Less than an hour’s drive from Philadelphia is the city of Coatesville, the only city in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Once considered the “Pittsburgh of the East” because of its then-thriving steel industry, Coatesville has faced the same economic and social challenges that other steel towns have experienced following the industry’s decline.
Dramatic growth in Chester County has made it the wealthiest and healthiest county in Pennsylvania, but Coatesville has not shared in this success. With a population of approximately 13,000, 13.3 percent of Coatesville’s residents live in poverty compared to only 4 percent in the county. In Coatesville, 27 percent of adults are obese and more than 20 percent of Latino and African-American children are overweight. Like other cities, Coatesville’s social and economic conditions have a direct impact on the overall health of the city.
At Palmer Park, a 1-acre neighborhood park on the east end of Coatesville, the city’s challenges are evident. A chain-link fence and barbed wire surround the swimming pool that’s been closed for more than a decade. The basketball court’s blacktop is decaying, and community members voice concerns about safety.
It wasn’t always this way. Lifelong Coatesville resident James Bookman remembers when Palmer Park first opened. “Everyone went there,” he says. “It wasn’t just a park; it was like the hub of the community.” Bookman’s childhood memories include basketball tournaments, night swimming at the pool and summer block parties, where the sound of laughter and music would echo into the twilight. He watched Coatesville’s parks decline over the decades, and with them, opportunities for kids to have safe outdoor places to play and for older adults to gather with friends.
Thanks to a partnership between the city of Coatesville; Natural Lands, a regional land conservation organization based in the Philadelphia area; the Brandywine Health Foundation; and countless residents — like Bookman and his wife, Deborah — and community groups, Coatesville’s parks are to be revitalized. And, when the Bookmans learned there were openings on the city’s Parks & Recreation Commission, they jumped at the chance to get involved. They were among the more than 140 people who attended a 2016 public forum, co-hosted by the city of Coatesville, Brandywine Health Foundation, Natural Lands, and Parks and Recreation Planner Ann Toole. The forum, along with an online survey completed by nearly 700 residents, was a critical first step in developing an action plan for the city’s parks.
“From the outset, we knew public input was essential to the planning process,” says Oliver Bass, vice president of communications and engagement at Natural Lands. “Typically, a public forum about parks might attract a dozen people. But, the response from Coatesville residents was greater than we could have dreamed. Their priorities came through loud, clear and with remarkable consistency. They want safe, clean, beautiful parks for people of all ages to use, engaging park programs and a commitment to ongoing maintenance…and they are eager to help.”
The resulting plan, called Coatesville Parks 2021: An Action Plan for Lively Parks and Healthy People, marked the beginning of a now two-year-old initiative — Greening Coatesville — that’s aimed at improving access to the outdoors in the city. Greening Coatesville brings together city leadership, residents and community organizations — with help from the Brandywine Health Foundation, which works to achieve health equity for all who live and work in the Greater Coatesville area, and Natural Lands — to implement the plan.
Following the creation of a neighborhood-informed master plan for Palmer Park in 2017, partners moved quickly to begin its implementation. Thanks to a major grant from the American Water Charitable Foundation and NRPA, by the end of this summer the park’s long-closed swimming pool will be replaced by a unique nature and water play area. A splashpad area with seven water features will feed a man-made stream that leads to a shallow, rock-lined wading area. The top of the stream originates in a circular plaza surrounded by benches, with an old-fashioned hand-pump that can also be used by children (or childlike adults!) to interact with the water.
From the plaza, a series of concrete paths will wind through the park past inviting grassy areas, newly planted shade trees, scattered boulders and seven “nature play” features, including an embankment slide, a post hop, web climber, tension line, log balance, stump jump and branch climber.
Parks Are an Investment
Toole, who worked on Coatesville Parks 2021: An Action Plan for Lively Parks and Healthy People, asserts that parks are more than just places for children to play. “Better access to parks has been shown to result in a 25 percent increase in people exercising three or more days per week. In southeastern Pennsylvania, a study found more than $1.3 billion in avoided annual health costs due to access to parks and open space,” she points out. Parks have also been demonstrated to improve safety. In Macon, Georgia, for example, a revitalized park is reported to have helped reduce incidents of crime and violence by 50 percent.
