Recreation and parks in a changing world: becoming a health service – the Robert W. Carwford Lecture

Recreation and parks in a changing world: becoming a health service – the Robert W. Carwford Lecture – Transcript

Geoffrey Godbey

I had the pleasure of working for Robert Crawford in 1969 as a research intern with Philadelphia’s Department of Recreation. I found Mr. Crawford to be an individual with a genuine sense of community, high expectations of others and a belief that recreation and parks was a form of service which cannot succeed unless the people are centrally involved. Bob knew that public recreation and parks were as much process as product. He initiated a system of advisory councils which I studied for my doctoral dissertation. Robert Crawford took time to talk with me at length on many occasions, even though he was in charge of a staff of several hundred employees. I feel honored to be giving a talk today in his name.

Our world is in the process of massive change and such change cannot even be defined, let alone accepted, by most Americans. Not surprisingly, this has produced nostalgia for a mythological past in which life was presumed to have been both tranquil and fair. It is difficult for Americans to understand that what we have come to think of as our way of life, actually an extraordinarily unusual few decades at the end of World War II, is coming to an end. We are in a period of mass denial with a resulting failure of will to solve many of the problems of our society and our environment.

The United States contains the welthiest society which has existed in the history of the world. The dimensions of this wealth seem no longer to be understood. There are about 100 million dwelling units in the U.S., nearly two-thirds of them owner occupied. They have almost tripled in size since the end of World War II until they now average a remarkable 600 square feet of living space per occupant. (In most other countries, the average is 600 feet or less for the entire house hold.) Most are single-family detached homes with a patio or balcony and garage or carport. About five million Americans own second homes. There are about nine million more dwellings in the U.S. than domestic households to put in them (Paepke 1993) Children typically have their own bedrooms Wind bathrooms. Ninety-four percent of households have telephones, usually more than one, operating on private lines. More than nine out of 10 contain an audio entertainment system, more than eight out of 10 have a microwave, oven, more than seven out of ten have a videocassette recorder. More than 25% have a personal computer. The vast majority have a washing machine dryer, vacuum clearer and over one-half have a dishwasher. Radios are ubiquitous and clothing is so plentiful that it is rarely worn out.

About 140 million vehicles are registered in the U.S. most for household use. Daily adult food intake in the United States has risen to 3,500 calories, more than twice the minimum energy intake needed for survival. On almost every measure of consumption, we are the world’s “leader” using a quarter of the world’s petroleum with only about four percent of its population, and more wood than any other country. Ornstein and Erlich 1989; Kennedy 1992).

This proliferation is occurring even as the number of occupants of households is shrinking to slightly under 2.7 persons per household. (Population Reference Bureau 1995). Almost one in four of our households has only one person in it. The combination of larger households with vastly larger amounts of “stuff” in them and a shrinking number of occupants has, not surprisingly, produced more solid waste. The average U.S. citizen produces about 1600 pounds of solid waste per year, more than any other country in the world (Hendrickson, Lave, and McMichael 1995).

The distribution of this unbelievable array of material goods is increasingly slanted toward a knowledge-based elite, who not only use information to increase the yield on the products and services they provide, but also to manipulate the political system. It is not surprising, then, that the federal government redistributes much more income to wealthy people than to poor people. me U.S. currently has the largest gap between rich and poor of any modern nation, and that gap is increasing.

The problems we face, however, cannot be hung on the door of only the rich, or Congress, or illegal immigrants, or those on the form of public assistance we call “welfare.” The first issue in solving our problems is one of re-conceptualizing, simply defining what is real and what is important. In a post-modern era, however, redefining what is real usually cannot be done at a societal level but rather must be done at the level of the interest group, the subculture or the individual. Nevertheless, our ability to define what is real and what is important in collective terms is necessary if we are to develop the collective will to make the kind of changes which are necessary for our continued well being. Examples of redefining what is real are:

* While we may picture a “welfare” recipient as an African-American mother with children, the biggest “welfare” group in our society is the elderly, since they each receive, on average, over $130,000 in excess of everything they put into social security as well as the specified interest. They are also the wealthiest age group in our society.

