The Parks of San Antone

June 1, 2015, Feature, by Samantha Bartram

Innovative programming is a hallmark of San Antonio Parks and Recreation — its Fitness in the Park classes are free or low-cost and range from Zumba sessions to strength training.Texas is known for good music, addictive barbecue, tall hats and fierce independence. It’s also known for hosting a rather unhealthy population. Of the four Texas cities included in the 2015 American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) American Fitness Index, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio rank 35th or worse. Austin is the only outlier, ranking 14th in its level of fitness, health and quality of life as compared with America’s 50 most populous metropolitan areas.

Where many might find cause for discouragement in such data, San Antonio’s Parks and Recreation Department (SAPRD) saw opportunity. Texas’ second most populous city, with more than 63 percent of its approximately 1.4 million residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino, was up for a major challenge: How to coax its residents into embracing healthier behaviors with parks as a central component? 

A New Perspective

“San Antonians, like all Texans, value the outdoors, but what has changed is how we see and use the outdoors,” says Xavier Urrutia, director of San Antonio Parks and Recreation. “The city has always cherished its parks, but saw them more as passive green spaces to be loved and protected. Now San Antonio also sees parks as an untapped opportunity and resource.”

That updated view has at least two distinct vantages: economic and health. Happily, both are advantageous to municipal leaders, residents and park and recreation professionals. Urrutia says, although San Antonio has experienced economic challenges for decades, legislators and their constituents both tend to see the benefits of a robust parks system. “San Antonio residents want to do things in our parks and we have seen a move to making our parks active green spaces,” he says. “In recent years, greater resources through the passage of sales tax propositions and bond programs have been dedicated to the park system as our residents and city leaders have recognized what an important role parks play in the quality of life for our community. We in the parks and recreation profession know that a quality park system and aesthetically pleasing green spaces are important factors in the city’s economic development efforts because a city with quality parks has a healthier, happier workforce.”

The Serving Curve

The 2010 U.S. Census ranked San Antonio as the nation’s seventh-most populous state, and it’s still growing fast. Urrutia says part of his challenge was finding a way to communicate with and satisfy a sprawling, demographically diverse population facing numerous health challenges. “It takes a multi-pronged approach,” he says. “San Antonio is geographically widespread, which makes it a challenge to serve citizens in all quadrants of the community.” 

To address availability concerns, Urrutia’s team finds creative ways to improve smaller, already-established neighborhood parks, while simultaneously looking for opportunities to construct new parks. This approach was facilitated largely through the passage of bonds repeatedly, and overwhelmingly, approved by San Antonio voters, as well as public-private partnerships. “[Such bonds were] approved by voters four times since 1999,” Urrutia  says. “The voters of San Antonio again recently approved the continuation of a dedicated sales tax that has funded a trail system along our river and creekways that currently consists of 40-plus miles and another 40 under design and construction even before this renewal was passed.”

Urrutia’s team also came up with effective ways to communicate what’s available to all residents, no matter their primary language. “San Antonio is made up of diverse cultural and ethnic influences, including strong Hispanic roots,” Urrutia  says. “Many residents of all ages speak Spanish as their primary language. As such, it is critical that we are able to effectively communicate all that we have to offer. We actively seek and utilize both English and Spanish media. We place advertisements and conduct newspaper, radio and television interviews in both languages. We also frequently produce marketing materials for major programs and public service announcements in both English and Spanish, and ensure that bilingual staff is available to assist with registrations, reservations or simply answering questions.” 

Urrutia  even involves smaller, neighborhood-based media outlets like blogs and newsletters to reach the widest audience possible. “Recently, we have used grassroots, bilingual marketing to reach out to individuals who may not rely on traditional media for their information,” he continues. “We view our unique culture as a benefit, thus bilingual communication is the norm. We work to maximize information sharing, program participation and the overall parks experience for the entire community and truly believe that our efforts have been successful.”

Howdy, Partner

While Urrutia  and his team embrace multiple municipal and community-based modes of communication and fundraising, he acknowledges partnerships with private entities are important to elevating SAPRD’s facilities and programs. “Our biggest corporate partner has been the Coca-Cola Company,” Urrutia  explains. “We’ve been fortunate to partner with them on several initiatives in recent years, including their generous funding of fitness initiatives such as the Ride to Own bicycle program, our state-of-the-art Mobile Fitness vehicle, and the Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness Program which we have integrated into out Fitness in the Park offerings. Most recently, Coca-Cola made available a grant through NRPA that allowed us to renovate a new piece of parkland by adding fitness equipment and refurbishing a basketball court and a multipurpose ball field so that programming, also funded through the grant, can be offered.”

SAPRD’s FitPass program, now in its third year, boasts a tremendous amount of local partnerships, including businesses, nonprofits and municipal leadership like the Mayor’s Fitness Council. “Collaboration is the key to make a program like [FitPass] work and we’re fortunate to have a number of great partners participating,” Michael Baldwin, SAPRD special projects manager, says. “I credit the creation of the Mayor’s Fitness Council with helping us develop many of these relationships over the past several years that you now see play such a big part in what we do.”

