Future Trends in Health and Wellness

August 1, 2015, Department, by Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH, and Kellie May

NRPA has been tracking four significant trends we believe will shape the future of health and wellness for parks and recreation.During the past decade, health and wellness for parks and recreation has really transformed. The nation’s attention to issues such as the obesity crisis and children’s nature deficit has compelled many parks and recreation agencies to reevaluate their health priorities, work to better understand the needs of their communities and serve as the solution for healthy opportunities for residents. Imagine what life will look like 50 years from now, or even just a decade from now. In the past 10 years, the mainstreaming of social media alone has forever changed society and the way we share ideas — and the way we think about and monitor our health. Following are four significant trends NRPA has been tracking and that we believe will shape the future of health and wellness for parks and recreation.

Collaboration with Nontraditional Partners

Given the state of our car-centric environment today, parks are thinking more about their role in the built environment and how they can facilitate access to, enhance the quality of, and ensure the safety of parks so residents can be physically active. How can we help people walk to their park? How can we better connect schools to parks and parks to neighborhoods? Or, an even bigger question: How do we improve the places where we live, work, learn and play? These are some of the complex questions today’s communities face. There is much that needs to be done to fix the problems created during the past half-century or so, but the future of community development cannot be resolved in silos.

“Health in All Policies” (HiAP) is a concept described by the World Health Organization as assisting “leaders and policymakers to integrate considerations of health, well-being and equity during the development, implementation and evaluation of policies and services.” Health must be considered in everything we develop. When we think of health and helping people make healthy choices, we naturally defer to public health departments and healthcare groups. But, the focus has shifted to parks, housing, transportation, education, air quality, criminal justice, energy and employment agencies as the groups that are best positioned to create policies and practices that promote healthy communities and environments. The future of community development lies in their hands.

Physicians prescribing wellness at parks is also a new and innovative concept that is driving more users to parks through referrals from this trusted and credible source. As Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Health Care in Washington, D.C., points out, “With our nation’s current epidemic of obesity… it’s time that we doctors prescribe time outside, in nature, for all our patients.” Collaborations between parks and the medical community not only provide healthy opportunities for people right in their backyard, but also position parks as advocates for health in the community.

Currently, there is a lot of discussion around ensuring that every child lives within walking distance of a safe, quality park. But, in places where access to parks and recreation facilities is lacking, residents are often greeted with spaces that are locked during out-of-school times. According to ChangeLab Solutions, a national nonprofit established to create law and policy innovation for healthy environments, “shared use is a winning strategy because it maximizes the use of public resources to benefit the community as a whole.” Shared use agreements between two or more entities (e.g., school, city and/or a private organization) will become an even more popular mechanism for sharing indoor and outdoor spaces such as gymnasiums, athletic fields and playgrounds, to build more opportunity for physical activity and play. 


Fifty years ago, technology was a typewriter, the first successful minicomputer, cassette tape players, transistor radios, rotary phones and the first cordless tape recorders. Technology today, includes mobile phones, laptop computers, wireless music devices, fitness trackers, GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping technology, video games and so on. It is everywhere and embedded into almost every thread of our daily lives. It has had a profound impact on society and, in particular, on the health and wellness of all people. While today’s technology, through the use of fitness and nutrition trackers, has led some to an increased awareness about their overall health, it has also resulted in an increase in “screen time” which, in turn, has led to increased sedentary behaviors and the obesity epidemic the nation is now facing. How has this impacted the parks and recreation field? 

Dr. Andrew J. Mowen, associate professor, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at The Pennsylvania State University, says, “People want real-time and customized agency content to be readily available on mobile platforms and social media.” Constituents want everything from fitness classes to community events to workshops on health listed in an easily accessible place, and, “They don’t want to have to download four apps to find it,” says Choton Basu, Founder of Slipstream LLC. 