* While there is great concern in Congress and in our communities about the “drug problem,” the ratio of tobacco-related deaths to “drug” deaths is 11-to-one Although we outlaw the less dangerous drugs, we subsidize the more dangerous.

* Although many believe a “Green Revolution” is going on in agriculture, the world’s grain supply hasn’t increased since 1990. Nevertheless, Americans continue to feed about 70% of their grain to animals.

* While we may think of the typical college student as a 20 year old male, The majority of undergraduate students in U.S. colleges and universities is female and about half of all students are age 25 and over.

* While we may think of North America and Europe as accounting for a significant portion of the world’s population, 90-95% of the people born in the next few decades are likely to be born in under-developed countries. North Americans and Europeans in combination may be about 10 percent of the world’s population.

* In recreation and parks, we might consider thee following. While many recreation and park professionals think that budgets have generally declined in the last few decades, expenditures on local recreation and park services increased from $3.9 billion in 1966 to $6.1 billion in 1978 to $8.3 billion in 1990 (Crompton and McGregor, 1994).

New understandings of what is real and what is important are critical for those of us involved in recreation and parks, leisure services or the study of leisure behavior, for we have mistakenly come to believe that a profession can be formed with an unchanging mandate over a lifetime. This is an era, however, in which the very notion of “job” as a continuing, highly-defined endeavor with security, upward mobility and no need for continuous learning is considered obsolete by those who study “work”. One-third of the new service-sector jobs created in 1992, for instance, were “temps.” The “job” is increasingly a moving target which requires continuous learning, the ability to work in groups, and flexibility in terms of not only how to perform the task but what the task is.

In a world of rapid and continuing change, the ability to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances is critical for those in leisure services. Leisure springs from specific cultures and our culture is increasingly re-defined by technology in shorter and shorter intervals. Our response to such change must ultimately be to become more “flexible” and then more “agile.” Flexibility, of course, is a sign of intelligence. “Since intelligence means a flexible response to environmental stimuli the more flexible its response capabilities, the more intelligent an organism is” (Shlain 1991).

As our mass culture is ending, as the rate of change increases, organizations which provide goods and services in the public, private, non-profit, and market sectors are being challenged to become more agile. So it is with leisure services. In mass societies with “mass” production, recreation and park services provided “mass leisure” services. Me next step in this process was to individualize such services, providing hundreds of individualized activities, programs and services which put the responsibility of finding out about all of them onto the “customer.” Thus, recreation and park services provided “cafeteria” approach to leisure activities and facilities. As our mass culture begins to come apart, however, and our debt continues to mount, recreation, park and leisure services will have to become more agile. The agile organization enters into a continuous dialogue with its customers to deal with their changing wants and needs . . . “what customers will increasingly value in a company is its ability create, and to continue creating, mutually beneficial relationships with them” (Goldman, Nagel and Preiss 1995). Therefore, it may not provide so many different services, but what is provided is based on a continuously changing knowledge based about their customers or clients needs. It is ironic that such cutting edge ideas by organizational scholars are ones which Philadelphia’s Department of Recreation had put into practice several decades ago, though a series of local advisory councils which kept in constant contact with the needs of the neighborhoods. Such a system allowed for the continuous change of services.

At the people level, the agile organization is characterized by the development of a skilled, knowledgeable and innovative work force. At the management level, it represents a shift from the command and control philosophy of the modern industrial corporation to one of leadership, motivation, support and trust.

An agile workforce is composed of people who are knowledgeable, informed, flexible and empowered. People who are ex@ expected to think about what they are doing, are authorized to display initiative, and are supported by management to become innovative about what they do and how they do it.” (Goldman, Nagel and Preiss 1995).

The agile organization is also different from others in that it actively seeks co-operation with other organizations which might previously have been thought of as competitors. Such cooperation may take the form of partnerships, joint ventures, and collaborations of every kind. Some of these efforts are aimed at establishing an economy of scale by merging capabilities in order to avoid the costs of adding capacity. This is only beginning to happen with leisure service organizations.

Less typical of leisure services are consortiums, whereby all organizations do some things in common, such as jointly sponsoring employee training or purchasing equipment. Such consortiums will likely become more common and may be organized around themes such as interest in a given leisure activity, a given population or a given objective. The future of leisure service organizations is wrapped up in such collaborative efforts. What is important is imagination, communication and the will to do it.

