Parks, Recreation and Green Spaces

What’s Your Role?

Parks, Recreation and Green Spaces

Parks, Recreation and Green Spaces

What’s Your Role?

Parks, Recreation and Green Spaces

Parks, Recreation and Green Spaces

As a park and recreation professional, you can influence community health and increase physical activity by providing and promoting safe, equitable, and inclusive access to parks, trails, recreation areas, and green spaces.

People who have more access to green environments, such as parks and trails, tend to walk and be more physically active than those with limited access. The closer people live to a park and the safer they feel in the park, the more likely they are to walk or bike to those places and use the park for physical activity.

But less than half of people in the United States live within half a mile of a park. Even fewer people live in a community that has both safe streets for walking and access to places for physical activity like parks.

Parks and trails that are well-designed offer many benefits. They provide a place where people can be physically active to reduce stress, which can improve their mental health. They also provide a place where neighbors can meet, which improves community connections.

Parks can provide environmental benefits as well, by reducing air and water pollution, protecting areas from inappropriate development, and mitigating urban heat islands. They help people reduce their risk of illness and injury by providing safe spaces where people can play and exercise away from busy streets and commercial zones.

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What Can You Do?

You can use the following strategies to encourage physical activity in your community:

Design communities that support safe and easy places for people to walk, bike, wheelchair roll, and do other physical activities.

  • Work with a local coalition to locate and improve parks, trails, and recreational facilities near homes, schools, worksites, and other places where people regularly spend time. Consider using mapping tools to assess the location and quality of current parks (see Resources below).
  • Work with communities to get their input on how to create or improve local recreation areas and green spaces. Use welcoming designs that represent all community members. Consider design elements like walking loops to promote activity, benches where people can take breaks, or shade for cooling and sun shelter.
  • Increase access points to recreation areas and green spaces or locate them along public rights of way so they are more accessible to community members.
  • Work closely with local planning and transportation departments to build and maintain sidewalks, crosswalks, bike racks, bike paths, and shade trees, as well as routes within and between parks, trails, and other key destinations.
  • Work with local planning and transportation departments to update city policies to include goals designed to increase access to park, trails, and recreational facilities. For example, a city might require that new developments include green space.
  • Work with community partners and municipal departments to set up shared-use agreements to increase public access to places to be physically active. These places may include school yards, municipal building grounds, or university pools and training facilities.
  • Consider closing parks to motor vehicles and opening streets to pedestrians in and around parks.

Promote equitable park programs and policies that make it safe and easy for residents to be physically active, regardless of their age, race, income, ability, or disability.

  • Offer inclusive programs that are based on the needs of the community and address barriers, including physical limitations, safety concerns, cultural preferences, and costs.
  • Promote equitable open streets and play streets to provide people with more spaces to be active.
  • Partner with local organizations to bring inclusive community programs to existing parks, trails, and green spaces.
  • Prioritize resources toward areas and populations that lack access to parks or other safe places to be physically active.

Educate people about the benefits of safe physical activity and places to be active.

  • Provide wayfinding signs to help people find safe places to be active. These signs should include information about accessibility for people with mobility or other limitations.
  • Use low-cost removable materials and equipment to create pop-up parks and show how traffic can be slowed (called traffic calming) along routes to parks. Get feedback from the community on ways to make permanent changes to improve park access and facilities.
Want more proven ways to increase physical activity?

Active People, Healthy NationSM has many strategies that work. Visit the website to find options that fit your needs. Look for ways to collaborate with other sectors.

2 women and a child walking in the the park

What Other Communities Are Doing

These groups are using effective strategies to increase physical activity in their communities.

Connecting Neighborhoods by Trails in Maryland
Baltimore’s 35-mile trail system provides connections to more than 60 neighborhoods. Collaborations between community members, city agencies, and nonprofit organizations and a focus on equitable trail creation has resulted in safe walking and biking infrastructure around the city. The Middle Branch Trail is one example of how partners have come together to close a trail gap and connect South Baltimore with the rest of the city.

Open Streets in Kansas
A coalition of local partners worked together to sponsor a community-wide event that closed a 4-mile stretch of streets in downtown Wichita to cars and opened it to pedestrians. Residents could walk, bike, wheelchair roll, and be physically active in a way they never had before. The event provided easy access to downtown businesses, artwork, and historical markers. It also built community connections by giving people a fun way to socialize and be physically active. An exit survey of local businesses and participants reported record sales and support for future open street events.

Safe Routes to Parks in Arkansas
In Little Rock, Interstate 630 separates neighborhoods on the south side of the city from War Memorial Park, which features safe places to be physically active, including playgrounds, splash pads, and walking trails. Residents in these neighborhoods are primarily people with lower incomes and Black or African American persons, and their lack of access creates a racial and class divide in the city. The Central Arkansas Library System and Little Rock Parks and Recreation worked with residents to create a protected pedestrian and bicycle path as part of a month-long demonstration project. This work set the foundation for a more permanent change and for similar projects in other communities.

