A few years back an esteemed colleague of mine said, "Public parks are a defining characteristics of a healthy community, and as such parks should be viewed as a community benefits package." Clearly parks are some of our greatest community assets, but could they constitute a benefits package? Owned (and paid for) by us, parks clearly provided inclusive recreation and leisure, but what if, just for a moment, we were to view our parks system as community benefits package? Here's an overview of our package:
Parks provide us with the opportunity to be physically active. Physical activity is an essential part of an individual's efforts to stay healthy, fight obesity and prevent chronic conditions that lead to coronary disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Research has long shown that people living in proximity to parks lead more active lifestyles and live longer, productive lives. Parks also improve moods, reduce stress and enhance a sense of wellness. In an increasingly complex world, more and more people are placing a high value on achieving the feelings of relaxation and peacefulness that contact with nature, recreation and exposure to natural open spaces bring. We visit parks to relax, meditate, recalibrate and to decrease the anxieties of daily life.
Public parks are the largest providers in America of high-quality, life-enhancing therapeutic recreation programs for individuals with disabilities. A primary goal of all public recreation agencies is to provide access to all people. Such programs prevent the on-set of secondary conditions due to inactivity; improve physical, social, emotional and cognitive functioning; and slow the onset of regressive conditions.
Parks have true economic benefits. The proximity of parks to residential areas leads to increased value of private land, a higher tax base and ultimately many economic benefits to a community including increased local and regional revenue from tourism, steady jobs, and numerous small business benefits. Park and recreation areas are economic engines that foster viable, robust communities.
Parks provide vital green space in a fast-developing American landscape, and provide vegetative buffers to construction and development, thus reducing the effects of sprawl. More importantly, parks serve to groundwater recharge groundwater, protect floodplains, reduce heat island effects, improve carbon uptake and act as natural sound barriers.
Parks preserve critical wildlife habitat. As our community develops and our rural, agricultural and natural landscape is being lost provide permanently protected wildlife habitat corridors for thousands of indigenous and migratory wildlife species. In addition, community parks allow natural wildlife to co-exist with people while providing enjoyment and educational opportunity for children and families.
Parks facilitate social interactions that are critical to maintaining community cohesion and pride. Parks provide a meeting place where community members can develop social ties, and where healthy behavior is modeled and admired. These public commons are often the glue that holds the community together and the means to maintaining and improving future positive social interactions.
Parks provide organized, structured, enjoyable activities for all ages, and offer us opportunities to develop the skills necessary to successfully and confidently engage in sports, dance, crafts and other social activities. Public recreation leagues and classes offer seniors, adults and children alike the opportunity to interact with coaches and teachers who often turn into mentors and role models. Quality recreational programs facilitate safety, good sportsmanship and community participation.
Parks provide a refuge of safety for at-risk youth. After-school recreation programs at public parks provide children with a safe refuge and a place to play, which are critical in reducing at-risk behavior such as drug use and gang involvement. Recreational programs led by trained leaders offer children healthy role models and give valuable life lessons to help steer youth to a future of promise and opportunity for success.
Healthy, progressive communities have a holistic view of their parks -- a view that is fostered by the concept that parks are a community benefits package connecting many aspects of life, health, education, economy, inspiration, peace, and justice. As such our parks stand as effective economic engines, classrooms, sanctuaries, museums, environmental filters, wellness centers, and social models. I invite you to identify and claim your benefits package; today, tomorrow, and forever.
MATT YOUNG is the District Manager of the Tehachapi Valley Recreation & Parks District.