An Agent of Public Health

May 21, 2020, Feature, by Allison Colman

2020 June Feature An Agent of Public Health 410

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A new decade brings a new role for parks and recreation in public health

The American Public Health Association (APHA) describes the public health field as a profession dedicated to “promoting and protecting the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” While the healthcare system focuses on treating people who are sick, the public health field focuses efforts on preventing people from getting sick, ill or injured in the first place, while simultaneously encouraging healthy behaviors and driving equitable access to factors that influence health outcomes and well-being.

While there are many components of public health, APHA’s description is just about as clear and straightforward as it gets. And perhaps the best part of this is that the words “public health” easily could be substituted with “parks and recreation” to describe the critical role that park and recreation professionals play as public health agents in communities around the world.

For decades, the park and recreation profession has been dedicated to protecting the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play. This dedication is at the core of what park and recreation professionals do and it’s only grown more apparent over the past several years. We’ve seen professionals across the country transform themselves into community health leaders, educators and practitioners. We’ve seen the profession expand programming and fill gaps in communities to address food insecurity, provide opportunities for physical activity, prevent and manage chronic diseases, foster positive social connections and engage youth in leadership opportunities to develop career pathways. We’ve seen the power of parks and recreation in bringing communities together, creating safer neighborhoods, and connecting people with different lived experiences and backgrounds. We’ve seen professionals lead efforts to revamp agency practices and policies and build a culture that prioritizes equitable park access and inclusive environments so all can fully participate and benefit. We’ve seen the profession build partnerships to develop and advance innovative solutions that improve health, environmental and social outcomes.

New Challenges Lie Ahead
The park and recreation profession has accomplished a lot, and the work the field has done has mattered. In 2020, there is a new and rapidly changing landscape. Some of what lies ahead will look familiar. Challenges — like the obesity epidemic and high rates of chronic disease — may already have applicable and proven solutions but will require investment in those solutions to create larger impacts and long-term outcomes. However, some of the challenges we’ll confront will be less familiar and some will be brand new.

As we enter this new decade, we are coming to grips with the reality of our most pressing health and social challenges — the substance use and vaping epidemics; rising rates of mental health conditions; inequitable access to healthy food, healthcare, quality neighborhoods and educational opportunities; and of course, the ongoing impact of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its aftermath.

What’s more, we realize there are drastic differences between health outcomes and quality of life — often influenced by race, class, ability, identity, gender, sexual orientation, age and other defining characteristics — and that the disparities are growing.

We also grasp the full force of climate change, creating more powerful and destructive storms and threatening our daily lives down to the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat.

And, we see that for the first time in our nation’s history, due to the substance-use epidemic and suicide, life expectancy has declined.

The reality of 2020 appears scary, uncertain, and riddled with health, environmental and social challenges that we must confront as a nation and as a profession. It’s at this time though, amid a global pandemic and other public health issues, that the unmatched ability of the park and recreation profession to promote, protect and improve the health of people and communities has never been more important. Parks and recreation remains a key part of a connected public health system, but there is an even greater role that agencies can play, as community wellness hubs — trusted gathering places that connect every member of the community to essential programs, services and spaces that advance health equity, improve health outcomes and enhance quality of life. While the field possesses unique potential to serve in this role, swift action and mobilization are needed, and the time to take that action is now. Furthermore, the park and recreation profession must focus its efforts in several key areas to advance our goals and build healthier, happier, more equitable communities.

Confronting History to Advance Health Equity
If we hope to create real change, we first must acknowledge our nation’s deep-rooted history of injustice and how that impacts people and communities today — from slavery and share cropping to Jim Crow laws, to redlining practices and zoning ordinances that established and reinforced segregation. We also must confront other inequities, such as gentrification and displacement; disinvestment in education and neighborhood amenities, including parks and green space; loan denial and discriminatory workplace practices that perpetuated the wealth divide. We must understand the truth and legacy of our nation’s history and how these practices continue to impact socioeconomic, health, environmental and educational disparities that exist today.

In addition, people of color, low-income communities and other historically marginalized populations often lack access to quality parks and recreation, resulting in substantial health disparities and negative impacts on quality of life and life expectancy. By focusing efforts on equitably advancing community health and well-being through parks and recreation, we can ensure that all people — no matter race, class, ability or identity — have a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

To support efforts to embed equity into park agencies' internal operations, planning and programming, NRPA will be releasing several resources over the next year. Our new Creating an Equitable System-Wide Master Plan resource is a good place to start.

Collaborating to Innovate
To truly advance health equity, improve health outcomes and enhance quality of life, communities must invest in system-wide changes that prioritize advancing the social determinants of health, meeting community members where they are and responding to their unique needs. This can be achieved by leveraging the power of parks and recreation to serve as community wellness hubs and connect all people to the comprehensive health services they need. But, this can’t be accomplished working alone. A key part of this process is driven by collaboration. As a profession, we must collaborate with other like-minded organizations to leverage resources, engage community members, bring diverse perspectives to the table, and drive innovation to create and implement local solutions that foster health and security.

Managing the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that the financial resources of local governments will be strained and the financial struggles of our community members will be exasperated. Simply put, more people will need help — there will be an increased need for access to healthy food, healthcare, mental and behavioral health services, affordable childcare, educational and employment opportunities, housing, and more. The park and recreation profession is capable of crafting solutions and system-wide changes that address these needs. This requires out-of-the-box thinking. We must bridge gaps with other municipal departments to find opportunities to work together. Thoughtful and intentional partnerships must be forged with organizations that share our goals to connect people to needed community resources. We must continue to reach people who cannot physically access facilities, delivering services across the community and expanding telehealth and “telerecreation” services. However, accomplishing our goals of promoting, protecting and improving community health requires bringing more players into the game.

With the support of the Walmart Foundation, NRPA is funding 15 local park and recreation agencies to develop and implement community wellness hub models that connect marginalized community members to comprehensive health and nutrition services. We'll be analyzing these models and sharing best practices and toolkits so others can learn from their experiences in the coming years.

Advocating for You
The park and recreation profession is on the frontlines of our most pressing health, environmental and social issues. But, the value of the profession and the field at large has historically been underrecognized and underappreciated. This lack of understanding of the critical role parks and recreation plays has resulted in significant disinvestment in park and recreation budgets across the country. For the profession to build upon its strong foundation in serving communities and reaching its full potential, increased visibility, momentum and public support for the park and recreation profession are paramount. To do that, we must become better advocates for ourselves, our work, and the numerous health, environmental and social benefits that parks and recreation provides. It is vital that we work together to make the case for parks and recreation so we can continue to better our communities. We have the data and we know the impact of our work; we just need to reaffirm our value by telling our stories.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Public Health Leaders
As we look to advance solutions to the many public health challenges that lie ahead, we should also consider the future of the profession and the roles that will be needed. As we invest in a bigger, broader role for parks and recreation serving as community wellness hubs and connecting people to comprehensive health and social services, we must train up our existing staff and bring new and diverse expertise into the field. We also should expand our departments to include social workers, healthcare personnel, mental health practitioners, substance abuse counselors, health equity managers and more.

The park and recreation profession always rises to the occasion. The passion and unwavering spirit of professionals were evident as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded across the nation and professionals stepped into new roles, delivering services and ensuring that our most vulnerable community members had what they needed. In this next decade, the profession will be called upon to do that in more ways than one. If we can focus on these key things, we can continue to promote, protect and improve the health of the people and the communities we serve.

Allison Colman is Director of Health at NRPA.