Tending to his journal in the fall of 1859, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau promoted an idea that would alter the course of American urban planning. “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest,” he wrote, “where a stick should never be cut for fuel. A common possession forever… inalienable forever.” 

The idea was radical for its time. Few cities had parks, and what parks did exist were mostly private. Among policymakers, nature was hardly considered intrinsically good, or worth preserving eternally in its own right. The land was to be profited from, the earth to be devoured. 

But concern was growing over the repercussions of this philosophy. Thoreau and those he influenced—like, notably, Frederick Law Olmstead, who would go on to design Central Park, Golden Gate Park, and countless others—feared that private development’s unmitigated imperial march would soon consign all of mankind to a life of noise, pollution, ugliness, and spiritless toil, conducted out of nature, under artificial light. City parks were a way to frustrate that march, and to preserve for the masses access if not to “primitive forests,” then at least to pockets of nature, which could offer essential respite from the evils of the city. 

The idea caught on. Not long after Thoreau’s death, in 1862, large urban parks—grounded in a compromised version of the urban-wilderness ideal—were being conceived in cities all over the country. Parks became embedded in the City Beautiful Movement. By 1902, 716 cities had carved parks into their built environment. More would follow. 

The view that parks are essential has only solidified since. Among other things, parks have been found to promote social cohesion, reduce class conflict, and improve public health. They decrease pollution, increase property values, create jobs, minimize stress, mitigate depression, and improve life outcomes. And even a little goes a long way: a much-cited 1984 study published in Science famously showed that post-surgery patients assigned to hospital rooms with trees and grass visible through their windows recovered faster than those who didn’t have such accommodations. 

Today, parks exist as a kind of essential civic infrastructure, an egalitarian good you know is working when you find yourself taking it for granted, the way commuters take for granted trains that arrive on time. They’re hallmarks of great cities. They make a place easier to call home. 

But not all cities invest in their parks equally. The Trust For Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit that analyzes inequities built into American cityscapes, each year puts out a report scoring cities in terms of how equitably, across lines of race and income, they’ve distributed well-equipped and well-cared-for parks. In its most recent report, “Parks and an equitable recovery,” TPL found that in most U.S. cities, park equity is markedly low. On average, neighborhoods that are majority nonwhite enjoy access to 44% less park acreage than majority-white neighborhoods. Low-income communities have access to 42% less park space than high-income neighborhoods. Places with fewer parks tend to be closer to industry, freeways, and toxic dumps, in the constant fog of vehicle exhaust. They’re much hotter, subjected to longer scabby stretches of concrete, and have smaller amounts of tree canopy cover. They have fewer backyards and balconies. They are the places, especially in a pandemic, where access to quality, well-maintained park space would do the most good. 

The denial of access to quality parklands is not merely an emblem of inequity, but an engine of it. Disparities in park investment have been found to deepen race and class divides. They exacerbate environmental, social, and economic inequities and the harms associated with them. They widen disparities in life outcomes. And they become more deeply rooted over time, further ingrained in a larger, self-reinforcing ecosystem of systemic injustices and social shortcomings, such as those related to homelessness. 

Of course, inequitable investment in parks is not new. Nor is it the most life-or-death issue on most cities’ plates. But the COVID-19 pandemic threw its insidious potential into perfervid light, underscoring the moral and practical urgency of redressing it alongside the problems it inflames.  

In few cities did this happen more palpably than here in Oakland. 

Oakland suffers from more park inequity than do most cities of its size. According to TPL, Oaklanders in low-income neighborhoods have access to 78% less park space than those in high-income neighborhoods—a disparity 36 percentage points higher than the national average—and neighborhoods of color enjoy access to 69% less parkland than white neighborhoods: 25 percentage points higher than average. 