Beyond communications, technology has also “changed the face of recreation itself,” says Mowen. Parks and recreation agencies are no longer just youth-sports providers. They are community health providers and are demonstrating their impact through data-driven policies and strategies, and evidence-based programs. Data, evidence and impact are going to be the drivers that take the field into the next 50 years and beyond. In fact, Basu says, “We’ve got to look at integrating multiple data sources,” and recommends that government agencies widely share public data. Working with the private sector and using publicly available data, parks and recreation will be a key player in health and wellness decisions in communities and can have a profound impact on improving community health. 

Changing Demographics

The country’s demographics have changed greatly from 50 years ago and are projected to continue to change drastically during the next 50 years. Current estimates indicate that the U.S. population will expand by 100 million over the next 40 years and the minority population, currently at 30 percent, is expected to exceed 50 percent by 2050. Additionally, the proportion of the population aged 65 and older is projected to increase from 12.4 percent, or 35 million in 2000, to 19.6 percent, or 71 million, by 2030. Parks and recreation agencies need to begin planning now for the future needs of their changing communities. 

Planning the facilities of the future may sound easy enough, but financial constraints since the Great Recession of 2007 have hindered the ability of parks and recreation agencies to move forward with some projects and have forced many agencies to adapt to smaller budgets while continuing to serve a growing population. To alleviate this problem, the city of Hialeah, Florida, where more than 94 percent of the population is Hispanic, has pursued private sector partners and streamlined their department by having essential personnel become as versatile as possible. Joseph Dziedzic, director of the Hialeah Department of Parks and Recreation, says parks and recreation agencies should “become as efficient as possible while retaining the core of what parks and recreation really is and listen to the needs of your community.” 

Planning the facilities of the future will also mean thinking about the development of senior-centric recreational facilities and amenities like adjunct trails designed with shorter distances, flatter topography and appropriate signage. To facilitate this process, John W. Patton, director of communications and marketing for the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, says, “Local park and recreation agencies should form senior community coalitions or senior activity action teams. Being proactive today and developing relationships with senior-centered facilities will go a long way to help drive awareness for, and utilization of, senior recreational options in the future,” says Patton. The resounding message here is that planning ahead will be the critical element for parks and recreation agencies to adapt to the changing demographics today and well into the future. 

Eliminating Health Disparities

We used to believe health disparities were only caused by limited medical coverage and lack of access to healthcare. We now know that social, economic and environmental factors are some of the strongest predictors and determinants of health. The conditions in which we live are partially responsible for why some Americans are healthier than others. Do you smoke or drink? Do you live where there is clean water and air? Do you have access to a safe, quality park or green space? Generally speaking, neighborhoods with higher minority populations have lower acreage of park space. Parks in lower-income neighborhoods are also more likely to be poorly maintained and offer fewer services. Healthy People 2020, which outlines national objectives for improving the health of all Americans, for the first time included an objective to “create social and physical environments that promote good health for all.” All Americans deserve equal access to parks and recreation opportunities, but how do we close the gap?

To keep pace with our nation’s changing demographics, cultural competency and diversity awareness are vital when designing projects and making programming decisions. Seeking community input through surveys, visioning workshops, town hall meetings and public hearings are some ways to understand and explore what the community values. Improving parks, trails, recreation facilities and programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods will also continue to be crucial. Many agencies are identifying “park deserts” and determining ways to improve access to low-income areas. Quality and safety of parks need to be addressed, as parks in low-income neighborhoods are often perceived as less safe, a characteristic associated with lower use. The lack of use and scarcity of programming also may contribute to a perception of lack of safety. 

As we move through the next several decades, we will face a whole new set of forces — health, environmental, socioeconomic, cultural, and technological — that will again dramatically impact the way we live in our communities. Evolving with the trends keeps us relevant. Staying on top of these trends helps ensure that the parks and recreation field continues to be part of public health decisions and conversations. And finally, it is the mission of parks and recreation to build healthy communities for all people, so integrating these trends into decision-making and planning only helps maximize success for the field. 

Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH, is NRPA’s Director of Strategic Health Initiatives. Kellie May is NRPA’s Program Manager.