Repositioning: parks and recreation as essential to well-being – National Programs: Fitness and Active Lifestyles – Cover Story – wholistic health promotion

Ellen O’Sullivan

One of the benefits of the NRPA Benefits Movement is that it has turned our attention and energy to the benefits of what we do. In doing so, we’ve compiled an extensive list of the benefits to be derived from open space, parks, recreation programs, therapeutic activities, neighborhood centers, and leisure opportunities. But we still need to step back and focus on the big picture.

The big picture represents the biggest benefits of them all — health and wellbeing — an essential aspect of everyone’s life. Most of us have heard the expression, “if you don’t have your health, then you don’t have anything.” Health and well-being are truly the most basic and essential ingredients of life — for individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, and society.

In our profession, we have long maintained that we deal with the “whole person.” We want far more than just physical activity for youth sport participants. We intend to facilitate opportunities for growth and development. We want them to feel good about themselves and enjoy the feelings of accomplishment and being part of a team.

Seniors attending lunch programs at centers throughout the country don’t receive just physical nourishment, but the social connections and interactions that are fundamental to their wellbeing. Well-being (as opposed to health, which signifies a person is free from disease) is holistic as well. Well-being is often referred to as optimal functioning of every aspect of human existence — physical, psychological, social, intellectual, economic, and environmental.

Not a big surprise to most of us, but parks and recreation are holistic as well. In fact, check out potential relationships between parks and recreation and holistic well-being:

Physical — Every time a sedentary person walks a mile, they add 21 minutes to their life and save society 34 cents in medical and related costs (Rand Corporation).

Psychological — Looking at peaceful scenes of nature increase alpha waves that lead to relaxation (Orenstein and Sobel).

Social — People who surround themselves with friends and family and pursue community activities are four times less likely to get colds than people who lead more isolated lives (Carnegie Mellon University).

Intellectual — People that rapidly walk 45 minutes a day, three times a week, speed up their ability to reason and make decisions (University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana).

Economic — A 1992 decision by the City of Fort Collins, CO to preserve open space and protect quality of life as a means to attract and maintain a healthy economy has resulted in the City’s ability to attract new jobs at a rate higher than the national average without using tax breaks as an incentive (Wall Street Journal).

Environmental — Trees and open space contribute to so many of life’s essentials — making water clean and safe for drinking; cleaning the air and returning pure oxygen to the atmosphere; and providing habitat for wild life (American Forests).

Whether it’s reduction in stress or growth in the economy of a community, what we do is inextricably linked with essential well-being life elements.

We’re the “fun and games” folks, the “tree huggers,” and who knows how many other things people may call those of us in parks and recreation. Yes, we are about fun. Fun is important and essential to well-being. Yes, we like tree and nature and open space because they evoke pleasure, but also because they are essential to our very existence.

And what does the research related to activities associated with our profession indicate? Do we really play an essential role in this holistic view of health and well-being. Well, take a quick look at the impact of some common types of activities, programs, and opportunities we provide:

After School Supervision — Children who are under adult supervision, in programs or at home, have better social skills and higher self-esteem than their peers who are unsupervised in the after-school hours (Texas A&M with the Dallas Park and Recreation Department).

Historic Destinations — Hearst’s Castle, once perceived as a white elephant thrust upon the public, draws 820,000 visitors per year and results in enough income to cover the $9 million in maintenance costs and generating many times that amount for the area’s hotels, restaurants, and tour operators.

Open Space Preservation — Thirty years of rapid urban development in the metropolitan Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area has reduced tree coverage, threatening water and air quality in the region. The loss of tree cover reduced storm water retention capacity and natural capacity to remove approximately 9.3 million pounds of pollutants from the air. It is estimated that restoring this loss in air quality will cost approximately $24 million over the next 24 years (American Forests).

Linear Trails and Greenways — When walking trails were expanded in 12 southeastern Missouri counties, a study found that 40% of people with access used them and that 50% of the trail walkers increased their walking since they started using the trails. Lower income groups who are at greater risk for non-activity were more likely to have increased walking as a result of the trail use (St. Louis University School of Public Health).

Fitness — Certain types of physical activity can target various forms of mild depression. Running, weightlifting, and other “large muscle” activities help ease frustration, anger and hostility, while walking is an excellent mood-enhancer (The Physician and Sports-medicine).

Senior Programs — A rich social life and community involvement along with being physically active appears essential to health and longevity. A study of 2,761 people ages 65 and older during a 13-year period led to some interesting findings. When older people were too frail to rely solely on physical activity to maintain health, socializing with friends and pursuing hobbies improved their chances of survival as much as the health of the more fitness-oriented seniors (Harvard University).