Darlene Flynn, executive director of the Oakland Department of Race and Equity, says these disparities are indicators. In 2018, her department commissioned a separate study of inequity in Oakland, which included park inequity. In it, the authors found that Oakland neighborhoods with the fewest “activated parks” also see higher rates of crime, higher concentrations of pollution, higher high school dropout rates, and higher rates of asthma, stroke, and congestive heart failure. The life expectancy of Black residents in West Oakland, for example—one of the areas of the city, along with the East Oakland flatlands, with the fewest well-maintained parks—is 14 years shorter than white Oaklanders in the hills.

“The state of the parks in Oakland’s lower-income, minority communities is consistent with the state of everything else in those communities,” Flynn told me. “Parks are like schools. Neglecting them causes generational harm.”

Park inequity is a problem—a stain—though it is not insurmountable. Certain cities, like San Francisco and Minneapolis, have nearly eradicated it. Many more have made strides to that end, to the benefit not only of marginalized neighborhoods but the city as a whole. 

The same has not happened here, and Oakland remains a kind of cautionary tale as a result. As the pandemic drags on, and as the practical and humanitarian imperatives of park access become more evident, it’s worth asking, what accounts for this? Will Measure Q—the Oakland Parks and Recreation Preservation, Litter Reduction, and Homelessness Support Act, passed last year—improve things? 

If not, what, if anything, will give more Oaklanders access to the parks they deserve? 

A history of disinvestment in parks for Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods

Arroyo Viejo Park welcome sign
Covered with graffiti and weathered, Arroyo Viejo Park’s welcome sign illustrates the conditions of many parks in Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland might seem a paradoxical example of park inequity. Oakland is home to Lake Merritt, the oldest wildlife preserve in the country. It likewise boasts more acres of parkland per resident than almost any U.S. city of its size, and much of it is widely celebrated—veritable Edens of 150-year-old redwood forests that grow in rings around the remnants of their felled ancestors and rise like temple pillars from the forest floor. 

The problem is location. Oakland is a highly segregated city, and its class divides are reinforced geographically. Wealthier, mostly white residents live in the hills, and lower-income, mostly Black, Latino, and Asian residents live in the flatlands. According to TPL, Oakland dedicates only 11% of its built environment to parks and recreation—and almost all of it is in hill areas that are difficult to get to for residents who don’t have a car. (The shortest ride to Joaquin Miller Park on AC transit from the deep east is roughly an hour, and requires multiple line switches.) 

Not counting the waterfront regional parks, from which most flatland residents are separated by freeways and railroad tracks, East Oakland—which is to say, most of Oakland—boasts just a handful of parks larger than a city block. 

The impact is widely felt. Maurice “Mo” Seaty, a lifelong East Oakland resident and former teacher in the Oakland Unified School District told me the dearth of parks near him when he was young meant that neither he nor his friends ever really utilized the parks. “Growing up, the closest park was 16 blocks away,” he said. “We didn’t have a connection to them. It wasn’t safe to walk that far, so as kids we mostly played in the street.”

David Kakishiba, executive director of East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), which conducts summer and after-school programming for kids in the San Antonio, Fruitvale, and Chinatown neighborhoods, says the problem is not just limited to the deep east. “There is not really any large park space in East Lake,” he said. “And I can’t think of any real greenspace in Chinatown. It’s all concrete.” 

“It’s very observable,” said David Peters, founder of the Black Liberation Walking Tour, which spotlights landmarks of Black history and culture in the Hoover-Foster neighborhood in West Oakland. Peters has been said to possess a “library of knowledge” about the area—and he says kids there simply have nowhere to recreate, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, when several youth centers closed. “But it’s generational,” he told me. “None of this is new.”  

How old is it, then? Or, perhaps more aptly, how did park inequity become so baked into Oakland’s landscape? That’s a question professor Mitchell Schwarzer examines in his new book, Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption. In Schwarzer’s view, the paucity of parks in flatland Oakland is the product of poor city planning. Much of the blame can be placed on municipal leaders. From the late-19th century through the 1970s, Oakland was controlled by an oligarchy of white, business-owning conservatives who remained generally detached from the lived realities of the larger citizenry, and whose approach to urban planning was aggressively laissez-faire. Their primary governing concern was competing economically with San Francisco, and they tracked their progress on that front by a count of smokestacks, storefronts, and shipyards. They epitomized the view that land—no matter how beautiful—existed to be profited from. As Schwarzer writes, “Setting aside permanent open space” in the form of parks “took land off the tax rolls and out of the real estate and building contests.” This meant that, “Despite their many benefits, parks fit like a round peg into [Oakland’s] rectilinear drive toward urban development.” 

