Healthy Innovations Make the Case for Parks and Recreation

April 1, 2015, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Innovation Lab attendees participate in an exercise to reimagine a section of Miami’s Liberty City in terms of health, equity and access.When modern ideas about leisure and recreation were first being explored in depth in the early 1900s, most influential thinkers made the connection that exercise and access to nature resulted in a healthier society. This was considered true regarding both physical and mental health. Whole theories of recreation and physical education revolved around the idea that in order to raise a healthy, well-adjusted society, children needed to be fit and connected to the world outdoors. 

Somehow in the ensuing 100 years or so we got away from those ideas. As NRPA Director of Health Initiatives Zarnaaz Bashir recently pointed out to a group of almost 30 NRPA Innovation Lab attendees, “We’ve engineered physical activity out of our environment.” One purpose of NRPA’s first Innovation Lab was to get a closer look at an agency with a mission to achieve precisely the opposite. 

Innovating for Health

NRPA’s Miami Innovation Lab was held March 12-13 at the Mayfair Hotel in historic Coconut Grove. Miami-Dade County is home to one of the most forward-thinking agencies when it comes to health and how parks, recreation, doctors and families can work together to reverse negative health trends. Jack Kardys, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS), and Maria Nardi, chief of planning at PROS, pulled together their brightest partners for two days of sharing, brainstorming and informative site visits designed to illustrate why today’s park and recreation professional should add “healthcare provider” to their title as well.

Miami-Dade County is all about placemaking with four areas of focus in mind: policy, fitness programs, the built environment and media communications. It achieves this through innovative thinking and strategic partnerships that leverage particular areas of expertise including healthcare, socioeconomics, land use and safety. Basically, county leaders are looking out their windows and reimagining the landscape as one that should contribute to everyone’s overall health and well-being, regardless of race, class or geography. As park and recreation professionals, we know the wide-reaching effect we have on the health of the communities we serve, but leveraging that knowledge to capture the attention of policy makers and those holding the purse strings is a tricky matter. PROS is a model of how to get it done.

In league with the University of Miami School of Architecture, the Florida Department of Health and Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, Kardys and Nardi endeavored to craft a 50-year master plan focused on engineering for equitable health outcomes. “The open space master plan…shapes how we approach things as a culture,” Kardys said. “Miami-Dade County, as a result of that plan, adopted the idea that parks are not just a destination — they’re a metaphor for a healthy environment, with the public realm, natural spaces, cultural spaces, greenways and blueways tying it all together.”

Now, almost eight years into the 50-year master plan, PROS is building its case with hard numbers and reliable data that will illustrate to politicians and financiers the value of a holistic parks system. “No department in local government touches more people than we do,” Kardys said, adding, “yet no department has been cut as much as we have. I wonder, in larger systems that have had similar cuts, if people take us for granted because we’re not messaging that.”

Showing, Telling and Imagining

The Innovation Lab featured a day of presentations from some of Kardys’ strategic Miami-based partners, as well as health leaders from across the country. Attendees were invited to consider how they might make the case to their own elected bodies and patrons that, although municipal budgets are tight, priority should be put on the parks departments and professionals who arguably have greater influence over the well-being of their patrons than any single heathcare provider. 

To illustrate the natural connectedness of parks, health providers, land use and social equity, Joanna Lombard, professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture, and Dr. Lillian Rivera of the Florida Department of Health took the group on a field trip to Liberty City, traditionally one of the most underserved communities in Miami-Dade County. Recently it was the recipient of the new Frederica Wilson/Juanita Mann Health Center, located just adjacent to Gwen Cherry Park, an almost 40-acre recreation area with various amenities. Gwen Cherry is the subject of a study by Lombard’s students who are considering how to connect patrons of the health center to the park, as the two are currently separated by an active railroad track, industrial areas and brownfields that are unfriendly or impassible to pedestrians. Lombard, Kardys and their colleagues want to see the area revitalized to track with the master plan, so that residents can see and enjoy the benefits of accessible healthcare connected to a place to get fit, stay healthy and enjoy nature. 

Back at the Mayfair, attendees split into four groups, assimilated the information gathered during the site visit and workshopped their own solutions to connect and revitalize this area of Liberty City. For purposes of the exercise, they were given an unlimited budget and encouraged to forget the typical restraints of feasibility and instead focus on creating an ideal landscape that would promote walking, safety and deeper social connections among residents. It took a few minutes for the concept of “unlimited budget/unlimited possibilities” to sink in for a group so accustomed to being told “no,” but soon all were deeply involved in realizing their visions. They imagined elevated walkways to cross over the railway line, partnerships with the Miami-Dade County Extension Office to create community gardens, cultural arts plazas to encourage connections, fitness areas, teen centers and still more. What mere hours ago seemed a pie-in-the-sky concept of cross-department cooperation now seemed both obvious and imperative to achieve.

It may take a while for such concepts to take root, but you can spot the trend growing. Five hundred park sites across the country will implement Commit to Health standards, which support healthy eating and physical activity. Dozens of agencies, including PROS, are exploring the possibilities of Park Prescriptions, a concept that links the healthcare system and public lands, including parks, to combat disease. Park and recreation professionals are learning how to become Park Champions, shouldering the task of communicating with their local leaders the value of their park systems. 

As the American demographic landscape continues to evolve, we must ask ourselves: How can we ensure that park and recreation professionals become solution providers for myriad public health concerns, and what are the specific policies, programs and partnerships that can be leveraged to create a greater culture of health?

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.