Extracurricular for Kids — Students who spend one to four hours per week in extracurricular activities are 49% less likely to use drugs and 37% less likely to become teen parents than students who do not participate in extracurricular activities (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Volunteer Opportunities — A study of more than 1,000 people of ages 65 and older found that those who volunteered up to 40 hours a year were less likely to die during the next seven and one-half years than people who didn’t volunteer at all (University of Michigan).

Even a quick review of just a few studies related to well-being strongly suggests that most park, recreation, and leisure areas, activities, and opportunities support well-being, that essential part of life. And let’s not overlook that “fun” role that we play. Fun is FUNdamental. We don’t walk, hike, garden, socialize, or drop-in at parks and centers unless fun serves as the motivational magnet that draws us.

The ABCD’s of Repositioning Parks and Recreation: Adding E for Essential

The benefits movement incorporates four basic activities for our profession:

A is for creating awareness of the values and benefits of parks and recreation.

B is for identifying the important benefits of our services.

C is for making changes in the way we function and

D is for demonstration.

Further progress is those areas are required and those initial steps, A, B, C, and D need to be extended and expanded upon to truly reach our long held desire for E — to be viewed as essential to human beings, communities, society, and the world. How then can we incorporate the last remaining repositioning element in the Parks and Recreation as Essential equation? There is still much to be done.


Moving from Awareness to Advocacy

Yes, it is important to create and build awareness among a variety of stakeholders as to why parks and recreation are essential. And we’ve made a nice start in this direction. We’ve rekindled the awareness of our many benefits for citizen advocates, professionals, and ourselves. In many instances, we’ve made great inroads based upon the way we present our programs and services to decision-makers as well. Consider the following:

Take it public — Help people, residents, participants, clients, and visitors grasp the values inherent within parks and recreation. Seek to connect them specifically to benefits that will enhance their involvement and well-being. Provide the answers to why people should bother to walk in the woods or workout or connect with their friends and family members. Society’s track record related to a leisure ethic leaves much to be desired.

Advocate, not equivocate — As we build awareness it is only natural that the next step be advocacy. Our vision should be to empower and encourage others to initiate the bond referenda or important legislation. We should be there to support the efforts of individual citizens and groups who already recognize why open space that is lost to development is gone forever or how television and video games contribute to obesity among children. These individuals and groups already exist and their impact can be heightened with our support. The success of the recent grass roots initiatives for open space and the growing parental concerns about youth sports are just a few signals that the time is right for our actions.


From Multiple Benefits to One BIG Benefit

Parks and recreation makes so very many things happen for virtually everybody — all ages, interests, and abilities. Driver and Bruns identified 43 specific types of more general categories of personal benefits: 18 physiological benefits, 24 social benefits, and 11 categories of environmental benefits. Our grand total of benefits is 105; general and specific categories of benefits all supported by research.

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve greater awareness and build advocacy when we position ourselves as being 105 related, yet distinct things. The paper shredders of corporate America and advertising agencies are full to overflowing with attempts to provide everything. Just try to find a New Coke in this day and age.

Possible approaches to this challenge include:

All for One and One for All. As a profession, we have divided ourselves into multitudes of different specialization and interest areas. Such divisions are understandable. Human nature and organizational efficiency almost dictate this approach. But it is time to rethink our differences and focus upon what we have in common. After all, the needs of young adults are the same whether they live on military bases or college campuses. Local, state, and national parks are all open spaces. While people use them differently — daily respite, weekend getaways, or travel to major destinations — people gravitate towards them for very similar reasons. People seek physical activity and/or stress reduction through a number of outlets, like golf or swimming, and the list goes on. What we need to do refine in our individual missions and benefits and align ourselves behind one BIG event; one that touches upon all of us.

BIG but Essential — If we are going to go with one BIG benefit that we can all get behind and support, then we had better make sure that benefit is absolutely essential. Essential means that we are as important as the police, that our budgets don’t get cut when the economy takes a beating, that we really stand for something is basic, necessary, and indispensable. Consider seriously well-being as our best shot at being recognized as essential. Could people live without parks and recreation? Well, I suppose a case could be made that the Forest Service could ensure our clean air and water supply. But could people live “well” without parks and recreation? Absolutely not.


From Change to Collaboration and Cooperation

We may think and feel as if we’ve changed a great deal in the last few decades, but our perceptions might not match the reality of our programs and services. Sears didn’t make the changes that WalMart made. IBM didn’t head in the same direction as Microsoft did. Sears and IBM may have been aware of changes in the times, but they failed to seize the opportunities associated with those changes. We have to look around at the circumstances of the times and make the most of our existing and potential opportunities.

