Parks are essential for public health, climate resilience and strongly connected communities. Trust for Public Land annually ranks park systems across the 100 most populated cities in the United States. Those in California’s Central Valley often rank near the bottom: Fresno ranks 97th. Bakersfield is 85th. Stockton ranks 77th.
Let’s look at an example of what that means. Only three percent of Stockton’s land is used for parks and recreation compared to the national average of 15 percent. Stockton’s spending on parks per person is $19 compared to the national average of $96. Stockton’s neighborhoods of color have access to 32 percent less park space compared to white neighborhoods.
Stockton and other Central Valley cities can improve their ranking with the help of California’s budget surplus. When we build parks in neighborhoods that don’t have any, we change the lives and futures of generations to come. Yet funding for better parks in cities like these hangs in the balance unless the legislature decides to re-commit to a historic statewide park regeneration measure.
Health research shows seven census tracts in Stockton are the unhealthiest in San Joaquin County, and the disparities are serious. In those areas rates of heart, respiratory and liver disease are double those of the county overall, and accidental death rates are more than three times as high.
Good health begins with giving our children safe green places to play. As a doctor in Stockton and one of the authors of this piece, I have seen the health effects of not having space to exercise. A prescription that encourages individuals to go for a walk in an open space can only be provided if beautiful parks exist in our county. The public health benefits of parks cannot be overstated.
Used to distribute free meals during COVID, parks like Stockton’s Columbus Park are a balm for these and other serious health issues. Sitting in the fourth unhealthiest census tract in the county, Columbus Park has been reclaimed as a safe place for families to enjoy thanks to a $3.4m investment in 2021 by the Statewide Park Development and Community Revitalization Program.
Sadly, funding for that program ended. Now a statewide coalition of organizations is calling on state legislators to add $800 million over two years to the state budget to fund park equity in cities like Stockton. At Columbus Park, state funds went towards lighting, public art, pathways, sports courts, a picnic shelter, landscaping, an adult fitness center, restrooms, and a new playground. People told health surveyors that the park was what they wanted more than anything else.
There is so much more work to be done, to complete parks like Columbus and to build more in the communities that need them. These parks have a profound impact on people’s health. It’s vital that our legislators hear from us that now is the time to invest in parks for our health in cities across California.
Kwabena Adubofour is an internal medicine doctor working with families on Main Street in Stockton.
Guillermo Rodriguez is the California state director at Trust for Public Land.