“Play Deserts” Get Fertilized

The National Park Service is quintupling the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Program, an urban grant program focused on underserved low-income and minority neighborhoods.

By Avery Stonich August 23, 2016

A growing challenge to outdoor recreation is brewing as Americans pool in cities. According to the 2010 Census, 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in urban areas—congested street mazes and steel canopies that do little to cultivate a love of the outdoors among residents. Local parks and greenways are often the only way to see through the concrete jungle to the trees.

Park Poverty
But what happens in low-income and minority neighborhoods where outdoor inequality is greatest? These are the pockets of urban America that get the short end of the stick when it comes to parks and other outdoor amenities. How can we grow the next generation of diverse outdoorists in places where there are so few open spaces?

To the untrained eye, the National Park Service (NPS) seems an unlikely candidate to fill this gap. Yet the NPS stateside program extends the agency’s reach far beyond its iconic destinations. Funding for the stateside program flows from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which has been investing offshore oil and gas royalties in federal and state conservation and recreation projects for more than 50 years. Now park-poor cities are bumping up the agency’s priority list.

According to Joel Lynch, chief of state and local assistance programs for the NPS, the stateside assistance program of LWCF has funded more than 40,000 projects since 1965, including projects in 98 percent of counties nationwide.

“This is the National Park Service’s connection to the community,” says Lynch. “It’s one of the few programs out there that really supports recreation in communities. And we believe that everyone’s initial connection to their outside world is done through their local parks.”

“This is the National Park Service’s connection to the community. It’s one of the few programs out there that really supports recreation in communities. And we believe that everyone’s initial connection to their outside world is done through their local parks.”—Joel Lynch, chief of state and local assistance programs, NPS

Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) is singing the same tune. “We’re putting more emphasis on making sure those weekday and nearby weekend places are just as accessible as those once-in-a-lifetime trip opportunities,” says Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, local recreation advocacy manager for OIA. “As more Americans live in cities, it makes sense that LWCF would increase the investment of dollars in urban areas.”

Urban Investment
Last year Congress approved a competitive NPS grant program, the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP), which uses LWCF funds to help create new parks in underserved urban areas (so-called “play deserts”). In 2015 the ORLP awarded $3 million in grants to eight projects dispersed throughout the country.

Cully Park, in Portland, Oregon, nabbed $500,000, the highest amount awarded to one project. Why? It ticked off all the most important boxes on the application: creating outdoor recreation opportunities in an underserved community, targeting minorities and economically disadvantaged residents, and leveraging a public–private partnership.

The low-income, primarily minority Cully Neighborhood in northeast Portland has 13,000 people packed into 2.75 square miles, and—until recently—just one small park. Seeing a need, local nonprofit Verde stepped up to the plate. Verde aims to bring environmental infrastructure and investments to low-income neighborhoods, and it funds its efforts through grants as well as revenue from its landscaping and general contracting companies. The organization hires directly from the communities it serves, providing valuable training and jobs as well as engaging the community in projects.

Eyeing a 25-acre capped landfill in the Cully Neighborhood that the state had gifted to the city, Verde began engaging partners in 2010 and surveying residents on what they wanted at the site. In 2012, Verde and Portland Parks and Recreation created a formal public–private partnership to authorize the nonprofit to fundraise for, design, and construct park facilities. Verde and the city prepared a grant proposal for the state, which liked the idea enough to apply for LWCF funds for the project.

If You Build It, They Will Come Play
Including the ORLP grant, the Let Us Build Cully Park! coalition has raised more than $6 million for phase one, which Verde expects to wrap up in 2017, complete with a community garden, inter-tribal gathering garden, playground, trails with fitness stations, picnic areas, soccer field, dog park, habitat restoration, and a rebuilt NE 72nd Avenue entrance. The park will serve 405 households that have been park-deprived.

Alan Hipólito, executive director of Verde, has been knee deep in the project since the beginning.

“The investment in the project means that there is a recognition of the ability of community to work together with local government to bring new healthy outdoor play spaces to communities that many times aren’t as well served by those kinds of open spaces,” says Hipólito.

“What we’ve been able to do with [the ORLP grant] and by bundling it with other resources is not just to create the asset but to involve the community very deeply in the design of the park features,” he says.

Verde has engaged more than 600 community members—including almost 200 students—in park design and construction.

 “The investment in the project means that there is a recognition of the ability of community to work together with local government to bring new healthy outdoor play spaces to communities that many times aren’t as well served by those kinds of open spaces.” —Alan Hipólito, executive director of Verde

Elizabeth Kennedy-Wong, Portland Parks and Recreation public involvement manager, worked with Verde to help shape Cully Park. “Having places that are safe and accessible where people can go outside and exercise and run around and play is really important,” she says. “The other thing we’re going to get from this is real-life experience of this model.”

The unique partnership between Verde, Portland Parks and Recreation, and local residents can be a template for how other places can combine resources to create community assets.

The Funding Conundrum
In a nod to the potential of these kinds of projects, the ORLP grant program increased fivefold this year, to $15 million. The National Park Service is poring over applications now and expects to announce the 2016 grant recipients in September.

Whether the program continues depends on Congress reauthorizing the LWCF, which is operating under a temporary extension that expires in 2018. OIA is pushing for permanent authorization and full funding for the LWCF. The fund is currently authorized at $900 million annually, but actual appropriations by Congress have fluctuated wildly in the last 20 years, from a low of $138 million in 1996 to a peak of almost $1 billion in 2001. It averages around $300 million. ORLP is a small but important chunk of the whole pie.

“The significance of the ORLP program is pretty fundamental in that it ensures we all have access to a healthy outdoor lifestyle and that, in turn, supports a healthy economy that outdoor recreation drives,” says O’Brien-Feeney.

Outdoor recreation is a $646 billion industry in the United States, supporting 6.1 million jobs and generating $80 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue—benefits that rely on access to healthy public lands and waters.

Travis Campbell, vice chair of OIA’s board of directors and president and CEO of Far Banks Enterprise, testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources late last year, urging Congress to reauthorize LWCF after it expired in September 2015. “This hugely successful program brings money to each of our communities for local projects, increases access to special places, and supports thousands of American businesses across the country,” he stated.

O’Brien-Feeney emphasizes the importance of the outdoor industry’s vocal support. “Elected leaders want to hear from the business community. The outdoor industry has a particularly important connection to these local outdoor recreation opportunities,” he says.

The good news is that the LWCF garners bipartisan support. “There’s a project close to hand or in the district of almost every member in Congress where their constituents see direct benefit. That really helps getting buy-in from both sides of the aisle,” says O’Brien-Feeney.

Underlining this, in June the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously approved a resolution supporting reauthorization and full funding for the LWCF, and emphasizing the importance of the ORLP.

There’s no doubt that urban parks serve a critical demographic and are a gateway to broader outdoor recreation experiences. Now is the time for the outdoor industry to band together for the cause. Together we can influence policymakers to turn stark urban play deserts into sweet urban desserts.