This is not to say calls for parks did not ring. As visiting city planner Charles Mulford Robinson noted in 1906’s A Plan for Civic Improvement for the City of Oakland, “There is not a spot on all the long bay and estuary frontage where [people] are free to watch the ceaseless panorama of shipping… and there are no free pleasure grounds to which they have inalienable right.” Writing in 1918, the famed architect Werner Hegemann put it even more bluntly: “The time will have gone by when timid men without vision managed to bar the East Bay cities from the rank among American park cities they deserve by their unheard possibilities of using their parks all the year around and of blossoming not during one or two months but every month of the year.” At the time, according to Hegemann, Oakland had only one-tenth the park area it should have. Even so, the drive to develop the land continued, and the view among politicians that parks were a poor investment persisted. 

The exception was Frank Mott. Elected mayor in 1905, Mott is the main reason Oakland today has even as many parks as it does. Mott bought into the transcendentalist view of parks as essential, and he believed in the social and personal benefits parks could provide. In 1907, he helped pass a bond that paid for the creation of many of Oakland’s most beloved flatland parks, including Bushrod Park, Mosswood Park, DeFremery Park, and, notably, Lakeside Park, on the northern shore of Lake Merritt. He even put into motion plans for building a large, centrally located city park, in the mold of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, that would serve a larger portion of the public, and create a more genuinely egalitarian public value. It centered around the construction of a “300-acre, lake-to-canyons park,” which, as Schwarzer writes, sought to “take advantage of Oakland’s steep topography and its opportunities for long-distance vistas and riparian promenades.” Schwarzer told me in an email that it would have extended “from the upper part of Lake Merritt to what was then known as Sather Park (the Lakeshore Highlands area and Trestle Glen), uphill to Dimond Canyon/Sausal Creek, and further to the upper hills and Redwood groves.” The dreamed-for park even had a name: Wildwood Park. 

But plans stalled and in 1915, Mott was replaced by the starkly conservative John Davie, who rejected out of hand “any idea of purchasing parkland,” including lands needed for Wildwood, and adopted a strangely aggressive anti-park stance. He stalled appointments to the park board and later stacked the board with park-expansion opponents. 

“I am against the waste of taxpayer’s money in the purchase of land that is even worthless to real estate developers,” Davie announced. 

This became the operating mindset of the city government for the next 30 years. In the meantime, Oakland was thoroughly denuded. Its creeks were imprisoned in concrete culverts, its oak groves felled for parking lots, the marshes and sloughs the indigenous Ohlone people once called home abandoned to industry, the whole of the flatlands swallowed by asphalt. And never did Oakland build a large, centrally located city park. As Schwarzer writes, “When the opportunity presented itself, when undeveloped lands in both the flatlands and lower hills were available, a mentality geared to business and the individual, epitomized by Mayor Davie, tied the city’s hands. That lack of vision and public service counts as one of Oakland’s lasting failures.” 

I spoke with Schwarzer about why this anti-park mentality was so strong here in Oakland. He told me that Oakland’s elected leaders simply “didn’t want to do anything civic.” 

“They governed for the minority of upper-middle-class whites living in the hills,” he said. This explains why what city parks were purchased in the years after Mott’s tenure as mayor—Dimond, Joaquin Miller—are all hills parks serving hills residents. 

Oakland’s flippant attitude toward preserving green space in the flatlands was abetted by a sense of delusion pertaining to the abundance of beautiful land around—the redwood groves in the hills, tidal marshes by the bay. “They didn’t think they needed to preserve parkland,” Schwarzer said. “Because in the beginning there was so much open space.” 

