Safe Routes to Parks

June 5, 2018, Feature, by Rachel Banner

2018 June Feature Safe Routes 410

Lessons learned from the first year of implementation

The Safe Routes to Park Action Framework was released in the fall of 2016 to support the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking and Walkability. This coordinated effort between NRPA and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (National Partnership), with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was designed to provide local governments with critical evidence- and practice-based recommendations to ensure parks are safe, accessible and welcoming places in communities. We know that people with easy access to a park, within a 10-minute walk of home, have higher rates of walking, lower rates of obesity and improved mental health and enjoy many other benefits. This framework helps communities achieve those benefits by providing steps to engage leaders and community members in an ongoing assessment, planning and implementation process.

Over the past year, NRPA and the National Partnership have worked with the following eight communities to pilot this framework:

  • Ashley Park, New Bedford Parks, Recreation and Beaches, New Bedford, Massachusetts
  • August Wilson Park, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Dewey Point, Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department, West Terre Haute, Indiana
  • East Athens Community Center and Trail Creek Park, Athens Clarke County, Athens, Georgia
  • Hugh Force County Park, Morris County Park Commission, Wharton, New Jersey
  • Monte Sano Park, Recreation Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC), Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Wesleyan MetroPark and the Wolf Creek Trail, Five Rivers Metro Parks, Dayton, Ohio
  • West Willow Park, Ypsilanti Township Recreation, Ypsilanti, Michigan

These communities have built partner coalitions, engaged communities, conducted walk audits, collected surveys, selected action goals and priorities, secured funding and, ultimately, made improvements to community parks. Following are some of the themes that emerged across the sites and recommendations from others interested in using the Safe Routes to Park Action Framework.

Partners as Technical Experts and Community Advocates
Engagement is the central component of Safe Routes to Parks and was the starting point for all the pilot sites. Each site had various levels of relationships with community partners, but all noted that the Safe Routes to Parks process provided a tangible project on which to collaborate and build relationships. As Five Rivers Metro Parks notes, this process “has solidified working relationships between the main involved organizations to better work together for the benefit of the region as a whole.”

Each partner brought a unique perspective to the project, but the pilot sites all agreed with Five Rivers, which states that “the key to this plan working well was to include a wide range of partners and having the technical expertise available on the team. Trying to take on a project like this without professional design help and those involved with youth and transit would have made this project a lot more difficult.”

Other technical experts who contributed to the projects included organizations with a history of working on Safe Routes to Schools: police departments, bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations and departments of transportation. The community-engagement partners included housing and community development, public libraries, senior centers, public schools, social service agencies and afterschool groups.

Partners lifting up the voices of the community to ensure representation in the process was another type of partnership. Ypsilanti Township Recreation adds: “We built a stronger relationship with our neighborhood association. And with this connection, we were better able to bring awareness to the park and build relationships to identify needs at the park.”

Regardless of the role of the partners, a key aspect of their engagement was ensuring that everyone understood why safe routes to parks was important for communities. Specifically, hands-on education not only provided a role for partners, but also helped them better understand the community. Kevin Hurley, trip leader at Specialist Venture Outdoors in Pittsburgh, writes the following about his experience helping third through eighth graders conduct walk audits using GoPro and geocaching:

Some people, some youth, must face rather precarious conditions to access green space, to be able to breathe fresh air for an hour a day, to sit with companions or in solitude and write down their thoughts, or do nothing at all but listen to the birds and have a moment of calmness. I’m extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to lead these two outings with these two groups. Hearing feedback from students and working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to try to ameliorate the conditions that some neighborhoods must face to get to places I consider sacred and free to the public was an eye-opener.

When partners buy into the mission, understand the purpose and see the problem at hand, they are more likely to propel your efforts forward and you will benefit more from their technical expertise and connection to the community.

Assessment as an Engagement Tool
Once community partners were established, the eight sites moved forward with data collection and understanding community needs. Most of the sites found that although they may have been required to hold traditional community meetings regarding the project site, interactive assessment activities, not held during formal meetings, were the most effective engagement tools. These included walk audits, art in the park, community festivals and pop-up demonstration events. During these events, partners collected qualitative feedback and encouraged community members to complete surveys. Many of the tools used can be found on NRPA’s interactive webpage, Safe Routes to Parks.

Several key themes about safety and access to parks emerged across the sites through the various methods of assessment. A New Bedford official says, “We learned that community members were concerned about the levels of dangerous activities occurring in areas of the park and along neighborhood streets. While the police reports do not show violent crime occurring within the study area, perceptions of crime and gang-related activities are real. We knew that one of our main goals would be to create a safer space for the community.”

