For Nya Phillips, Audubon Park is her sacred getaway.

She remembers being pushed in a stroller there as a toddler. Underneath the shade and canopies of its many live oaks, Phillips and her family would spend hours walking around the park and admiring nature. Today, Phillips, 18, says Audubon Park has become her go-to destination for some peace of mind and is her favorite green space in the city. 

“Being from New Orleans and having lived [here] my whole life, it just feels like growing up in fight or flight,” Phillips said. “Not to mention stuff that could be going on personally, like regardless of whatever’s going on in the city, so I think it’s important that people have access to places where they can get away from all of that.”

Phillips is a sophomore at Tulane University, which is across the St. Charles Avenue from Audubon Park. She would go to the park to do all sorts of things: read a book by the water, listen to music, go on walks or just be alone and clear her mind. 

For many New Orleans residents like Phillips, parks and public green spaces have long been a quick and easy escape from the hustle and bustle of the “party” city while offering many other benefits. 

The organization Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that focuses on creating parks and protecting land, found that 80% of New Orleans residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. Nationally, the percentage is 55%. The city also has more than 450,000 trees and 2,000 acres of public green space, which includes more than 200 parks and squares, according to the New Orleans Department of Parks & Parkways

In 2019, the media outlet Stacker ranked the top 50 U.S. cities with “green space devoted to parks and urban areas” using research from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Baton Rouge and New Orleans were the only Louisiana cities on the list, with the latter coming in at No. 48.

Dante Anding poses in front of the Peristyle at City Park, which is their favorite green space in New Orleans. When there, they enjoyed going to Cafe Du Monde and walking through the sculpture garden, Anding said. Credit: Minh Ha/Verite

For New Orleans resident Dante Anding, a psychology student at the University of Southern Mississippi, parks serve as a reminder that there’s more to life than just daily routine.

“I definitely get behind the whole, being in nature … I can just touch grass and kind of, like, be centered,” said Anding, who uses they/she pronouns. “And it’s nice to know that the world isn’t always so gray and whatnot. It’s actually really colorful.”

Research shows that exposure to nature can improve psychological and social health. A 2019 study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that spending at least two hours a week in nature is associated with “good health and well-being.” The National Recreation and Park Association also reports that “regular contact with nature is required for good mental health” and “individuals reported less mental distress and greater life satisfaction when they were living in greener areas.”

In addition to the many health benefits, the National Park Services reports that parks have also been used as gathering places to air grievances. Tyronne Burrell said this is why Lafayette Square is his favorite green space in New Orleans.

Last June, Burrell and his mother gathered at Lafayette Square with others in a protest for abortion rights following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson

The park, said Burrell, “kind of serves as a marker for me personally, especially in activism.” 

“I always go back to remember that very focal point where I started to speak out and like actually [used] my voice. And it just reminds me of my journey of activism and developmental character and stuff like that,” Burrell said.

Tyronne Burrell said he enjoys looking at the buildings and taking in nature at Lafayette Square. He said that the benches are his favorite thing about the park. The benches, he noted, are more comfortable for the homeless population. Credit: Minh Ha/Verite

When asked whether New Orleans has enough green space, Burrell said the city could do better.

“You oftentimes find there aren’t a lot of green spaces in communities of color — and that’s just not fair,” Burrell said. “So the city needs to do a lot more to increase funding to build more green spaces in places that are predominantly people of color, but I think there are plenty of green spaces for people in other areas of the city.”

Burrell said having more green spaces in communities of color will provide health benefits for residents and help build community. Trees, he noted, are especially important. 

Burrell is correct. As the city experiences the warmest summer on record, many find respite from the record heat under a tree. According to Climate Central’s findings of the Urban Heat Analysis, which studied census-tract and city-wide data and maps of neighborhood urban heat island assessment, more than 74% of New Orleans residents live in census tracts that are 8 degrees hotter because of the urban heat island effect.

Phillips agreed that there needed to be more green spaces in communities of color, but she said the city also needs to invest in the upkeep of these spaces. Phillips described the park near where she lives in Uptown as “crusty” and ultimately found solace further away in Audubon Park.

“There’s something very community-sealing about [green space], and that’s just generally something I really love about New Orleans,” Phillips said. “It just feels like there’s a really good sense of community and, you know, a sort of culture that we have … and I feel like the green space totally adds to that.”

New Orleans is home to beautiful green spaces. Check out our photo gallery below.

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...