From the Director’s Chair

June 1, 2016, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Particularly in the health and wellness space, many objectives are shared among park and recreation departments and their public health counterparts. Active lifestyles, exposure to natural environments and strong community connections all contribute to an overall climate of health — as it happens, all are also available through local parks and recreation, often with little or no financial barrier for entry. Savvy directors recognize the opportunities for collaboration between their agencies and public health providers and actively work to cultivate these connections for the betterment of their constituents, especially those in traditionally underserved populations. This month, we reached out to Jesús Aguirre, superintendent at Seattle Parks and Recreation in Washington state; Jack Kardys, director of Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department in Florida; and Douglas R. Kupper, director of the Oklahoma City Department of Parks and Recreation to ask the following question: What initiatives at your agency have shown the greatest success in addressing health inequities in your community? Below are their observations:

Jesús Aguirre

At Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) we support healthy people, healthy environments and strong communities, with a special focus on ensuring access to our neediest and historically under-represented residents. This year, we are embarking on an exciting new program designed to get people up and moving. Our “Get Moving” initiative focuses on people from communities of color, immigrant communities, people with disabilities and folks from our LGBTQ community, especially youth and seniors, in communities where people are disproportionately affected by health disparities.

With funding from our newly created Seattle Park District, SPR provides grants to local nonprofits, small businesses and community groups that offer innovative and culturally relevant events and projects designed to get people involved in community sports, active recreation and physical fitness activities. Our goal is to reach 1,000 new participants this year.

SPR reached out widely in target communities and awarded grants to 14 projects for our initial year. Funded initiatives include an intergenerational program focusing on African-American fathers and sons; a training program by a Latino leadership development group to help youth become coaches; a cultural dance program by an organization that supports the Lao community, especially youth, with scholarships and activities that preserve their culture; and an African Diaspora dance classes by an organization that invests in young women of color as future leaders through mentoring and programs that equip them with confidence and resiliency.


Jack Kardys

Perhaps the important initiative that has served as the blueprint for health equity in Miami-Dade County is the Parks and Open Space Master Plan, unanimously adopted in 2008 by the Board of County Commissioners. During the past eight years, not only have all 35 municipalities, the school board, three state parks and two national parks in Miami-Dade adopted its principles — equity, access, seamlessness, sustainability, multiple benefits and beauty — but they also recognized that a great park system is much more than ballfields and summer programs. Rather, it is a system of great parks, public spaces, natural and cultural areas connected by great greenways, trails, blueways and complete streets that serve as safe, linear parks. 

Despite significant budget reductions between 2008 and 2014, Miami-Dade Parks managed to make significant gains in community health equity by being recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama as a national model for health in park afterschool programs through our Fit2Play program, publishing four articles in national public health and medical journals for the healthy community outcomes from evidence-based programs and designs, building 140 miles of the 500-mile greenway system, and investing $300+ million in park system capital improvements, 22 community fitness zones, five community and senior centers and a dozen playgrounds. 

And, while we have made significant progress in some regards, we have a long way to go to realizing the vision and road map that was adopted for this community. In Miami-Dade it starts with the Parks and Open Space Master Plan and greater investment in parks and public spaces. Second, we encourage citizen park champions to attend key community events, budget hearings and town hall meetings to get informed and help spread the word on the importance of parks. Third, we ask people to volunteer their time for the revitalization and beautification projects that benefit the community, by joining the Conservation Corps volunteer team.

Our success is measured by community health gains and the cohesion of the community around the belief that there is power in a great park system to create a healthier, happier and more prosperous Miami-Dade County!

Douglas R. Kupper

If you want a prescription for community health, you have to start with the parks department. This new philosophy is paving the way for the Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation Department to become a leading wellness provider in the city. Beginning in May 2014, our department has moved away from traditional recreation models and replaced them with more fitness fare. New adult leagues put an emphasis on year-round exercise, and a new cadre of more than 20 summer camps provides local children with opportunities to explore nature and the outdoors, as well as participate in fitness-based programs, sports, science and the arts. 

There’s also a new emphasis on partnerships. In 2015, the department won a $35,000 grant to provide health programming to area seniors. The grant enabled the department to partner with a local university and grocery store to create a new wellness program with an emphasis on senior exercise and nutrition.

We are also developing a new Wellness and Learning Campus in conjunction with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. Located on parkland in one of Oklahoma City’s least healthy ZIP codes, the campus, when built, will provide a full array of wellness services, including health evaluations, exercise classes, diabetes and heart testing, and cooking classes for residents spanning all age groups.

The biggest equalizer of community health is our trails and sidewalks. In a city spanning 621 square miles, walkability can be a challenge, but our trails system, which boasts almost 100 miles of linear multiuse trails, provides cyclists, walkers and runners in a variety of neighborhoods with the ideal safe place to get in their miles. And more trails, as well as in-park paths and neighborhood sidewalks are on the way.


Samantha Bartram,Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine