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Making Places for Play

2014-04-01, Feature, by Samantha Bartram

KaBOOM! has been working on the Map of Play, a play desert mapping initiative, and is collaborating with cities like Pittsburgh to identify and direct resources to play deserts.If Americans have been in denial about their declining health and wellness, today, all signs point to a turning around of that disposition. Messages about healthier eating and getting more exercise abound, from television commercials and posters in children’s classroom to campaigns coming direct from the White House. Following decades of reveling in the convenience of processed food and comfort of a sedentary lifestyle, the bodies of many adults and an increasing number of children are showing the effects of too little exercise and poor diets.

An increasing segment of the population is warming to the idea of healthier, more active lifestyles, and by all accounts this is an imperative change of mind. From 2009–2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified almost 36 percent of American adults as obese. Today, 17 percent of children and adolescents in the United States are also estimated to be obese. Researchers and health officials universally recommend increased physical activity as a way for adults and children to lose weight and combat preventable illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and the field of parks and recreation plays a big role in facilitating the sort of healthy lifestyle choices doctors recommend. Access to outdoor recreational opportunities, including playgrounds, parks, community centers and public green spaces, encourages the kind of physical activity that will help people lose weight and establish healthy habits.

Too often, however, communities are left wanting for open green spaces. They exist in what’s come to be known as “play deserts,” where children simply don’t have places to run, teens can’t find a space for a pickup basketball game and the local senior center is without space for its outdoor tai chi class. These communities are put at a distinct disadvantage to those that do have ready access to parks and recreational facilities. “More people report being physically active when they live closer to a park than people who live farther from one,” says Carmen Harris, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. “We know when people are more active, particularly youths, it has an impact on their adiposity. They have healthier bones, and there is improved mental health and aerobic capacity. [Active] adults have better cardiovascular, diabetes and cancer outcomes,” Harris says.

Defining and Identifying Play Deserts

In 2012, NRPA gathered together some of the foremost thinkers on the concepts of active lifestyles, community planning, and health and wellness to discuss precisely how to define play deserts. And while that’s a work in progress, the idea can be understood to describe an area where there is a lack of viable, safe places for physical activity, or where existing facilities cannot be accessed or are underutilized. Researchers and health officials posit that if such areas can be identified, steps might be taken to establish a community center, park or other green space; improve areas that have been rendered unusable by dilapidation, crime or other negative impacts; or encourage the surrounding community to visit nearby play areas, thereby improving health outcomes for all residents.

The first step in this process is identifying where play spaces are and are not. KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit ensuring all children get the play they need to thrive, is developing a robust Map of Play that shows where playgrounds do and do not exist throughout much of the country. Several other organizations, including the CDC and NRPA with its PRORAGIS™ database, are also attempting to remedy that situation by collecting Geographical Information System information on existing park space, but even that won’t tell the whole story. “It takes ground truthing — actually going to look at an area to see where those parks are,” says Bill Beckner, NRPA’s senior manager of research. “You have to look at all the surrounding data to determine who lives there and take into account the variety of factors to understand the existence or nonexistence of a facility.”

We already have access to data that indicates fewer than four in 10 Americans live within walking distance of a park, defined as no more than half a mile. But, of those individuals, “30 to 50 percent still don’t use the park,” says Deborah Cohen, senior natural scientist at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. “In my view, if people have access to a playground or park but they don’t use it, it’s still a play desert. Just because a park is there doesn’t mean people will use it. That’s not enough.”

Handing community planners the sort of nitty-gritty data that will show where parks and green spaces already exist; who lives in the surrounding area, including age and household income details; crime statistics; and infrastructure details, including whether viable sidewalks and crosswalks enable ready access to play space, would do much to advance the vision of a more active country. “There are a number of different pilot programs out there that could really benefit [from increased information about existing park space],” says Arthur Wendel of the CDC’s Healthy Community Design Initiative, National Center for Environmental Health. “One is called park prescriptions, where a physician might say his patient would benefit from using a park or being more physical. That patient would get a prescription to go out and use a park, but that clinical encounter requires geospatial knowledge of where that person lives and if there are parks around. Without being able to identify that information, the program won’t work as well. So I think there is a direct benefit of having that additional data.”

Planning and Prioritizing

While planners wait patiently for burgeoning databases like PRORAGIS to increase datasets, they still must go about the work of planning new towns and improving rundown areas. Both scenarios present options for increasing recreational spaces with an eye on both physical activity and overall wellness. “At a high level, communities establish comprehensive plans, park systems help identify where parks are needed, and cities or neighborhoods set parameters for development, which may have an influence on how parks are established,” Wendel says. “Another access issue is how communities determine whether there’s a need for a park. Some establish park goals as a ratio — like park acres to population. The challenge is while this can be good for a static measurement in time, perhaps when a town’s population is small and not growing and land is cheap, it may not incentivize acquisition of land until there are more people and the land becomes more expensive. So, not only is land acquisition important, but access and how it’s distributed are important as well.”

