Image of Greta Thunberg via Shutterstock Image of Greta Thunberg via Shutterstock

Experts say investing in urban parks could be one solution to help address climate change. 

Speaking to more than 1,200 people gathered outside a government building in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week for #FridaysForFuture, Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg talked about the “need to tackle the climate and ecological emergency right now.”

“Humanity is now standing at a crossroads,” Thunberg said during the student-led climate strike on Friday. “When we look back at this crucial time, we want to be able to say that we did everything we possibly could to push the world in the right direction.”

One way to help mitigate the effects of global warming, according to experts, is to increase green spaces in cities. But when given the opportunity recently to improve their own parks and greenway systems by way of a sales tax hike, a majority of Charlotte voters declined. 

Days before Thunberg’s visit to North Carolina, residents rejected a ballot referendum in the Nov. 5 election that would have raised the local sales tax by a quarter of a cent to the state’s cap of 7.5 percent. Local leaders had planned to use the additional $50 million a year to fund local arts, parks, and invest in education. 

Nearly half of the total projected revenue would have gone to arts funding. That’s what many voters focused on, said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. 

“Arts funding is a priority of city elites, not the average voter,” Heberlig told the Charlotte Observer. “The major issue in Charlotte the past few years has been affordable housing, so for many voters, there probably was a disconnect that the (tax) was not going to fund that priority.”

But 34 percent—or an estimated $17 million—would have been used for green spaces. The county needs it: In an annual ranking of the top 100 largest U.S. cities by parks, Charlotte/Mecklenburg County was ranked No. 96. According to The Trust for Public Land, an organization working to create local and national parks, 36 percent of Mecklenburg residents can walk to a park within 10 minutes of their home; the national average is 54 percent. Additionally, only 6 percent of publicly owned land is utilized for parks and recreation, which is significantly less than the national median of 15 percent.

“Green spaces are incredibly important,” said local climate activist Sarah Haley, who helped launch the Charlotte chapter of the Climate Reality Project last year. In an interview with COURIER, she explained that green spaces and urban parks can help cities better adapt to worsening climate conditions: They act as buffers to increased flooding (one of the effects of warmer air is increased downpours), reduce carbon pollution, mitigate extreme heat, and help to combat air pollution, among other things. 

Prior to last week’s election, Climate Reality Project joined other environmental advocates, including Clean Air Carolina and the Sierra Club, to support the initiative in a public letter. “By expanding our parks and greenways, not only are we improving quality of life but also connecting recreation, transportation, and environmentally friendly zones, which promote both the health of our residents and ecosystems,” the letter stated. 

According to election results, 69,443 people, or 57 percent of voters, voted against the sales tax increase.

Haley said she was disappointed that the ballot referendum didn’t pass. It wasn’t a perfect solution, she said, but it “would have made a great, positive difference in our community.”

“A lot of times we take access to art and green spaces for granted,” she continued. Communities without access to those things miss out, she said, because private funding isn’t distributed evenly. “I really believe in public funding for these types of programs because it’s rooted in equity and allows for more transparency and accountability.”

Part of Climate Reality Project Charlotte’s mission is to help more people learn about the climate crisis. That includes putting together presentations for schools, church groups, and other local gatherings. Their focus, Haley said, is to make sure the right people—those who are committed to clean energy—are elected into office. 

Last year, Charlotte City Council approved a resolution to significantly reduce carbon emissions by 2050. Climate Reality Project Charlotte is also currently working with the Board of County Commissioners to pass a similar resolution. 

“As we move forward with climate solutions, we are centering equity,” Haley said. “You can’t have a solution to climate change without equity.”