Park Spirit of Worcester, Inc.: Evaluating Environmental Justice and Organizational Partnerships for Green Space in Worcester, MA: Executive Summary

Sponsor Student Researchers Goals & Objectives Executive Summary Final Report

Often times when analyzing the distribution of environmental goods, race and income can be direct factors. Environmental justice addresses the fair distribution of environmental goods with respect to race, ethnicity, and income (U.S. EPA, 2018). A major theme when discussing environmental justice is equity. The late Jeremy Nowak, urban innovation and researcher claimed that “An equitable city improves circumstances for those with more limited choices” (Nowak, 2018). When doing so, he also highlights the importance of holding “a top tier mindset while catering to lower and middle-class needs” (Nowak, 2018).

Environmental justice movements have the necessity to be equitable and should reflect the needs of all. Van Jones is a green space advocate who worked under President Obama as a special advisor for green jobs. In his work, he set up the “Van Jones Quadrant” which holds grey problems and green solutions on the x-axis, and the rich and the poor on the y-axis. Van Jones says that there is too much focus on the top left quadrant which focuses on rich problems such as conservation. He claims that there needs to be a shift in focus toward the fourth quadrant that focuses on green solutions for the poor. This shift in focus will create a more equitable approach to environmental issues.

Environmental justice is a concept that translates more deeply in certain settings. It is often more relevant in shrinking cities. Shrinking cities are cities that experience drastic population loss that is associated with deindustrialization (Schett, 2012). Industrial workers were generally immigrants who were not compensated well; this treatment leads to diverse, but lower-income communities. For that reason, the distribution of environmental goods was often disproportionate, thus the need to focus on equitable distribution through environmental justice (Gordon, 2013).

In shrinking cities, there is an added value and importance to green space. Schilling and Logan did a study where they summarized all the benefits of green space in urban areas specifically in shrinking cities. In shrinking cities where crime and limited space is common, green space increases physical activity opportunities and reduces crime (Schilling & Logan, 2008).

In order to fully create equitable green space in cities, there needs to be a strong civic sector. A civic sector is an important vehicle for creating the equitable green space. The civic sector acts as the middleman between the citizens and the city by communicating the citizens’ aspirations and necessities to the city. The city also looks to the civic sector for assistance in terms of what they have to offer to residents.

Nonprofit organizations provide the civic sector with organizational and financial support. Most nonprofit organizations gain organizational support through a base of volunteer workers and a mission that supports their community. In addition, nonprofits can have resources to provide financial support through donors, grants, sponsors, memberships, and merchandising.

Partnerships are critical to the success of environmental nonprofit organizations. Lemos and Agrawal state that no single agent possesses the capability to address the scale of environmental problems. They interpreted the idea that environmental problems need cooperation from the community, market, and state (Lemos and Agrawal, 2006). When looking at the nonprofit sector, co-management and private-social partnerships are especially important, since nonprofit organizations represent the community. Co-management refers to a partnership between the government and community, critical for permits, legal issues, and city agendas (Lemos and Agrawal, 2006). Private-social partnerships are between businesses and the community, usually consisting of sponsorship and resource distribution. This relationship is critical because there are limited funds and resources available for green space.

Our Sponsor Park Spirit is an important representative of the civic sector and an example of a nonprofit organization in Worcester, MA. Park Spirit has three main goals they look to achieve through their mission. Park Spirit looks to protect, promote, advocate, and restore all sixty-one Worcester parks, connect with neighboring organizations, and target a diverse audience.

In order to fully understand the capabilities of Park Spirit as a nonprofit, we must understand Worcester’s citizens. Worcester is a shrinking city due to the deindustrialization during the 20th century. Like other shrinking cities, Worcester has a diverse demographic compared to the state of Massachusetts. In Worcester, there is a significantly lower white population and increased colored and Hispanic population (U.S. Census, 2017). The average household income in Worcester is around $41,500. That is about $20,000 lower than the national average and about $36,000 lower than the Massachusetts average (U.S. Census, 2017).


When looking at Park Spirit and green space in Worcester, we came up with two main objectives that we felt were most important to answer throughout our research.

1. Determine Whether There is Environmental Injustice for Park Governance in Worcester.

2. Types of Partnerships and Organizational Resources that Strengthen Parks Advocacy.

We created spatial mappings for community demographics and income levels, conducted interviews with representatives from thirteen parks as well as five city officials, and gathered budgetary and capital improvement information from the city for Worcester green space. We analyzed our findings to determine if there is an environmental justice concern for Worcester’s park governance.

For our spatial mapping, we used the ArcGIS software containing census information. The way that the maps were produced is as follows: Any area that has stripes is green space. For the income maps, the darker green indicates higher average household income. For the diversity map, the darker the blue indicates higher levels of diversity. The diversity mapping takes the likelihood of two individuals randomly selected from an area to be different in terms of race or ethnicity. These were determined from the U.S. Census data from 2016. We understand that there could be neighborhoods of oppressed races or ethnicities where there is less diversity, which was taken into account when we conducted our analysis.

(Legend for Income and Diversity Maps)


First, we analyzed Shore Park in Northern Worcester. Shore Park is surrounded by a middle-class neighborhood with no diversity. The park has undergone infrastructure improvements to the beach support building with the city providing roughly $200,000.


(Income and Diversity Maps for Shore Park in Northern Worcester)

We analyzed Holmes Field, located in East Worcester. The neighborhood surrounding Holmes field is quite diverse. Another park down the street is Shale Street Playground, which has a similarly diverse neighborhood. The surrounding areas to Holmes Field and Shale Street Playground are lower-middle class. Holmes Field is currently under construction with new baseball fields, tennis courts, and play areas coming soon.