Oakland’s anti-park policy was also greased by systemic racism. According to Dr. C.N.E. Corbin, assistant professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, and a former chair of the Oakland Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, Oakland’s decision to secure parkland only in the hills was part of a larger pattern of investing only in white sections of the city—which racial real estate covenants excluded minorities from living in—and actively divesting from Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods. The pattern was colored into the topography. 

“When you look at the redlining map of Oakland from the 1930s,” Corbin said, “you can see how the foothills and hills are colored green and blue, considered the best, and the flats, in the areas alongside industry, are yellow and red, which were considered the worst for investment. That’s where you see the first environmental injustices being shown. The geography allowed for the division, where the hills had a nicer, more beautiful environment, and benefitted from federal investment and cheap mortgages, and the flats were subjected to pollution, and considered valuable only for their proximity to industry and to infrastructure, and were denied federal investment or access to loans.” 

The pattern impacted the culture. The culture influenced policy. Policy neglected parks. “The geographical bifurcation lent itself to segregation,” Corbin said. “Residents in the hills enjoyed a woodsy, John Muir experience right in their backyard.” They didn’t need the city parks. Why invest in the flats?

In the years following WW2, residents in the flat, poorer areas of the city, abandoned by industry and desiccated by suburbanization, saw mostly divestment. Far from investing in flatland neighborhoods with things like public parks, the city ran freeways through them. 

“Oakland corralled devalued residents into devalued lands,” Corbin said. “They systematically bulldozed thousands of homes and businesses that belonged to minority residents in service of the suburbs, a landscape codified in law as an exclusively white space.” 

This left residents in those neighborhoods disillusioned and disadvantaged, not only less able to advocate for better parks or services, but less galvanized to even try. “We didn’t miss it, but we missed it, you know?” said Reverend Ambrose Carroll, who grew up in East Oakland. He’s the founder of Green the Church, which aspires, among other things, to foster connection within the community to green spaces. “It just wasn’t part of our experience.” 

In time, attitudes became entrenched and disparities became the norm. 

Seaty, the teacher from East Oakland, wonders now about what inaccessibility to parklands as a kid did to his perception of the outdoors. “We didn’t think about the outdoors. We didn’t think about parks. That’s in part because we were never inspired by them.” 

“People of color and people in low-income areas of the city have been systematically ostracized from access to quality parks,” said Terra Cole Brown, executive director of the Oakland Parks Foundation, which supports park improvements and programs. The dejection, she says, is ingrained. “Quality parks have not been seen as a priority here. And residents don’t believe in the city’s capacity or desire to improve the parks. Why would they?”

Terra Cole Brown, Executive Director of Oakland Parks & Recreation Foundation poses for a photo in DeFremery Park in West Oakland
Terra Cole Brown, executive director of Oakland Parks & Recreation Foundation, poses for a photo in DeFremery Park in West Oakland.

It was in this way that disparities in park access became embedded into Oakland’s built environment—a simple fact of life in the city. 

“The parks are a really sad aspect of Oakland,” Schwarzer said, when we connected over the phone. “We simply didn’t build enough of them.” 

But the paucity of parks is only part of the problem. 

Why are the amenities in Oakland’s parks so unequal?

Park equity isn’t just a matter of adding more acreage in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Equally important is how well that parkland is maintained. And in Oakland, parks in the poorer parts of town look and feel quite different than parks in the hills. 

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that most of the hills parks and flatland parks are not managed by the same entities. Hills parks are for the most part managed by the East Bay Regional Park District. The EBRPD was established in 1934 and serves residents of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. It was formed by a council of advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club and the Oakland Park League, to ensure that surplus acres of potential parkland that had been put on sale by the East Bay Municipal Utility District—which had been using the lands to source drinking water—were not turned into subdivisions. Its creation was facilitated by the passage of legislation in the state Senate and approval the following year by East Bay voters of a new property tax assessment to fund it. This was preceded by much public campaigning on the part of prominent park advocates. The assembly bill codifying EBRPD into law was drafted by former mayor Mott.