Kiwanis Methow Park in Washington [PDF-77.0MB]
South Wenatchee is a community in the city of Wenatchee with a large population of Latino people who work in the fields. Residents lack many of the amenities that other parts of the city enjoy, including safe green spaces. Nonprofit groups worked with community leaders and residents to build support for renovating Kiwanis Methow Park, a 1.26-acre park built in the 1930s. This collaborative approach resulted in a high-quality civic asset that reflects the priorities of the community. Local residents also created a group called the Parque Padrinos (Park Godfathers in English), who host events, conduct outreach, and advocate for ongoing improvements.

Outdoor Recreation Planning in New Mexico [PDF-2.02MB]
In Santa Fe, a recent Community Health Profile highlighted the need for better infrastructure for transportation and outdoor recreation, especially for the southern part of the city, which has been neglected in the past. The profile was created by city officials working with the National Park Service. City leaders, partners, and community members are using this document to plan for more equitable access to parks and recreational spaces in Santa Fe.

Resources to Help You

  • Community Engagement Resource Guide [PDF-8.2MB]
    This guide gives park and recreation professionals a roadmap for using equitable and inclusive strategies to plan, design, build, and maintain park projects and plans. It includes an internal assessment tool, community engagement strategies, and an evaluation framework.
  • Complete Parks Playbook [PDF-2.5MB]
    This playbook is a comprehensive guide for assessing a community’s parks system. It can be used by anyone interested in using parks to promote health. It briefly explains the elements of a complete parks system, gives additional resources for implementing each element, and highlights community examples.
  • Creating Equity-Based System Master Plans
    This website helps park and recreation professionals, planners, and others create a systemwide park master plan that is grounded in equity. It can help users focus on multiple benefits and gain support from partners and stakeholders across different sectors.
  • Creating Parks and Public Spaces for People of All Ages: A Step-by-Step Guide [PDF-5.12MB]
    This guide can help local leaders, policy makers, community advocates, and neighborhood residents collect data, evaluate opportunities, and generate ideas about how to increase the quality and quantity of parks and outdoor spaces nationwide.
  • Parks for Inclusion Policy Guide
    This set of resources can help local park and recreation agencies create formal inclusion policies that emphasize reaching historically marginalized groups. Such policies help ensure that spaces are open, welcoming, and engaging to community members from racial and ethnic minority groups, people with physical and cognitive disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and new Americans.
  • Connecting People to Parks: A Toolkit to Increase Safe and Equitable Access to Local Parks and Green Spaces
    This toolkit provides guidance for parks and recreation agencies that want to work with community partners to promote local change. It helps agencies use the Safe Routes to Parks framework to create parks and activity-friendly routes to parks that are safe, inclusive, and equitable.
  • Guide to Implementing Play Streets in Rural Communities [PDF-3.44MB]
    This guide describes how rural communities can create Play Streets by temporarily closing streets to create safe, publicly accessible space where children and families can be active and connect with neighbors. It provides information about the planning process, case studies, successes, challenges, and lessons learned.
  • National Physical Activity Plan: Community Recreation, Fitness and Parks Sector [PDF-9.39MB]
    The National Physical Activity Plan provides policy and programmatic recommendations to increase physical activity. It includes strategies and tactics that communities, organizations, and individuals in the community recreation, fitness, and parks sectors can use to support physically active lifestyles.
  • Parks, Trails, and Health Workbook [PDF-6.46MB]
    This workbook is an outline and quick guide on how to include public health factors in the development of a park or trail.
  • Putting the “Safe” in Safe Routes to Parks: Improving Personal Safety from Crime and Violence to Promote Park Access [PDF-1.17MB]
    This fact sheet highlights the importance of reducing threats to personal safety related to crime and violence in and around parks. It includes examples of ways communities have successfully improved park safety.
  • The Toolkit for Health, Arts, Parks and Equity (HAP-E)
    This toolkit can help local health advocates use place-based arts and culture approaches to promote health equity. It includes case studies, principles, and guidelines on using arts and culture, parks, and public space to celebrate communities and promote challenging discussions that can help build a more just world.

Mapping Tools

  • ParkServe®
    This platform shows park-related data for 14,000 US cities and towns. Users can see the location of parks in a community, neighborhoods within a 10-minute walk to a park, and areas that do not currently have access to a park.
  • ParkScore®
    This index ranks park systems in the 100 most populated US cities. The total score is based on five categories: access, investment, amenities, acreage, and equity.
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