1,000 acres of park land, 175 park properties, eight major community-wide parks including three listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 12 neighborhood parks, 50 playgrounds, 20 downtown parks, two golf courses, three ice rinks, two indoor and eight outdoor pools, two amphitheaters, four cemeteries, four natural-forested areas, two artificial turf fields, one running track and numerous courts and ball fields.
The City of Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs reflects the rich history and diversity of the city of Syracuse. “Syracuse is large enough to have the capacity of a city yet small enough to have a town-like interaction with our public,” says Glen Lewis, director of planning for Syracuse Parks and Recreation. “As a city, Syracuse developed incrementally so our park system is knitted into the city fabric, neighborhood by neighborhood. There are major parks in every section of the city as well as smaller parks that serve micro-neighborhoods.”
Syracuse Parks and Recreation incorporates a wealth of offerings to promote a healthy and active lifestyle to residents throughout the city. The agency operates a number of facilities including walkable golf courses, ice-skating rinks, swimming pools and a recently opened skate plaza for boards and bikes. Beyond facilities, Syracuse offers a wide range of clubs, classes and activities in which community members may take part throughout the year. Syracuse has a strong running community that is supported through annual road races in area parks and neighborhoods. Syracuse Parks and Recreation also works with local fitness providers to offer free outdoor fitness, yoga and other wellness-themed classes in downtown parks during the workday in the summer. In addition to all of the adult programming, Syracuse serves hundreds of youth each year through organized basketball leagues, instructional sport clinics and robust summer day camps. The agency works closely with several community organizations to provide fields of play for a variety of youth sport programs throughout the year.
“A healthy citizenry contributes to a more vibrant community and a greater quality of life in our cities,” says Chris Abbott, program director for Syracuse Parks and Recreation. “Few things are more pleasing to parks staff than to see a neighborhood park brimming with patrons on a fair weather day — in all four seasons — enjoying active pursuits…running or walking a trail, engaging in team sports, using the playgrounds, swimming or snowshoeing! We’re a city that truly embraces its four distinct seasons, and our extensive network of parks and park facilities brings out the best in each of those seasons.”
In addition to the community facilities and programs, Syracuse Parks and Recreation promotes health and wellness to the youngest citizens of the community through out-of-school-time programming. “Out-of-school-time programs at city recreation centers have long been a source for active recreation opportunities for youth, from field games to team sports, indoor games, field trips and fun outdoor adventures close to home,” says Abbott. “In fact, many of our more senior staff spent a great deal of time during their youth in the centers and on the courts of neighborhood parks before choosing to make recreation a career. Active recreation, in a variety of forms, continues to be foundational element of park programming”
Out-of-school-time participants benefit from a number of daily offerings including homework help, the Kid’s Cafe hot meal program, active recreation, table games, recreational sports, mentorship activities, environmental education, arts and crafts, field trips, outdoor winter recreation and an array of special events. Beyond these exciting activities, the out-of-school-time program offers a safe haven for the city youth — many of whom are at-risk. “City parks programs and those of other local youth-serving agencies serve a key function in the city, as they provide a safe place for youth to go when school is not in session,” explains Abbott. “After school and during the long summer days youth are known to be at greatest risk for engaging in high-risk, negative behaviors. Instead, these programs help develop or reinforce positive, healthful behaviors.”
A significant part of Syracuse’s out-of-school-time programming focuses on providing nutrition education to youth. “Youth who adopt healthy behaviors early on in life…by developing a love for active recreation and of nutritious foods, are more likely to maintain those helpful habits into adulthood,” says Abbott. In partnership with Cornell Cooperative extension, Syracuse is helping both youth and staff become more aware of healthful nutrition practices. “For more than a decade, Cornell Cooperative Extension has delivered award-winning nutrition education to youth at out-of-school-time sites throughout the city. Their educators have truly become part of the fabric of our recreation division, through consistent messaging, ongoing classes and their presence at several key events, including our annual summer Olympics and Family Fitness Night. Cornell educators also provide regular staff training and have become part of new/summer staff orientation.”
“We have a common vision and mission when it comes to working with youth, especially lower-income youth in the city, and some of the challenges to eating well and being physically active especially in neighborhoods that may not be as safe as we would like them to be,” explains Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Kathy Dischner. “I think our collaboration — for us to bring in the healthy eating part and them to bring in the active living part — helps to address national goals related to obesity prevention for youth.”
Last year, Syracuse Parks and Recreation was one of the 50 agencies to receive an Out-of-School Time Programs grant through a partnership between NRPA and the Walmart Foundation. With this grant, Syracuse was able to extend the reach of its health and wellness programming and build more partnerships in the community.
“Fit Kids is a program that’s been offered each spring and fall for more than six years, where trained fitness or dance instructors are on hand to lead active sessions twice per week after school,” says Abbot. “Most recently, however, we have joined the Commit to Health initiative, and our out-of-school-time programs are working to achieve HEPA (Healthy Eating and Physical Activity) standards. This past year, staff members were trained in the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) curriculum, and were provided valuable CATCH resources. With CATCH, staff can easily incorporate a wide variety of fun, enjoyable games that assist children in getting 30-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous play,” he continues.
The impact of the out-of-school-time program on the city and citizens of Syracuse has been very encouraging. “Months later, even though they haven’t been in the program all year, [youth participants] are still remembering it,” Dischner says. “I think when you engage youth with all of their senses and give them the opportunity to go beyond, they really rise to the occasion and you can see the growth and excitement in them. “[Moreover], not only is there a behavioral change in youth, but a system change within the city parks and recreation environment to be able to support healthy eating and active living moving forward.”