What makes a great community? This is a question that frequently occupies the minds of municipal managers and elected officials. Everyone wants to claim theirs is a great community, but sometimes pinpointing just what the factors are that make a community great is an elusive objective. Clearly, the standard benchmarks apply: a healthy, diverse and growing economy; good schools and sufficient educational choices; and top-notch municipal services — water, sewer, public works and roads. But one of the unsung categories of top tier public services — quality parks and recreation resources — sometimes just doesn’t receive the high regard it deserves. It’s time to give parks and recreation its just due, for it truly does help to build great communities.
Today’s best parks are not your mother’s version of local places to go sit on a bench and watch the ducks. Parks and recreation agencies are now in the forefront of meeting and helping to solve some of the most significant problems that communities face. They contribute to vibrant local economies; improve the health of all citizens; reduce crime and vandalism; provide services to people of all ages, abilities, and color; and assist in managing storm water and the impacts of extreme weather events.
Municipalities and local governments across the nation are increasingly expected to do more than just provide services — they are expected to create an appealing and enduring sense of place for residents. Among the expectations that citizens have are that their municipal and city governments will strive to create attractive, vibrant communities that encourage business and economic development; provide healthy places and spaces for people to become physically active; and create infrastructure for a livable, sustainable community that reduces the cost of services to taxpayers by being resilient to environmental changes and extreme weather events. These are issues that every elected official must address now with all the resources at their command. What is surprising is that parks are proving to be essential to meeting these challenges.
Citizens and governmental officials, alike, believe that parks help build communities. There is a mountain of evidence to support this, from increasing nearby property values to expanding local tax revenues, reducing crime and improving the health of young and old, alike. But there are few tangible models, especially in urban areas with under-served communities, for how to do it.
NRPA took on that task to demonstrate just how to kick-start this transformative process. In 2009, NRPA began an initiative called “Parks Build Community” to show how a focused effort to rehabilitate and restore deteriorated parks can prove the maxim that in fact, parks build community.
NRPA’s first Parks Build Community project was carried out in cooperation with the Washington, D.C., Department of Parks and Recreation and a nonprofit partner, Washington Parks and People. The purpose was to transform the overgrown and hazardous Marvin Gaye Park in the heart of the Anacostia section of D.C. This park was known as “needle park” by local residents because of the open-air drug market and the drug paraphernalia found in the park on a daily basis. Parks and People mobilized public support to clean up and remove trash and to take back the park, and the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation developed an ambitious, but largely unfunded, plan to rehabilitate the park.
NRPA entered the process in 2009, making the commitment to seek support and donations from NRPA manufacturers, suppliers and vendors. Support poured in, including the donation of playground equipment from Playworld Systems, park equipment from Playcore Inc., a resilient playground surface from Surface America and local donations from landscaping, engineering, and design firms. In all, there were about $350,000 in donations of materials and services to the project, and at the dedication ceremony for the play area, residents fiercely declared their intent to watch over this park and keep it safe for the kids and families in their community.
NRPA followed the Marvin Gaye Park restoration with similar projects in Atlanta and Los Angeles. The Selena Butler Park in the Historic Fourth Ward, near the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, was restored in cooperation with Park Pride and the Atlanta Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. In 2012, a partnership with the Trust for Public Land and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks restored the El Sereno Arroyo Recreation Area and Children’s Nature Play Garden in East Los Angeles. The current Parks Build Community project will be dedicated Oct. 10, 2013. It consists of the rehabilitation of a dilapidated play area into a new nature-themed playground with walking trails at Shady Lane Park located in an under-served community in Houston, Texas.
The Parks Build Community philosophy can be applied in every community — with mobilized support, community determination, private sector contributions, and the efforts of dedicated public officials, deteriorated parks can be transformed and be turned back into assets rather than liabilities. In addition, if there is a new vision for what these public spaces can be, parks can become the catalyst for solving problems and meeting challenges, such as growing local economies, implementing conservation strategies; measurably improving the health and wellness of individuals and communities; and addressing issues of social equity and access for all. Parks do build communities, and you can tap into their power, too.
For more information about the Parks Build Community initiative and the projects that have been completed to date, visit www.nrpa.org/parksbuildcommunity/.
For examples of how parks and recreation are contributing innovative solutions to community challenges, see some examples from municipalities and cities around the country at:
Richard Dolesh is the vice president for Conservation and Parks, National Recreation and Parks Association. He worked 30 years in parks, outdoor recreation and natural resource management at the local and state level in Maryland. His recent work includes leading NRPA’s Parks Build Community initiative, coordinating the Parks for Mitigation demonstration projects and working with the National Wildlife Federation to connect 10 million kids to nature and the outdoors over the next three years.