Back to the Future — Rarely have the needs of people and issues of society been greater in this country. Farm land plowed under to make way for development. Cities abandoned as people move further from their borders. New immigrant groups rush to our shores and borders bringing their own languages and customs with them. Rates of obesity among children and adults climb along with the onset of heart disease and diabetes that accompany such patterns. Technology plays havoc with how we live, work, interact, and accompany such patterns. Children become more involved and subject to acts of violence and our elderly are becoming the new group of people left “home alone.”

What would Joseph Lee or Frederick Law Olmstead or Jane Addams do if these individuals were here now at the turn of the 21st century, rather than the 20th? What are the 21st century versions of Central Park, Hull House, or the Boston Sand Gardens? We find ourselves at the turn of this millennium facing many similar needs and issues that led to the birth of the parks and recreation movement in this country. We need to get back to our roots and original purposes and update our approaches to address the challenges of today and those that will surely come tomorrow.

Double C’s: Coordinate and Collaborate

No man is an island and certainly no service delivery or profession can afford to be isolated anymore either. Public funds and foundation support are going to those organizations and professions that lead the way in the double C’s of coordination and collaboration. Why? It’s time. It is difficult for working parents to understand why there are waiting lists for affordable day care. People don’t understand why one park is for residents of New York rather than New Jersey? And growing numbers of people are asking why does the government continue to spend large sums on water treatment facilities rather than preserve more open space. People want well-being in their lives and don’t want to have to figure out who provides what, when, and where. The needs and issues are so great that resources can no longer afford to be hoarded by individual providers or professions.

Grants from the Centers for Disease Control for physical activity among youth require that you “play well with others.” Support from foundations almost insist that you reach out and cooperate with other providers in your area to avoid replication of services and create a synergy of service delivery. And one of the more positive aspects of our profession is that since we are “holistic” in our approach and touch upon almost every age, ability, activity group, we can be the community gatekeepers to convene conversations leading to collaboration and coordination.


From Demonstration to Deliver

There are research efforts conducted by organizations and professions other than parks and recreation that enable us to demonstrate the impact of our programs and services. There have been studies conducted within our industry that document the role that parks play in the health of older Americans, the resiliency of youth, heart healthy behavior and other aspects of well-being. Through coordination and collaboration, we need to continue these ongoing efforts to demonstrate and document out impact. That’s important to the credibility of essential.

However, the last aspect of repositioning parks and recreation as being essential is to make sure we deliver the desired results everywhere all of the time. We should be the role model for sound environmental habits and practices. We should consistently be the greenhouses rather than warehouses for children, the elderly, and differently-abled. It’s walk the talk time. If we are going to tell the whole world that we are essential, we need to make sure we deliver upon that promise.

Why Repositioning? Why Now?

Every period in time presents the world with a different set of challenges and opportunities. We are just starting down the path of a new millennium and this new era comes with its own set of circumstances. The turn of the last century saw the birth and growth of parks and recreation because of changes in how people lived and worked and the implications those changes had for the social conditions and issues of the times.

At the turn of the last century, we were transitioning from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. There were great changes in where and how people worked. Individuals and families moved in large numbers from the countryside to cities, which sprung up in places where factories could access inexpensive power with nearby transportation routes for distribution of their products. Immigrants in large numbers ventured to the United States and most often located in these same cities. Soon a large number of people found themselves living in cramped spaces surrounded by new people and new circumstances without the neighborhood bond of the extended agricultural or homeland family to support them.

It was the combination of these economic and social conditions that resulted in overcrowded city conditions and subsequently the birth of the parks and recreation movement as a response to the conditions of the times. It was during that time period that many of the pioneers of our movement responded to the social issues and needs of having open space; designing Central Park as an oasis for the people of New York City; providing sand ‘gardens and play areas for children loitering the unsupervised streets of Boston; and the establishment of Hull House as a safe place for children in Chicago.

A little more than 20 years ago, playground leaders in California wore tee shirts that proclaimed, for all to see, “Parks and Recreation — Life’s Necessity.” An interesting quote from a New Yorker magazine reveals a similar point of view, “… Parks and recreation support lover, mourner, teachers, movers, and changers. It is an amenity with all the characteristics of a necessity.”

We’ve been thinking about it long enough. We’ve been talking about it even longer. Well-being for the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the community, and society is an essential necessity of life, and we in parks and recreation support that every day in so many ways.

“Ellen O’Sullivan, Ph.D., CPRS, author of “Repositioning Parks and Recreation as Essential to Well-being” on page 88, is a long time believer and supporter of the power, promise, potential and possibilities that parks and recreation holds for individuals, groups, communities, society, and the planet. She is president of Leisure Lifestyle Consulting of Glastonbury, CT, and a professor of public health at Southern Connecticut State University.

COPYRIGHT 2001 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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