Wendel points to a 2007 Trust for Public Land study, which found that although the ratio of park land to New York City residents was relatively low — the study identified 4.6 acres of park land for every 1,000 residents — some 91 percent of the city’s children lived within a quarter-mile of a park. By contrast, the ratio of park land to Los Angeles residents is 6.2 acres per 1,000 people, but only 33 percent of those live within a quarter-mile of the nearest park. “And even this overstates park access — you can live within 100 feet of a park, but if you don’t have a direct way to get to the park, you might still have to walk miles on the road network to reach a park entrance,” Wendel says.

Areas where unused, open space is available are at an advantage when it comes to identifying potential spots for parks or recreational facilities. “It’s easiest if you have space to build,” Beckner says. Other locales, however, must get creative as they attempt to eliminate play deserts. “One strategy is to simply improve access so people can get to the parks that are already out there,” Wendel says. “Another is to continue to adopt comprehensive plans that look specifically at the park and recreation component. Finally, there could be some additional exploration of an incentive structure for including parks [in a comprehensive plan].”

Cohen envisions a solution where agencies and municipal leaders utilize creative programming to support park use, or in lieu of unavailable recreational space. She cites an innovative event held each week in Bogotá, Colombia, called the ciclovía. Each Sunday and public holiday from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., certain streets are blocked off to cars for use by runners, skaters and bicyclists. During that same time, stages are set up in city parks, providing space for aerobics instructors, yoga teachers and musicians to lead people through various exercises and events. Bogotá’s weekly ciclovías are visited by approximately 2 million people across more than 74 miles of car-free streets. “[Bogotanos] don’t need extra places [to go out and be active] — they instead use an existing resource, and it has so much value for the population,” Cohen says. “When we hold [similar events] in Los Angeles, they’re so crowded — people obviously want the opportunity to go out and be active, yet we limit that opportunity to two or three times a year. Why? We have to make [increased physical activity] a national priority, and this is just one example of how we could use our resources.”

Play Oases for All

The term “play” conjures visions of children scrambling over a swingset or engaging in a game of kickball, but Cohen believes while it’s important to encourage physical activity in children, we ignore adults living in play deserts at our peril. “Park use varies by age group,” she says. “Children under age 12 are more naturally physically active, so the problem in our country is the fact that as people get older, they become less physically active. That is the trend we have to fight.” 

To be sure, planners have a big role to play in allowing for new green spaces and revamping ones that have fallen into disuse, but park officials and recreational organizers also need to step up their programming offerings to not only entice children outdoors and into healthy, active lifestyles, but their adult caregivers as well. “We need programming and activities that draw more people into parks,” Cohen says. “Everyone has to do it on their own right now, and it’s very difficult to resist the deluge of interesting sedentary activities — movies, video games, computers. Our whole country is a play desert because of that.”

America’s shift from an agrarian to an industrial society and from urban to suburban dwellings has helped to encourage the sedentary lifestyle. Gone are the days when some amount of physical activity was built in to our everyday lives, as fewer children walk to school and most adults need to hop in a car, bus or train to get to work, the grocery store or other destinations. “As great as technology and engineering are, we have perhaps engineered ourselves out of physical activity,” Harris says. Our lives are busier, too, with longer work days and a more intense educational atmosphere. Once we’re home for the day or on weekends, we’re often so exhausted that an afternoon watching television on the couch sounds like a grand way to spend limited free time. Harris adds, “What we hope is that adults and youth will increase the amount of time they spend being active, and we know that adults and youths with parks and recreation facilities near them are more physically active.”

It’s these two avenues — creating more physical spaces for people to play and be active, and inventive programming at existing facilities to entice people into active pursuits — that present the most obvious and available solutions to the problem of play deserts. “We have to change our country,” Cohen says. “We have the parks — yes, we could use more, but it won’t take as much to get existing resources activated, like doubling the use of our streets, parking lots and plazas, and holding group activities there that get people excited, active and out of the house.”

 Wendel also recommends further examination of socioeconomic indicators in a particular area and catering new parks or programming to that information. He cites a Health Impact Assessment conducted by the Douglas County Health Department in Omaha, Nebraska, in a low-income neighborhood near Adams Park. “They recommended establishing community gardens there because of poor neighborhood access to sources of fruit and vegetables,” he says. “Here’s a way we can encourage families and children to take advantage of their neighborhood park — looking at potentially new and healthful ways to bring people out like community gardens.”

As all these players — health practitioners, researchers, planners and government officials — continue to look for ways to tackle America’s obesity crisis, the elimination of play deserts is bound to become a key imperative. Leaders might choose to tackle the problem by establishing more parks, revitalizing existing recreational facilities, advancing better programming or providing incentives for active living. More likely, however, is that it will take a combination of all these efforts to tip the scales in favor of a healthier, more active American population. “We have to expand that notion of making our environment safe for people to engage in physical activity,” Cohen says. “Right now we have designed the world to take physical activity out of our everyday lives, and we need to think of a way to add it back in. The role of parks and recreation is not just to build a space, but to bring the activity to where the people are. People have a lot on their plates — you can easily neglect yourself and your physical activity. We forget that everybody is overwhelmed with a million things because the pace of life is so sped up. People need help, and I see that as the role of parks and recreation. Physical activity is a critical thing — we need to counter the forces that prevent us from getting it.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.

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