EBRPD today manages 74 regional parks. It’s the largest regional parks system in the country. Nearly all the parks that residents enjoy backyard access to in the hills fall into its purview. EBRPD spends more money per resident for park maintenance and support than the city spends on the parks it manages, which—save for select hill parks, like Montclair Park, Leona Heights Park, and Joaquin Miller—are all in the flatlands. The resources at its disposal allow EBRPD to invest in the regional parks in a way that’s meaningful and felt. In just one example, the district is currently upgrading all of its old or disused park bathrooms with prefabricated concrete vault toilets, connected directly to the sewer line. But because the regional parks are so geographically inaccessible, such amenities and investments disproportionately benefit hills residents, further supplementing an already privileged and naturally supported environmental experience. 

Temescal Regional Recreation Area in Oakland
Temescal Regional Recreation Area in Oakland

The experience in the flatland parks is much different. Earlier this year, I spoke with Harold Duffey, the head of Oakland’s Public Works department, which oversees the maintenance of the city parks. He told me that the city’s maintenance crews, though underfunded and overstretched, provide every city park with a baseline level of service that includes regular grass mowing and tree trimming, and daily visits to do things like empty trash cans and restock bathrooms. 

But he acknowledged his crews are limited in the service they’re able to provide. Crews can’t inspect every park thoroughly, or even on a regular basis, for things such as broken lights, vandalized amenities, or dumped trash. Rather, they attend to such matters by request, when residents call or write in through the city’s 311 hotline. As a result, litter sometimes builds up. Ballfields fill with weeds. Amenities, such as the bathrooms, can deteriorate. A recent personal investigation of the bathrooms at Arroyo Viejo, San Antonio, DeFremery, Snow, and even Lakeside Park found the state of each frightening. Certain of the toilets lacked either seats or seat covers—were just naked metal bowls—most had been vandalized, and all emitted smells ranging from dank to dying to putrefied. Several of the bathrooms were simply locked. 

“Current conditions of the parks reflect our ability to provide services in a timely manner,” Duffey said. (As of 2018, only 4.5 custodial positions were allocated to the maintenance of “Outside Restrooms,” according to the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation.) 

But the differing capabilities of the city and the EBRPD don’t explain the disparities evident in the state of the city parks themselves. Not all city parks are in bad shape, for example, and unsurprisingly, the state they’re in tends to be determined by elevation and class, with the city parks in the wealthier parts of town proving to be consistently in better condition than the parks in the flatlands. According to the OPRF, parks in the city’s higher-income neighborhoods were more likely to receive “A” and “B” scores in terms of maintenance, while the “D” and “F” parks were generally located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

What accounts for this? A few things. First, the flatland parks have needs and face challenges that hilltop parks remain insulated from, including the mounting humanitarian crisis of homelessness that has led to greenspaces filling up with encampments. Oakland operates around 1,700 shelter and transitional housing beds, even though an estimated 7,000 Oakland residents today remain homeless. Still, encampments exacerbate existing maintenance challenges, discourage park usage, and inhibit crews from conducting even the baseline level of service (which on its own would remain inadequate to address the issue). Crews are simply under-equipped. 

“The problem has outgrown the city’s current policy environment,” said Joe DeVries, director of Interdepartmental Operations, earlier this year

Ribbon and art murals line the park fence in DeFremery Park
Ribbon art and murals line the park fence in DeFremery Park in West Oakland.

But homelessness is just one challenge unique to the flatland parks—others include illegal dumping and vandalism—that necessitate more attentive levels of maintenance and support than what the baseline provides. 

Duffey assured me that once Public Works can access funding from Measure Q, which authorizes the city to levy $27 million in additional taxes over the next 20 years in support of park maintenance, crews will begin providing more equitable levels of service. But that hasn’t happened yet (for reasons which we’ll discuss below) and so the flatland parks continue to sink, like boats filling up with water faster than the water can be removed. 

