By Kristi Roybal
As public officials continue to urge Denver residents to stay home to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many of us may be walking our neighborhood streets and using our local parks more often. The pandemic puts green space front and center as a necessary urban amenity to deal with the current restrictions on our activity. Urban green space, including parks and trees, provides important physical and mental health benefits. It can promote physical activity, reduce harmful environmental exposures like air pollution and heat islands, contribute to social cohesion, and decrease stress and depression.
But the pandemic isn’t a walk in the park for everyone, is it? Some Denver residents were systematically deprived of local green space long before the pandemic hit.
Denver’s park system is currently ranked 22nd out of the nation’s 100 largest cities, a ranking based on the analysis of park access, investment, acreage and amenities. Despite the relatively high ranking, parks are inequitably distributed among historically advantaged and disadvantaged residents. Census tracts with majority non-Hispanic Black and Latinx residents have access to less park acreage than majority non-Hispanic white census tracts. Non-Hispanic white affluent neighborhoods enjoy safer, higher-quality parks than low-income neighborhoods of color, in addition to greater park investments. Denver’s tree canopy follows a similar pattern, with a less dense canopy in low-income neighborhoods of color.
The inequitable distribution of urban green space in Denver isn’t by accident. It’s a part of the legacy of 80-year-old racist housing policy. In the 1930s, the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created residential security maps that categorized urban neighborhoods by perceived lending risk. Federal mortgage lenders were provided redlined maps that demarcated and characterized predominantly Black and immigrant neighborhoods as hazardous areas for investment. As a result, residents of these neighborhoods were denied home loans and the opportunity to generate wealth. These same neighborhoods also experienced divestment, a process that left residents with highly unequal neighborhood environments and a concentration of socioeconomic disadvantage.
Though the practice of redlining legally ended with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, its damaging effects endure today. Research has consistently linked socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods with adverse health outcomes and health-damaging environmental conditions.
For Denver, the effect of historical redlining on the distribution of urban green space is clear. The map below visualizes how the current distribution of green space spatially overlaps with neighborhood risk grades established 80 years ago.
Redlined or “hazardous” neighborhoods have less tree coverage and park acreage compared to the “best” and “still desirable” neighborhoods. We have to take a hard look at Denver’s legacy of racist policy that continues to deny low-income communities of color an urban “infrastructure of opportunity,” one replete with the resources, services, and environmental conditions that allow residents to thrive.
COVID-19 continues to affect our community and we will likely experience a more pandemic-prone future that alters the way we interact with the places where we live. Not only do we have an opportunity to rethink our urban infrastructure, we also have a moral responsibility to address the longstanding place-based inequities that influence resident health.
Prioritizing historically deprived neighborhoods for green space development is a necessary start. Direct outreach to neighborhood residents can inform place-specific initiatives that reflect the local vision for green space. Beyond these initial steps, it’s critical to identify innovative and sustainable funding streams to support green space investments. Urban green space is a vital public health resource — it was before the pandemic and it will continue to be after. It’s imperative that we focus on green space investments in neighborhoods with the greatest inequities — only then can we truly work toward a more equitable and resilient Denver.
Kristi Roybal is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Her research focuses on place-based health inequities.