This year marks the centennial year for our U.S. National Park Service, which was created in 1916 with just 35 national parks and monuments to be overseen. That number has since soared to more than 400, with thousands of visitors turning out each year — in some cases displaying some headline-grabbing misbehavior. Yet as they mark this milestone, our national parks face some real challenges from underfunding to climate change and relevancy. It is a challenge city parks and recreation departments might be able to relate to, even if they are only overseeing a few acres of land versus the 84 million acres that fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service.
However, with growing rates of obesity, parks — particularly urban parks — have never been more important. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website, data from a National Health and Nutrition Examination survey in 2009–10 found more than two in three adults are considered to be overweight or obese while one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese. The Center for Disease Control on its website noted links between obesity and sedentary lifestyles to a host of health issues from diabetes and heart disease to cancer and hypertension. Linked diseases account for more than 20 percent of total U.S. health care costs, according to the CDC.
One solution being bandied about? More parks and within walking distance to more residents. In 12 Los Angeles public parks, a RAND Corporation team, led by researcher Deborah Cohen, found “people — especially adults and seniors — were more likely to exercise at parks that had areas for moderate exercise, such as tracks, walking paths, and trails. Having a park near one’s home was more important than the size of the park itself — people were more likely to use their neighborhood park even if a larger park was just a few miles away.”
In fact, The Trust for Public Land’s 2006 report, “The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More Parks and Open Space,” using data from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found “that ‘creation of or enhanced access to places for physical activity combined with informational outreach’ produced a 48.4 percent increase in the frequency of physical activity.”
Minnesota seems to have it down to a science, with two of its largest cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, scoring exceedingly well in the ParkScore index, a ranking of urban parks systems published by the Trust for Public Land. In Minneapolis, roughly 95 percent of residents — across a large demographic — live within a 10-minute walk to a park. In St. Paul, it is approximately 96 percent.
Another case for parks’ relevancy nowadays is community. Writer Julie Young examined the “parklet” trend — see page 20 — and one of its major draws, beyond encouraging non-motorized transit and pedestrian safety, is the way it fosters neighborhood interaction and support for local businesses. In an increasingly digital age, with people’s faces buried in their devices, we need more interaction. Albeit, some park departments are wisely tapping into digital trends liked Pokemon Go to encourage visits and exercise in their local parks.
Thriving and unique local parks, beaches and gardens have the potential to draw in visitors from outside of a city, making for vibrant communities. In fact, writer Anne Meyer Byler found through the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association that our beaches have twice as many visitors annually than national parks combine. This makes beaches and beach-related tourism a $1.3 trillion business; $124 billion of that goes to governments of all levels in annual taxes. To harness this economic boost, municipalities may want to consider restoring their beaches like Highland Park, Ill., did — see page 24.
With the many pluses — and I’m just hitting the top of the iceberg — of having strong parks and recreational activities, both for the people and the economy of our local towns and cities, it should be hard to argue that parks are no longer relevant; after all, people need access to nature in this day in age just as much, if not more, than times in the past. While visiting Prophetstown State Park in West Lafayette, Ind., I was struck by that thought quite profoundly as I stood in awe of the restored prairie and listened to the birds’ calls.
While “Parks and Recreation” is October’s theme, we will also be sharing information about Zika virus from the CDC, sustainable asset management, temporary structures, building safety from threats within and out, how to avoid false positive when testing water and more.
We hope you find this issue of The Municipal useful. And let’s keep “America’s Best Idea” going for another 100 years.