“People are frustrated,” said Terra Cole Brown, executive director of the Oakland Parks Foundation. “If your parks are dirty, they don’t mitigate anything for you.”

“The maintenance of the parks out here can be bad,” said Andrew Park, executive director of Trybe, a nonprofit that, like EBAYC, offers educational and recreational services for East Oakland youth and often works out of the parks. When we spoke earlier this year, he described how much work Trybe had put into improving San Antonio Park. Trybe opened up shop at San Antonio about a year-and-a-half ago. Andrew told me that before Trybe began using the park, it was so full of biohazards that Trybe had to conduct its own maintenance, just so that kids would feel comfortable there. “We even brought in our own port-a-potties.”

The second issue is the city’s strategy of conducting large-scale repairs only upon request. It favors the parks in the wealthier parts of town. 

“Affluent neighborhoods know how to operate within the municipal system,” said J. Nicholas Williams, director of the Oakland Parks and Rec Department. When regulars of places like Joaquin Miller Park see a busted light, he said, “They call the City Council. They call the mayor. They form ‘Friends of the Park’ organizations. They know how to use their connections to marshall the services they need.” Residents in less-affluent neighborhoods “have less time and less energy to challenge the city” to provide a higher level of service. “And that’s not because they don’t care about their parks,” Williams said. “It’s because residents work two or three jobs, and are caring for multiple family members.” 

J. Nicholas Williams, Director for the Department of Parks, Recreation, & Youth Development poses in front of a playground at Arroyo Viejo Park
J. Nicholas Williams, Director of Oakland’s Parks, Recreation, and Youth Development Department. Credit: Amir Aziz

Duffey, of Public Works, stressed that his department pays close attention to the city’s Oak 311 system, which residents can call or access through an app to request maintenance or repairs to city-owned infrastructure. He urged residents to utilize this service, stressing that it is in fact strategically crucial to the success of his department, especially in the face of staffing shortages and budget shortfalls. 

Still, as Williams put it, “a busted light” or an abused bathroom “that would have been reported within the hour at Joaquin Miller” can go unaddressed for a year in a park such as Arroyo Viejo in deep East Oakland. Because residents who might use parks like Arroyo Viejo have been underserved by the city for so long, “There’s not even an expectation that that light is supposed to be on,” Williams said. 

These factors have kicked the flatland parks into a kind of negative feedback loop. Unkempt parks deter people from using them, in part because they begin to seem dangerous. The fewer people using a park, meanwhile, the fewer people around or inspired to advocate on the park’s behalf. And the fewer people advocating on the park’s behalf, the further the park is allowed to degenerate—and the more inviting it becomes to bad actors, who accelerate the loop. “The number one reason people choose not to visit a park is the perception of safety, which is tied directly to whether a park is clean and well-maintained,” Williams said.

As a result of all this, flatland parks—the further west or southeast you get from Lake Merritt, especially—are falling into worse shape, and growing progressively drabber, as if they exist in a permanent winter, subject to the corrosion of more hostile air.

Oakland is taking steps toward righting the wrongs of park inequity

Why is it so hard for Oakland to fix these problems? Of late: competing crises. Jaggedly rising rates of homelessness, increased crime, and a once-in-a-century pandemic were three challenges cited by both Duffey and Williams. The latter, according to Williams, “caused such a disruption to the city’s finances that we had to lay off much of our part-time staff.”

In Oakland, as is true in most cities, funding for maintaining and improving parks comes mostly from the general fund. However, because of Proposition 13—which hobbled the ability of California cities to collect more money through property taxes—as well as a legacy of poor financial planning that has left Oakland perennially in debt, there’s never enough money to go around. 

“We’re almost at the 7,000 mark for homelessness,” Williams told me. “We’re experiencing extremely high crime, along with underemployment and isolation caused by COVID-19. School participation is down. While the importance of parks is seen more broadly now, as one of the most important assets of a city, because we have so many people living on the street, and because crime is so high, and because the city is so unaffordable, we’re just struggling to support this asset.”

