Research finds parks built for the privileged leave children with less access

David Ruth
713-348-6327
david@rice.edu

Amy McCaig
713-348-6777
amym@rice.edu

Parks built for the privileged leave children with less access

HOUSTON – (April 15, 2019) – Nine out of 10 Americans agree that green space is an important feature of everyday life, but new research from Rice University finds that access to city parks remains unequal for reasons that shift unexpectedly as cities develop.

Park green spaceHouston’s children have less access to parks today than they did 70 years ago, researchers conclude, thanks to how racial and class inequalities in park placement have intertwined with the ongoing residential turnover of most neighborhoods. Today, the research indicates, the phenomenon persists partly because of a bias toward building new parks in privileged areas that now have smaller populations of children.

The Successive Nature of City Parks: Making and Remaking Unequal Access Over Time,” which appears in the current issue of City and Community, examines the history and shifting residential access to Houston city parks between 1947 and 2015.

Researchers Jim Elliott, a professor and department chair of sociology at Rice, Elizabeth Korver-Glenn, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, and Daniel Bolger, a graduate student in sociology at Rice, examined park access in Houston since 1947, consulting the city’s original master plan, subsequent park inventories and historical census tract data. To measure access to nearby parks, the researchers used geographic information system software to count all city-run parks within a given census tract plus those within a half-mile of its boundary.

Findings show that in the 1940s, Jim Crow segregation allowed Houston’s black residents access to only four of the city’s 56 public parks — or one park per 32,422 black residents, compared with one per 7,224 white residents.

“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 said. “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.”

Over the next 70 years, the city of Houston established more than 300 new parks, with rising household incomes being one of the strongest predictors of where they were located. The researchers found that for every 1% increase in a census tract’s average household income between 1947 and 2015, there was a corresponding 0.17% increase in the number of public parks nearby. So, if a neighborhood’s average income increased by 25% over this period, net of inflation, it would receive roughly four more parks than a neighborhood whose income remained stable.

Neighborhoods where black and Latino populations were increasing were more likely to lose park space over time, the researchers discovered.  This was especially true if average incomes also declined.

“Yet, as Houston’s population has diversified and as different groups continue to move in and out of different neighborhoods, the biggest predictor of unequal access today is not a neighborhood’s racial composition or average income; it’s the absence of children,” Elliott said. In fact, research reveals that for every 1% increase in the number of children under 18 years old, there is a corresponding 0.48% decrease in the number of city parks nearby.

Elliott said this is partly because so many young families have moved to the suburbs, and partly because the city has turned the construction of new parks over to public-private partnerships that often develop green spaces to attract a new, younger and often single population.

“Originally, the city built parks with kids in mind, but unfortunately, investment in parks has not kept up with that original vision or with how individuals are moving around,” Elliott said.

Elliott and his fellow researchers hope this work will shed light on how cities and nature intertwine in unequal and unexpected ways over time.

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Park green space
Stock photo credit: Ben Wiechmann/Google Images

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Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 2 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.