Recreation and parks cannot be a stand alone organization, for its roots are in social and environmental reform which cannot be done without alliances with a huge variety of organizations. The various social movements which produced recreation and park services always saw recreation or leisure as a tool which could be used to make life better. They also saw their mission as one of “process,” not “product.” The process involved was one of mobilizing people to take action to improve the problems they identified, using recreation an a means to that end.

While it is necessary to work with a variety of other organizations to become agile, it does not mean trying to be all things to all people. me agile organization figures out what it is good at and “outsources” everything else. It also finds ways for employees to become more knowledgeable. If continuous learning on the part of employees is important then each employee needs to develop a learning plan. Staff “training” must be built into the job — and even the job description — if a leisure service organization is to become agile.

For many leisure service organizations, becoming flexible and agile means a change in philosophy from continued learning as an afterthought to continued learning as an expectation of every employee, which is planned for in job descriptions, assignments and in the reward system. It also means that: 1. expertise, initiative and authority are distributed as widely as possible within the organizations, 2. decision-making is accelerated by replacing rigid, multi-level, functionally divided organizational structures with ones which have a flexible focus on routinely providing access to the information, skills and knowledge that are the ultimate organizational assets; 3. support of multiple, concurrent highly flexible organizational structures, and 4. leadership, motivation and trust replace the command and control model of organizations.

The need for agility or flexibility spring partially from the way in which most modern organizations have become complex. “Complexity” is a product of two variables: differentiation and integration. Differentiation refers to the degree to which a system is composed of parts that differ in structure or function from each other. We have seen this happen in health, physical education and recreation type organizations to the extent that those in one specialty no longer even talk to those in another. We have seen it happen in the therapies, so that physical, occupational and recreation therapists are often isolated from each other or antagonistic. Even therapeutic recreation has split apart into different professional groups concerned with either clinical practice or community-based practice. People interested in swimming facilities now have their own branch of NRPA, as do those who work with the aged.

The complex organization, however, must also be integrated. Integration refers to the extent that the different parts communicate, and enhance each others’ goals. This happens less and less in our field. Leisure services have developed a myriad of occupational specialties, but those within such specialties do not communicate with each other or even see their fate as being related to those in other specialties. Thus, specialties proliferate in leisure services, encouraged by university curricula which often assume that any job title which exists must have a course or curricular option with that name.

In many park systems, for instance, the maintenance staff is completely isolated from any sense of agency mission, its budget, problems, program goals or any working knowledge about the agency. Interpretive services are often “tacked on” to the rest of the organization. Park planters don’t frequently talk to those who will manage, maintain, or lead programs in a facility before they plan it. In case after case, recreation and park professionals are more specialized but less integrated. They communicate less and support each other goals less.

We have not, therefore, always succeeded at becoming complex organizations and the inability of our professional organizations to deal with this problem threatens to pull our field of endeavor apart into a wide variety of unrelated specialties. There is the danger that NRPA, AAHPER and other professional organizations, in establishing more and more differentiated branches (all of whom aspire to obsolete notions of professionalism) will eventually create organizations which have nothing at the center; no perceived common interest except perhaps a common city for a conference (which is really a series of smaller parallel conferences). Such organizations come apart very easily.

Part of this problem is also related to the outmoded notion that leisure service organizations, because they are either public, commercial or private, non-profit, have a corresponding funding source. This assumption flies in the face of today’s reality in which most organizations are “mixed economy” organizations, receiving funds from a variety of sources. In recreation and park organizations, funds will increasingly come from a variety of sources, as diverse as soft drink companies, health maintenance organizations, user fees, Federal grants, organizations concerned with aging, the environment, tennis, historic restoration, and a host of others. The economy of recreation and park services will be increasingly mixed.

While we have become a bit more agile in the last few decades, such change has generally been forced upon us.

