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Cities Can Have Health Promoting Park Systems Through Beauty and Great Design

To promote physical activity and mental development, parks need great playgrounds. To make trails and walkways welcoming, parks need excellent horticulture. To lure tourists and other first-time visitors, parks need art, visual excitement‚ and high-quality workmanship. To make all users feel wanted, respected, safe, and oriented, parks need pleasing and effective signage. If all these elements are present, they add up to that memorable result—great design.

It may seem odd that design could be related to health, but it’s true: pleasing predictability encourages participation. If the basics are well provided, people will flock to the system and use it to the fullest.

An example of good park signage. Credit: Coleen Gentles

Signage may be the most overlooked amenity. Parks without signs are like elevators without buttons, libraries without book numbers, or restaurants without menus. At best, signless parks are confusing and frustrating; at worst they are intimidating and frightening. To cite only one example of many, at an unsigned fork on a national park trail in Arlington, Virginia, one path leads 18 miles to Mount Vernon, while the other crosses the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. More than two dozen years after the trail’s construction, there is still no guidance for the thousands of tourists each year who stand at that critical juncture, scratching their heads.

Good signage can do much more than just point the way. It can also provide distance measurements for walkers, runners‚ and cyclists; denote hours of operation or road closures; indicate the way to refreshments, restrooms‚ and emergency call boxes; relate historical and ecological information; convey rules and safety instruction; and even provide health tips and information about calories burned in a particular activity.

Another parklike space that benefits from good design is the urban schoolyard. Too often, schoolyards are poorly designed, maintained‚ and managed—simply slabs of asphalt surrounded by chain-link fences with a locked gate. For a few hours each school day, children use them to burn off steam, but the valuable land gets no activity after school and on weekends, even in neighborhoods desperate for park space. (In the worst cases, they are used as teacher parking lots.) In contrast, school systems and park departments in cities including Boston, Denver, Houston‚ New York, and Phoenix have cooperated in redesigning and rebuilding schoolyards into year-round play parks, serving students during school hours and the full community at other times. The best ones include trees, gardens‚ and performance stages as well as exercise gear and locations for exercise, games, climbing, jumping rope, and more.

Credit: Marni Horwitz

In an unusual public-private partnership, New York City is rebuilding derelict schoolyards for students and opening them to the full community outside school hours. A three-way program of the board of education, the department of parks and recreation, and The Trust for Public Land, the effort focuses on park-poor neighborhoods and is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, which aims to provide safe play places within a ten-minute walk of every child in New York City.

“It’s hard to imagine a space that provides more health benefit for more young people per square foot than a school playground,” said Mary Alice Lee, director of the New York City Playground Program for TPL. “Converting an expanse of cracked asphalt into a colorful, exciting space with a field, track, trees, performance stage, interactive garden, slides, climbers, hair-braiding area, and jump-rope area is revelatory for these kids. They just explode with activity and creativity.” And then, after school and on weekends, with the gates open, the children and families of the rest of the community get their chance, too.

The partnership, which began in 1996, is expected to create 256 playgrounds, resulting in nearly 200 acres of new city parkland by 2012. On average each playground costs $1 million and begins with an in-depth participatory design process that includes community members, representatives from after-school programs, students, parents, school administrators, teachers, and custodial staff. During a three-month student-design phase, TPL meets weekly with four classes at the school. Students learn how to do surveying, conduct sunlight studies, and interview community stakeholders, and they work with landscape architects and equipment manufacturers to choose play equipment that is age-appropriate and within budget. “The empowerment of the participatory design process, especially for children in underserved neighborhoods, is critical,” says Lee.

Of the renovated playgrounds, most are owned by the New York City Department of Education and maintained by school custodial staff; some are owned by the city parks department. The Trust for Public Land contracts with a local partner, such as a neighborhood organization, after-school group, or parent-teacher association to provide programming outside school hours. Frequently, the partner group works with the custodial staff to close and open the schoolyard on weekends and in the evening. Most of the schoolyards are open all day on weekends and during the summer and from 3 p.m. until dusk on weekdays. (In a few tougher neighborhoods‚ the hours are set at 3 p.m.–6 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. on Saturdays‚ and closed on Sundays.)

Interestingly, it is spontaneous play among students that has most increased following reconstruction of the playgrounds. While observations revealed a 25 percent increase in structured games and competitions, unstructured play jumped by a stunning 240 percent. This includes not only play on exercise equipment and running around, but also socializing and “hanging out.” Unstructured activity is valuable in helping even the least athletic children enjoy recreation and develop social skills and imagination.

In 2008, 19 percent of U.S. children between ages 6 and 19 were judged to be overweight. Providing an attractive, thoughtfully designed playground is an effective way to increase physical activity and combat childhood obesity. It is here that the New York playground program shows results. Based on a study of three renovated playgrounds in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens, the weekday visits (including after school) increased by an impressive average of 71 percent to just under 75,000 per site per year.

Want to know more ways urban park systems can best promote health and wellness?  Read this publication from The Trust for Public Land.

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One Response

  1. [...] article from the City Parks Blog writes about the best that parks—properly managed—can be, which is what all of us want to see [...]

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