Social Characteristics: Opportunities with Greenspace

What’s Covered

The geographic distribution of people, described with Socioeconomic Characteristics, particularly concentrations of persons with disabilities, the underserved and lower income persons in Equity areas or zones are displayed in the Greenprint Explorer to help professionals plan and restore greenspaces and make these spaces accessible to all persons of Cuyahoga County.


Cuyahoga County has an ethnically diverse heritage of residents which continually evolves.  According to the 2020 U.S. Census of Population, Cuyahoga County’s racial and ethnic makeup is:

  • 56.8% White
  • 28.9% Black
  • 3.5% Asian
  • 6.6% Hispanic
  • 4.2% Other

Access to and enjoyment of green spaces has not always been equitable. Cuyahoga County’s “Emerald Necklace” of the Cleveland Metroparks developed around the Rocky and Chagrin Rivers. Communities which developed along these river corridors tended to be more affluent and racially white. These were beautiful landscapes close enough to Cleveland for the running of businesses and enjoying the cultural assets yet far enough to avoid factory emissions and the challenges which came with crowded, working-class neighborhoods of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, organizations like Cleveland Metroparks, Trust for Public Land, NOACA, Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, Black Environmental Leaders Association and others are making the reversal of this inequity a priority.

The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 ensure access to the built environment and built components within natural spaces. In 2023, the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through leadership in accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards, published Public Right-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines.

Importance and Value

When interviewing senior executives, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identified six reasons why parks matter for health. These range from physical activity and exercise for muscle and cardiovascular conditioning to safe places for kids to flourish through play to playing a role in combating chronic disease to fostering mental and spiritual health. Historically, park spaces were created and well maintained in middle- and upper-class communities. When Socioeconomic Indicators derived from census data – such as median income household, renter occupied housing, households without vehicles, race, limited English speaking households, etc., – are mapped against parks and green spaces, these disparities are glaringly apparent. The Americans with Disabilities Act has advanced access to amenities within parks however there are still deficiencies in providing access to parks and greenspaces for these populations. The Greenprint provides key census data metrics to view these disparities as opportunities so that planners and civic leaders can take actions to close these access-to-greenspace gaps.

To address this issue, federal and local agencies have integrated key data sets and criteria to define geographic “areas” or “zones” of Equity needs and opportunities. In 2021, the White House issued an executive order creating a government-wide Justice40 Initiative with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. It tracks performance toward that goal through the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard. The Greenprint displays the Federal Justice40 Areas from census data analyzed across the federal criteria of Climate Change, Energy, Health, Housing, Legacy Pollution, Transportation, Water and Wastewater, and Workforce Development. In 2020, locally, NOACA adopted its Environmental Justice Areas Policy which identifies areas with concentrations of minority and low-income populations.

Since so much of federal funding is targeted for equity, defining these areas guides planners and community leaders on where and how they can prioritize and advance trail and greenspace projects toward achieving equity goals.

Locally, Cuyahoga County developed similar areas called Equity Zones. These are Census block groups factoring neighborhood, poverty, life expectancy, home value and improvement target factors. These Equity Zones can be used to inform County funding and programs.

These census data layers present information not uniquely relevant to greenspace. Yet, consider some of the following recommendations on how this information might be useful in greenspace assessment and planning.

Recommendations for Communities and Landowners

  • Understand the demographics of the community and the history of park distribution to better assess park equity access and use.
  • Use creative and authentic engagement techniques to gain input from all residents, with an emphasis on engaging pockets of the community which may be historically disengaged, to gain input on what all residents want in parks and greenspaces.
  • Tap into organizations such as Black Environmental Leaders Association of Northeast Ohio for input and advice on methods of authentic engagement.
  • Assure that densely populated neighborhoods have parks and natural spaces adequate to serve intense use and a wider range of activities from organized sports to quiet, passive recreation like walking, nature-watching, and relaxing in quiet time.
  • Provide a variety of outdoor programming options, routinely or periodically, in existing parks and greenspaces to expand the menu of outdoor activity options beyond residents’ current knowledge or experience (i.e., Pickleball is relatively new compared to baseball. Imagine and plan for what’s coming next).
  • Experiment with temporary installations of facilities and amenities and gauge residents’ reactions and interest. Examples include dog parks, bike fix-it stations, portable ice-skating rinks, outdoor cooking/teaching stations, mini stages, and dance floors, etc.
  • Use age, language, and education demographics to provide varied and wide programming for all community members.
  • Assure that persons with disabilities have access not only within a park or greenspace but also safe means of getting to these spaces.
  • Recognize that renters rarely have yards of their own and depend on community gardens and parks for local outdoor experiences. Create these spaces.
  • Recognize the number of residents without vehicles and create safe walking and bicycling facilities to meet their mobility needs.
  • Keep current regular and emerging funding programs targeting equity projects and zones and be prepared with projects (both for planning and shovel-ready ones) to start transforming the community with these resources.
  • Encourage private landowners to consider selling or donating property for parks and greenspaces in key, equity areas.

Resources for More Information

Top photo by Jason Cohn, courtesy of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy