Parks and Recreation: Partners in Public Health

By Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH and Kellie May, MTA | Posted on July 19, 2017

blog july public health

Originally posted on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials' blog

Imagine this: Your doctor has just told you that you’re overweight and at risk for various chronic diseases.  She tells you that you need to eat better and get more physical activity, but you cannot afford to pay for the local gym, nor do you have the time. In fact, you can barely afford to buy groceries for your family.

Now, imagine this: Your doctor has just told you that you’re overweight and at risk for heart disease. She tells you that you have a park within a half-mile walking distance from your home, and there are a number of safe walking trails you can access to get physical activity into your everyday routine. The parks department also coordinates a weekly farmer’s market that makes healthy, fresh foods more easily accessible and affordable to their low-income residents. And while you’re at the park, you could bring your kids along to enjoy the playground or engage in some of the programming that is offered. And it’s free! This is the power of parks and recreation.

While parks have been around for well over a century, the notion that parks improve public health only gained recognition within the last decade. The health benefits of parks are vast, as they:

  • Provide opportunities for people to be physically active and reduce obesity.
  • Connect people to nature, therefore improving mental health and well-being.
  • Mitigate climate, air, and water pollution impacts on public health.
  • Bring communities together and provide numerous social benefits.

Initiatives such as the National Prevention Strategy and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health stress the importance of designing neighborhoods that facilitate access to safe, accessible, and affordable places for physical activity, including parks. But while 90 percent of Americans agree that parks and recreation are important local government services, less than 39 percent in the United States live within a half-mile walking distance of a park. Disparities exist in distribution of and access to public parks and recreation facilities, and these inequities are negatively impacting the health of many Americans.

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is the leading non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of public parks, recreation and conservation. NRPA’s “Safe Routes to Parks” campaign calls upon park and recreation agencies to engage their communities and collaborate with public health agencies and the built environment sector to create safe, equitable access to parks for all people.

Many communities are leading the way, working in close collaboration with state public health agencies. In Florida, the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation, and Open Spaces Department worked with the Florida Department of Health and other partners to launch a 50-year master plan with the potential to radically improve the quality of life in the region. They identified five geographically diverse locations with extreme health disparities that lack access to safe, quality parks. They are making improvements to these “park deserts” by increasing pedestrian access points and improving walkability around and within the parks.

In addition to promoting access, parks are well-positioned in the community to implement programs and policies that can influence health and help manage chronic diseases. NRPA is working in partnership with CDC to expand the dissemination of Arthritis-Appropriate Evidence-Based Interventions (AAEBIs) in local park and recreation agencies. NRPA and the California Department of Public Health, Arthritis Partnership Program (CAPP) have partnered to increase access to and use of evidence-based physical activity and self-management programs such as Walk With Ease (WWE), a 6-week walking program proven to improve pain and overall function for those affected by arthritis. Park and recreation agencies in California receive small program start-up funding, collaborate with CAPP to deliver the WWE and Active Living Every Day programs, and educate the community about the impact and burden of arthritis in their community. NRPA is also working with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Arthritis Program to support park and recreation agencies in Montana delivering the WWE program. Missoula Parks and Recreation, for example, will join the current network of WWE program deliverers in Montana, collaborate with Area Agencies on Aging, and work to educate communities about the burden of arthritis.

Parks also promote healthy eating habits. The City of Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department made a pledge to create change and provide healthier foods and access to physical activity to youth in their community. They worked with their local health department to implement an evidence-based curriculum called “5210 Let’s Go,” and hosted a community-wide out-of-school time summit. Colorado Springs, along with over 1,250 park sites across the country, are implementing evidence-based healthy eating and physical activity standards during their out-of-school time programming, impacting over 228,000 children.

As we all work to create healthier, more equitable communities, parks and recreation have an important role in people’s ability to make healthy choices.  ASTHO has engaged with parks and recreation for various initiatives, including prevention efforts and healthy aging initiatives. According to ASTHO’s 2012 Profile Study, 85 percent of state health agencies report working together on projects with parks and recreation. To connect more with parks, state health officials can reach out to state park and recreation associations, located in every state, that represent and convene their local park and recreation agencies. At an NRPA event in 2015, the administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County, Lillian Rivera, said, “Parks are part of my tool chest to help improve my community.” Local park and recreation agencies are ready and eager to partner with you. Let’s make this happen.


Zarnaaz Bashir joined ASTHO in January 2017 as the senior advisor for strategic planning and evaluation. She is responsible for developing and executing the organization's strategic and operations plans, and coordinating a performance management system that evaluates ASTHO’s performance. She also oversees ASTHO’s efforts to identify and track state public health trends and key priorities, and helps to shape future work for leadership development, advocacy, and capacity building for state and territorial public health officials and agencies. She previously worked at NRPA as the vice president for health and wellness.

Kellie May is director of health and wellness at  NRPA and has a demonstrated background in helping local park and recreation agencies implement strategies to improve healthy eating and increase physical activity.  May has been with NRPA for over six years and oversees the strategic direction of all health and wellness programs at NRPA. May has more than ten years of experience managing health and physical activity programs and has a master’s degree from George Washington University.