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Minority Communities Need More Parks, Report Says

By Angela Rowen, Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 13, 2007

A new report takes aim at the East Bay Regional Park District for not doing enough to ensure that low-income minority communities have access to open space. 

In “Access to Parkland: Environmental Justice at East Bay Parks,” Paul Kibel, adjunct professor at Golden Gate University’s School of Law and director of the school’s City Parks Project, reviews published and unpublished reports on access to and usage of the EBRPD’s holdings, which cover 100,000 acres of land in Alameda and Contra Costa counties and constitute the largest public park system in the immediate San Francisco Bay Area. 

In the report, Kibel argues that a majority of the district’s land, which comprises 14 parks, 19 preserves, nine recreation areas and 13 shorelines, is located in hillside areas, adjacent to affluent, white communities and often inaccessible to low-income minority residents living in the flatland neighborhoods of Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, Hayward and Fremont. 

Kibel argues that because people are more likely to visit parks near their own communities, the district’s historic focus on acquiring large tracts of land in the highlands has created disparities in park usage based on income and, by extension, race. Kibel said he hopes his study will highlight the importance of the availability of open space in the fight for environmental justice, which has largely focused on toxics issues. 

In an interview with the Planet, Kibel explained why access to open space is an important component of the environmental justice movement. 

“People who exercise, who have greater access to recreational activities, are more likely to enjoy better health,” Kibel said. “There are mental or therapeutic benefits to interacting in natural settings. There is also the political question: in trying to build consensus for broader environmental policies, it is more difficult when the environmental constituency is limited to a small number of white affluent people. By expanding access to natural settings, we are helping to build a much broader, deeper and more diverse base for environmental protection and natural resource conservation.” 

Kibel said the report aims to start a conversation about the issue, rather than assess blame or accuse any individuals or groups of environmental racism. 

“We really did not want to dictate top-down-wise what should happen next, but to identify the usage pattern and make ourselves available as a resource going forward,” Kibel said. “The district has an advisory committee that could hold public workshops and solicit public comment as a means of soliciting more ideas from their constituents. From that, more concrete proposals would hopefully emerge. We want the solutions to come from the impacted community.” 

Kibel does, however, offer his own solutions in the report. One is for the district to expand its mission of preserving large-acreage wildlands for the purpose of conservation to include acquiring more land near the flatlands and along the shore. Specifically, it says the district should drop its requirement that it only acquire land that is more than 40 acres. 

The report also recommends creating joint power authorities with other agencies to facilitate the acquisition and operation of parkland, and suggests EBRPD work with local transit agencies to improve transportation to its hillside holdings, which are often too remote for low-income residents, who are less likely to own cars. 

The report’s findings don’t surprise Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, a nonprofit group that works to reduce environmental contamination in West Contra Costa County. “It is a tragic shame that low-income people, primarily people of color, don’t have transportation to these areas,” he said. “And even if the parks are adjacent to the community—like Park Pinole near Parchester Village (in Richmond)—people historically have been denied access and don’t feel it’s for them, even if it is right next door.” 

Clark agrees with Kibel’s recommendation that the district step up its collaboration with transit agencies in order to improve transportation to parkland, but offers an additional suggestion. “The district also needs to hire park rangers from our community,” he said. 

Not all proponents of expanding open space agree with the conclusions in the report. Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee, said urban parks like Point Isabel, located near the Richmond flatland community, and Martin Luther King Park, in the estuary near east Oakland’s minority community, would not exist without the help of the regional park district. 

La Force is vice president of Citizens for East Shore Parks, a group that helped establish Eastshore State park, which includes tidelands and upland property along 8.5 miles of shoreline from Richmond to Oakland. The state park was created through a collaboration between the regional park district and the state. 

“Overall, the park district has done a tremendous job,” La Force said, adding that some of the problem of getting more open space in Richmond lies in the political will of African-American city council members, who he says have complained that there are too many parks in their neighborhoods. 

La Force also said it would have been more useful to examine the California State Parks agency, which wants to create more urban parks but can’t get the funding to do so. 

Another critic of the report is Nancy Skinner, a park district board member who represents Ward 1, which includes Berkeley, San Pablo and Richmond. Skinner agrees that the district has historically focused on acquiring large tracts of land in the hillside areas, but says there is no doubt that the recent aim of the park district has been to acquire land along the shoreline, including Breuner Marsh, a 238-acre shoreline area located next to the African-American neighborhood of Parchester Village. 

She points out that the EBRPD was instrumental in the passage of Measure AA, which set aside $60 million for city parks to acquire flatland and shoreline parks and develop programs to serve urban communities. 

Skinner said Kibel’s report “misses the point” and admits that the district needs to do more to increase access. “Rather than looking at the geographic distribution of the parks, the report should have focused on the programs and facilities that we have to reach out to the flatland communities,” she said. “We don’t have a program at Eastshore Park or Tilden Park. We could do better there.”  

Skinner said a bond measure on the November 2008 ballot would provide for more money to city parks for acquisition of parklands and environmental education and outreach programs that target low-income people.