The amount of city parkland is crucial, but so is the location

By Joni Carswell and Taylor Keys | Oct 10, 2021

City parks are more than pretty green space in an urban setting. They play a critical role in our health and future. Parks contribute to cleaner air, cooler temperatures, storm mitigation, healthier communities, educational opportunities and economic growth. As our cities and population grow, parks are not only a vital connection to nature but an essential component of our well-being.

Texas accounted for 32.4% of the total U.S. population increase between 2019 and 2020, with growth primarily across Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio metro areas. As Texas infrastructure and housing expands to accommodate this growth, mindful planning of parks and nature access is more important than ever.

Parks connect urban Texans to nature by providing opportunities for physical activity that yield positive mental and physical health benefits, serve as convening places that foster a connected community, and create outdoor classrooms that provide educational opportunities.

Parks create a patchwork of resilient ecosystems and green space that breathe life into our cities. The trees in parks provide ecosystem services such as reduction of the urban heat island effect by shading impervious surfaces such as parking lots and streets. The benefits of greening strategies can be as high as 15 degrees of cooling in some areas on hot summer days. Trees also clean air, provide habitat for wildlife, store carbon dioxide and reduce the negative impacts of stormwater flows.

Parks also boost the economy by providing jobs and generating economic value through sales taxes and increases in home value. Using a state park as an example, Cooper Lake State Park, near the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, generates 23 jobs with $1.4 million in economic value and $33,000 in sales tax revenue. Cooper Lake State Park receives over 112,000 visits each year, 54% of which are from North Texas residents.

While city parks provide myriad benefits, the placement of and access to these parks is also a key part of ensuring that Texas’ growth is positive for all in the future. The Texas Trees Foundation conducted an urban heat island and urban tree canopy study in Dallas and found that the current tree canopy is 30%. However, the Dallas tree canopy is not evenly distributed, leaving some areas with a high percentage of canopy and others with very little.

According to American Forests, a map of tree cover in almost any American city is also a map of income. Typically, lower-income neighborhoods don’t have as many trees, and communities that need tree cover the most tend to be those with the highest unemployment. Their Tree Equity Score tool allows you to see the tree equity score in cities across the U.S.

Elva Yañez in an essay for The Prevention Institute describes why we need park equity and how to promote it. “Inequities in park access across neighborhoods are the result of policies, laws and practices— some deliberate, some inadvertent, some historical, some ongoing — that have segregated communities along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. And it’s no coincidence that communities that don’t have their fair share of parks and green spaces often have more than their fair share of polluting land uses and freeways. But because we didn’t arrive at this point by accident, we can legislate, fund, plan and design our way out.”

Many organizations across Texas and Dallas-Fort Worth are focused on stewarding parks and public green spaces to support healthy Texans and healthy natural resources. These organizations lead the way with native habitat and landscapes, educational signage, water conservation, collaborative partnerships, sustainable infrastructure, proactive planning and attention to access. It is important that we support these organizations, collaborate across sectors and share best practices and lessons learned to meet the demands of our growing population, and to tackle systemic issues such as equitable access.

Our organization, Texan by Nature, exists to advance conservation and accomplishes that mission by bringing conservation and business together. Through our impact-focused programs and network of more than 100 conservation partners, we have worked with the organizations paving the way to improving parks, and we believe these examples serve as inspiration.

● Texas Trees Foundation’s Cool School Neighborhood Parks is a collaborative partnership benefiting Dallas ISD students and the local community.

● Trinity River Crew is a joint conservation corps program of Groundwork Dallas and Trinity Park Conservancy that provides meaningful, paid conservation work experience, education, leadership skills and professional development training to high-potential youth from historically marginalized areas along the Trinity River.

● The Tarrant Regional Water District’s and North Texas Municipal Water District’s constructed wetlands support a clean, reliable water supply, cleaning water nature’s way.

● George W. Bush Presidential Center Native Texas Park is a 15-acre urban park featuring native Texas prairie.

● Klyde Warren Park is a 5.2-acre deck park with sustainable landscaping, providing an oasis for monarchs.

● Exploration Green Conservancy is a defunct golf course transformed into a 200-acre urban green space and stormwater-retention site in Houston.

● Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy’s land bridge offers safe passage for animals and people to cross Wurzbach Parkway in San Antonio.

City parks are critical to our future, for our natural resources, health and economic growth. Supporting park development and equitable access will ensure Texas thrives for many generations.

Joni Carswell is chief executive of Texan by Nature.

Taylor Keys is program manager for Texan by Nature.

They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.