In its public-facing messaging, NRPA identifies three key pillars of the parks and recreation field: conservation, including connecting children to nature; social equity, including access to nearby parks for all Americans; and public health. Parks and green spaces make a community, parks provide opportunity for all Americans, parks are the biggest protector of open space for everyone, and parks are the prevention and cure for health problems. In short, “Parks are the Answer” is how NRPA totals the collective benefits of parks.
Our cover story this month focuses on one often under-appreciated pillar of the parks field: public health. I say under-appreciated because many Americans don’t understand the full extent of the role parks play in improving public health. Yet, parks are now an integral part of a full-court press by government at all levels, corporate America, and philanthropic foundations to improve the health of all Americans. To spotlight this activity, we set out to identify the major trends in how parks and recreation are improving public health in preventative and curative ways:
- Park prescriptions
- Community walking programs
- Tobacco-free parks
- Health impact assessments
- Recreation deserts
We chose these five trends for their applicability in municipalities of all sizes. In one example, funding was scarce but the motivation and resourcefulness were abundant. In the section on tobacco-free parks, Minnesota nonprofit Tobacco-Free Youth Recreation (TFYR) demonstrated that community peer pressure can accomplish what legislation often cannot. Rather than enact laws with little chance of being enforced, TFYR members and park employees cooperate in raising public awareness on widely approved tobacco-related issues.
At the same time, these five sections demonstrate the value of partnerships. In short, few organizations these days can go at it alone in tackling society’s most intractable problems. As author Maureen Hannan points out, it’s one thing for a doctor on his or her own to prescribe “a walk in the park” to counter the debilitating effects of inactivity. But when that prescription is backed up with the support and resources of a park system, it becomes more doable. You’ll see that same resourcefulness and simplicity in various forms in all these articles.
Often, it’s a matter of fundamentals, as Penn State Professor Andrew Mowen learned in a pre- and post-study of a park restoration in Allentown, Pennsylvania. What won over Allentown residents in the project can certainly work everywhere: a large destination playground, paved access trail, cleanliness of facilities, and the installation of a rose garden (easily substituted by, say, a community vegetable garden). That’s the simplicity that contributes to healthy communities everywhere. But, as Allentown’s former parks director, Greg Weitzel, advises, “Park departments simply can’t do it alone…You’ve got to have the support of the entire community.”