Parks for All: Outdoor Recreation and Environmental Justice

Author: Secretary Reid Wilson

I’ve still got some work to do to achieve my State Parks Annual 100-Mile Challenge, both on foot and on two wheels.  So yeah, I like to hike and bike.  I’m lucky because there are many state and local parks, trails, and greenways around Raleigh.  But there are plenty of communities throughout North Carolina where that is not the case. 

And that’s a problem.

We know that spending time outdoors is good for the body, good for the mind, and good for the spirit.  That’s why visitation in state parks spiked to record levels during the pandemic -- people absolutely needed to get outside and get away from all the stress, grief, and uncertainty.  It was instinctual.

But access to parks, trails, and greenways is inequitable across North Carolina.  Especially in underserved and marginalized communities, there is often little to no opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.  These “park deserts” tend to have worse health outcomes for many reasons, and the lack of public outdoor recreational spaces is one of them. 

If you think about it, addressing this inequitable access to parks is another aspect of creating environmental justice.  Just as no community should unfairly bear the burden of polluted air, water, and land, neither should any community lack access to the healthy benefits of our environment – parks, trails, greenways, and open space.

That’s why the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources created the Parks and Trails for Health (PATH) initiative, which seeks to expand access to outdoor recreation.  We’ve been successful in achieving substantially increased funding in the state budget to create and enlarge state and local parks and trails, and fund needed maintenance.  In addition, we’ve reached out to diverse communities and organizations to provide useful information about nearby public recreation sites.

But a remaining piece of the puzzle is to figure out how to dedicate more resources to areas, often rural, where there simply aren’t enough parks.  Our Natural Heritage Program and Division of Parks and Recreation are working together to map out existing recreational spaces, be they federal, state, or local.  That will show us where the gaps are.  From there, we hope to devote more resources to those areas to create and expand parks and trails.

But it’s not a simple task.  Local capacity can be a big hurdle: does the county or town have sufficient staff to develop a grant application to the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF); does the community have the required 1:1 financial match; does the local government have funding for long-term maintenance if the project does receive PARTF funding?   

We’re exploring ideas to address these capacity challenges, and any changes to the current PARTF program very well may require legislative approval. 

I’ve observed countless times that when folks are done with their walk, bike ride, or paddle, they’re in a better place than when they started.  I can see it in the smiling faces and fatigued stretches in the parking lot at Umstead State Park.  It’s hard to miss the squeals of delight from a child riding a two-wheeler for the first time on the Crabtree Creek Greenway. 

Everyone, no matter where they live, should have ready access to these moments of health and joy.

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