Program and Incentivize

Most integral to SAPRD’s successes, however, was recognition of the need for innovative, free or low-cost programming, coupled with enticing incentives. This approach has significantly boosted awareness of San Antonio’s parks system and coaxed hundreds of thousands of San Antonians to the nearest trail, playground or rec center. “Our priority is our mission to provide quality parks and recreational programming, accessible to all,” Urrutia  says. “That can be a tall order, but I’m proud of the strong commitment of the department and the City of San Antonio to do exactly that.”

Topping the list of SAPRD’s most successful programs is FitPass. First known as FitPass SA, then FitPass 2.0, and now FitPass 2015, the initiative combines exercise, fun and friendly competition with creative incentives. “The initial idea behind the FitPass program was to create a citywide initiative that highlighted many of the free and low-cost fitness, wellness and nutritional opportunities that were available to citizens here in San Antonio,” Baldwin explains. “We didn’t necessarily want to recreate the wheel, but rather find a way to incorporate programs implemented by a variety of local organizations, offered under one umbrella. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we encourage our residents to become more active, while engaging them in a fun way?’ and ‘How can we influence real behavior change toward healthier lifestyles?’”

The answer was to create an interactive challenge anchored by enjoyable activities designed to improve mental and physical health and facilitate greater community connections. Baldwin and his team at SAPRD designed a points-based system, where participants would receive a paper “passport” in which to gather stamps upon completing a given task. Such activities included swimming at a local pool, engaging with SAPRD social media through sharing pictures or tweets, visiting a museum, eating healthy foods, committing to a race or fitness challenge, and many others. “Providing a point system and the opportunity to earn prizes for engaging in healthy behaviors is a great incentive for some people, whether you’re aiming to win something, setting goals for yourself, or just competitive by nature,” Baldwin says. “The thought was that, through this program, people would discover new ways to be healthy, and hopefully make participating in these activities a permanent part of their lifestyle.”

With each iteration of the FitPass program, Baldwin says they’re making tweaks and changes to improve its draw and efficacy, including telescoping its initial nine-month participation span to three months and, this year, developing an interactive mobile app to keep track of points, rather than continuing to use the printed passport. The risks and adjustments of the past two years certainly paid off — “In all, we’ve distributed almost 25,000 FitPass passports over the last two sessions,” Baldwin says. 

Additionally, SAPRD’s Ride to Own bicycle and Mobile Fit San Antonio programs have proven incredibly popular. “Over a 10-week [Ride to Own] session we teach participants the fundamentals of riding and maintaining a bicycle, which includes a combination of classroom-style teaching and group bike rides,” Baldwin says. “Upon completion of the program, each participant receives a brand new bike. Did I mention that participation in this program is free?” 

Mobile Fit was revealed in June 2014 and made possible through a corporate grant from Coca-Cola. The tricked out “wellness vehicle” travels to neighborhoods that may lack a park or open space for socialization or exercise, and brings those amenities right to residents’ front doors. “It’s equipped with portable fitness and health screening equipment and travels to parks, schools, churches and community events, providing free fitness classes and free health screenings,” Baldwin explains. “It’s available to the community at no charge for reservation. We really wanted to be able to reach people who may not be in our parks or have access to our services. Again, it’s an attempt at breaking barriers in order to get more people in the community active.”

And, beyond programmatic highlights, both Urrutia and Baldwin cite San Antonio’s Howard W. Peak Greenway Trail System as an essential amenity. “[The system is] a series of paved trails that meander along the creekways here in San Antonio,” Urrutia explains. “These trails offer great opportunities for physical fitness for citizens who enjoy the outdoors, and wish to reduce their stress and improve their health by spending time on the trails. It also serves as an alternative form of transportation.” The trail is currently under expansion across the city, and, Baldwin says, outdoor fitness equipment has been installed at more than 40 locations along the trail, offering additional options for exercise. 

Wide Horizons

Urrutia  says SAPRD plans to continue honing its current programs and community outreach, as well as position its parks as economic drivers. “[Our initiatives range from] ‘Parks as the Centerpiece to Neighborhood Revitalization,’ where parks can be the catalyst to other investments, to Fitness in the Park and all the other programs that have been created to get San Antonio active and fit, and the continued development of our Linear Creekway Trail System,” he says. “At the end of the day, [SAPRD] will continue to protect our public green space as a place for all people to come together as a community, it’s just that now people are walking, running and biking to get there, which means we have made a difference.”   

For Baldwin, that last part is most notable for its service as a reminder that his agency is making a real difference in the health and wellness of the citizens it serves. “Because we’ve made such a strategic and concentrated effort in integrating wellness into our parks system over the past several years, you can really see a change in how people see and use our parks,” he says. “There’s a noticeable change in the air…you see more people exercising outdoors, biking on our trails, walking their dogs and taking advantage of what have become very active spaces. I really believe that the public perception of parks’ role in healthy living has changed.”

Samantha Bartram is the Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.