The town of Wenatchee, Washington, hugs the western confluence of the Columbia and Wenatchee Rivers, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range. This favorable geographic position, with 300 days of sun and plentiful irrigation, has led the region to become the self-described “apple capital of the world,” producing millions of boxes of Piñata, Honeycrisp, Gala and Pink Lady apples, not to mention sweet cherries, pears and stone fruit.
This legacy of large-scale fruit-growing has attracted Latino — particularly Mexican — agricultural workers and established a strong, multigenerational Latino community that represents nearly a third of Wenatchee’s population. It’s a community, largely centered in the southern half of the city, that has cultivated fruit, along with a tradition of cultural practices, including a nationally respected Mariachi scene.
A central hub of this community is Kiwanis Methow Park, a 1.26-acre park that welcomes music performances, festivals, holiday celebrations and other community gatherings. The park, however, shows the wear of this use (and love): aging play equipment, dirt instead of grass and a crumbling asphalt basketball court. In 2015, The Trust for Public Land (TPL), acting with a broad coalition of partners, set out to explore the redesign and renovation of this important asset. What happened along this exploration led to a remarkable and unexpected discovery that speaks to a growing appreciation for what health means — individually and collectively — and how parks can address population health by acting as a cultural asset, not just an active recreational one, in meeting a community’s health needs.
Initial attempts by the park project team, working with two local community organizers, to garner feedback from the Latino’s community about the park through a series of community meetings failed because of the community’s unease with official events and the specter of immigration enforcement. The project team then decided to go to where people congregated, which happened to be a regional music and dance festival that took place in downtown Wenatchee. The event was brimming with people eager to learn about a new idea for the park and how they could voice their ideas for its future.
Many residents shared their desire to keep the park as a gathering space but were also excited about the opportunity to improve other aspects of the community, such as relations with neighboring communities or local health concerns. A 2013 community health needs assessment found that South Wenatchee’s Latino population suffers most acutely from impaired mental health and the city’s mental health service was overtaxed. In 2016, 13.8 percent of patients discharged from Central Washington Hospital had mental health or substance abuse diagnoses.
Drawing on the success of that music and dance event, the park project team decided to hold a similar event at Methow Park that, as the major draw, would highlight local culture and include health-focused nonprofits and for-profit service providers, focused on improving health outcomes in South Wenatchee. Following the new health festival, which drew nearly 400 people to Methow Park, the coalition realized two important things: cultural events at the park were a way to reach broad swaths of the population in meaningful engagement of important issues, and these cultural events and the park itself were ways to address the mental health challenges endemic to the area.
What began around an impulse to renovate a key community park resulted in building tools to address issues around public space, health, economic development and education, demonstrating the multiple benefits that parks and open spaces provide. The coalition is developing long-term plans to host future cultural events as ways to meet community health needs, build strong social relationships and continue to reimagine the park as a conduit for health-building programs and activities.
While home to programs like ParkRx — which promotes park use as a prescription for many chronic health conditions — parks also address other health needs and health disparities that might exist between communities. The Project for Public Spaces Healthy Spaces report shows that placemaking in green spaces can not only increase physical activity, but can also target mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety; improve attention and memory function; build social capital and reduce violent crime; and reduce risks of coastal and storm-related flooding. These capacities improve our collective health.
TPL has connected the idea of creative placemaking — incorporating arts-based practices into our park creation and land conservation — with public health, and has developed programs to support this connection. The organization recognizes that an individual’s health outcomes are only partially driven by health choices and access to care. Our environment, social connections and economic opportunity drive health in profound ways. Park and open-space solutions that are culturally focused are having powerful impacts on communities across the country.
In the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, for example, with its endemic homelessness and drug use, TPL is working with the Tenderloin Community Benefit District’s Safe Passage program to build healthy, connected pathways between an important network of public spaces and parks. The ability for families to have a safe passage between these environments, and the condition of these experiences, can impact a broad array of health concerns. Similarly, in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood, TPL is working with a community development corporation, BuCu West, to measure air quality (Denver’s air quality is among the worst in the United States and represents a significant public health challenge) on a block level. This is being done with sensors mounted on Paleta carts — ice cream carts that are traditional in Mexican communities. This cultural connection, resonant with the Westwood community, provides a conversation point for discussing air quality in public spaces and builds climate resilience and social empowerment.
The connection between culture and health in our public spaces and parks is strong, and the case for expanding this work is clear. Research on the power of art to improve health outcomes and on the ability of parks and open space to build healthy communities has reached critical mass. To expand on this work, this research needs to be translated into policy recommendations and toolkits — resources that can make collaborations between cultural, parks and health organizations possible.
Our communities understand health and intuitively feel the connection between the arts and well-being. No place undergirds this connection better than the gardens, parks and plazas that people rely on in every neighborhood in the country.
Matthew Clarke is Director of Creative Placemaking for the Trust for Public Land.