How Can Cities Cope With Climate Change? The Answer Is Parks.
Climate change is no longer a far-off threat. It is hurting our health and well-being and putting our communities at risk. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a warning that climate change was outpacing the ability of both nature and nations to adapt. The assessment presented a sobering inventory of the recent toll climate change has taken and urged cities to accelerate efforts to protect themselves.
Many people are aware that major American cities have recently pledged to cut carbon emissions. But what they might not realize is that cities are also working to become more resilient. They are rethinking their streetscapes and green spaces with an eye toward blunting the worst effects of rising heat and destructive storms. Extreme heat is already the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States.
Parks are a vital tool in those efforts. Green space has been shown to reduce air temperature and capture floodwater, and can be engineered to enhance those powers. That’s critical for disadvantaged communities, since a warming planet poses the greatest danger to vulnerable populations. And parks offer something else: hope. As climate change bears down, parks provide tangible evidence of progress, giving young people — who are especially fearful for their futures — something to feel positive about.
In Trust for Public Land’s new ranking of the park systems in the 100 largest American cities, Washington, D.C., placed first. It scored especially well for its investment in parks and access to parks — two of five metrics we use to measure cities (the others being equity, acreage and amenities).
As part of the annual ranking, we also surveyed the 100 most populous cities to see what they are doing to respond to climate change. The responses were striking for the sheer variety of approaches, with cities managing parks to reduce flooding, cool children with water features and minimize wildfire risk.
In fact, 85% of cities said they are remaking parks and recreation facilities to address climate change in some way. More than three-quarters are enlisting parks to counter urban heat, while two-thirds are improving surfaces to reduce flooding and runoff from rain. About 20% are managing parks and woodlands to sequester carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Other cities are clearing underbrush to slow wildfires, restoring shorelines to buffer storm surges and switching to renewable energy sources.
The results reflect the growing awareness among park managers and planners that green space can fortify cities in the face of climate change.
In Washington, the newly renovated Marvin Gaye Park and Recreation Center is a poster child for climate adaptation.
A new splash pad helps kids stay cool, while indoors a number of high-tech features reduce energy use. Designers added perforated aluminum panels to the façade to control the amount of light and heat in the building. That enabled the downsizing of the mechanical systems, which are used less frequently. In addition, sensors tell the system when to go into passive-ventilation mode, while solar-powered fans on the roof draw fresh air into the building. The center was also designed to be resilient in the face of disasters like flooding and power outages.
That parks departments are taking climate change so seriously is encouraging, and a good first step. But it is not nearly enough. During the COVID pandemic, when tax revenues fell, many park systems stretched their budgets by deferring regular maintenance and major capital improvements. Together, the 100 largest cities have racked up many billions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs, meaning they are in no position to invest in new park space, let alone renovations that would help with extreme weather.
But it is urgent that we act now. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that, barring a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the number of Americans experiencing 30 or more days with a heat index above 105 degrees in an average year will balloon to more than 90 million by mid-century, from fewer than 1 million today.
And we know that green space can help alleviate heat. Communities with nearby parks can be dramatically cooler than those in so-called “park deserts.” Our own analysis of 14,000 cities and towns showed that nationwide, areas within a 10-minute walk of a park are as much as 6 degrees cooler than those beyond that range. Other studies, such as one by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found even greater temperature variation. Readings on a few of the hottest days in 2018 in Washington’s Rock Creek Park, for example, revealed differences of up to 17 degrees between the dense green park and surrounding neighborhoods.
Dr. Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University, said society needs to view parks as a “climate refuge” — a relatively easy solution to a worsening problem. “Parks can improve our resiliency to hotter summers and more extreme precipitation and help us in these times of uncertainty,” he said. “Especially for communities that don’t have many options for staying cool, parks can play a significant role.”
Congress, state governments and city councils all must redouble efforts to finance what experts call “green infrastructure” (and the rest of us call good parks) in order to protect communities — especially those that need parks most. One bright spot is that many cities are reaping money from ballot measures that were embraced by residents eager for new and improved parks. Such investments can help bridge the park equity gap while countering urban heat and flooding caused by climate change.
We need more parks in general. But we also need to make sure that existing parks aren’t just swaths of asphalt with a few green shoots here and there. Rather, parks should be verdant oases that connect everyone to the outdoors while protecting cities against a changing climate. Well-designed, high-quality parks bring joy to communities, improve public health, reduce inequality and alleviate the disasters associated with climate change.
Diane Regas is president and CEO of Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit dedicated to connecting everyone to the joys and benefits of the outdoors. She can be found on Twitter at @DianeRegas and you can reach the trust @tpl_org.
Prior to Trust for Public Land, Regas worked for more than a decade at the Environmental Defense Fund, most recently as executive director, where she helped EDF advance solutions that promote prosperity for all people and for the planet. She guided work to improve ocean health, stabilize the climate, reduce toxins in everyday products, and promote collaboration and partnerships. Prior to EDF, Regas served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working under both Democratic and Republican administrations as the top civil servant protecting our nation’s rivers, lakes and bays.
Regas earned her B.A., M.S., in energy and resources, and J.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, and resides in Berkeley, California. An avid outdoor explorer, Regas enjoys hiking, cycling, diving, camping and spending time in nature with her husband, children and grandchildren.