Health and Wellness As Purpose

We exist, then, in a milieu which is changing in both continuous and discontinuous ways at accelerating rates. Many existing recreation and park department staff are no longer sure of what their mission is or should be. According to Drucker (1993), “It is the nature of the task that determines the culture of an organization, rather than the community in which the task is being performed. Each organization’s value system is determined by its task.” It is, therefore, critical to determine what your organization’s task is and then let the organization’s culture flow from that understanding. We aren’t sure, however, what we are supposed to do. Further, in the name of professionalism we are often isolated from the various organizations who might work with us. To counter the problems this creates, many leisure service organizations are looking to benefits-based management as a way of justifying what they do. Benefits-based management, as identified by Lee and Driver (1992) “. . . is based on the ideas that 1. the reason public recreation opprtunities are provided is because people benefit from them and 2. management will be most responsive, efficient and effective when it explicitly targets specific types of benefit opportunities that will be provided at designated locations. This is done by providing activity and associated setting opportunities defined in terms of the beneficial experiences and other responses that can be realized from using these opportunities.

While “benefits-based” management may be useful in documenting some of the contributions recreation and park services make to the community or to their users, this approach is inherently limited since it does not establish any substantive framework in which such benefits can be placed. There will not likely be a department of government supported because it supplies a generic list of “benefits.” Nor can a private, non-profit or commercial organization exist on such a basis. Attempts to have users or clients define the benefits and then develop management strategies to maximize these benefits still ultimately beg the question of whether or not recreation and parks services have predictable outcomes in a substantive area which should be supported, a priori, by policy and legislation.

Within many mission statements of municipal recreation and park departments, however, may be the key to what will shape the re-invention of municipal recreation and parks departments and many other leisure services in the future. Often, these mission statements say the agency is supposed to provide recreation and park services which enhance the “well being” of the public. “Well being” has been further defined in the last decade.

The concept of well being or optimal health involves a delicate balance among physical, emotional, spiritual intellectual and social health. Physical health may be thought of in terms of fitness, nutrition, control of substance abuse, medical self-help, and so on. Emotional health may refer to such areas as stress management and care for emotional crises. Examples of spiritual health are those themes dealing with love, charity, purpose and meditation. Intellectual health encompasses topics in the realms of education, achievement, career development, and others, while subjects concerned with social health may include relationships among friends, families and communities (Alberta Centre for Well Being 1989).

From this definition, it is clear that many public recreation and park services already do contribute to wellness. Recreation and parks may, in fact, have a labeling problem. Such departments are labeled based upon the means used — recreation — rather than the ends they hope to achieve — wellness. In the previous few decades, during which many such agencies became “demand” driven, simply providing the means was enough. The ends were forgotten. It is time to remember or perhaps rediscover the end to which the means serve — health and wellness.

Relation to Health and Wellness

There is massive ccumulating evidence that the forms of leisure activity recreation and park services currently provide fit within the emerging wellness paradigm. Consider the following: New concepts of health emphasize that our state of health is largely determined by factors other than medical treatment. Over 80% of the factors which determine our state of health have to do with our environment, our relations with friends and enemies, the quality of our education, our status in the community, and how we think about ourselves. It has only been during the last 30 years that medical practice could be said, on balance, to do more good than harm (Ornstein and Erlich 1989).

Our state of health, then, is largely determined by how we live our everyday lives, our behaviors, emotions and, sometimes, our luck. Other than having the right parents, what is most important in determining health is our own personal habits and daily behaviors and our collective actions. If all forms of cancer were cured immediately, our life expectancies would go up an average of only two years, but if “good nutrition, exercise and good health habits (especially not smoking) were followed, average life expectancy would increase by seven years” (Ornstein and Erlich 1989).

Sense of community is critical to our well being in our everyday lives. As psychologist Robert Ornstein and physician David Sobel (1988) concluded, need for community is a key part of our evolutionary heritage. The brain’s primary function is not to think but rather to guard the body from illness, and “It now appears that the brain cannot do its job protecting the body without contact with other. friends, lovers, relatives, lodge brothers and sisters, even perhaps our co-workers and the members of the weekly bowling team” (Ornstein and Sobel 1988).

Perhaps it is no wonder that a recent University of Michigan study found that doing regular volunteer work, more than any other activity, dramatically increased life expectancy (Rockefeller-Growald and Luks 1988). The feeling of warmth from doing good may well come from endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates which produce not only runner’s “high” but also, apparently, volunteer’s high.

