Healthy cities: survival strategies for recreation and parks

Jack Foley

When Paul Alba went to work on June 28, 1994, his goal was to save lives. Instead, he almost lost his own. Alba, 29, is a lifeguard at the Will Rogers swimming pool in the community of Watts in south Los Angeles. A role model for the community – a hero who willingly stepped in to protect a 13-year old who was being initiated by older gang members – Alba was beaten severely. He now is recovering after a three-week coma.

Within three days of Alba’s attack, five other community lifeguards were beaten by gang members. New admission fees contributed to the atmosphere of haves inside the pool fence versus have nots outside. During the early days of summer, many young people – previously excited about a new swim year became frustrated when they did not have a dollar for admission. After user fees were adopted in April, attendance at the pool dropped from 600 per day to 300. After the attacks on the lifeguard attendance dropped to 50 per day. Widespread news coverage motivated the local county supervisor to raise money from the private sector. As a result, the fees were dropped; and an armed park ranger was assigned to the park. The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, which operates Will Rogers Park, is one of the nation most aggressive revenue producing agencies; nevertheless, the County has reduced full-time staff from 2,200 in 1980 to 800 today and faces the possibility of closing parks and swimming pools next year due to budget shortfalls.


In another story last summer, the city of Toronto hired an ex-gang member from Los Angeles as a college intern to work as an outreach worker to Latino street gangs. Clemente Arrizone, an urban recreation major at California State University, Northridge, was armed with a B average, a reformed life, and five bullet wounds from his gang days. Arrizone, who was assigned outreach work with two emerging Latino street gangs, helped prepare recreation and police staff to work with non-criminal street gangs. With the Department of Recreation and Parks acting as the lead agency, the Toronto Housing Authority, police, and social service agencies organized boxing, weight lifting, counseling, and jobs programs for some 60 at-risk youth. The local park was designated as a safe harbor, and youth crime in the park neighborhood dropped significantly. Toronto, which has the advantage of being behind the states in social trends, moved proactively to halt developing gang problems. Preventive recreation problems were justified as cost effective; and instead of hiring an expensive consultant, Toronto spent $1,000 to transport and house Arrizone for four weeks. At the same time, he earned three units of field experience and a summer of experience as an at-risk youth trainer and consultant to the deputy chief of police and the mayor. He also was the subject of two newspaper articles and a Canadian Public Television news program. Ironically, Arrizone noted that while he was made to feel like a hero in Toronto, the police department in his hometown in California still considered him to be a problem.

Toronto Recreation and Parks Department progressively has increased its percentage of city operating funds, which now stand at 14% of the total city operating costs. Toronto – along with U.S. cities such as Cleveland and Kansas City – have bucked the trend among North American urban cities in adopting users fees for children recreation. All three cities offer children services free of charge.


These stories say a lot about the choices facing recreation and parks agencies in North America. The human services view of recreation and parks as practiced in many urban communities places the recreation and park movement at a crossroads. One path travels down the narrow road of traditionally defined, segmented activities based on economic values; the other path leads to a multi-disciplinary community services approach that places recreation, parks, and amenities in the center of the urban policy debate.

The first path requires a chain link fence way of thinking, in which professionals manage parks and operate within the safety of traditional services. The second path requires that professionals see themselves as strategic thinkers, citizen politicians, community organizers, coalition builders, and community problem solvers. Agencies following the second path frequently align with health, wellness, and environmental movements; the juvenile justice system; and family and children advocates. One promising and developing movement which offers recreation and park agencies an opportunity to reinvent themselves is the Healthy Cities movement which began in Canada and Europe and currently is gaining strength in Colorado and California.

Healthy Cities Work

Healthy Cities is an affirmative concept spawned in the environmental, health, and wellness movements, in which the emphasis is placed on prevention and collaboration. Parks, recreation, and leisure movements have some goals common to the Healthy Cities concept, including re-creation, restoration, amenities, and natural environments. Healthy Cities is concerned about youth violence and human services recreation and offers a cost-effective way to reduce youth crime and violence, at least as documented by two recent national studies by the Carnegie Foundation and the Trust for Public Lands. Healthy Cities is a synergistic and holistic concept in which all segments relate to the whole. Duhl (1987) supports this idea by noting that:

A city is an interrelated system whose separate functions ideally act in concert with one another When one part of the city falters, the city as a whole suffers. In looking at a city, one usually first sees things of obvious infrastructure: the streets, the transportation system, communications, disposal system, schools, Parks, fire, police services, and the like. However, these parts are only the beginning of the process. There is also the so structure – the rules by which we play – and it is probably here that individual cities are unique.

Twiss (1991), the director of the California Healthy Cities Project, identifies some of the variables and the need for a process:

Clean air and water, food, shelter, safety, access to medical care, economic vitality, good transportation, and recreational space would head the list. Other qualities, however, like equity, civic participation, sustainability, access to the arts and celebration of cultural heritage are also recognized as part of the healthful environment. The definition of the term, however, also includes the process for achieving those concerns.

