Parks and Recreation: A Public Health Solution

May 25, 2023, Feature, by Allison Colman

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How the 2021-2023 NRPA Strategic Plan helped to advance parks and recreation's role in the public health system

This June marks the end of the 2021-2023 NRPA Strategic Plan. We launched our strategic plan at the peak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a time filled with fear, grief and speculation at what the future might hold for parks and recreation. While it was a period of uncertainty, our strategic plan reframed our organizational vision to focus on a future where the full power of parks and recreation is recognized for its role in building strong, healthy and resilient communities.

Within our Health and Wellness Pillar, we sought to advance the role of “park and recreation professionals — and the services they provide — as key to a fully integrated public health system,” while centering equity and challenging the systems of oppression that perpetuate health and social injustices — primarily for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, low-income communities, LGBTQIA2S+ people, people with disabilities and other historically disenfranchised populations. These two primary goals are the heart of our Community Wellness Hub vision, as outlined in Community Wellness Hubs – A Toolkit for Advancing Community Health and Well-Being Through Parks and Recreation and evidenced by our guiding principles:

  • Change the narrative to reflect parks and recreation as an essential part of our public health systems and a key pathway to advance community health and well-being.
  • Build the knowledge and capacity of park and recreation professionals to advance public health initiatives and approaches centered in health equity
  • Cultivate meaningful relationships at the national, state and local levels between parks and recreation, community-based organizations and community members.
  • Give power to a diverse set of voices and perspectives to build understanding, drive approaches and inform activities. 
  • Develop, implement and evaluate evidence-based programming and other community-driven solutions to foster continuous improvement and increase access to high-quality, culturally relevant and community-driven health and wellness programs and services in parks and recreation. 
  • Scale effective local, community-driven solutions to reduce health inequities and improve physical, social and mental health outcomes for all people.

During the past three years, we have made significant progress toward these goals, as park and recreation professionals have embraced their role as stewards of Community Wellness Hubs.

Advancing Local Solutions

Within our Health and Wellness Pillar and with support from key partners, NRPA provided funding, capacity building support, and training and technical assistance to more than 175 communities. Those communities have increased access to physical activity, nutrition, youth mentoring and youth sports opportunities for more than 1.3 million people, improving health, social and economic outcomes. A significant portion of this reach is connected to pandemic response services that supported access to meals and food distribution services, further demonstrating the essential role of parks and recreation in times of crisis. A few of the major milestones and outcomes include:

Expanding access to nutrition through Community Wellness Hubs and farmers markets

With support from the Walmart Foundation, 15 agencies provided 17.9 million meals to individuals and more than 31,000 households received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) outreach. Additionally, more than 225 food access points were established, and more than 325 partnerships were formed or strengthened. Thirty percent of youth reported increased fruit consumption and 35 percent increased their vegetable consumption. Adults who participated in programming reported improvements in every quality-of-life indicator, including overall life satisfaction. Additionally, with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, NRPA currently is supporting three communities as they expand and develop community-driven farmers markets that expand producer-to-consumer activity. As a result of these efforts and effective market promotion, market customer attendance increased by 45 percent and farmers market sales increased by 99 percent across the grantee communities in the first year of the project.

Youth mentoring

Supported by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention within the U.S. Department of Justice, NRPA supported five communities in rural central Appalachia with a focus on expanding youth mentoring services in parks and recreation. Grantees reached 130 youth, with 42 percent of mentees demonstrating positive increases in their ability to share openly with the adults in their lives. Mentors also reported positive changes in the mentees’ ability to: (1) Make better life decisions, (2) Be more interested in school, and (3) Be more focused on their future. NRPA has expanded this work by supporting 10 new agencies in the New England and the broader Appalachian regions to develop youth mentoring initiatives, and $2.4 million in funding will be allocated to an additional 40 agencies in summer 2023.

Youth sports

A 2021-2022 initiative supported by The Walt Disney Company focused on expanding access to youth sports and play in 17 communities through infrastructure improvements to youth sports facilities, which increased access to youth sports opportunities for 40,000 community members. NRPA also launched a microsite and caregiver-facing communications resources to highlight the benefits of park and recreation youth sports. With support from Musco Lighting, this work will continue and grow in 2022-2025 by providing in-kind infrastructure improvements in 15 communities, piloting youth sports equity strategies, supporting a learning community, and developing a youth sports equity framework.

Supporting healthy aging through parks and recreation

NRPA wrapped up a five-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (DP-1606) to advance evidence-based physical activity interventions in parks and recreation. NRPA worked directly with 330 park and recreation agencies across 49 states and one U.S. territory, reaching nearly 25,000 individuals and creating community-wide impacts. This work continues with a new five-year cooperative agreement (DP-2106), in which NRPA already has supported 75 agencies to expand these interventions offered through parks and recreation while centering health equity and integrating broader systems-change approaches and Community Wellness Hub strategies.

While we’ve hit many milestones and created significant community impacts these past three years, it is also important to celebrate the other achievements that demonstrate progress toward the transformative, generational change that we seek.

