study in Los Angeles County found that Black and Latino populations reside in communities with less park space per capita than Asian and white populations.

One contributor to unequal access to local parks is the history of racial segregation, which excluded non-white people from accessing parks and public swimming pools until the civil rights movement.

What are the other benefits of local parks?

Localities invest in parks to conserve natural resources, improve the health and wellness of community members, and advance social equity.

For example, Baltimore has used local parks and open space for community revitalization in the past few decades, creating a “Central Park” and waterfront. Its parks have contributed to environmental conservation around Chesapeake Bay. The city also explicitly aimed to distribute parks and rec center placement to meet the needs of at-risk youth.

Additionally, cities such as Chicago and Plano, Texas have seen property values near parks rise.

Outdoor recreational development has recently become a priority for some rural communities. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency partnered with 25 rural communities to improve outdoor recreational activities with the hopes of revitalizing downtown areas and conserving natural resources.

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Improving Public Health through Public Parks and Trails
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Parks are defined as “areas of public open space, typically designed for or able to cater for, a range of different leisure or recreational activities—both active and passive."