One of the many lessons that the Covid pandemic taught us was how valued our green spaces are. Take state parks as an example. In Maryland, state parks saw a 45% increase in attendance from 2019 to 2020, while those in Pennsylvania welcomed almost 27% more visitors during the same time period. The rest of the jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed reported similar patterns. And these figures are not including those visiting local parks, wetlands, forests or really any other public area containing trees, grasses or vegetation.
But not everyone throughout our region has the same ability to access our green spaces. In a recent report, the Center for American Progress found that communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in nature-deprived areas, 70% of low-income communities across the country live in nature-deprived areas and nature destruction has had the largest impact on low-income communities of color. And as the Covid pandemic hammered home, access to green spaces is essential for our mental and physical health. Research shows that walking near a green space can lower heart rates, reduce stress, lift one’s mood and improve cognition function.
In 2021, the Chesapeake Bay Program funded a project under their Protected Lands Outcome that would develop a mapping tool to identify low-income communities of color with limited or no access to green space. The tool is meant to help community and conservation groups invest in these areas to increase the public’s ability to visit parks, recreational areas, community gardens and the water.
The Green Space Equity Mapper is the first such tool developed in the Chesapeake region to display data showing the location of underserved communities and their access (or lack thereof) to green spaces. It is a GIS application that uses different layers of data that can be turned on or off. It shows the acreage of tree cover, wetlands and impervious surfaces across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, in addition to green spaces, water bodies and areas at risk of flooding.
Low-income communities of color throughout the watershed are determined by looking at data from Congressional districts, the Center for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index and a variety of data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) EJScreen (including low-income, low life expectancies, under age five, over age 64, people of color and linguistically isolated populations).
The application also allows for accessibility information, including total green spaces per capita, acres of green space within Census blocks, distance to nearest transit stop and walkability index, taken from EPA’s Smart Location Database. The tool specifically looks at green spaces within a 10-minute walk, or half of a mile, from neighborhoods, as well as those within a 10-minute drive, or five miles.
The Protected Lands Outcome is managed by the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership (CCP), a coalition of organizations engaged in land conservation within the Bay watershed. The CCP works toward meeting their conservation goals through five priority areas: farms, forests, habitat, heritage and human health. The human health priority area was added in 2020 during the height of the Covid pandemic, when it was clear how invaluable access to public spaces had become. It principally works to protect, conserve and enhance lands that support equitable public health for all.
The Green Space Equity Mapper not only contributes to protecting an additional two million acres of land throughout the watershed, which is the goal of the Protected Lands Outcome, but it also benefits the Public Access Outcome of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. The Public Access Outcome seeks to add 300 new public access sites across the region by 2025.
The Green Space Equity Mapper was designed primarily for non-profit organizations and state and local agencies that are looking to prioritize where open space should be located. The tool include instructions on how to use it and it was demoed in a recent webinar. On the Chesapeake Bay Program website, you can also take a look at what public access sites are currently accessible throughout the watershed.