Antonovsky and Sagy (1986) argued that the capacity to mobilize resistance resources, and the key to holistic wellness, is based on a sense of social coherence which Antonovsky defines as: “. . . a global orientation that expresses the extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic, feeling of confidence that 1. the stimuli deriving, from one’s internal and external environments in the course of living are structured, predictable and explicable; 2. the resources are available to one to meet the demands posed by these stimuli; and 3. these demands are challenges, worthy of investment and engagement.”

This conceptualization is also in keeping with a conceptualization of leisure which does not view work and leisure as opposites. Both are seen “. . . as responses to a biological need for optimization of arousal (Berlyne 1960, 1966, 1971) complexity (Walker 1980) challenge (Csikszentihalyi 1975,1990) or stress” (Antonovsky 1979, 1987). That is satisfying recreation or leisure, like satisfying work, involves the creation and acceptance of challenges which “make sense” and which one has acquired skills and otherwise has the resources with which to deal. We need certain levels of arousal, challenge, complexity, stress, or stimulation to make us respond in ways which promote healthy growth and also need the resources to have a reasonable chance of dealing with such challenges. In short, healthy leisure involves acting rather than being acted upon.

For children, healthy play means the ability to have some “effect” on the environment. Vicarious leisure, such as being acted upon by television or narcotics or displays in a shopping mall, does not present such challenges and, as principal uses of leisure, would not be healthy.

Such vicarious leisure is also positively related to addictions. As addictions expert Stanton Peele (1989) argued, many parents are no longer trustful of their children, having lost the idea that children can learn and grow from exploration, independence, risk, and adventure. “Yet the abilities to manage oneself, to accept the responsibility of independence, and to generate adventure and excitement without behaving antisocially are skills that enable people to avoid drug or alcohol abuse and other addictions” (Peele 1989).

Leisure activity which is vicarious, in which the individual is passively entertained, does not produce the ability to manage oneself, accept responsibility or become independent. Indeed, the individual in question is likely to become more dependent upon outside sources for stimulation rather than develop the ability to entertain him or herself.

Perhaps such abilities are related to the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the feeling that one can control the outcomes in life which are important to them (Bandura 1989). Those individuals with low levels of self-efficacy would seem to be less likely to seek to control their own use of leisure and more likely to rely on vicarious experience. While leisure behavior, in the ancient Athenian sense, is self-regulating, in addictive behaviors there is no self-regulation. Such self-regulation is related to self-regard or self-esteem. That is, an individual with higher self-esteem is more likely to be self-regulating.

Not only is individual self-efficacy important in how leisure is used, so, too, is community efficacy. In communities which appear to be powerless, unable to control outcomes which are important to successful community life, there is a greater tendency toward passivity.

Where self- or community-efficacy is low, leisure behaviors are more likely to be passive, and such passivity is related to addictive behavior. Television viewing, for example, among children is positively related to obesity since it interferes with burning calories through active play. Like excessive eating, drinking or drug taking, it is a passive, consumer-oriented form of entertainment. “The link between watching television and obesity and other addictions is that watching television depletes the child’s resources for direct experience and interaction with the environment in favor of vicarious experiences and involvement.” (Peele 1989).

Television viewing, for people who are by themselves, like drugs, may keep the mind from having to face depressing thoughts. According to Csikszentmihalyi, (1990) “… what drugs in fact do is reduce our perception of both what can be accomplished and what we as individuals are able to accomplish, until the two are in balance.” While drugs may produce an alteration of the content and organization of consciousness, they do not add to our ability to order them effectively.

This is not to argue that television viewing is inherently bad. It is more a matter of amount of viewing and what is viewed. Have you watched MTV lately? It conveys to young people that having sex and consuming products is about all there is in life. In particular, African-American women are portrayed as nothing more than sex objects; African-American males as nothing more than gangsters and brutes. Most of the announcers act as though they are stupid and are proud to be stupid. Television, if it teaches that life is only a matter of consuming and being consumed, must be viewed as negative leisure. It can, of course, be much more.

