Access to San Jose’s parks a thing of privilege, study finds
A new study details access to San Jose parks. File photo by Yale Wyatt.

San Jose residents love their parks, according to a recent study, but the data shows people of color and low-income individuals have more trouble accessing them.

According to a Knight Foundation study titled, “Community Ties: Understanding what attaches people to the place where they live,” recreational spaces were found to be one of the biggest factors that attached people to their city, meaning residents were more likely to invest in their community and stick around because of their local parks.

Sixty-nine percent of low-income San Jose residents said parks were “very important” to them. Sixty-two percent of higher income residents agreed.

Eighty-seven percent of non-whites in San Jose said recreational spaces were easy to access compared to 93 percent of whites. Blacks and Latinos reported the most difficulty.

While the study was conducted before COVID-19, Charlotte Graham, conservation and communications manager for Parks and Recreation Neighborhood Services, said parks may be even more important during the pandemic.

“Our parks have provided some really essential services and essential places for residents to go for their physical and mental health” Graham said.

Indeed, city parks have been full of people hiking and biking, according to Huy Mac, senior park ranger for San Jose.

If parks are so important to lower-income individuals and people of color, why are they having trouble accessing them? The study did not seek to answer this question and only attempted to provide insight into disparities.

According to Census data, Blacks and Latinos also experience the highest poverty rates in the city, which may provide a significant economic barrier to using recreational facilities. Households making $35,000 per year lacked access more than any other income bracket, the study said.

Evette Alexander, director of learning and impact for the Knight Foundation, said it was up to city leaders to discuss how they can fill the void.

“It’s really important to understand what people need and where they need it and what constitutes access because sometimes something can be nearby but there may be reasons why it doesn’t feel accessible,” she said. “So hearing from residents and listening to residents is a really important way to make sure that all types of residents have access to parks.”

Lack of transportation poses another potential barrier to access.

While 78% of low-income individuals reported having easy access to public transportation in comparison to their higher-income counterparts, taking a bus — pre-COVID or  post-COVID — requires more planning than jumping in a car.

According to Mac, this challenge is intensified by health concerns. He said the virus may be making people wary of using buses, which, depending on where they live, may be their only means of accessing a park.

“People are worried to use public transportation right now just because of being in close contact with other people,” Mac said. “I think that’s another big issue.”

Mac said facilities such as playgrounds and picnic tables have been closed off to discourage gatherings and spread of COVID-19, leaving visitors with few other options than to walk or bike six feet apart.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a difference between a neighborhood park that you can circle in five minutes versus going up to Alum Rock where you can hike,” Mac said. “There’s 32 miles of trail so you can spend a full day up there hiking.”

Someone who lives in East San Jose can expect to walk about 30 minutes or more to Lake Cunningham Regional Park, which offers a two-mile loop around the lake. Getting to Alum Rock Park from the east side or downtown would take an hour and a half on foot, according to Google maps.

A person living in Almaden, one of the city’s highest income neighborhoods, could walk eight minutes from Almaden Neighborhood Church and end up in Almaden Quicksilver County Park, with 30 miles of hiking trails and 16 miles of bike trails.

“Cities should take note that these aren’t just nice to have for people that live in particularly privileged neighborhoods, but really are something we should work toward all residents enjoying and having access to so that we can have more attached and engaged citizens that help make our community a better place.” Alexander said.

Graham said the city is addressing issues of equity in the ongoing Activate SJ Strategic Plan 2020-2040. One of the plan’s goals is to make it so all residents of San Jose will have a quality park within a 10-minute walking distance from where they live.

Graham encourages residents to attend community Parks and Recreation meetings to share experiences.

“Getting involved with community meetings and volunteering is a wonderful way to get involved to make a difference and to give us feedback,” Graham said.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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