“Investing in our parks has long-term benefits for the community in building social cohesion, creating healthy environments and increasing opportunities for Coatesville residents to be active,” says Vanessa Briggs, president and CEO of the Brandywine Health Foundation. “The Greening Coatesville initiative, along with the American Water Charitable Foundation grant, is a prime example of the transformative work that leads to healthier communities and has already spurred interest among the surrounding municipalities to examine the use of their parks and green spaces as a population health intervention,” she adds.
What’s more, positive changes in urban parks and green spaces play a role in economic revitalization. Cities where parks, recreation and trails play a vital role in the lives of their residents are vibrant places to live and are, therefore, attractive to businesses and residents.
“While the factors that contribute to a community’s well-being are complex, many cities have found that execution of a green vision can redefine its image, spur economic development and create a much-improved quality of place for residents,” notes Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands.
The Greening Coatesville initiative is part of a larger citywide effort to stimulate investment in the city. In 2017, the Chester County Economic Development Foundation (CCEDF) and the Coatesville Area Partners for Progress (CAPP) completed a neighborhood revitalization strategy. The resulting plan — called Coatesville Growing Greater — lays out five-year action strategies to address issues of resident engagement, jobs and economic opportunity, youth empowerment and community safety.
That Greening Coatesville and Coatesville Growing Greater are happening simultaneously is not an accident. Community leaders recognize that improving the economy and enhancing quality of life through parks are complementary and essential. These two initiatives set the stage in creating a culture of health in Coatesville, where health equity is becoming the norm as a shared value across sectors and systems.
“The reawakening and renewal of our city parks translate into regeneration of the lives of our families,” says Linda Lavender-Norris, Coatesville City Council president. “We will be forever grateful for the relationship that we’ve established with Natural Lands, which will last throughout time. We extend these same sentiments to the Brandywine Health Foundation and our county government for investing in our health and well-being.”
Every success will advance the city’s vision for the future. While Palmer Park is just a small space, its revitalization will make a world of difference to the community and will represent the winds of change that are stirring for Coatesville.
Bookman agrees. “You might think, does it matter to change one little park? But, change one and who knows where it leads! The good energy in Coatesville is snowballing.”
When the residents of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, gathered in 2016 to discuss their parks and their hopes for the future, they made it clear that planning, while necessary, must be followed by action.
“Developing a five-year action plan for the city’s parks was an essential first step and is serving as our road map,” says Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands, a regional land conservation organization. “But we knew we needed to show the community tangible improvements to keep up the momentum and enthusiasm.”
So, as the city’s action plan was completed, Natural Lands joined forces with PECO, the city of Coatesville, the nonprofit KaBOOM! and more than 200 community volunteers to build a new playground in Patton Park — in just one day! The playground design was inspired by drawings made by local children, who were asked to envision the playground of their dreams.
The playground project in Patton Park was the fifth that PECO has made possible since 2007 across the company’s service territory.
The new playground served as a catalyst for engaging the neighborhood and enlivening the park. Soon, the Friends of Patton Park formed to help maintain the park and find ways to attract more activity. Last fall, the group held a fall festival, featuring games, a cookout and movie night, with groups of children running and playing from morning to night. Through its efforts, the Coatesville Little League renovated a little-used baseball field, and, this spring, the joyful sounds of T-ball and softball games have returned.
Support for Greening Coatesville has come from American Water Charitable Foundation, Applestone Foundation, Areclor Mittal, Chester County, Chester County Community Foundation, City of Coatesville, Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation, PECO, the Philadelphia Foundation, Stewart Huston Charitable Trust, and the William Penn Foundation.
Kirsten Werner is the Director of Communications, and Oliver Bass is the Vice President of Communications and Engagement for Natural Lands. Vanessa Briggs is the President and CEO, and Jill Whitcomb is the Vice President for Development and Communication for Brandywine Health Foundation.