Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Parks Are Part Of The Answer

Editor's Note: The power of parks and gardens to transform opportunity areas into complete communities while battling obesity and other health issues and even improving academic achievement is the topic of this week's excerpt from Are We There Yet?

Proximity to parks and gardens can help turn opportunity areas into complete communities by providing possiblities for exercise, play and social interaction, as well as access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Opportunity areas that have access to parks are one step closer to becoming complete communities. See list on page 72: Top 10 regions with park rich opportunity areas.

They are especially important to neighborhoods with high rates of obesity and other health problems. Moreover, trees, grass and plants return significant amounts of oxygen to the atmosphere and help filter out air and water pollutants while also countering the “heat island effect” by providing shade and reducing air temperatures.

Numerous studies also link access to green and recreational spaces to reduced rates of crime and property damage, in part because parks and gardens act as gathering places where neighbors can get to know one another, and where at-risk youth can be engaged in constructive activities. Studies also show physical activity is associated with better academic performance, higher GPAs, and better scores on standardized tests. Fourteen studies reviewed by researcher Amika Singh at VU University in the Netherlands in 2011 showed children with higher physical activity rates also performed better on tests in school, particularly in math and reading.

Singh says the benefits of physical activity may extend beyond improvements in academic performance. “Children learn by participating in sports, learning rules, and learning to act appropriately in a social environment,” she adds. “That translates into the classroom, where children who are physically active may adhere better to classroom rules and get along better with teachers and classmates. Academic performance may just be the short term benefit of exercise; in addition to a whole range of other social and behavioral benefits.”

Access to parks and open space ranks high on the list of priorities for Americans, who have repeatedly voted for bond measures to pay for the acquisition of open space. The national nonprofit Trust for Public Land — which is working toward the goal of ensuring that everyone in the U.S. has access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home — has over the past decade helped communities get 496 ballot measures approved that have provided $34 billion in new funds for parks and land conservation.

Across the U.S., parks tend to be located in wealthier neighborhoods, making park access not just about health but also about fairness. Los Angeles, for example, has 23,000 acres of park land, most of it concentrated near the Santa Monica Mountains and adjacent to high-income communities such as Brentwood and Malibu. It has been estimated that almost 40 percent of Los Angeles County residents live too far away from a park to use it frequently.

But wealthier neighborhoods are also park-poor. Atlanta, for example, has 7.7 acres of parks per 1,000 residents, just half the national average, but the wealthy neighborhood of Buckhead is one of the most “under-parked” neighborhoods in one of the most under-parked major U.S. cities. A 2011 news story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution discussed the problem, pointing out that “private and corporate parks and oversized yards make it appear as if Buckhead has plenty of green space, masking the need for a major gathering spot.” The story concluded that it’s difficult to buy park land in “one of the most expensive zip codes in the city . . . where transactions are going for $500 per square foot.”

The Trust for Public Land’s is an interactive mapping website that provides information on the nearest parks and recreation centers with the goal of promoting “park equity” by displaying demographic information so everyone can see which neighborhoods are park-deficient. For example, while 86 percent of all residents in Denver are within a half-mile walk of a park, affluent neighborhoods are more likely to be park-adjacent. And because Denver is one of the fastest growing areas in the U.S., the ratio of parks to population is slipping, and Denver Parks and Recreation is now using the Parkscore website to prioritize investment in neighborhoods with the most acute need for open space.

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