Healthy Communities of Opportunity: An Interview with Mildred Thompson and Victor Rubin

June 1, 2015, Department, by Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH

Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to attain his or her full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances. Availability and accessibility to safe, vibrant parks are social determinants that can influence an individual’s health. Still, disparities exist in distribution of and access to public parks and recreation facilities, and these inequities are negatively impacting the health of many Americans. NRPA recently connected with Mildred Thompson and Victor Rubin, director of the Center for Health Equity and Place and vice president of research for PolicyLink, respectively. PolicyLink is a national research and action institute focused on creating environments and conditions that benefit everyone, especially people in low-income communities and communities of color. We asked them to draw on their experiences regarding ways in which park and recreation agencies can work to achieve health equity.

Parks & Recreation magazine: Tell us about the work you do at PolicyLink to promote health equity in communities and why park and recreation agencies are critical to this. 

Mildred Thompson: As director for the Center for Health Equity and Place at PolicyLink, we focus on improving the environment to promote health, and improving community health outcomes by addressing health equity. When addressing health equity, it is important to look closely at what is happening in the environment and what needs to change in order to achieve health equity. The ability to have access to parks is part of that strategy. Primarily in low-income communities, there is often a lack of access to thriving, vibrant parks. Everything about parks and recreation is important to us because it has both direct and indirect health consequences. We believe in the importance of having thriving, accessible parks because they have multiple purposes for families and community infrastructure. At PolicyLink, we are trying to identify places that have a need for parks, or better parks, and how to make sure that we keep these parks open so that their communities can benefit. 

Victor Rubin: Our goal is to promote “healthy communities of opportunity.” We often see very high-quality parks and environmental amenities in upper-income communities that people take for granted and are a basic part of life, but are often missing in low-income communities and communities of color. These disparities in park quality, safety and access prevent people from exercising the healthy choice for active living and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle. 

P&R: When looking at social and environmental conditions that cause health inequities, it is important to examine community “assets” and the relationship of those assets with the community. How does parks and recreation fit into that analysis? 

Thompson: When a community is addressing health equity, it must look at the role that various community factors play. An essential part of being healthy is having access to safe places for play, recreation and connecting with neighbors. Parks are unique in that they are not just places for recreation and physical activity, they also provide a way of building social capital and a sense of community. When we look at parks as safe and lively forces in a community, we call these “anchor institutions.” Churches, community centers and parks can be viewed as anchors, or places that the community views as central to its health and well-being. Parks have long served their purpose as providing a safe haven for communities. When addressing the root causes of health inequities, one has to closely examine the structures in the environment that are either health-promoting or creating a barrier for good health. 

Rubin: The “healthy communities of opportunity” concept reminds us that this is not only about creating environments for people to exercise a healthy lifestyle. This is about creating community-wide assets that generate healthy environments. People are trying to rebuild their communities so that they are safe, vibrant and healthy. Parks play a huge role in that, as they are the most important way that social cohesion and social capital are built in a community through public spaces. 

P&R: What have been some successful examples of parks and recreation addressing access equity?

Thompson: We worked with a community in Santa Ana, California, where there were no parks. Kids were playing in dumpsters and could not run on the grass. It was a tragic thing to see. This was a primarily Latino area in one of richest counties in California — the county that includes Disneyland. Unfortunately, our country is filled with communities like this, where one side of the county might be thriving and the other side is neglected. Thanks to a lot of strong advocacy from a local group called Latino Health Access, and support from the California Endowment and a few other resources, they were able to get a park in place. It took a lot of consistent advocacy and outreach to local government officials about the neglect in that community, and as a result, they were able to secure the funding and support needed to build a place in which kids could play in a safe environment.

In the city of Los Angeles, we saw a great example with the “Parks After Dark” program at a park that was a site for a lot of criminal activity. Community members decided to take a stand and try to reclaim that park as a site for family gatherings and recreation. Over a period of years, they transformed the park into a national model with all kinds of recreational activities happening during the day and at night. They partnered with the police department and vendors to participate in activities. It’s a really vibrant, thriving park now that’s such a story of transformation, and a shining example of how a community can take a stand and work with their local parks.

P&R: What advice would you give a park and recreation agency that is beginning to address health disparities in its community? 

Thompson: Strengthen your role as an anchor in the community. Park and recreation agencies could be a place for co-location of public and social services. Health screenings, health fairs, job postings and food pantries are some of the activities that position parks as a place for civic engagement. 

Rubin: Park advocates and officials should not assume that other community leaders are aware of the health benefits of parks and the ways in which parks can help in addressing health inequities. Some leaders may not recognize the community focus that parks have. Park and recreation agencies should be ready to make the case when the opportunity arises. Better yet, they should educate groups even before they convene for planning. Parks should be highly visible and vocal when promoting the need for health equity to key decision makers. It is also critical for park officials to be actively involved in the community planning process, even if the planning department is taking the lead, as there is always a need for a health focus. 

Zarnaaz Bashir, MPH, is NRPA’s Director of Strategic Health Initiatives.