(Income and Diversity Maps for Holmes Field in East Worcester)


(Income and Diversity Maps for Shale Street Playground in East Worcester)

Castle Park is located in South Central Worcester. The surrounding neighborhood is diverse and lower class. In 2017, Castle Park received $2,000,000 to fully fund all phases of their master plan.


(Income and Diversity Maps for Castle Park in South Central Worcester)

Elm Park and Newton Hill are located in Central Worcester. Elm Park is historically one of the most coveted parks in Worcester. It was designed by the same architect who designed Central Park. Over the past few years, the city has put several million dollars into renovations to the parks, updating benches, light poles, walkways and retaining walls around the water. They also put two new bridges in the Park. The surrounding area of Elm Park is lower class and very diverse.


(Income and Diversity Maps for Elm Park in Central Worcester)

South Worcester Playground is located in South West Worcester. The surrounding area is a low income, highly diverse area of Worcester. South Worcester Playground is currently in the first of four stages of a master plan and will be receiving a quarter of a million dollars to complete it with state of the art baseball fields, handball and tennis courts, a playground and a walking path.


(Income and Diversity Maps for South Worcester Playground in South West Worcester)

Along with spatial analysis, we analyzed budgetary information from the city. This part of the project was difficult because the information we were looking to find was not easily accessible. We analyzed the city’s budgetary booklet for the 2018 fiscal year. Their budget was about $550,000,000. The parks and public works departments received about 4.3% of that, but only about 1.9% went to the Parks Department, which is about $10,500,000 for capital improvements and maintenance (Augustus, 2018).

(Fiscal 2018 Annual Budget: City Expenditure Percentages)

The city has pushed to improve their parks although having a limited budget. Over the last five years, the parks received $50,000,000 in capital improvements and the Parks Department staff has doubled. In the 2018 fiscal year, the city also purchased $800,000 worth of maintenance equipment. Additionally, their changing mindset can be shown with the creation of three dog parks, which is a big step for the city considering dogs were strictly prohibited from parks only five years ago City officials, as well as community representatives, have recognized the changing attitude towards green space in Worcester. A high ranking city official stated, “At one time, quality parks were seen as a luxury in Worcester; now we see them as a necessity” (Interview 12). Community representatives date this change in mindset five to ten years ago.

Based on our interviews and analysis of spatial mapping and budgetary information, we can conclude that environmental justice is not an issue for park governance in Worcester and that resources and funds are equitably distributed throughout Worcester’s green spaces. An example we looked at was comparing Shore Park and South Worcester Playground. 

(Comparison of Capital Improvements to Shore Park and South Worcester Playground)

For looking at organizational partnerships and resource sharing to strengthen park advocacy, we had to evaluate the current state of the partnerships Park Spirit has and look to improve them based on the aspirations and necessities of both Park Spirit and other organizations. We did this primarily through interviewing different park organization representatives who manage and advocate for parks in Worcester. We asked them what partnerships they have, what collaboration techniques are the most effective, and then ask what partnerships they seek in the future.

In our findings, we concluded that cohesive green space partnerships are the key to increased funding and benefits. 

(Keys to Successful Greenspace Partnerships)

Through our interviews, we determined that safety, programming, and financial partnerships are critical to increased green space quality and usage.

(Types of Partnerships that Benefit Green Space Advocacy and Usage)

Future Research Themes

There were two other significant themes that became apparent to us throughout our research.

The first is the debate on capital improvement versus maintenance. Many organizations we spoke to felt that park maintenance was not a priority. The city showed us their push to revitalize green space through capital improvements. A Park Spirit board member stated, “Capital improvements are only as good as the ability to maintain them” (Interview 10). This being said, maintenance is something that is just as important as capital improvement and should be looked at in the future.

The second is that politics play a role in revitalizing green space (Interview 10). This theme was discussed by organizations primarily in District 4, where only about 300 voters cast their ballot on election day. They feel that no vote equals no political action; in order for the city to attend to your necessities, you need to show you are involved in politics and are active in the community.


Our first suggestion for Park Spirit moving forward is to use their green space open house to improve communication. Representatives from different neighborhoods and organizations can communicate to understand the current state and needs for each park. We suggest making a list of priorities with community input and presenting this to city representatives. This action plan would allow each park representative to understand which parks are next to receive improvements. In addition, these meetings could cement Park Spirit as the middle ground between the community and city, making the communication and perspective from each side clear.

Another suggestion for Park Spirit moving forward is to continue improving programming in the parks. They currently do a great job with their concert series in Elm Park but many groups feel that programming is not well distributed throughout the city. Some examples of programming could be food festivals, concerts or holiday celebrations. Adding programming to parks with little representation will create more opportunity for all the citizens of Worcester to easily access events and spark positive interest in the use of green space.

Our final recommendation for Park Spirit comes in the form of an organizational format change to a conservancy. We feel that potentially forming a conservancy would best suit Park Spirit. A conservancy is an organization designated to the conservation and protection of natural resources and green spaces. The key focus of a conservancy, however, is funding. Fundraising plays a major role in what a conservancy does; we received a lot of feedback about Park spirit being a group that focuses on funding. Forming a conservancy could also help them create a closer connection to the city and be an umbrella to all green space organizations in Worcester while continuing to advocate for all green space in Worcester.