The Rural Connection

August 1, 2019, Feature, by Vitisia Paynich

August 2019 Feature Rural Connection 410

Two rural park agencies take 10-Minute Walk to the next level

In January 2019, NRPA unveiled the most recent group of cities to be awarded grant funding for the 10-Minute Walk. Launched in 2017, 10-Minute Walk is a campaign that’s focused on creating a world where, by 2050, everyone in U.S. cities — large and small — has safe access to a quality park or green space within a 10-minute walk of home.

The first group of recipients were announced in spring 2018. Thanks to a partnership between NRPA, The Trust for Public Land and the Urban Land Institute, this much-needed funding enables cities to develop innovative and equity-driven systems change methods to provide their citizens with more access to high-quality, close-to-home parks and public green space. Among the 22 recipients for 2019 are the city of Bennettsville, South Carolina, and the city of Winooski, Vermont — both rural park agencies representing populations of less than 9,000.

Parks & Recreation magazine spoke with these park agencies to learn about their communities, how the 10-Minute Walk is influencing their park and rec objectives, how social equity plays a key role and how these opportunities will help engage community members and stakeholders.

Rural Areas by the Numbers
What constitutes a rural area? According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

Rural is defined as all population, housing, and territory not included within an urbanized area or urban cluster. As a result, the rural portion of the United States encompasses a wide variety of settlements, from densely settled small towns and “large-lot” housing sub-divisions on the fringes of urban areas, to more sparsely populated and remote areas.

The United States Department of Agriculture data reveal that the total population in rural U.S. counties (populations less than 50,000) is 46.1 million, which is 14 percent of the U.S. population.

NRPA’s Park and Recreation Agency Count, completed in January 2019, identifies the approximately 10,000 cities, towns, counties and special districts nationwide providing parks and/or recreation activities or facilities through their local government. When broken down regionally by all jurisdictions with a population of less than 20,000 residents, the percent of governments with these services are as follows: Northeast (24.2 percent), South (33.1 percent), Midwest (26.4 percent) and West (16.3 percent).

In a September 2015 study, titled Promoting Active Living in Rural Communities, authors Anush Yousefian Hansen, M.S., and David Hartley, Ph.D., state that “enhancing features of the rural environment, such as playgrounds, parks and recreational facilities and diminishing barriers…are both key in addressing active living and obesity in rural communities.”

Bennettsville, South Carolina
With a population of 8,572, only 48 percent of the city of Bennettsville’s parks are accessible within a 10-minute walk. In May 2018, the Bennettsville Tourism, Parks, and Recreation Department officially opened its doors.

“There had always been a park and recreation department, but it really didn’t have the structure that it currently has or any staff that was committing, in a full-fledged effort, to improve the quality of life of the citizens of our city of Bennettsville,” admits Elisabeth McNiel, director of Tourism, Parks, and Recreation.

Prior to her agency appointment, McNiel says she — and Bennettsville’s facilities, events & projects manager, Brittany Jones — didn’t have backgrounds in parks and recreation. Realizing this big learning curve, the two women sought assistance from other sources in the park and rec field.

“Our department has been restructured, so we’re Tourism, Parks, and Recreation, and just through reaching out to South Carolina Parks and Recreation and the National Recreation and Park Association and making sure that we had our credentials and our membership, we were in the know about what we didn’t know coming into these positions,” says Jones.

What McNiel and Jones soon discovered was the inaccessibility of the parks within their rural community. “We oversee eight parks that are strategically located throughout our city,” says McNiel. “I’m not saying we have enough parks to serve our entire population, but they are strategically located, and we are constantly trying to improve, enhance and make them better assets in our community.”

Overcoming Rural Challenges
Jones says one of the key differences between a rural park agency versus an urban park agency is access to public transportation. “That’s an issue of trying to get people who are scattered further away to be able to utilize resources that we have,” she explains. “Park connectivity is a big issue and goal for us, especially when it comes to the 10-Minute Walk.”