Toronto 3-Es

A re-engineered park and recreation agency needs a new vision and mission that parallels the Healthy Cities concept. Toronto Healthy Cities program, housed in the Department of Recreation and Parks, is guided by three principals – equity, environment, and economy. Equity means that people in Toronto are treated fairly, cultural diversity is encouraged, and hunger and homelessness are addressed. Environment means that built and natural environments are protected and resources conserved and that air, water, soil, and food are clean and safe and that green space is protected. It also means that pollution and waste hazards are controlled and automobile traffic minimized. Economy means that policies strive for full or nearly full employment and that planners strive for a full range of industry, commerce, and finance to enable the city to deal with recessions or downturns in the economy.

The city Department of Recreation and Parks has developed a mission statement that supports the three Es program:

To provide a department which anticipates and responds effectively, economically, and equitably to the needs of the People of Toronto; a department which strives to provide services that produce economic and social value by building partnerships which improve the life changes of the largest number of citizens.

These views differ from traditional approaches which involve looking at each aspect of city life in isolation. Toronto staff is challenged to use creative and effective approaches to help solve environmental, economic, and equity problems. Importing Arrizone helped Toronto focus on reducing juvenile crime, involving excluded populations, and forming partnerships with the housing authority and police and social services agencies. (By the way, it was a suburban youth serving agency, the Buena Park Boys and Girls Club in Orange County, California, that improved Arrizone’s life chances with sports, tutoring, and strong male role models.)

A New Role for Recreation

and Park Departments

In Los Angeles People for Parks (PFP), a non-profit, multi-ethnic support group for parks, is developing a partnership with the county and other public parks agencies in the Campaign to Reinvent Urban Recreation. The campaign was launched at a conference in August 1994 in the presence of 200 commissioners, professionals from the public and third sector, police officials, community activists, business and private sector representatives, politicians, young people, and parents.

People for Parks was initiated by Carlyle Hall, founder of Law and Public Interest, a law firm devoted to land use, parks, and the environment. PFP 35-member board has the political and economic clout to elevate parks and recreation to their rightful role in rebuilding Los Angeles. Reinventing recreation is an ambitious goal, but PFP likes to think big. Its first campaign was to increase the park slice of the pie by sponsoring two park and open initiatives: Prop B in 1990 and Prop A in 1992. Prop B was the largest capital improvement – at $880 million – bond act ever attempted by a county unit of government. Prop B earned 57% of the vote, falling short of the necessary two-thirds. Prop A, appropriately named the Safe Neighborhood Park and Open Initiative, was developed as a benefit assessment district which required a simple majority. In November 1992 – with 11% county unemployment in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s and six months after the Los Angeles riots – Prop A won a 64% plurality. Prop A raises $550 million for parks. On the same ballot Prop M, a property tax initiative to increase the number of police officers, lost with a 48% vote.

In partnership with recreation and park agencies and allied groups, People for Parks is about to begin its second campaign. The guiding principles for the Campaign to Reinvent Urban Recreation in Los Angeles are:

* Recreation leaders must broaden their role to become community leaders, organizers, and citizen politicians.

* Urban recreation and park agencies should play a lead role in supporting families and children, specifically those living in working poor communities.

* Recreation and parks agencies should develop partnerships with schools, police, libraries, churches, businesses, universities, and third sector agencies to offer tutoring, recreation, cultural, arid artistic programs and – where needed – super highway clearinghouse information.

* Recreation centers must be reclaimed and re-engineered as centers for neighborhood recreation, human services, education, and civic life. The centers can bring together public, private, and third sectors and neighbors to address the social and economic issues important to the community. Parks offer precious public space that could put people back in touch with natural resources, present youth with low cost sports programs and cultural activities and provide human development and learning opportunities.

To carry out the campaign, the People for Parks Board prioritized several strategies:

* Provide information to public officials and policymakers regarding the social and economic benefits of recreation, parks, and open space.

* Expand PFP Park-Renew program, which helps communities reclaim troubled parks.

* Develop a public information campaign to educate the public regarding the benefits of recreation, parks, and youth services.

* Identify a list of technical advisors and consultants to help communities with recreation and park issues.

* Communicate with third sector recreation providers and organizations for the purpose of establishing partnerships with neighborhood groups, public agencies, and the private sector.

* Meet with and develop partnerships with public recreation executives.

* Correct the imbalance between affluent communities who use fees, volunteers, business support, developer fees, and state-of-the-art services and less affluent and poor communities.

Without taking anything away from affluent communities, the campaign needs to address equity and moral issues and creative financing so all children have opportunities for healthy and positive recreation.

Giving Up is Not the Answer

In his autobiography, tennis star Arthur Ashe commented on the ability of recreation programs to increase life chances. While he acknowledged that recreation cannot solve all the problems of the modern urban world, Ashe declared that we have an obligation to do something to counter this social and spiritual plague. Too many people have given up.

The Buena Park Boys Club and many others did not give up on Clemente Arrizone, and soon he will join the ranks of our profession. We don’t think our communities want to lose heroes such as Paul Alba who will continue to work with our youth. And we don’t believe society should give up on young people who use the Will Rogers pool in Los Angeles. We just need to get organized and get going.

COPYRIGHT 1995 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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