How a Thru-Hiking Legend Is Getting City Kids Outside

Liz “Snorkel” Thomas set the women’s fastest known time for a self-supported hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2011 and has since become an urban-hiking advocate. She recently completed a nine-day, 225-mile thru-hike across New York’s five boroughs. Her goal was to visit 100 playgrounds to highlight the Trust for Public Lands’ (TPL) project to build such facilities throughout the city.

Having grown up in the suburbs of Sacramento, California, Thomas says, “I took trees and grass for granted in my schoolyards. The green space was almost a gateway drug for me to get more into nature, into hiking.” But in New York City, nearly three-quarters of low-income neighborhoods fail to meet the city standard of 2.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, according to the TPL. The lack of outdoor space exacerbates the risk of obesity, diabetes, and other health risks for children there.

The TPL has spent more than $180 million over the past two decades in a public-private partnership that has resulted in 200 new playgrounds in New York City, and it’s currently fundraising to complete 40 more that are in the design process. “Our goal is to provide access to parks and playgrounds to kids who don’t have that benefit,” says Mary Alice Lee, director of the New York City Playgrounds program. “We design the playgrounds in collaboration with the students in the schools to build enthusiasm and empower the kids.”

Their greatest desire? “Trees. They just want some trees by their schools and some turf fields to play on,” says Lee. Seemingly simple goals but a complex project, given the size of the city and the funding needed. “It’s great that Liz is bringing some attention to our program.”

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