Sexual activity, too, may simply be used as a way to impose an external order on our thoughts, of killing time without having to confront the perils of solitude (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). It is, therefore not surprising that television viewing, sexual activity and drinking are relatively interchangeable behaviors within many households. What such activities do is focus attention naturally and pleasurably, but what they fail to do is to develop attentional habits which might lead to a greater complexity of consciousness. Addictive behavior, then, is undertaken to relieve the pain which may creep into the unfocused mind.

Finally, all these issues are related to a person acting rather than being acted upon. People who have high levels of wellness are more likely to “act” during their free time than merely to be acted on. Such “action” must be thought of holistically rather than merely in terms of physical behavior if we are to understand it. The many benefits of physical exercise occur because the individual has found something worth doing, because he or she has a strong sense of self-efficacy. The most critical constraints to such involvement are not those which have to do with lack of time, money or resources, but rather those which: “. . . involve individual psychological states and attributes which interact with leisure preferences rather than intervening between preferences and participation. Examples of intrapersonal barriers include stress, depression, anxiety, religiosity, kin and non-kin reference group attitudes, prior socialization into specific leisure activities, perceived self-skill, and subjective evaluations of the appropriateness and availability of various leisure activities” (Crawford and Godbey 1987).

The most fundamental constraints to “acting” during leisure in ways which may produce positive physical activity are those which have to do with how individuals feel about themselves and what they think it is appropriate to do during free time. This recognition has caused some organizations concerned with physical fitness to broaden the way they seek to promote fitness. In Canada, Fitness Canada has adopted a campaign called “Active Living,” a concept which:” … connects the mind, body and spirit in physical activity within various stages of life and as an integral part of our daily routines and leisure pursuits. It contributes to increased feelings of personal worth, energy and vitality for living, as well as to maximizing our human potential physically, emotionally and socially. The process and experience of being physically active in everyday living is self-empowering; it increases our sense of personal control over our lives and stimulates feelings of self-confidence in our ability to manage our own health” (Fitness Canada 1992).

The benefits of physical fitness, it is slowly being realized, are more likely to occur when physical activity is conceived within a broad framework which considers the individual’s total being.

Changing Health Policy

Why is the previous information important to those in recreation and parks? The following sequence may explain. First, our health care system win change — we have no choice. The U.S. currently spends more for health care than any nation on earth, 14% of our Gross National Product, and, as our population rapidly ages and the children on whose health we have invested so little grow to maturity, we simply will be unable to afford our current system. The massive debt in all sectors will exacerbate this need to change. Curtailing health care costs will be a continuing priority of government and doing this will involve reinventing our notions of what constitutes efficient and effective health care. Emphasis will be on prevention in policy as well as theory. The wellness model will gain in acceptance while the medical model will lose.

A further issue driving such change is that the health of individuals who live in modern nations is declining, even as they are living longer. Much of this decline is not attributable to trail people being kept alive longer. Scientific studies have found deteriorating health in Canada in the 1970s, Australia during the 1980s, and Japan from the 1950s through the 1990s.

In the United States, the National Health Interview Survey, initiated in 1957, examines measures of health of 100,000 people annually. One of these measures is “limitation of activity,” which is a measure of long-term disability that is due to chronic conditions and diseases which have usually lasted at least three months. A person is limited in activity when he or she has difficulty performing his or her usual activity that is normal for their age group. The other measure is “restricted activity days,” which is how many days during the past two weeks the individual had to cut down on normal activity because of health. Restricted activity can be due to either acute conditions, such as colds and sore throats, or chronic conditions, like heart disease. It is an indicator of both acute and chronic illness.

In the United States population, between 1957 and 1989, “activity limitation” has increased 43%. The number of “restricted activity days, has increased 28% between 1961 and 1989. Some of the reasons for this, in addition to an older population, include: technologically keeping people alive who formerly would have died; over-eating and a junk food diet; lack of exercise; higher stress levels; and increased chemical exposure which may be degrading the immune system, giving rise to increased infections and auto immune disorders such as asthma, arthritis and diabetes (Montague 1996).

