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People got outdoors during the pandemic like they hadn’t done in years.

National parks had record numbers of visitors. America saw a roughly 20% increase in people who participate in outdoor recreation, according to research from Penn State.  

But not everyone has the same access to green space, which provides mental and physical health benefits. People who live in communities of color or lower-income neighborhoods often have to travel farther to get to them. 

A new digital mapping tool examines what that looks like specifically in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which stretches from Hampton Roads to New York state.

It comes from the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, which is run jointly by the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Park Service and the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy.

“Systemic racism has led to severe inequity around the watershed in both the amount of and ease of access to available green space,” the partnership recently wrote on its website launching the Green Space Equity Mapper.

As park visitation rose during the pandemic, they wrote, “the disparity in green space access of lower-income communities of color in the watershed became clearer.”

The group also cites a 2021 study out of North Carolina that found a decline in urban park use during the pandemic in socially vulnerable communities, which researchers worried could exacerbate existing health disparities.

Officials with the Chesapeake partnership aim to prioritize conservation in communities with less access to green space.

Program manager John Griffin said the equity mapper grew out of discussions in 2020 that centered around equity.

The organization then won a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Program to build the mapper with consulting firm Skeo Solutions.

It took over a year to come together, Griffin said, including getting recommendations from community members and an advisory board.

The tool allows users to toggle between and overlay factors like age and racial demographics, the amount of trees nearby and how long it takes to drive or walk to a local green space.

People can look at areas within the watershed at a large scale or down to a particular neighborhood or street.


A screenshot of the Green Space Equity Mapper shows a variety of factors in Hampton and Newport News, including purple indicating low-income populations and light green representing public green space.

Zoomed in on the Peninsula, for example, one can see that southern Hampton and Newport News have high population concentrations considered low-income, and only small pockets of accessible green space. Fort Monroe, meanwhile, stands out as a sort of green oasis nearby.

“I found in my work and travels around the watershed, there are many areas that have cement and concrete and very little else,” Griffin said. 

Mobility issues or a lack of public transportation can pose further barriers for residents to get to greenery that might otherwise be considered close by.

“If people can’t use them because they’re not accessible, what good are they?” 

Louis Keddell, geospatial program manager with the Chesapeake Conservancy, said the goal is to make the equity mapper accessible for those with or without a technical background.

Ultimately they want local leaders to use the information to assess which communities could most benefit from more pockets of green.

“Hopefully, that will generate more interest in helping these communities become more livable by providing various forms of green space,” Griffin said.