New Bedford’s experience was consistent across many of the sites. In Ypsilanti, partners were surprised to hear from some residents that they don’t visit the park because they remember when there was high crime there many years ago. One person indicated that he believed “unsavory” types hang out at the basketball courts. So, whether crime was historic, real or perceived, it remains a huge barrier to access and must be addressed in the planning and implementation phase of the process.

In addition, most of the sites identified numerous physical improvements that were needed. Walk audits were the best method of identifying the specific improvements needed to create accessible routes and an increased feeling of personal safety. These included improved visibility of street crossings with appropriate signage and pavement markings, adding traffic islands to mid-block crossings and improved lighting.

Implementation and Sustainability
After assessment, planning is the next step in the action framework. Although each site devised a park-site-specific plan, many found the most valuable aspect of this process to be coordinated planning. Through coordinated planning with partner coalition members, such as Safe Routes to School, trail groups, transportation departments, and local and regional planning organizations, the pilot sites were able to integrate solutions into ongoing projects.

For example, at BREC, the project managers initially had difficulty gaining buy-in from partners and community members, in part because of significant flooding that occurred in 2016. However, once they began coordinating with their own Planning and Engineering Department, as well as with the Louisiana Department of Travel and Development, they not only were able to reroute the trail to connect to the park, but they also gained support of their department leadership, received additional funds for the park and have been hosting park cleanup days in the surrounding area.

In Vigo County, Indiana, the Safe Routes to Parks efforts included a walk audit with the state’s department of transportation and a state senator that gained the attention of local media and additional decision makers. By working with state leaders, the town was able to secure $8 million toward a walkway along a bridge that connects to the park site and to many other destinations. This bridge project had been in the works for more than 10 years, but the pilot site team was able to get the funding and expedite the process by involving leadership and coordinating planning.

Finally, in Dayton, Ohio, improvements were included in the overall park master plan, but they also identified the need for a rapid-flashing beacon to help pedestrians get across a major boulevard. This route happened to be along a Safe Routes to School route, and they were able to jointly apply for funding. This success, as Dayton says, “has become an agencywide initiative to ensure that barriers are removed to all parks in the system. This program has allowed the need to create safe routes to all MetroParks to become a priority and become part of the everyday discussion for the planning of our parks.”

Although most of our sites did coordinate with larger planning efforts, some were able to make small changes that responded to the immediate needs of the community. For example, the New Bedford parks department was able to fix broken light bulbs, remove a softball fence that was unnecessary and a barrier to park access and add requested police patrol. In Athens Clarke County, Georgia, the department secured a small Community Development Block Grant to build a sidewalk in place of a worn down “social trail” that is traveled by more than 100 people a day. Both large plans and smaller, quick improvements, such as these, are needed to gain buy-in from community members and partners and to ensure these efforts are continually sustained.

Using the Action Framework
The Safe Routes to Parks Action Framework is a simple, easy-to-use guide that can help start or continue the process of improving park safety and access in your community. As evidenced by the work of the pilot sites over the past year, the framework is applicable to a wide variety of park and recreation agencies and can be used as a reminder checklist or project guide. “It is very easy to tailor the framework to fit your project and your community. It is structured to be very accommodating to all needs and is super easy to follow,” says the New Bedford contact.

The pilot sites offer the following advice when using the framework:

  • Be flexible. If your initial idea doesn’t work, be willing to shift gears and try something different. — Ypsilanti
  • Expect delays, have patience and understand that the process is fluid. If an unforeseen opportunity arises during the process, take advantage of it; rework the task list to accommodate the opportunity. — Morris Park Alliance
  • Be open to hearing what your community says. You may do site assessments and think you know what communities need/want, but when you gather folks together, you may hear a totally different message than what you were expecting. So, don’t go into it telling them what you’re going to do; ask what their thoughts are on what they’d like to see happen. — Athens Clarke County

What’s Next for Safe Routes to Parks?
The Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership will continue to support NRPA and communities across the country to implement Safe Routes to Parks best practices through the Safe Routes to Parks Activating Communities program. This program provides in-depth technical assistance and grant funding to communities to develop Safe Routes to Parks Action Plans and implement early actions from these plans. In addition, they will be creating tools and resources addressing some of the barriers and common areas of success that pilot sites identified, including personal safety, defining equity, setting the stage for community engagement and developing a standard audit tool.

NRPA will also continue to build on the success of Safe Routes to Parks, as it provides technical assistance and resources for the 10-Minute Walk campaign. This will include a Park & Rec Community Engagement guide and accompanying training.

We also want to hear more stories from you! Email Rachel Banner and let us know how you have used the framework, barriers, success or anything else you’d like to share about this initiative.

Rachel Banner is NRPA’s Health Program Manager