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Cities with Health Promoting Park Systems Provide Mixed Uses and Adequate Programming

An excerpt from The Trust for Public Land’s report From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness. We wrote a preview of this report in an earlier postIn this post, we look at a mixture of uses and a maximum amount of programming.

Mixing uses in parks has its challenges and requires good design, adequate signage, and clear rules. Trail use, for example, can create conflict between walkers, skaters, and fast cyclists. Many cities appropriately prohibit fast cycling on trails shared by pedestrians. On the other hand, hard pedaling and fast running provide more health benefit than casual spinning and jogging. Other than putting bikes on roadways, the only safe solution is to provide parallel treadways for fast and slow users—and to clearly mark the allowed uses by location or time of day. Then, too, the alternate trails need occasional enforcement.

Even if a park system offers varied spaces for physical activity, not everyone will know how to take advantage of them. Some users need to learn new skills, some need encouragement, some need an exercise regimen, some need social support. Even with all this, many require other assistance—partners, equipment, referees, timekeepers, music, safety paraphernalia, and more. In a word, programming. Good programming can increase park use many times over, make activity more enjoyable, and increase its benefits to health and fitness.

Credit: Phil Schermeister.

Traditional park  programming consists of league sports, exercise routines, children’s camps, and oldies-but-goodies such as ballroom dancing. More recent additions have been Jazzercise, tai kwon do, tai chi, rock climbing, and bicycle “roadeos.” But in response to changing technologies and new immigrant cultures, innovative ideas come along all the time. In Minneapolis, the park department offers open gym periods to play sepak takraw, a remarkable kick volleyball game brought to this country by Hmong immigrants from Cambodia. Raleigh, North Carolina, uses the reward of a free pedometer for diabetic children who sign up for special athletic programming that includes nutrition instruction. Seattle has launched monthly Women of the World swims at two pools at the request of Muslim women whose faith bars them from recreational activities with men. Women of all faiths are welcome, and the sessions are privately funded. Overseen by female lifeguards and held at pools without street-facing windows, the swims provide some women with exercise they otherwise would not get.

Of course, programming has a health impact only if people know about it, and that requires promotion and marketing through advertisements, program pamphlets, TV and radio public service announcements, flyers, email‚ and social networking services such as Twitter. Outreach is difficult in times of tight budgets, but creative park departments attempt to find private sector collaborators in fields such as health, media, banking, and public utilities to help them spread the word.

Finally, every new program and every new facility needs to be evaluated, particularly when dealing with health, since this approach is standard in the medical community. It is not enough to assume that an activity has a positive impact. The only real way to know is through monitoring and before-and-after measurement. Sometimes the research can be done by the park agency itself. But when this is prohibitively time-consuming or expensive, it may be possible to partner with a local university, college‚ or high school whose student researchers can observe usership and even measure such health indicators as body mass index, heart rate‚ or muscle strength.

Credit: Susan Lapides.

When it comes to programming, Cincinnati—the nation’s 56th-largest city—packs a wallop. On a per-capita basis, Cincinnati ranks in the U.S. top ten for its number of ball diamonds, recreation centers, swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts‚ and golf courses. More important for public health, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission’s programs attracted over 3.2 million participant-visits in 2009, some 691,000 of which were visits by youth. All this in a city of barely 330,000 residents—giving Cincinnati the highest per-capita recreation participation rate of all cities reporting information to The Trust for Public Land.

Among the hundreds of programs offered are youth and adult league sports ranging from soccer and basketball to track and field and kickball; senior programs such as golf, swimming, tennis‚ and the Senior Olympics; programs for the disabled, including wheelchair football and basketball; and such offerings for youth as afterschool programs, summer day camps, and bike outings. In addition to the formal programming, most of the recreation commission’s 29 recreation centers offer fitness centers and open gym hours. Residents can use the recreation centers and the city’s 26 pools for a yearly membership fee of $25, or $10 for seniors and youth.

The Cincinnati Park Board—a landowning and land management agency separate from the recreation commission—plays a part, too, by working to make Cincinnatians feel safer in their parks. In Burnet Woods, a place with a mixed reputation, the board thinned out invasive vegetation and installed a disc golf course through the forest. The sport, which is growing in popularity throughout the country, drew so many more people into Burnet Woods that the park became safer and more appealing even for visitors not there for the game.

Credit: Rich Reid.

Fitness zones are easy-to-use, accessible outdoor gyms designed to promote general  health within a park experience, creating a supportive social context for getting fit. Using only a gravity- and-resistance weight system, fitness zones require no electricity and employ their users’ body weight to engage different muscle groups. The exercise equipment is durable, vandal- and weather-resistant, and appropriate for people 13 years of age and older of all fitness levels.

Working under the leadership of The Trust for Public Land and with funding from health insurer Kaiser Permanente and the MetLife Foundation, the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department have installed 30 fitness zones across the region, including six in existing Los Angeles city parks.

Fitness zones are often placed in areas of high need, including communities with high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Some are located adjacent to playgrounds to encourage adults to exercise while keeping an eye on children. Others are placed near administrative offices to reduce safety worries.

The El Cariso Regional Park in Sylmar is one example of a successful fitness zone. It includes nine pieces of easy-to-use outdoor gym equipment along with bilingual health and fitness information panels.

“The bottom line is that fitness zones attract new users to parks,” says Dr. Deborah Cohen, a researcher with the RAND Corporation who carried out an exhaustive before- and-after study of the facilities in 12 parks. “We also know that fitness zones are used throughout the day, that fitness zone users increase the amount they exercise, and that they use the parks more frequently than other park users.”

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