Add to these health issues the host of health-related problems which rapidly increase because of a fossil fuel economy, the irresponsible use of chemicals and the extremes of materialism. Such problems include rapidly increasing immune system disorders such as asthma, a decline of 50% in sperm among men in industrial countries and significant loss of sperm quality, a 60% increase in migraine headaches, an increase in 29 of the 32 types of birth defects during the last two decades, steadily increasing cancers, particularly of the reproductive system, an accelerating loss of species at rates 10 to 1000 times as fast as were occurring before humans appeared on the scene, and a host of other health-environmental dilemmas which, in combination, insure that our health policies will change.

Implications for Recreation

and Parks

During the process of re-conceptualizing health, recreation and parks organizations have the opportunity to become a significant factor in the health and wellness revolution. Doing this will involve: re-conceptualizing what they do, documenting the health and wellness benefits of services and developing partnerships with a myriad of health and medical organizations. Ironically, this won’t change most of the services provided. Recreation and park services are doing many of the right things without the intellectual justification which will ensure they continue.

While the evidence is already substantial that leisure is a critical variable in state of health, it is less well known that many leisure service organizations, such as local government recreation and park services, can increasingly document their role as primary health and wellness agencies. Consider the following: approximately four out of five Americans use local government recreation and park services. Although sometimes thought of as a service for young people, there is almost no decline in the use of such services with age. Women use these services as much as men. (Godbey, Graefe and James 1992). Other findings from this national telephone survey of 1300 U. S. households (sponsored by the National Recreation and Park Association) were that the benefits the American public most frequently associated with use of such services at the individual, household and community level were exercise and fitness benefits. At the individual and household level, relaxation and peace (stress reduction) was the second most frequently mentioned benefit. These benefits and others, which respondents identified in their own words, are not only in keeping with the concept of wellness, but refer to most of the components in the definition of wellness given previously. Similar findings resulted from a recent national survey in Canada (Harper, Neider and Godbey, 1996 in manuscript). Not only is the use of these services statistically associated with better health, the mere fact of having a park, playground or open space within walking distance of one’s home is associated with better health and this holds true regardless of one’s age, income, ethnic status or most other demographic variables (Foreman, McGee and Godbey in manuscript).

Another large-scale study of older people’s use of local parks found that older park users commonly got significant amounts of exercise during their park visitation and that, in interviews, about half of them said they felt different about things after visiting the park and the typical descriptions of such feelings were intensely positive and of an emotional, spiritual or psychological nature. Negative change was almost non-existent (Godbey and Blazey 1983).

In short, the case for the health and wellness benefits of recreation and park services in the improvement and maintenance of health is compelling. The cost-to-benefit ratios are also compelling. For an annual tax fee of $50-$60 per person, a wide array of health-enhancing services are provided.

If a typical heart bypass operation costs $60,000, that amount would fund local government park and recreation services for approximately 1200 people for one year at $50 per person per year. Of that 1200, 948 people would use such services (and the non-users would also derive considerable benefits). If you were in charge of improving health and wellness services for the American public and had a shrinking pool of money to do so, who ya gonna call?

Re-conceptualizing what recreation and park agencies do will require that we think of our services as being primarily concerned with improving wellness and using recreation as the means by which this is done. User satisfaction, while necessary, is an insufficient indicator of the success of a recreation and park service. The previous implies that the relation of recreation and park agencies to public health agencies and other health and wellness organizations must intensify and will do so, primarily, from our initiation. At the municipal level, there are already some precedents for state or local health agencies providing funding targeted to specific facilities or services of recreation and park agencies which have measurable wellness outcomes. The Healthy People 2000 statement of national opportunities, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and involving a coalition of 22 expert working groups, specifically targeted increases in community availability and accessibility of physical activity and fitness facilities. These include hiking, biking and fitness trails, public swimming pools and acres of park and recreation open space (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services 1990).

In summary, our world is changing at exponential rates and recreation and parks must be re-conceptualized to remain viable. For many such services, the issue is fundamentally one of re-conceptualizing the role of what is already being provided. Recreation and park services provide opportunities to individuals which have substantial positive health effects. These effects can and must be measured and analyzed in terms of cost savings of public health expenditures. Doing so will often involve collaborative efforts with public health agencies. While educators and professionals are now involved in the effort to measure benefits associated with recreation and parks, this measurement process must proceed from a paradigm which expresses the outputs or consequences of such services within a policy area. That area is health and wellness.


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