Oakland isn’t alone in this. Parks are underfunded in most major U.S. cities. Over the years, they’ve received smaller shares of urban revenues, and have had to turn more and more to federal assistance and internally generated revenue—as professor Galen Cranz details in her book, The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America. And many cities have had to cut their parks budgets even further over the last 18 months, on account of the pandemic. 

But even by poor-city standards—even by pandemic-stricken, poor-city standards—Oakland takes fiscal deprioritization of parks to another level. According to the Trust for Public Land, Oakland spends only $19 per citizen on parks. The national median for American cities of similar population density? $83 per citizen. 

The city also pursues less private and philanthropic funding for parks than other cities. In their 2018 report, “Continuing Crisis: The State of the Maintenance in Oakland Parks,” the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation determined this level of funding “adequate to provide ‘C-plus’ maintenance service.”

Brown, the executive director of the foundation, says that’s a choice. “You prioritize what you find sexy,” she said. And in Oakland, historically, “the city parks just haven’t been sexy.” This is itself a symptom of Oakland’s park problem, and a part of why it’s self-reinforcing. We’ve seen it historically. In flatland neighborhoods whose parks have been consigned to neglect and disuse, marginalized residents are dissuaded from seeking change through the municipal system. Wealthy residents—in thrall to the regional parks, and blind to the plight of the parks in the flatlands—don’t see the need to fight for the city parks. Political leaders, attentive to the park problem but lacking pressure to combat it, allow it to persist. Attendant harm accumulates. 

This, then, is the problem with Oakland’s parks. All told, they correlate with—and contribute to—a sordid history of race- and class-based degradation and neglect. They both reflect and reinforce systemic wrongs. In this, Oakland is testament to what abetting park inequity can do, how park inequity is not just a mirror held up to your society, but a magnifying glass angled contemptuously over it. 

The city is, however, taking steps to redress the issue. In 2020, the Oakland Unified School District, in partnership with TPL and Green Schoolyards America, began transforming certain of Oakland’s asphalt-covered schoolyards into greenspaces, seizing a key opportunity to create more green space in the city’s most park-deprived areas. Under the guidance of Flynn and the Department of Race and Equity, meanwhile, and with funding from Measure Q—which Oakland voters passed in 2020, raising about $27 million per year—the city is currently in the process of implementing a more equitable system of park maintenance and support. And the passage of Measure Q is itself a big deal, because of how holistically it approaches the task of improving parks, securing money not just for park maintenance, but for things like addressing homelessness and housing—an official recognition that the issues related to the park problem are symbiotic, and that we’ll never truly ameliorate Oakland’s park problem until we transform the city’s safety net and address housing affordability. 

“We are starting to approach this issue with greater alignment and with a holistic strategy,” Duffey told me. “I don’t know if we had that same understanding before.”

Newly built fitness court at Arroyo Viejo Park
A recently built fitness structure at Arroyo Viejo Park in East Oakland.

Williams said that his department is also engaging in more on-the-ground efforts to bridge information gaps and let residents know about the programming services available in the parks near them. 

“There are two things that create a vibrant park,” Williams said. “The participation of the city in maintaining the park to the best of its ability, and the collaboration and partnership of residents utilizing programs and services at the park. When a community knows a park belongs to them, there’s a change.” 

The hope, Williams told me, is that the infusion of funding and the newly equitable approach “will give every city park what it needs to succeed.” 

Measure Q will expire in 2040. To create more lasting, systemic change—or to do things like create and properly maintain new parcels of greenspace that serve everyone—bigger changes are needed. According to parks department Director Williams and Brown, from the parks foundation, a model could exist in Minneapolis, where Williams and Brown both hail from. Minneapolis’s Parks and Recreation Department does not have to compete with other city departments for money out of the general fund. Instead, it can levy its own taxes through the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Establishing something similar in Oakland would allow the parks department to pursue funding more reliably and on its own terms. 