Changing the Narrative

More and more, park and recreation professionals and the spaces, programs and services they manage are recognized as vital to the conditions where people live, learn, work, play and age, and as a catalyst for advancing equity, building community and environmental resilience, and advancing health and well-being. A growing body of research confirms that people who live near parks are physically and mentally healthier than those who do not — access to parks and recreational facilities is correlated with greater physical activity; people who use parks are more likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity; children with access to parks have a decreased prevalence of obesity, engage in less screen time and get better sleep; and, time in green space improves cognitive performance, alleviates mental health symptoms, and decreases stress, blood pressure, and risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

The past three years have brought about significant progress in growing this evidence base to make the case for parks and recreation, along with an increasing recognition of its essential role from allies, stakeholders and leaders across the nation. A few highlights include:

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF), a group dedicated to identifying population health interventions scientifically proven to save lives, increase lifespans and improve quality of life, found that park, trail and greenway infrastructure improvements, when combined with other essential activities, including programming, public awareness, community engagement and addressing access barriers, is effective at increasing physical activity and the use of parks, trails and greenways for other health and social benefits. These findings mark a pivotal moment for parks and recreation in the public health sphere, as the CPSTF recommendations are used to inform decision-makers in federal, state and local health departments, other government agencies, and a variety of other sectors. In 2022, NRPA worked with CDC’s Active People, Healthy Nation™ campaign to translate this recommendation into the Active Parks! Implementation Guide: Increasing Physical Activity Through Parks, Trails and Greenways guide, which includes actionable steps to support park and recreation professionals in their efforts to create equitable, healthy and active-friendly communities.

In 2022, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion within HHS recognized NRPA as a Healthy People 2030 Champion. Healthy People 2030 is the fifth iteration of the Healthy People initiative, which sets 10-year national objectives to improve health and well-being nationwide. This recognition for our efforts to expand Community Wellness Hubs further illuminates the role of parks and recreation as a social driver of health and a key contributor in ensuring all people can achieve their full potential for health and well-being across their lifespan.

In September 2022, NRPA made a commitment to improve health and well-being through the power of parks and recreation at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. The conference, hosted by the Biden-Harris administration, was held for the first time in more than 50 years, with the goal of “ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases — while reducing related health disparities.” The outlined strategy is segmented into five pillars, nearly all of which parks and recreation plays a role in addressing: (1) Improve food access and affordability; (2) Integrate nutrition and health; (3) Empower consumers to make and have access to healthy choices; (4) Support physical activity for all; and (5) Enhance nutrition and food security research. Additionally, the administration and strategy call for increased investments in active transportation, parks and recreation facilities in disinvested communities, and the promotion of land-use strategies to increase physical activity, paving the way for additional funding and policies that promote parks and recreation as a public health solution.

The growing recognition of parks as a pathway to improving public health is an exciting and necessary shift to harness the full power of the park and recreation system to advance equity, resilience and well-being.

Advancing Health Equity

Despite the well-documented health, environmental, social and economic benefits of parks and recreation, significant gaps remain due to a history of unfair systems, systemic racism and disinvestment. In the United States, more than 100 million people (30 percent of the population) lack access to a park or trail within a 10-minute walk of their home. Black and Hispanic persons and people with lower incomes are 50 percent less likely to have one recreational facility in their community, as compared to predominantly white and high-income persons. Many communities of color and other historically marginalized groups, such as people with lower incomes, people who are LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities, lack the opportunity to experience parks, trails and/or greenways — because either these resources do not exist near them, or if they do, they are not safe, welcoming or inclusive. We can close these gaps and eliminate health inequities by assessing, challenging, dismantling and rebuilding park and recreation systems with equity at the center. Many park and recreation agencies have made progress toward this goal, but there is still much work to be done to eliminate and prevent health inequities.

To support agencies as they work to advance health equity, NRPA released Elevating Health Equity Through Parks and Recreation: A Framework for Action in 2021. NRPA designed the framework to help professionals apply and center a racial equity lens within their park and recreation systems, including planning, operations, programming and more. The framework contains four key parts — self-assessment, agency assessment, health equity integration and committing to the call — with learning objectives, worksheets and action items in each section. Since launching the framework, NRPA has developed supporting materials and provided training, technical assistance and peer networking support to agencies to help scale adoption and use of the framework. With the support of Think Equity, NRPA has provided training to grantees on fostering an anti-racist culture.

In January 2022, NRPA hosted its first-ever “Elevating Health Equity in Parks and Recreation” workshop. Six agency teams — including park and recreation professionals, cross-departmental colleagues, and community partners —  participated in the workshop. The workshop’s objectives focused on defining key health and racial equity terms and concepts; understanding how implicit bias, privilege and power affect how people interact with the world and their work; examining the roles of self, structure and systems in facilitating and creating barriers to health; and describing the components of racial equity that guide organizations toward equity and anti-racist culture. Participants expressed that the top three takeaways were challenging personal biases, understanding historical context of systemic and historical challenges, and feeling empowered to move forward. One participant shared, “…being challenged to walk toward…discomfort to challenge conscious and unconscious biases, [and that it] resonated and felt like a call to action.”

Following the workshop, the agencies moved their commitment to advancing equity forward. Agencies completed the self-assessment and agency assessment portions of the framework. Many have taken subsequent actions, including updating mission statements to intentionally center and name equity as a priority. Another participant shared, “There is so much work to do. Our organization is not as far along as we might have hoped. But it feels empowering to have some concrete objectives and vision for what improvement in health equity might look like for our organization.”

Where We Are Heading

While we are celebrating our many achievements and milestones accomplished through our 2021-2023 strategic plan, we recognize there is much more work to do. Our health and wellness priorities will remain grounded in our guiding principles of centering equity, advancing systems-change approaches and promoting holistic and people-centered solutions. We will double down on partnerships with park and recreation professionals, community-based organizations, federal partners, value-aligned NGOs, researchers and other partners to expand our network of allies and advocates. We’ll amplify our communications, educational offerings and resource development to create action-oriented trainings and tools, lift up case studies from peers, and build public health competencies across the field.

The time for parks and recreation is now. Together, we can leverage the full power of parks and recreation as a public health solution.

Allison Colman is Director of Health at NRPA.