That plan includes finding ways to create more walking and biking trails and ensuring kids have safe routes to parks, whether by walking or biking. In urban areas, it might be easier for those municipalities to consult with their department of transportation to add bike lanes to existing roads compared to rural municipalities. As Jones points out: “We don’t have a lot of sidewalks; we’re in a rural community. My neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks. Our downtown is a very walk-able [area] but getting people to our parks [is] kind of hard because we don’t have public transportation so easily accessible as urban areas. We also have to deal with a lack of funding and money. I think that in many more urban areas, they can pull from a couple different pots, where we have limited resources and limited budgets compared to those areas.”

10-Minute-Walk Training
On March 5–6, NRPA hosted training in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the 22 cities awarded 10-Minute Walk funding. Throughout the two-day event, attendees discussed approaches to creating more equitable park systems, participated in hands-on workshops and toured Chattanooga’s parks. Agency teams from Bennettsville and Winooski were among those in attendance.

Jones describes the event as “a wealth of knowledge and information.” McNiel says because she and Jones didn’t have a park and rec background, they came “into this whole arena hungry for information….” As an example, Jones cites concerns about health and wellness in her state.

“In South Carolina, we rank consistently at the very top of every negative health ranking,” she explains. “Coming into these positions, we knew that we had to do whatever we could to make some positive interventions through recreation for our community. NRPA and 10-Minute Walk have shown us avenues in which we can do that — [such as] creating shared-use agreements with our school district so that we can start these kids young with walking or biking to school.”

Jones says these shared-use agreements will also enable adults and children to utilize school playgrounds after hours, while the school district can utilize the parks for its own events. They just need to work out the logistics.

Ray Coffey, community services director at Winooski Department of Community Services, says, “We were fortunate to be selected as a grantee in the second cohort of the 10-Minute Walk. We are a very small organization and such resources are really tight. So, we’ve known for a long time that we needed to do some more comprehensive parks planning and didn’t have a ready path forward in the way of resources to get that done.” Thus, the grant and the training will help the park agency move closer to achieving its objectives.

Winooski, Vermont
Winooski, Vermont, boasts a population of 7,782, with 82 percent of its parks accessible within a 10-minute walk. What’s more, Winooski Department of Community Services oversees 200 acres of park and open space throughout 1.4-square miles, as well as provides programming for a senior center, community gardens, community center and public library.

“We are actually what I would call ‘Vermont urban,’” says Coffey. “Despite being in Vermont — which is, overall, an extremely rural place and has, generally, rural sensibilities — we are unique…in that we are a little bit more urban in nature. We’re the densest community in Northern New England.” He adds that his agency constantly grapples with a conflict between trying to do things in an urban way and catering to people with a rural mentality.

“It’s an interesting challenge,” he continues. “So, we have to be creative about how we use space here, because we are so small. That’s different than a lot of our neighboring communities that have a lot more elbowroom to spread out into and to develop park space. For us, in particular, it’s really about: How do we leverage and maximize our resources and facilities to get the most bang for our buck? How do we keep them sustainable and in great shape for years to come?”

Social Equity Is Top Priority
For both these cities, it’s not just about park connectivity as much as it’s about building social equity and inclusivity to meet the needs of their diverse populations. For Bennettsville, this remains a chief issue at the heart of the city’s long-term goals.

When it comes to creating recreational programming, “we have to tackle diversity in a different way than urban areas do,” notes Jones. The community population includes African American (63.5 percent), Caucasian (32.5 percent), American Indian/Alaskan Indian (1.1 percent) and Other (0.8 percent), which includes Asian, East Indian and Mexican.

Jones adds that with more urban areas, “they are more inclusive and easily can [provide] more diverse recreational offerings…. You can celebrate the heritage of certain people and do that in a park and draw people in an easy way.” She says in her city’s case, for instance, “If we want to have an Indian American festival and draw people to the park, they’re going to say, ‘What [type of] Indian festival? Is it East Indian? Is it Native American?’ So, it’s kind of a barrier to us with programming.”

