Improving Equity through Passive Recreation in Northeastern North Carolina

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Pericak, Andrew


Swenson, Jennifer J.

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Viewing public parks as environmental goods that provide benefits to people, society should strive to equitably distribute parks so that all individuals, regardless of racial or socioeconomic background, can use parks. This project emphasizes passive recreation parks, public parks such as nature preserves or hiking trails that do not require built park infrastructure as would a soccer field or a baseball diamond. These parks provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, but importantly also maintain many ecosystem service benefits which a “built” park would eliminate. Prior research has analyzed the distribution of parks for city residents, inconclusively finding that poor and minority populations may or may not reside physically closer to parks than do wealthy, white populations. Generally, though, the environmental justice literature emphasizes how privileged members of society tend to reside near quality parks, so achieving distributional equity requires creating new parks near less-privileged people. Perhaps surprisingly, few studies have examined the distribution of parks in rural areas; parks are just as important here because rural residents contend with the extensive agricultural environment, one not necessarily conducive to outdoor recreation. A critical need exists to assess the distributional equity of passive recreation parks in low-income, rural, agricultural counties, and to determine whether establishing new parks in those counties would lead to greater equity. To address this need, I examined park access for residents of five rural counties in northeastern North Carolina: Beaufort, Edgecombe, Halifax, Nash, and Rockingham. I first created an objective definition of equity for this study; namely, an equitable situation results when residents of poor, high people-of-color (POC) Census block groups (BGs) have statistically equal drive times to their closest parks as do residents of wealthy, low POC BGs. Notably, this definition does not take into account some important determinants about how people choose what park to visit, such as park size, quality, or amenities. The definition also assumes people own a car and are willing to drive to their closest park, and presumes people actually know the location of their closest park and choose to visit it because of its proximity. Nonetheless, I employed this definition so as to take an objective survey of current park distribution. Using this definition of equity, I then ascertained the “local context” of each BG within all five counties. Using American Community Survey data, I compared a BG’s median income and percent POC population to the average values of those metrics for surrounding BGs; the local neighborhood for comparison derived from the average commute time of the target BG, with the assumption that people would willingly spend about the same amount of time to drive to a park as they would to their workplace. From this process, I categorized each block group as having higher or lower income and higher or lower percent POC in comparison to their local neighbors. I then located public, passive recreation parks within the five counties and within neighboring counties. An algorithm found the closest park in terms of shortest driving time for each BG within the five counties, correlating these drive times to the race and income categories derived from the local context operation. Per this study’s definition of equity, I found certain counties demonstrated inequities in park distribution. Beaufort County actually exhibited similar drive times from all BGs, suggesting parks are equitably distributed in that county. Contrastingly, Halifax County’s poor, high POC BGs had significantly longer drive times to their closest parks than did any other populations. Edgecombe, Nash, and Rockingham Counties showed the opposite result of Halifax; the poor, high POC BGs had significantly shorter drive times to their closest parks than did rich, white areas. Nonetheless, all counties but Beaufort demonstrate inequitable outcomes. Since Halifax County met the environmental justice assumption that environmental goods favor wealthy, white populations, I ran a series of case studies on that county to determine if establishing new parks would make drive times equal among the various BGs. In one model, I pinpointed the BG with the greatest drive time to its closest park, identified government-owned land within that county, chose one parcel to become a hypothetical park, and re-ran the closest park analysis. I repeated this process until there were no significant differences among the race and income categories; this required establishing 11 new parks. In another model, I replicated this process but only established new parks in the poor, high POC BGs; here, I only needed six new parks until an equitable outcome resulted. This study shows that rural counties tend to have inequities in park distribution, but that in some cases low-income, POC populations do have better access to parks than do wealthier, whiter populations. Careful planning about where to site new parks can eventually lead to distributional equity, at least in Halifax County, but the county’s limited resources may prevent it from establishing multiple new parks in a short time period. This study does not consider important variables that actually determine what parks people want to visit, or where local residents would want a new park. Future studies can combine the objective information generated from this study with community discussions and demands to decide where best to locate new parks. Future research can also use the local context operation to investigate different definitions of distributional equity—for example, is it equitable that residents of one must drive on average only 15 minutes to their closest park if it takes 30 minutes in another county? In sum, the distributional equity of passive recreation parks suffers for rural, agricultural counties, meaning that certain privileged individuals within those counties receive an unjust share of the parks’ environmental and health benefits. This finding holds especially true for residents living the farthest away from these counties’ towns and cities. By using the local context to identify specific areas within counties most in need of parks, however, this study shows that careful planning can lead to greater distributional equity.





Pericak, Andrew (2016). Improving Equity through Passive Recreation in Northeastern North Carolina. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.