“In Minneapolis you have a park board tax,” Brown told me. “That’s how the parks raise revenue to fund maintenance and new park construction. Oakland doesn’t have that kind of structure. Parks don’t have the authority to levy taxes. That’s a huge revenue source that’s missing.” 

The Trust for Public Land last year ranked the Minneapolis park system as the most effective and equitable park system in the country

Oakland could also allocate more money to parks from out of the general fund. Either way, with more reliable sources of funding, the city could invest more effectively in things that would drive change. There is no shortage of possibilities. Park, the executive director of Trybe, says the city needs more spaces where kids and community members can meet. Schwarzer, the historian, advocates daylighting culverted creeks and planting trees and building paths alongside them—as visiting city planners advocated for more than a hundred years ago. “Those environs,” Schwarzer has written, “hold the best promise to thread handy green interludes across the town’s grayscapes,” and could even provide “crucial connectors of high and low lands.” 

Greenspace could be built into future large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the 18 acres of public greenspace that are part of the proposal drafted by the Oakland Athletics to build a new baseball stadium at Howard Terminal. “Every new large development should have land set aside for public greenspace,” Williams said. 

For any of that to happen there needs to first come a shift in the culture, an acceleration of the urgency with which residents, advocates, and city leaders talk about the need to redress inequities built into the city park system, and a recalibration of the reasoning underlying that urgency. The shift should be from a singular conception of the importance of parks to a more accurate, holistic conception. Research shows that city parks are not just places to picnic. It’s not a rhetorical tactic to say the crime problem, or the school drop-out problem, or the homelessness problem, is tied up with the park problem—it’s the truth. 

“An investment in parks and recreation is an investment in Oakland’s kids,” Williams said. “And it’s an investment into neighborhoods, and into communities.”

But decision-makers will only move to prioritize park inequity if they feel political pressure to do so. This is true everywhere; as professor Galen Cranz has written, “The real enemies of parks” historically “have been inertia and lack of interest.” Certainly, it’s true in Oakland. “The city has so many priorities and problems right now,” Williams said. “The city needs to know this is something residents want.” 

And that’s where community activism comes in, according to Brown. “Help residents name it,” she advised. “This is what folks want. Residents need to know it’s possible. Then we can begin fighting for it.” 

Thoreau thought nature spiritually essential. The deprivation of access to nature could be said, in this view, to be a kind of dispossession, structural consignment to spiritual malnourishment. Partly for this reason, perhaps, Thoreau also believed access to nature a civil right. Today, Oakland cannot be said to honor that right. As the pandemic drags on, and as the climate crisis worsens, and as the moral and practical costs of Oakland’s park system become more painfully felt, the need to rectify that fact will only increase.

“Oakland in general and East Oakland, in particular, is home to a lot of history, and has a lot of character and pride,” Seaty, the teacher from East Oakland, told me. “Parks are a way to transpose that history and teach kids about our city’s culture. We need places where we can do that in Oakland.” 

“Good, well-maintained parks are the common spaces for a given neighborhood,” said Flynn, of the Race and Equity Department. “For children. For teenagers. The elderly. Green open space with clean air is crucial to everybody as individuals and it’s crucial for communities. Parks are spaces for neighborhood events. Pickup soccer. Especially in urban areas, parks contribute to greater quality of life.” 

“For kids, getting outside and being in parks matters for so many reasons,” Park, of Trybe, said to me. “People need it.” 

Luckily, it’s not too late. Nor is it too late, if you let your imagination roam, for Oakland to find a way to create more green space, so as to “join the rank among American park cities,” as the architect Werner Hegemann suggested was possible one hundred years ago. 

All of that is possible. Cities are things we make. They can be re-made—reimagined; reinvigorated; redefined. Parks are dynamic tools for the task. Investment in them is an investment not only in the neighborhoods they support, but in the municipal system they’re central to. As Williams, the park director, told me near the end of our conversation, “Oakland has its share of urban, metropolitan problems. But people are beginning to see the parks as an asset. Parks could play a big role in turning this city around.”

Dan Moore is a writer based out of Oakland. Follow him on Twitter @DmoWriter.