Coffey says: “In terms of the general population, we’re about 20 percent non-white, which, for Vermont, is a very high percentage. We’re the most ethnically diverse in the state, and interestingly, we have the only majority-minority school district in the state. And then, in terms of socioeconomics, I think about 27 percent of the general population is living at or below the poverty line.”

In addition, notes Coffey, “We are a Refugee Resettlement Community, so we’ve seen a really dramatic change in our demographics over the past 10 to 15 years, and it’s something we’re really embracing as a community and feel really strongly about. We have to focus on making sure that everybody is at the table and we’re having these big planning conversations. How do we create spaces that everyone feels welcome in?”

The Master Plan
Both Winooski and Bennettsville contend that the master plan for their respective cities must, first and foremost, reflect the wants and needs of all their constituents. That means engaging the community to provide their feedback.

“[As] the recreation department tourism and park, we are in a fortunate position because people want to use our parks. They come into our office every day trying to reserve shelters in our parks,” Jones points out. “So, we have a direct connection to those individuals about what amenities in the parks they want, what improvements they’d like to see, [etc.]. So, it’s our goal to have an assessment that individuals can fill out at our community events to give us feedback on parks.”

Coffey also believes he’s very fortunate to encounter community members who want to be involved and provide input in the city’s planning process. He says that of the $40,000 grant that his agency received, he “anticipates using $32,000 of that for the consultant and professional support for developing the master plan.” Coffey notes about $3,000 of the funding already went to staff training, while the remaining $5,000 will go toward incidentals related to community engagement events and meetings.

Coffey adds that this plan will affect about 15 parks throughout Winooski and will encompass retrofitting and renovation projects. However, he quickly points out that how these projects will be prioritized will be a community-driven process. “We will be focusing on the riverwalk area, given the need to make sure that downtown development doesn’t get ahead of our process,” he says. “But in terms of the rest of the process, we don’t want to have any presumptions going in.” Thus, his agency will leave it in the community’s hands to make those determinations.

Jones says prior to learning about the 10-Minute Walk, “we had a rather large goal put out there by our mayor of a multiphase recreation project, which would include a splash pad, an amphitheater, renovation of a playground, expansive dog park and campsites, and it was kind of just his dream of what could be in our town at a certain location. So, when this grant came along, we thought it was the best way to achieve that goal for that multiphase recreation project.

“Going through the process of writing the grant and doing our research…we found other underlying issues — whether it’s walkability, traffic-calming measures, completed streets and things [of that nature], it was kind of like peeling the layers back on an onion. You start in one spot and as you…delve into it…you kind of create this major goal of what you’d like,” she explains.

Taking Small Steps
Do these park agencies have an established timeline for their projects? According to Coffey, his team anticipates having a development plan for the parks and open spaces solidified by late March to early April 2020. “Building from that, we have some money that’s been generally allocated to parks development and/or park capital improvements. Our hope is that from there, we would use that plan to create an investment strategy and a spending plan for those capital dollars. So, we could see projects potentially beginning as early as spring 2020, depending on the scope and scale that come out of the planning process.”

As for Bennettsville’s master plan, Jones says it would be great to have at least a draft by the end of this year that would serve as a road map moving forward. In the meantime, the agency is focused on some of its short-term goals. McNiel says, “We are just in the process of completing a dog park in one of our city parks that’s on a major traffic thoroughfare for tourists as they travel to and from the Grand Strand of South Carolina’s beach area. So, we anticipate being able to get some travelers to Bennettsville for a little while to enjoy our parks and see our community.”

“The 10-Minute Walk and park equity really have opened our eyes to what our parks are lacking and areas of growth for us in the short term and the long term,” says Jones. “We still want that huge multiphase recreation project to happen, but we’re going to keep taking the baby steps to get there.”

Vitisia Paynich is a Southern California-based Freelance Writer for Parks & Recreation magazine.